Those Little-Town Blues
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Those Little-Town Blues

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Throughout Anton Chekhov’s play, “Three Sisters,” the heroines of the title dream passionately but fruitlessly of returning to Moscow, the city of their childhood. Similarly, Jude Fawley, the title character of Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” gazes on the spires of the far-off city of Christminster (a stand-in for Oxford), convinced that life there is far more exciting than in his rural village.

That feeling of longing for the city is familiar to me. Sixteen years ago, when my wife and I, who are both Jewish educators, moved from New York to Harrisburg, Pa., we gave up big-city life for a quieter, less splashy, more laid-back lifestyle. But now, as the Harrisburg Jewish community has declined, we are relocating to Baltimore, a major-league Jewish community with much greater Jewish resources.

Do rabbis and Jewish educators who end up residing and working outside of major metropolitan areas tend to feel cut off from the advantages of Jewish population centers? Or do they find countervailing opportunities from being in smaller, more close-knit Jewish communities, with lower day school tuition costs and a less hectic pace of life?

Rabbi Elie Havivi has been, for the last 25 years, the spiritual leader of a Conservative shul, Beth David Synagogue, in Greensboro, N.C. “I expected to stay here for two years and then go someplace real, with a larger Jewish community,” Rabbi Havivi, who grew up in Laurelton, Queens, told me. But he got hooked on the “intensity and dynamism of Jewish life here,” as well as the quality of secular life, including the lack of traffic and the politeness with which people (“even the Jews,” he joked) treat each other. “There’s a reshet [network] of Jews in the South,” Rabbi Havivi explained, “that makes us feel close to one another.” In Laurelton, he said, he “never felt that connection to someone in Bellmore, which was just 15 miles away, [as much as] I would feel now to a fellow Jew from Rocky Mount, which is 135 miles away.”

Nevertheless, relocating to smaller Jewish communities can be limiting, both professionally and socially. Two years ago, Elliot Wolfson, a renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism, traded an endowed chair at NYU, where he had taught for three decades, for one at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But after making the move, along with his huge library, Wolfson has found it difficult to attract graduate students to such an isolated location, a two-hour drive (with no traffic) from Los Angeles. In changing jobs, Wolfson said, he “underestimated how overturning it would be” to live in Santa Barbara.

Lee Shai Weissbach recently retired after close to four decades teaching Jewish studies at the University of Louisville; he and his wife originally chose the Kentucky city because it had both a day school and a kosher butcher (neither of which it has any more). Weissbach and his wife have themselves moved to Philadelphia to be closer to their grandchildren and for a “more vibrant community with more Jewish stuff going on.”

Sometimes, however, a small city that is declining Jewishly experiences a turnaround, making it a more exciting and enriching place for Jews to live. Martin Perlmutter, who directs the Jewish Studies department at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, said that when he arrived in Charleston 30 years ago, the Jewish community was “very inbred and backward-looking. It felt endangered; it wasn’t clear that there was a Jewish future.” But in the time that he has lived there, the Jewish community has grown. Boeing and Volvo have established factories there, the tourist industry is booming, and retirees are flocking there rather than flying over to get to Florida. All four of his children, after getting professional degrees, have returned to Charleston.

Few Jewish communities of Charleston’s size are thriving, however. The Orthodox Union has tried with limited success to lure Jews to smaller cities, and the Jewish community in Dothan, Ala. even offered a $50,000 cash bonus to get Jews (starting with young families and then expanding the pool to empty nesters) to move there. But the program has had mixed results; 11 families moved to Dothan between 2009 and 2015, but four moved out again.

Bob Leventhal, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, has consulted for decades to federations and synagogues in places ranging from Corpus Christi, Texas to Portsmouth, N.H. Leventhal, who now lives on the Upper West Side and works for the United Synagogue, has been chagrined to see national Jewish leaders who are out of touch with what life is like in smaller Jewish communities.

“They live in places where they have lots of Jewish friends and Jewish food,” Leventhal said. “And so they expect levels of observance and connection that are simply not present in Omaha, Neb., or Toledo, Ohio. There’s a lack of sensitivity that is off-putting when they talk about places that have a scarcity of resources rather than an embarrassment of riches.”

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic Studies at Dickinson College. He is the author, most recently, of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”

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