Jewish families get financial help to move to Alabama

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DOTHAN, Ala. -- Members of the newest Jewish family in Dothan are settling in to their piece of the promised land: A new home, just down the street from the city's water park and Dixie Youth baseball fields.

Matthew and Michelle Reed, along with their 2-year-old son and newborn baby boy, are the first of what could be a stream of people to move to Dothan under a program that offers Jewish families as much as $50,000 to relocate and get involved with the city's only synagogue, Temple Emanu-El.

A family that's been part of the reform congregation for decades funded the $1 million resettlement program and launched it last year, fearing the congregation would dwindle and die without an infusion of new blood. With one new family already in the fold, and hundreds of others expressing interest, the goal is to bring as many as 19 more Jewish families to this mostly Christian town of 58,000 in rural southeast Alabama over the next five years.

Getting thousands of dollars in assistance was nice, the Reeds say, but leaving their home in Sanford, N.C., for Alabama was an easy decision: Matt Reed was able to get a job quickly near Dothan, and his wife's relatives were members of Temple Emanu-El years ago.

The friendliness of the people was the final clincher, they said.

"It's been freaky how easy this has been," said Matt Reed, 25, taking a break from moving boxes inside his new home on Whatley Drive. The curly-haired Ayden, 2, plays with a new trash can while his mom watches after Sam, just 6 weeks old.

Michelle Reed's Jewish family has roots in Dothan, while her husband was raised Mormon and is in the process of converting to Judaism. Their mixed background wasn't a drawback for program organizers -- as many as half of Temple Emanu-El's members have similar histories.

The couple heard about the relocation program through family members in Alabama and applied in September because Matt Reed was finishing a stint with the Army at Fort Bragg, N.C. They moved to Dothan after he left the service on Feb. 1.

"We always wanted to raise our kids Jewish, but we didn't want to do it in North Carolina," said Michelle Reed, 26. "We didn't know anything about the temples up there. The one here my parents actually got married in."

Leaders of the relocation program couldn't be happier with their first catch.

"We are just so thrilled to have this family here. They are just a perfect fit," said Rob Goldsmith, executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services, which oversees the recruiting project. Temple Emanu-El, like many synagogues in Southern towns, has been shrinking for decades as young people leave for big cities like Atlanta. Dothan isn't exactly a hot spot for Jews: The town is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt and calls itself the "Peanut Capital of the World."

Worried about what the future might hold, congregation member Larry Blumberg put up money to begin a program to attract as many as 20 new Jewish families. The group, funded primarily by his family, took out ads in Jewish newspapers and got a boost when The Associated Press published a story about the program last fall.

About 400 families have since applied for the relocation project, and 60 of those were qualified after initial screening. Finalists go through a vetting process that includes written references -- including one from their rabbi -- home visits, checks for criminal and financial problems, and interviews.

The Reeds were the first to make it to Dothan, but 10 more families are in the pipeline.

In return for resettling and being active with the congregation for at least five years, families are reimbursed as much as $50,000 to cover items including moving expenses, housing, outstanding debt, education, temple dues and seed money for a small business.

"My hope would be that five years from now we have certainly been able to bring our 20 families here ... and we've been able to augment that with additional growth as well," said Blumberg, a boyhood friend of Michelle Reed's father, Michael Behrman of Montgomery.

Goldsmith said the Reeds don't need the full amount and could receive as much as $30,000 to help pay off debts and reimburse them for resettlement expenses, including rent and furniture for the house where they are living now.

The fund will also pay the first year of temple dues for the family and, eventually, help with a down payment on a permanent home, he said.

Just as important as the money, the Reeds said, was that the relocation program helped them make connections for jobs.

Matt Reed was an aviation mechanic in the Army, and he's already gotten a job working on aircraft in nearby Ozark near the Army's main helicopter training base, Fort Rucker. Michelle Reed works in the medical field but is taking time off because of their new son.

Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith, Robert Goldsmith's wife, said members are eager to meet the first family to come to Dothan through the relocation program.

"People are welcoming them with open arms. We've had more phone calls with people saying, 'What can we do for them? Can I take them out to dinner, can I bring them something?" she said. "They're really, really excited."
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