Malden synagogue pays members to belong

By Paul Berger, June 3, 2010

When Matthew Garland and his wife Leah were looking for a home almost 10 years ago near Boston, Massachusetts, they eventually settled on Malden.

The city is less desirable than nearby Jewish enclaves such as Brookline, but it is where Leah grew up and housing is cheaper.

The factor that tipped the scales, however, was that a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, helped the couple buy their first home by lending them almost 20 per cent of the deposit on a $320,000 house, at far below going interest rates.

Such incentives are still uncommon in America - but a number of struggling Jewish communities offer home loans, stipends and tuition scholarships to lure newcomers, particularly young families.

In Louisiana, where thousands of Jews left after Hurricane Katrina, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans offers housing and business loans of up to $15,000 to new arrivals.

One New York congregation offers new members $30,000 stipends

In the Bronx, where the Jewish community has almost disappeared, Young Israel of Pelham Parkway is drawing up plans for home down-payment and tuition assistance of up to $30,000.

And the once-struggling Fleetwood Synagogue, in Mount Vernon, NY, offers couples a stipend of up to $30,000 towards a home.

"The financial incentive is a hook," says Fleetwood's rabbi, Gedalyah Berger, whose community is a half-hour train ride from Manhattan.

The Fleetwood programme, financed by the sale of a house that the synagogue once offered as a perk to its rabbis, is only one year old. But one family has already bought a home, one family has signed a contract, and a couple more families are searching for homes.

Beneficiaries of the programme must remain members of the synagogue for 10 years. After that, the stipend will not need to be repaid.

Rabbi Berger said the incentive is meant not only to attract families but also to advertise the community and to give newcomers confidence that it is there to stay.

"People don't want to put down roots and find out the shul ends up shrinking," said Rabbi Berger.

He added that although congregation numbers remain low - about 50 families - the community is becoming younger and more vibrant.

"Ten years ago there were only one or two families in shul with small children," said Rabbi Berger. "Now, a very large percentage of typical families are younger families."

Not all such incentive programmes have been a success. The New York Jewish Week reported recently that a three-year-old incentive scheme in North Bellmore, Long Island, is yet to attract a family.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky, of Congregation Beth Israel of New Orleans, says it takes more than money to entice families to a new area.

"If I offered you $10,000 to move just an extra 15-minute drive to the big Jewish day school from where you are now, that's one thing," Rabbi Topolosky said.

"But if I'm telling you to move to New Orleans or Indianapolis, then the money is not as significant a factor."

Instead, Rabbi Topolosky said, most Jews who move to New Orleans today are drawn by the post-Katrina energy to "revive, rebuild and recreate" the community.

In Malden, where the Jewish community has shrunk from 10,000 Jews in the 1950s to about 300 families today, Matthew Garland agrees.

Congregation Beth Israel owns a multi-million-dollar investment portfolio.

In addition to home loans, the synagogue offers scholarships for Jewish day schools.

But Mr Garland, Congregation Beth Israel's executive director, said that the majority of the 10 or so new families to join the synagogue "have not taken major advantage of the incentives".

"Just knowing the incentive is there has had an effect," Mr Garland said, "by letting people know we are serious about building a community."

Last updated: 3:07pm, June 3 2010