When David Isler and his wife, Esther, were looking to move from their home in Kew Gardens, Queens, to a house on Long Island, they sought out small Orthodox communities where “everybody knows everybody and is warm and friendly.”
And the $25,000 cash incentive one of them offered didn’t hurt.
“It’s not enough to push you over the top, but it’s nice and it makes it easier” when moving in, said David Isler, 29. So far, the Islers are the only family to benefit from the program since the 40-year-old Young Israel of North Bellmore began it three years ago.
“It definitely helps you ease into the mortgage payments,” he added. “And there are a lot of expenses when you have a new house. You don’t know if you are going to need a new roof or boiler, so it’s definitely good to have a cushion.”
Michael Sigal, the synagogue’s president, said the money his struggling congregation is offering — which came from the sale of some synagogue property — is being used to “encourage young couples to move into the community.”
“It’s not enough to cover a mortgage or yeshiva tuition, but if you are comparing two communities, this makes it easier,” he said, noting that the money is paid in monthly installments over three years. He said there is enough money left to offer the incentive to six or seven other families. Currently, the shul has 35 families, down from a high of 275 about 25 years ago.
Nine miles away and also on Long Island’s South Shore where homes are similarly priced at $500,000 and more, the Young Israel of Oceanside launched its own cash incentive program four months ago to attract new members who would also agree to serve as the congregation’s future leaders. The two Young Israel congregations are believed to the first in the New York area to offer such cash incentives.
“The first 10 families accepted [for the program] will get $30,000 each and the next five will get $20,000,” said David Welner, chairman of the Oceanside synagogue’s growth initiative. He stressed that the money is a no-interest loan repayable when the family moves.
“We have committed $400,000 to the project,” Welner said, noting that the money was raised from congregants and the sale of synagogue property. He said 10 couples have moved to the area since the offer started and that some qualified to receive the money; he declined to say how many for fear of embarrassing those who took the offer.
Cash incentives are synagogues’ latest answer to the deepening demographic problem throughout much of Long Island: an aging Jewish population. With the exception of the heavily Orthodox and flourishing Five Towns, the problem is particularly acute on the South Shore.
The lament being heard from the Conservative and Reform movements is that more and more young people are dropping out of the Jewish community after college, getting married later and often to non-Jews, having only one or two children, not joining a synagogue and failing to provide their children with religious education or a synagogue bar or bat mitzvah.
“It’s a crisis, an absolute crisis,” said Rabbi Charles Klein, the incoming president of the New York Board of Rabbis who is also spiritual leader of the Conservative Merrick Jewish Center.
“You have almost the perfect storm,” he observed. “We’ve reached a tipping point where it is not essential to join a synagogue, where we’re seeing smaller Jewish families that are more financially challenged than ever and where there are a growing number of Jewish singles. These things have all coalesced to create a significant problem for Jewish institutions.”
Rabbi Klein said he plans to place the demographic issue “on the top of the agenda” when he takes office in January. He said he wants to approach UJA-Federation of New York about the problem, but stresses it is a communal problem that must be addressed by all Jewish organizations.
It is not the first time synagogues have attempted to tackle the problem. Several years ago, a Conservative rabbi in Laurelton, Queens, became a real estate broker in the hope of selling homes to young Jewish families and not charging the traditional 6 percent commission. The effort failed. And several congregations have offered free or reduced dues for a year to newlywed couples to induce them to move to the area and join their synagogue.
The growing demographic problem prompted the Long Island Board of Rabbis to hold a special meeting earlier this month to discuss its impact on synagogue and communal life.
“Hebrew schools in my area are not even one-third [the enrollment] of what they were 15 or 20 years ago,” said Rabbi William Berman, spiritual leader of the Conservative Commack Jewish Center. “People in New York City have one or two kids. How many people are going to have three or four in an apartment in the city? And far fewer want to be in the suburbs because they want to be near work — and understandably so.
“But this is an issue we can no longer duck. We’re experiencing a self-imposed demographic implosion.” He added that if young Jews marry, it is often later in life and about half the time they marry non-Jews.
