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A billionaire paid Jews to move to Alabama. It’s complicated

A billionaire paid Jews to move to Alabama. It's complicated

By Julie Zauzmer | Washington Publish

DOTHAN, Ala. – She was already going to be late to the church, the place as soon as once more she would attempt to clarify her faith, despite the fact that it appeared like most individuals in her city by no means actually get it.

And now the latkes are burning.

Lisa Priddle wonders why she is making an attempt so onerous, why she is prepping and cooking and shopping for Hanukkah dreidels for individuals within the small Southern metropolis that she and her husband moved to as a result of a Jewish millionaire paid them to come construct up the Jewish group there.

Given a suggestion of up to $50,000, she and Kenny picked up their lives and got here to Alabama, however now they need to assume critically concerning the anti-Semitism they’ve skilled, about moments you don’t overlook, about that lingering feeling of being on the surface.

Perhaps, she has been considering these days, it’s time to hand over. A week earlier than, the Priddles even invited an actual property agent over to take a look at the home. However the couple have been tortured by indecision since.

The alternatives: They will promote their house and return to upstate New York, the place their beloved synagogue and the grandchildren they’ve barely gotten to know await. Or they will attempt to reignite the zeal that led them right here, to a city named for a suggestion in Genesis: “Let us go to Dothan.”

“I think this place is great,” Lisa says. The latkes sizzle of their pan.

After which: “And I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I don’t want to say it. But it’s very hard to be a Jew here.”

Needed: Jews. Can pay.

When the Priddles first heard about Dothan, Alabama, it appeared too good to be true. However the journal commercial was clear: A native millionaire, Larry Blumberg, needed to pay Jewish households up to $50,000 every to move to his city.

Lisa was so excited that she ran out of the toilet holding the copy of Reform Judaism journal and shouted to Kenny: “We’re doing this.”

“It might be nice,” Kenny ultimately agreed, “to come build the South.”

Jewish communities have shrunk nationwide within the face of in depth intermarriage and growing American secularism. The phenomenon is extra pronounced within the South, a area that’s residence to 37 % of the U.S. inhabitants however simply 23 % of U.S. Jews, in accordance to the Pew Analysis Middle.

Many synagogues in small cities not have sufficient members to cling on. The Jewish Group Legacy Challenge, a nonprofit, has helped 14 synagogues shut down over the previous 10 years and is working with 47 extra on closure plans.

Blumberg didn’t need that destiny to befall the synagogue of his youth, Temple Emanu-El. So in 2009, he hit on an uncommon concept – to pay households to move to Dothan, a city of 65,000 removed from every thing, two hours southeast of Montgomery and northwest of Tallahassee, Florida.

“All these small towns, their synagogues have closed,” stated Blumberg, whose firm Larry Blumberg & Associates manages dozens of resorts and different properties throughout the Southeast. “This is a nice place to live. It really is. I just wanted to see if we could perpetuate it.”

Sustaining a visual Jewish inhabitants in Alabama, he additionally argues, would thrust back anti-Semitism that in any other case may fester in a state the place 86 % of residents determine as Christian and a lot of the relaxation are nonreligious. Simply 1 % determine with any non-Christian faith.

“I felt it was so important that people try to have this kind of open dialogue,” he stated. “Today, particularly. When I started this 10 years ago, it wasn’t nearly this bad.”

Different Dothan Jews embraced Blumberg’s concept. They love their metropolis’s laid-back angle, its heat Southern neighborliness, its historic synagogue constructing with close-knit members who help each other even within the present absence of a full-time rabbi. They beloved the thought of extra households arriving to inject new life into the temple.

The Priddles felt drawn by that imaginative and prescient of educating tolerance by their very own every day instance. Additionally they favored the journey of all of it. So in 2011, they rented out their home close to Schenectady, N.Y., and moved to Dothan.

Lisa, a registered nurse, shortly discovered work at a hospital. However Kenny, who had been the amenities supervisor at their New York state synagogue, struggled to discover regular employment in Dothan’s smaller labor market earlier than lastly turning into an in-home aide for aged sufferers.

Seven years later, Lisa and Kenny, now 57 and 63, are deeply invested in Temple Emanu-El, a group of underneath 100 members the place they perform a little little bit of every part, from main providers to managing the constructing’s maintenance to corralling their associates in a bowling workforce referred to as the “Mitzvah Misfits.”

These days, although, they’ve began to really feel worn down by the calls for of the tiny Reform synagogue with 56 households and to yearn for the colourful congregation 10 occasions bigger that they left behind.

