By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN MASS. – “Imagine your family living in a leafy, green, quiet, low-crime community with affordable housing and an active Orthodox community that is only a couple of hours from family and friends in the Tri-state or Boston area.”
That was part of Congregation B’nai Torah’s pitch to the 2,000 people attending the Orthodox Union’s (OU) Seventh International Jewish Community Home and Job Relocation Fair held in New York City on Nov. 24. The OU represents more than 400 American Orthodox congregations in its synagogue network.
The group from Springfield/Longmeadow was among 63 Orthodox communities in North America and Israel to participate in the OU fair in hopes of attracting new families and individuals to their communities.
“For various reasons, including the high costs of tuition and housing in the New York area, there is a growing cadre of Orthodox families exploring other locations throughout the country and Israel to establish their homes,” said Orthodox Union President Moshe Bane. “We are pleased to have been able to assemble so many Torah communities and to enable them to showcase to these families the attractiveness and advantages of their respective communities.”
As the only Modern Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, B’nai Torah was in charge of the local effort.
“It was a fair sponsored by OU but we went representing the entire Springfield/Longmeadow community,” said B’nai Torah member Beverly Hirschhorn, who is also a member of a committee that was set up to plan for the OU Fair. The committee, which included 10 B’nai Torah lay leaders, began its work 18 months ago.
“A group of us went down to New York about a year and a half ago to a planning meeting to learn what the fair was all about and what was necessary to do in order to be competitive with 60-plus communities from all over the U.S.,” Hirschhorn explained. “It was almost a year and a half of work to prepare to do this. You have to have your ideas, your materials, and your presentations ready to be competitive with the other communities.”
In the Springfield/Longmeadow booth, manned by six members of the planning committee, the group shared a variety of promotional materials – colorful banners depicting local Jewish organizations, handouts with information about employment opportunities in different job sectors (STEM, medical, insurance/finance jobs in Springfield or within a half-hour commute), as well as handouts about the local Jewish day schools and their tuitions, along with comparative prices of other Jewish day schools in the Northeast.
Young families were able to learn more about Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow, Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, and New England Jewish Academy, the former Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, Conn., which provides a secondary Jewish education for families in Western Mass. who want their children to remain at home during the high school years.
“One of the great things about all of our schools is really the generosity of the Grinspoon Foundation, keeping our tuitions considerably lower than anywhere else in the Northeast,” Hirschhorn said, referring to the HGF’s subsidies for local day school children. Jeremy and Ann Pava of West Hartford, Conn. are now also subsidizing tuition at the New England Jewish Academy.
The booth also included information about housing.
“We had pictures of actual homes in our community with their prices, with a picture attached so people could get an idea of what their money could buy in our community… Another big thing we have is proximity to the tri-state area,” Hirschhorn said. “We really did our homework.”
The booth ran a video presentation that included images of all of the Jewish offerings – the day schools, the Springfield Jewish Community Center, all of the synagogues, mikveh, kosher food, and other agencies — as well as secular amenities – such as the college and universities, medical facilities, recreational areas and museums and other cultural opportunities. The committee also created a website for the event – DiscoverJewishSpringfield.com. — that interested families could access.
“We worked really hard to create a booth that was appealing, that really showed off some of the wonderful things about the community and I think it really paid off,” said Dan Garfield, who also manned the booth. “We got a lot of interest. I think we thought it would be good but we had almost 90 people that showed interest and wanted us to contact them about the community.”
Every attendee had a code on their nametags that could be swiped with the phones of the people manning the booths. This gave the community’s representatives the ability to follow up with those 90 interested people and to share more information about Springfield/Longmeadow and its advantages.
Garfield, a chiropractor in Springfield and member of B’nai Torah, moved to Springfield from Northampton 15 years ago with his wife Amy Mager and their six children so that the kids could get to the Jewish high school more easily.
He was happy to join the committee and help organize the community’s presentation at the OU fair.
“I really saw it as one of the most important things that I could do as far as creating a future for this community, and as far as trying to get the word out about the potential of this community. I think the community has huge amounts of potential,” Garfield said. “The good thing about the community is that it’s so haimish, so intimate, and yet it has all of the facilities that would usually be a part of a much larger community.”
Many of the people that spent time at the Springfield/Longmeadow booth were individuals in their 20s and 30s – including many young families.
“People could move here, especially from the New York City area, and there is probably no better deal; no less expensive place in terms of educating your kids. Grinspoon’s generosity, and now Pava’s generosity now at the high school – it’s a huge thing,” Garfield said. “The amount of house you can afford here and the standard of living, the cost of living – there are so many positives that I don’t think people necessarily know. So that is why we did this.”
“This was an opportunity for them to explore other places in the U.S. where they can live the American Orthodox Jewish dream,” Hirschhorn added.
Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe of B’nai Torah attended the fair but let the lay leaders “who did amazing work putting it all together” handle most of the dissemination of information. The fair, he said, was important and a strategy that he hopes will increase the number of Jews not just in his congregation but in the surrounding community.
“It’s a little like chemistry. You have valences that are empty, chemicals drawn together because there are empty spaces in an electron cell. So we have a valence here in Springfield… We have all of the Jewish infrastructure and space here for a lot more Jewish families. In particular we are looking at the Orthodox community who are struggling with incredibly high tuitions and very high cost of living and terrible commutes, which you don’t have here,” Rabbi Yaffe said. “So basically we have a valence – we have a lot of space…The housing market demonstrates there is a lot of room for people to move in. There are a lot of jobs that need to be filled. And on Shabbos, we typically have another 100 seats or more to fill. More importantly our infrastructure can handle a lot more children. The only thing that is missing is the information and that was the purpose of the home and job fair. We just have to let the world know.”
And the OU Fair seems to be doing just that.
“The response to this program has been incredible,” said Orthodox Union Director of Community Programs Rebbetzin Judi Steinig. “Since our last fair in 2017, over 250 families have relocated to communities that were showcased at this event.”
The fair also helped to remind those promoting Springfield/Longmeadow of what what a great Jewish community they live in.
“One of the biggest takeaways from this was realizing what a great community we do have in every way,” Hirschhorn said. “I mean we have a lot of institutions here — Jewish institutions and secular institutions – and a great quality of life.”
Main Photo: The Springfield/Longmeadow booth at the OU’s International Jewish Community Home and Job Relocation Fair in New York City. Shown here, from left to right, are, Joshua Brickel, Paulette Kofsky, Nora Gorenstein and Dr. Daniel Garfield.