“I now do 80 percent fewer marriages than I did when I came to Commack in 1979,” Rabbi Berman observed. “It’s an existential threat. You can talk of programming and creativity [at synagogues], but if you don’t have the people. … The dearth of birth is so critical — so dramatic — that we can’t keep silent.”
Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary who has written about the demographic crisis, was a guest at the rabbis’ meeting and told them that many young Jews today think nothing of moving to areas of the country with few other Jews or Jewish institutions.
“The constant refrain I hear from [Jewish] federation leaders is that Jews live in the [distant] suburbs and that the challenge is to provide them with services,” he said in a later interview.
Wertheimer told the rabbis that the idea of synagogues offering low-interest loans to young Jewish couples to encourage them to move to their area is being explored by a newly merged congregation in Westchester County.
Although declining to name it because a final decision has yet to be made, Wertheimer said the congregation is considering using the money from the sale of one of its buildings to bankroll the program. And he said the Baltimore Jewish federation is funding a similar program.
In Baltimore, the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has been offering no- and low-interest loans to couples for nearly 25 years through one of its agencies, Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. The loans range from $15,000 to $25,000 and there are different terms for different types of loans.
Rabbi Berman said he would like to set up a commission to study the situation locally and to recommend ways to deal with it. He said he plans to reach out to UJA-Federation of New York for its help and input.
Alisa Rubin Kurshan, senior vice president for strategic planning at UJA-Federation, said she looked “forward to meeting with the New York Board of Rabbis and the Long Island Board of Rabbis to discuss their concerns and how federation might be helpful.”
The leadership at the 175-family Young Israel of Oceanside stressed that the cash incentives were only a part of their outreach effort. “I have also put together a team of professionals to help couples buy a home here as painlessly as possible,” Welner said.
“We have a broker who was hand-picked by us,” he continued. “We are able to get long-term mortgages well below the market rate, and attorneys who will donate their services to do the closings. We were also able to negotiate the bank attorney fees, and there will be no points.”
In addition, Welner said his team includes a licensed home inspector who will charge a “ridiculous fee” and contractors who will do renovations “at better than half the normal price.”
“So on average, we’re looking at a total savings of up to $55,000,” he said. “And what is more important is that we take care of the details. A lot of first-time home buyers don’t have the experience in dealing with contractors and need somebody who is going to be there for them to help with the closing and mortgage. I call what we offer the concierge home-buying service.”
Although these services are available to anyone wishing to move to the community, the long-term loans are reserved for those who want to serve as the congregation’s future leaders and who a screening committee determines have that potential.
“We want to get a young core who will become role models for the broader community,” said Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “I see the financial incentive as a hook to make prospective buyers believe we are serious about what we are doing … [and] to create the buzz to generate interest” in the community.
“Our community has the infrastructure for an Orthodox community — an eruv, a mikveh, kosher establishments nearby, easy access to yeshivas, no building fund and a warm community where people can walk in and everyone knows their name. We provide young people an opportunity to flourish where they might not be able to in a community with 1,000 members.”
Rabbi Muskat said that since the program began in the summer, 10 young couples moved in, most of which had lived in apartments in the Five Towns, Brooklyn, Queens and Riverdale.
“This is an unprecedented number and it’s all because of our outreach,” he added. “And we have another 10 or 11 couples who are actively interested.”
Some rabbis have said they would like UJA-Federation of New York to offer similar cash incentives to keep young people from moving away. And Long Island rabbis highlighted the demographic problem in their meetings a year ago with UJA-Federation’s Long Island Program Services Committee.
The committee completed a report this month, “Long Island Sounds: Rabbis,” as part of its effort to gain a clearer understanding of the Jewish community’s needs by conducting in-depth interviews with selected groups of people. The rabbis expressed concern about the aging of the population, the decrease in younger non-Orthodox families moving to the Island and the increased rate of interfaith marriage.
One rabbi quoted in the report, Harvey Goldscheider, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of North Bellmore, a Conservative congregation, said: “There is demoralization because of changing demographics. SENSE [Southeast Nassau Synagogue Enterprise, a consortium of synagogues funded by UJA-Federation to address the challenges faced by the significant decrease of Jews in the region] has helped somewhat, but where will we be in five years?”