Whereas a lot of the Priddles’ Jewish buddies in Dothan say they’ve by no means skilled anti-Semitism within the city, Lisa and Kenny can shortly recount occasions once they’ve felt the sting of discrimination. Since 2016, they’ve additionally watched warily as anti-Semitism has worsened across the nation.

Eleven households have moved to Dothan since Blumberg began paying them, and Blumberg says he’ll pay for at the very least six extra who commit to keep a minimum of three years. However virtually a decade into the experiment, seven of the 11 households have left.

Now, Lisa and Kenny ponder whether they could make eight.

Crosses, Christmas timber, you-know-who’s identify

Lisa and Kenny pack up the latkes and drive to the huge Methodist church that dwarfs the Priddles’ synagogue proper throughout the road.

The Jewish couple dedicated once they got here right here to share their religion with whomever they might, and on today, that they had been invited to the church to clarify Hanukkah to a gaggle of a few dozen adults with delicate dementia.

Lisa walks in flustered because the individuals chat at spherical tables above the strains of a Christmas soundtrack.

She begins to converse slowly. “We are Jewish,” she says. “I moved here eight years ago from New York, where there were lots of Jewish people.”

Alabamians, she tells her listeners brightly, “have always been very welcoming and kind to us.”

It’s not completely true, she thinks, as Kenny circles every desk, handing every participant a latke and a shiny new dreidel.

One Alabamian shocked Kenny by stating her perception that Jews make hamburgers with infants’ blood. One other, who had employed Kenny as a house well being care aide, requested him just lately the place he went to church, and when he informed her that he was Jewish, he received a name from the company that night time saying the affected person not thought-about Kenny a great “fit” to look after her.

Lisa seems out on the individuals within the room, on the glittering miniature Christmas tree on each desk, and decides then and there to share a few of her fears as a Jew in America. She brings up the killing of 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October.

“It’s a vulnerable time for all of us as we gather together in groups now,” she says, her eyes flitting throughout the tables to see how individuals are reacting.

Then, hopefully: “Does anyone have any questions?”

The room is silent at first, and as Kenny tries to fill the hole by providing seconds on latkes, Lisa wonders whether or not they understood her, or simply don’t know what to say.

A lady on the entrance desk pipes up: “Can you talk about matzo?” she asks. One other lady asks about potato knishes and gefilte fish.

That’s all.

A jiffy later, Lisa and Kenny toss the remainder of the burnt latkes within the church’s trash can and stroll away, unsure whether or not they made any distinction. “I don’t know why I got so nervous,” she says.

They each have the time without work, however they head to the hospital the place Lisa works to go to a good friend who’s unwell. As soon as inside, Lisa decides to poke her head into the case administration workplace to examine on her co-workers. The primary individual she sees, as all the time, is Janice.

And as all the time, Lisa remembers that prayer.

Janice knew, Lisa is certain of it. Lisa had informed Janice many occasions that she was Jewish, that she didn’t consider in Jesus. However nonetheless, when her fellow nurses threw a celebratory lunch for Lisa – to thank her for her onerous work when she switched from full time to half time on the hospital and picked up a brand new job reviewing case information for an insurance coverage firm – Janice stood up and stated she needed to lead a prayer.

“In you-know-who’s name,” Lisa remembers wryly. It nonetheless rankles.

Right now, Lisa smiles, and Janice greets her warmly.

Lisa glances across the workplace. So most of the cubicles remind her of her outsider standing, their picket crosses and their pastel plaques etched with New Testomony verses: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”

Lisa has discovered to speak religion within the office, too, one thing she by no means did up north. Earlier than she and Kenny head towards their good friend’s hospital room, she passes certainly one of her co-workers, a cheerful blonde nurse named Jackie.

Lisa asks her how her restoration from surgical procedure goes. “I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s prayers,” Jackie says.

Lisa responds with out lacking a beat. “Praise God for that.”

On the elevator, Lisa sighs and turns to her husband. “It’s sort of overwhelming,” she says.

Shut associates, however fearful for the longer term

Later, within the night, Lisa, Kenny and 10 different Dothan Jews collect to rejoice the third night time of Hanukkah on the residence of fellow members of their synagogue. They snigger about wicks that simply gained’t mild as they kindle the flames of the menorah.

