Philadelphia-area Orthodox communities are looking to strengthen their numbers — and they’re hitting the recruiting trail to do so.
Rabbis and community representatives from Somerton, Wynnewood, Elkins Park, the greater Northeast and Cherry Hill, New Jersey, will be on hand Nov. 24 at the Orthodox Union’s International Jewish Community Home and Job Relocation Fair in Manhattan to make their pitch to Orthodox families and individuals interested in relocating.
If this isn’t the type of thing you’ve heard of before, you’re not alone; it’s not that common.
“This is a very, very unique program; it’s not something you see in other organizations,” said Rebbetzin Judi Steinig, director of programming for the Orthodox Union, which will host the biannual relocation fair for the seventh time since 2008.
While some people looking to relocate are from other metropolitan areas, Steinig explained, most are from greater New York City — Manhattan, Brooklyn, Riverdale, Teaneck and other Big Apple bedroom communities where the financial burden of a house spacious enough for a large Jewish family has simply become too great.
Aside from financial reasons, some Orthodox families might just be looking for a change of scenery, Steinig added.
Some may be looking for a new job or a different line of work; some may be seeking the relative warmth and intimacy of a smaller community; some are singles hoping a change of environment might reveal their bashert; some are empty nesters and retirees looking for that next step.
“There are many, many reasons why people are looking to move, and each person and each family has a different reason,” Steinig said.
The goal of the relocation fair isn’t to move the Orthodox out of New York, nor is there an agenda to strengthen any particular Orthodox community elsewhere, at the expense of another. She made certain to add, “We’re just facilitating. We’re just showing people what’s out there. If you think that it’s time for you to make a move, here are the options.” The Orthodox communities in and around Philadelphia do have an agenda, though, and it’s to grow.
For Rabbi Yonah Gross of Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood, this year will be his sixth relocation fair. You might think a community as desirable and generally in-demand as Wynnewood wouldn’t need to recruit, but they’re not recruiting just anyone.
“We’re looking for people who are part of our community and to build it up,” Gross said.
Since increasing their online presence and partnering with the local Chabad in marketing, they’ve seen 10 new families join their community. Gross attributes that partly to their community’s presence at the relocation fairs but said it’s a reflection of broader marketing efforts, too.
“Since the last fair (two years ago), we’ve really invested strongly,” he said.
One of Pennsylvania’s and, by extension, Philadelphia’s greatest draws is education, especially the favorable state incentives that can make families who send their children to private religious schools eligible for tuition reimbursements
“The EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credit) and OSTC (Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit) can offer a significant reduction in tuition,” Gross said, recognizing that comparable benefits have not always been available for families seeking private Jewish education in the New York area.
Diversity, as in nearly every area of contemporary life, is something the Orthodox are interested in, too.
In Somerton, a part of Northeast Philadelphia perhaps best known for its robust Russian-speaking community, Rabbi Akiva Pollack’s pitch is, at least in part, about its diversity.
“We’re looking to advertise that Somerton is actually a good deal more diverse than that,” said Pollack, the educational director of Congregation Beth Solomon, when asked whether he thought the community’s Russian-speaking infrastructure would be a favorable selling point.
While Bustleton and Somerton are sometimes labeled “Little Odessa” for their sizable population of Ukrainian, Uzbek and Russian immigrants, Pollack points to Beit Harambam, a Sephardic synagogue where congregants are almost all Hebrew-speaking Israelis.
With kosher markets, all-day day care for working parents, shuls in walking distance and a mikvah and an eruv as just a few examples, Pollack is confident that he’s got a competitive product to sell in his community.
“We have very affordable housing for young families, and we have everything you’d need to live an observant Jewish life.”
Tom Wolpert, president of Young Israel in Elkins Park, which saw five new families move into the community as a result of the last fair, is equally bullish on his community’s credentials and amenities.
“We’re putting a big effort into it because, especially for people from New York, living in the Philadelphia area is much cheaper,” he said. “But more than that, in Elkins Park, we’re a small, close-knit congregation. We’re not like Bala Cynwyd, where there’s a whole army there right now.”