DOTHAN, Ala. — She was already going to be late to the church, where once again she would try to explain her religion, even though it seems like most people in her town never really get it.
Given an offer of up to $50,000, she and Kenny picked up their lives and came to Alabama, but now they must think seriously about the anti-Semitism they’ve experienced, about moments you don’t forget, about that lingering feeling of being on the outside.
Maybe, she has been thinking lately, it is time to give up. A week before, the Priddles even invited a real estate agent over to look at the house. But the couple have been tortured by indecision since.
The choices: They can sell their home and return to New York, where their beloved synagogue and the grandchildren they’ve barely gotten to know await. Or they can try to reignite the zeal that led them here, to a town named for a suggestion in Genesis: “Let us go to Dothan.”
“I think this place is great,” Lisa says. The latkes sizzle in their pan.
And then: “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.”
Wanted: Jews. Will pay.
When the Priddles first heard about Dothan, Ala., it seemed too good to be true. But the magazine advertisement was clear: A local millionaire, Larry Blumberg, wanted to pay Jewish families up to $50,000 each to move to his town.
Lisa was so excited that she ran out of the bathroom holding the copy of Reform Judaism magazine and shouted to Kenny: “We’re doing this.”
“It might be nice,” Kenny eventually agreed, “to come build the South.”
Jewish communities have shrunk nationwide in the face of extensive intermarriage and increasing American secularism. The phenomenon is more pronounced in the South, a region that is home to 37 percent of the U.S. population but just 23 percent of U.S. Jews, according to the Pew Research Center.
Many synagogues in small towns no longer have enough members to hang on. The Jewish Community Legacy Project, a nonprofit, has helped 14 synagogues close down over the past 10 years and is working with 47 more on closure plans.
Blumberg didn’t want that fate to befall the synagogue of his youth, Temple Emanu-El. So in 2009, he hit on an unusual idea — to pay families to move to Dothan, a town of 65,000 far from everything, two hours southeast of Montgomery and northwest of Tallahassee.
“All these small towns, their synagogues have closed,” said Blumberg, whose company Larry Blumberg & Associates manages dozens of hotels and other properties across the Southeast. “This is a nice place to live. It really is. I just wanted to see if we could perpetuate it.”
Maintaining a visible Jewish population in Alabama, he also argues, will ward off anti-Semitism that otherwise might fester in a state where 86 percent of residents identify as Christian and most of the rest are nonreligious. Just 1 percent identify with any non-Christian religion.
“I felt it was so important that people try to have this kind of open dialogue,” he said. “Today, particularly. When I started this 10 years ago, it wasn’t nearly this bad.”
Other Dothan Jews embraced Blumberg’s idea. They love their city’s laid-back attitude, its warm Southern neighborliness, its historic synagogue building with close-knit members who support one another even in the current absence of a full-time rabbi. They loved the idea of more families arriving to inject new life into the temple.
The Priddles felt drawn by that vision of teaching tolerance by their daily example. They also liked the adventure of it all. So in 2011, they rented out their house near Schenectady and moved to Dothan.
Lisa, a registered nurse, quickly found work at a hospital. But Kenny, who had been the facilities manager at their New York synagogue, struggled to find steady employment in Dothan’s smaller labor market before finally becoming an in-home aide for elderly patients.
Seven years later, Lisa and Kenny, now 57 and 63, are deeply invested in Temple Emanu-El, a community of under 100 members where they do a little bit of everything, from leading services to managing the building’s upkeep to corralling their friends in a bowling team called the “Mitzvah Misfits.”
Lately, though, they’ve started to feel worn down by the demands of the tiny Reform synagogue with 56 families and to yearn for the vibrant congregation ten times larger that they left behind. While most of the Priddles’ Jewish friends in Dothan say they have never experienced anti-Semitism in the town, Lisa and Kenny can quickly recount times when they’ve felt the sting of discrimination. Since 2016, they’ve also watched warily as anti-Semitism has worsened around the country.
