At the recent Orthodox Union dinner, we hosted a phenomenally successful Emerging Jewish Communities Fair, where representatives of thirty-nine communities from across North America showcased the places they call home. These communities, boasting of shuls, day schools, kosher eateries, as well as job opportunities and numerous other amenities that facilitate an Orthodox lifestyle, are wonderful alternatives for families looking for a comfortable place to settle. The majority of cities represented were from outside the Tri-State area, aka “out-of-town” communities.
Living as an Orthodox Jew in the greater New York area is, to quote my children, a “no-brainer.” There are myriads of communities within close range of each other, each with its own nuance and flavor. One could find a neighborhood that is tailor-made to his own taste and preference. There are numerous choices of good schools. Shuls abound on every corner, a choice of minyanim can be found at practically any time of day, and baruch Hashem, there are overflow crowds on any given Shabbat morning. Need I even comment on the availability of kosher food?
There are two primary advantages to living in an out-of-town community. The first is economic. While it varies from location to location, there are many Orthodox communities located in parts of the country where jobs are available and the cost of real estate is a fraction of what it is in the New York area. Owning a home, which is only a dream for many hard-working couples living in New York, can be an attainable reality somewhere else. And when real estate is cheaper, the general cost of living usually is too. Residents of these communities pay less for everything from food to taxes to education. When the cost of living is high, oftentimes husband and wife must work long hours to make ends meet. If the financial demands on a family decrease, then perhaps one parent can afford to stay home with the children, and in general there is less stress and more time and energy to provide for the emotional and spiritual needs of the family. Those who live in smaller out-of-town communities tend to have less traffic and shorter commutes, which also help reduce stress and free up valuable time that can be invested in the children, in learning, in community service, et cetera. Two of the most prevalent factors impacting healthy marriages and families are financial stress and a lack of time to spend together as a couple or family. It is possible that by settling in an out of-town community, these stressors can be significantly diminished.
The second advantage to living in an out-of-town community is religious. While it is true that in terms of population and availability of services, the religious advantage is in New York, I believe there is a different kind of religious benefit one gets from living out-of-town.
Why would more than one thousand people come to our communities fair and consider a move “out-of-town”?
In a smaller, more isolated community, where there are a finite number of Orthodox Jews, every man, woman and child who wears that label has to own his or her Jewish identity. No one has the luxury of anonymously blending into a large mass of people who resemble oneself. Because the religious population is limited, every person makes a difference. When a religious person is an anomaly and not the norm, and he has to regularly interact with people who are not Orthodox Jews, he is put in a position where he must constantly explain who he is and why he chooses to live the way he does. In order to provide these answers for others, he must first find answers for himself; this forces one to become a stronger and more committed Jew. One of my favorite stories is of a young girl, who while on a trip with her camp, took time deciding what to buy at a snack stop. She was one of the only Orthodox campers, and she needed to check each product for an appropriate kosher certification. When some of the other campers started to complain that she was taking too long, she explained that she needed to see which products were kosher, and couldn’t they wait a couple of minutes so she wouldn’t trample on 3,000 years of her people’s history?! Only a child who truly owns her Jewish identity could come up with such a powerful response.
An out-of-town Jew also has to be a role model and an ambassador, and has an incredible opportunity to make a positive impact on the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish communities around him.
Due to the lack of critical masses, there is also much more interaction with the general community. Thus, when an Orthodox Jew is a good neighbor and a good citizen, it reflects well on Orthodox people in general and creates a kiddush Hashem. Out-of-town communities tend to be more unified because, by necessity, the Orthodox can’t live an insular life; the local Orthodox community is too small to sustain itself, and therefore it must partner with the Federation and other local Jewish organizations.
For a young couple who wants to make a difference or for parents who want to raise their children in an environment where their Judaism is something they have to think about and stand up for, an out-of-town community may be the answer. And it is a fact that the yeshivot and seminaries in Israel all seek to recruit students from out-of-town. While some of these students may not have the Gemara or Chumash skills of their “in-town” peers, they have something just as significant to offer: Their Judaism was never something they took for granted, and they have experienced what it means to be an integral member of a community.
I don’t mean to denigrate in any way the tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews living and raising their children in the Tri-State area. As I mentioned, Orthodox life in the New York area certainly has its pluses. But I do hope this article will give some readers a new perspective and an understanding that living out-of-town is a real and viable alternative.
To me, the unsung heroes are the thousands of Orthodox families living out-of-town, working tirelessly to build Jewish infrastructure with limited resources and serving on the frontlines, sacrificing the safety in numbers for a Judaism that they personally uphold, defend and most importantly, share with others. May they continue to lead and inspire us all.
*This article is intended for couples and families for whom aliyah is not currently an option.