That is the vacation that first sparked Lisa’s sense of belonging among the many Jewish individuals. She was 11 years previous when she listened to the mom of certainly one of her sixth-grade classmates train their class about Hanukkah. “I don’t know if it was the flame from the candle or the chocolate or the Hebrew. I think it was the Hebrew singing,” she recollects. She determined then and there that she “felt Jewish,” and as an grownup, she formally transformed. Kenny additionally turned Jewish as an grownup, impressed by the Torah research discussions on the synagogue the place he labored because the amenities supervisor for 20 years.

Over the course of many years, their chosen religion turned essential to their identities. They raised their youngsters Jewish. At their upstate New York synagogue, Kenny arrange each occasion; Lisa taught courses and carried out as a cantorial soloist. Once they left for Dothan, the 500-family group introduced them with a plaque: “To Lisa and Kenny, the Heart and Soul of Our Congregation.”

Every single day now in Dothan, they miss that bustling synagogue.

After they sing the blessings, everybody gathers in the lounge on the residence of Karen and Terence Arenson, one other couple who moved to Dothan via the relocation venture.

The Arensons are delighted with their determination to increase their daughter, Emily, who was 6 once they moved from Los Angeles in 2014, in Alabama. “Dothan is a great place to live, an awesome place to bring up a kid. Much slower pace of life, lower cost of living. People in the Deep South are superfriendly,” Terence says.

Tonight at their Hanukkah get together, they’re screening the PBS documentary “There Are Jews Here,” about Jews in 4 small communities throughout America – together with the Arensons in Dothan.

Everybody cheers once they see the household on the display.

Later, they develop somber when the filmmaker enters a constructing in Laredo, Texas, that was as soon as a synagogue. Right now, there are 130 Jews in a metropolis of 248,000 individuals, in accordance to the film, about one-fourth the quantity there have been in 1980, and that constructing stands deserted.

“I just don’t think that can happen in Dothan,” says Leon Minsky, a lifelong Southerner.

“It won’t,” vows Karen.

However Lisa is much less sanguine. “That could happen here,” she says. She watches a synagogue closing down in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, within the film, and as an getting older congregant provides away the Torah scrolls, Lisa chokes up.

“God, this is so sad,” she says, and turns to take a look at Kenny, their faces illuminated by the glow of the tv display.

“I don’t want to be another family that leaves,” she says.


The subsequent morning, Lisa’s cellphone rings. It’s her son Nick, calling from New York state. She tells him that she and Kenny are leaning towards staying in Dothan.

“Mom, I was really looking forward to having dinner together again, family dinners,” Nick says.

She is working from residence, reviewing claims for the insurance coverage firm on her pc, however her thoughts retains drifting.

She thinks concerning the day after Thanksgiving, when she and Kenny sat down to make their vacation purchasing record. They knew instantly that they needed to get their ageing canine, Shadow, a set of steps for climbing up on the mattress. However they have been stumped about what their grandchildren may take pleasure in.

“Wow, I know my dog better than I know my own grandchildren,” Lisa remembers considering.

She turns away from the pc and begins to cry, her resolve draining.

When Kenny arrives residence and finds her within the kitchen, nonetheless emotional, she brings up the film and the grandchildren. Then, making an attempt to lighten the temper, she teases him concerning the new contraption for boiling eggs that he had bought on a whim.

“We used to peel 200 eggs for Seder” at their New York synagogue, Kenny reminisces.

“And they were perfect,” Lisa says. “No little digs in the whites.”

They sit in silence for a second, remembering these big Seders.

Lastly, Lisa speaks: “So we have someplace to go back to.”

“The mortgage is about the same as here,” Kenny replies, and Lisa provides, “The heating costs are huge.” After which: “But New York state doesn’t tax groceries.”

It’s the identical litany they’ve been reciting time and again. Why to keep, why to depart.

“Oh my God, bagels! And Italian food,” Kenny says.

Lisa sighs. “I have waffled on this so much.”

Kenny leans again in his chair. “When you know, you let me know,” he says. “I think I’m ready to go back.”

The solar had set. It was time to mild candles, one other night time of Hanukkah. One other night time of singing these Hebrew phrases that had helped Lisa uncover as a toddler what was all the time in her soul.

“I feel more relaxed already,” Lisa whispers, as they sit at midnight, staring on the flickering flames, gazing on the menorah’s metalwork determine of a person wrapping his arms lovingly round his spouse. Kenny gave her this candle holder when he proposed. They took it to Dothan. They clung to their imaginative and prescient of a Jewish house, they usually clung to one another, and now, within the glow of the candles, Lisa is aware of what is going to come subsequent.

They’ll depart Alabama.

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