Eleven families have moved to Dothan since Blumberg started paying them, and Blumberg says he’ll pay for at least six more who commit to stay at least three years. But almost a decade into the experiment, seven of the 11 families have left.
Now, Lisa and Kenny wonder whether they might make eight.
Crosses, Christmas trees, 'you-know-who's name'
Lisa and Kenny pack up the latkes and drive to the massive Methodist church that dwarfs the Priddles’ synagogue across the street.
The Jewish couple committed when they came here to share their faith with whomever they could, and on this day, they had been invited to the church to explain Hanukkah to a group of about a dozen adults with mild dementia.
Lisa walks in flustered as the participants chat at round tables above the strains of a Christmas soundtrack.
She starts to speak 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 entirely true, she thinks, as Kenny circles each table, handing each participant a latke and a shiny new dreidel.
One Alabamian shocked Kenny by stating her belief that Jews make hamburgers with babies’ blood. Another, who had hired Kenny as a home health-care aide, asked him recently where he went to church, and when he told her that he was Jewish, he got a call from the agency that night saying the patient no longer considered Kenny a good “fit” to care for her.
Lisa looks out at the people in the room, at the glittering miniature Christmas tree on every table, and decides then and there to share some 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 across the tables to see how people are reacting.
Then, hopefully: “Does anyone have any questions?”
The room is silent at first, and as Kenny tries to fill the gap by offering seconds on latkes, Lisa wonders whether they understood her or just don’t know what to say.
A woman at the front table pipes up: “Can you talk about matzoh?” she asks. Another woman asks about potato knishes and gefilte fish.
A few minutes later, Lisa and Kenny toss the rest of the burned latkes in the church’s trash can and walk away, not sure whether they made any difference. “I don’t know why I got so nervous,” she says.
They both have the day off, but they head to the hospital where Lisa works to visit a friend who is ill. Once inside, Lisa decides to poke her head into the case management office to check on her co-workers. The first person she sees, as always, is Janice.
And as always, Lisa remembers that prayer.
Janice knew, Lisa is sure of it. Lisa had told Janice many times that she was Jewish, that she didn’t believe in Jesus. But still, when her fellow nurses threw a celebratory lunch for Lisa — to thank her for her hard work when she switched from full time to part time at the hospital and picked up a new job reviewing case files for an insurance company — Janice stood up and said she wanted to lead a prayer.
“In you-know-who’s name,” Lisa remembers wryly. It still rankles.
Today, Lisa smiles, and Janice greets her warmly.
Lisa glances around the office. So many of the cubicles remind her of her outsider status, their wooden crosses and their pastel plaques etched with New Testament verses: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”
Lisa has learned to talk faith in the workplace, too, something she never did in New York. Before she and Kenny head toward their friend’s hospital room, she passes one of her co-workers, a cheerful blonde nurse named Jackie.
Lisa asks her how her recovery from surgery is going. “I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s prayers,” Jackie says.
Lisa responds without missing a beat. “Praise God for that.”
On the elevator, Lisa sighs and turns to her husband. “It’s sort of overwhelming,” she says.
Close friends, but fearful for the future
Later, in the evening, Lisa and Kenny and 10 other Dothan Jews gather to celebrate the third night of Hanukkah at the home of fellow members of their synagogue. They laugh about wicks that just won’t light as they kindle the flames of the menorah.
This is the holiday that first sparked Lisa’s sense of belonging among the Jewish people. She was just 11 years old when she listened to the mother of one of her sixth-grade classmates teach 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 recalls. She decided then and there that she “felt Jewish,” and as an adult, she formally converted. Kenny also became Jewish as an adult, inspired by the Torah study discussions at the synagogue where he worked as the facilities manager for 20 years.
