Forward Thinking

Hunting for Greener (Jewish) Pastures

By Seth Berkman

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seth berkman

I have an Orthodox Jewish friend here in New York who is always yapping about Dallas (not the television show).

“The people are so nice,” he says. “The weather is better… The houses are cheaper.” He’s been there only once in his life, but would like nothing more than to find a job northern Texas and move to the city known for Cowboys and (kosher?) Tex-Mex cuisine.

My friend is in his mid-30s, married, and has a soon-to-be 2-year-old son with another on the way. He has a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan and recently had to build a wall in his living room to accommodate for sleeping space for his growing family. He wakes up at dawn to prep his son for daycare and then go to work. After cleaning the apartment until about 1 a.m., he gets about four hours of sleep, if he’s lucky.

It is a life that I could not fathom living at this point. It is also a lifestyle that is increasingly the norm for thousands of young couples in New York, especially observant Jews. That’s why places like Dallas don’t sound so bad after all, even for those accustomed to walking around the corner and finding dozens of options for food, prayer and friends.

The urge to find greener pastures outside the high rent, small space environment of New York was on full display Sunday as the Orthodox Union held its fourth Jewish Communities Home and Job Relocation Fair. A record-high 1,300 participants spoke with Jews from places like Portland, Ore., Long Branch, N.J., and yes, even Dallas. There were representatives from 41 cities in 18 states, each touting the myriad advantages of moving there.

Louisville has high tech jobs and 120 years of Jewish roots. “The cost of living and safety is unmatched,” said Brian Wallace, who moved to Kentucky six years ago from Monsey in Rockland County.

The Denver contingent, clad in Denver Broncos jerseys, claims the Jewish communities in and around the city had 10 to 15 minute commutes, tops. Plus, it was hard to argue with their main advertisement: If Peyton Manning chose the Mile High City, why wouldn’t you?

Almost every table offered a slice of their culture, from the cheese and Packers banners at the Milwaukee booth to the Nike running shoes decorating Portland’s space. In a way, the event resembled a science fair, with everybody aiming to prove why their Jewish community was the best and why it worked.

Overall though, mostly every group was advocating the same pitch: a high quality of life where the pace moves a little slower, but the community is just as tight, with synagogues, groceries, arts, culture, and good schools. And of course there are the two biggest selling points of all: jobs and a lower cost of living.

The crowd was dominated by young couples and young singles. But there were older attendees as well, interested in a community like Boynton Beach. Fla. or a place where other retirees may have already settled in the suburbs of New Jersey. People left with plenty of pamphlets, sugar cookies and maybe a dream or two of a life among the bohemians of Austin or going hiking on trails in the Pacific Northwest.

Needless to say, there is no mass exodus from Brooklyn (or Queens or Staten Island) yet. After the last fair in 2011, 19 couples reported of having moved outside of New York City, mostly to towns in the Northeast, and none west of the Mississippi River. But New York will never get cheaper and the psyche of leaving the city is no longer as taboo as before.

Yitz Singer, a Brooklynite originally from Miami, who has two young children, said he didn’t attend the fair just to browse, but with serious intent on relocating. Singer said the cost of living was becoming too much to bear.

Michael Rosner, international director of the OU Job Board, said his online service offers about 2,000 jobs per month, with half of those coming from out of state. “There is a reluctance in the Orthodox Jewish world, it’s very family and friend orientated,” he said. “It’s hard to leave.”

But Rosner added that more of these locations, though their communities are small, do have the contacts established to help easily integrate new families. “The Orthodox Jewish world doesn’t have to be tri-state centric. Now’s the opportune time [to move].”

Judah Isaacs, OU’s director of community engagement, said it’s a “priority” to address issues of affordability” for Orthodox Jewish families. The spotlight on other cities also can strengthen Jewish life throughout the country, as Isaacs said, by “reinvigorating older communities with new young families, who bring new ideas and new vitality to community life.”

Thousands of young Jewish New Yorkers, both observant and secular, are thinking about this issue constantly. We come to the city with dreams of careers and power lunches and high-rise apartments, but often struggle just to get by. There is no comparable city in the world in which to live. But perhaps it’s not so bad to leave either when you can take advantage of comparable social, religious, and career outlets elsewhere.

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