Over the course of decades, their chosen faith became crucial to their identities. They raised their children Jewish. At their New York synagogue, Kenny set up every event; Lisa taught classes and performed as a cantorial soloist. When they left for Dothan, the 500-family community presented them with a plaque: “To Lisa and Kenny, the Heart and Soul of Our Congregation.”
Every day now in Dothan, they miss that bustling synagogue.
After they sing the blessings, everyone gathers in the living room at the home of Karen and Terence Arenson, another couple who moved to Dothan through the relocation project.
The Arensons are delighted with their decision to raise their daughter, Emily, who was 6 when 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 super friendly,” Terence says.
Tonight at their Hanukkah party, they’re screening the PBS documentary “There Are Jews Here,” about Jews in four small communities across America — including the Arensons in Dothan.
Everyone cheers when they see the family on-screen.
Later, they grow somber when the filmmaker enters a building in Laredo, Tex., that was once a synagogue. Today, there are 130 Jews in a city of 248,000 people, according to the movie, about one-fourth the number there were in 1980, and that building stands abandoned.
“I just don’t think that can happen in Dothan,” says Leon Minsky, a lifelong Southerner.
“It won’t,” vows Karen.
But Lisa is less sanguine. “That could happen here,” she says. She watches a synagogue closing down in Latrobe, Pa., in the movie, and as an aging congregant gives away the Torah scrolls, Lisa chokes up.
“God, this is so sad,” she says, and turns to look at Kenny, their faces illuminated by the glow of the television screen.
“I don’t want to be another family that leaves,” she says.
The next morning, Lisa’s cellphone rings. It’s her son Nick, calling from New York. She tells him that she and Kenny are leaning toward staying in Dothan.
“Mom, I was really looking forward to having dinner together again, family dinners,” Nick says.
She is working from home, reviewing claims for the insurance company on her computer, but her mind keeps drifting.
She thinks about the day after Thanksgiving, when she and Kenny sat down to make their holiday shopping list. They knew right away that they wanted to get their aging dog, Shadow, a set of steps for climbing up on the bed. But they were stumped about what their grandchildren might enjoy.
“Wow, I know my dog better than I know my own grandchildren,” Lisa remembers thinking.
She turns away from the computer and begins to cry, her resolve draining.
When Kenny arrives home and finds her in the kitchen, still emotional, she brings up the movie and the grandchildren. Then, trying to lighten the mood, she teases him about the new contraption for boiling eggs that he had purchased 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 moment, remembering those huge Seders.
Finally, Lisa speaks: “So we have someplace to go back to.”
“The mortgage is about the same as here,” Kenny replies, and Lisa adds, “The heating costs are huge.” And then: “But New York state doesn’t tax groceries.”
It’s the same litany they have been reciting over and over. Why to stay, why to leave.
“Oh my God, bagels! And Italian food,” Kenny says.
Lisa sighs. “I have waffled on this so much.”
Kenny leans back in his chair. “When you know, you let me know,” he says. “I think I’m ready to go back.”
The sun had set. It was time to light candles, another night of Hanukkah. Another night of singing those Hebrew words that had helped Lisa discover as a child what was always in her soul.
“I feel more relaxed already,” Lisa whispers, as they sit in the dark, staring at the flickering flames, gazing at the menorah’s metalwork figure of a man wrapping his arms lovingly around his wife. Kenny gave her this candle holder when he proposed. They took it to Dothan. They clung to their vision of a Jewish home, and they clung to each other, and, now, in the glow of the candles, Lisa knows what will come next.
They will leave Alabama.
Dig deeper: Religion + U.S. Cities
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Many synagogues in small towns have shuttered because of a decline in attendance. In one such town, a millionaire offered $50,000 for a Jewish family to move to Alabama as a way to build the community and prevent anti-Semitism.
Capitol Hill lost 40 percent of buildings for worship in 10 years. For researchers of civic life, this decline is cause for alarm because these buildings had communal value and offered services.
During the 2016 election, 74% of white evangelicals believe American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s, while most people of color think the opposite.