Mile L'Chaim: How Denver's small Orthodox community plans to get a lot bigger
For Orthodox Jews, anyplace outside New York City is known as "out of town." And anyplace not touching the Atlantic Ocean — like say, a square state surrounded by other square states in the middle of the country — is considered way, way out of town. "In New York, once you go west of Pennsylvania, they think there are still cowboys and Indians, that it's the Wild West," says Scott Friedman, an Orthodox Jew who grew up in Denver.
To change this, and to bolster Denver's slowly growing Orthodox population, Friedman and others from the DAT Minyan synagogue would like to incite a great western migration — Oregon Trail-style, but Jewish. They're employing websites, Facebook and good old-fashioned meet-and-greets to do it. But before they really start gladhanding and superpoking, they want to develop a brand, something persuasive enough to lure people away from the giant Orthodox Jewish strongholds of New York.
A brand? You bet. "It was not that long ago that 'marketing' felt like a dirty word in the synagogue world," says Beth Steinhorn, a consultant with JFFixler & Associates in Denver. Steinhorn specializes in helping non-profit organizations market themselves, and she's been advising local synagogues on marketing techniques.
And if synagogues want to flourish, they need to act more like nonprofits — "without losing their soul" — and visionary leadership, says Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal (STAR), an organization in Minnesota whose mission is to help synagogues thrive in the 21st century. "The challenge in congregational innovation is making sure we're not perceived as congregations compromising authenticity in the name of innovation."
Rabbi Daniel Alter of DAT Minyan is a good example of someone who is doing it right. "What we try to do is look for people like Rabbi Alter, who are sure of who they are but understand that they need to reach out beyond their own community and think of new strategies," Herring says.
DAT Minyan is one of five synagogues in Denver and Boulder working with Steinhorn — through a grant from STAR — to develop recruitment plans. Each synagogue's goal is slightly different. For example, a non-Orthodox synagogue may be working toward persuading non-practicing Jews to come to services. DAT Minyan's objective of spurring cross-country moves is, Steinhorn says, "a big vision."
But it's one that Alter, Friedman and others see as necessary. It's estimated there are about 75,000 Jews in the metro area. Of those, only about 500 are Orthodox; that means they more strictly adhere to Jewish laws about diet, dress and the Sabbath. One of the keys to attracting more people is building more infrastructure. Currently, the city is home to four schools, two kosher eateries, a couple of ritual baths and a handful of synagogues. But it's missing other things that some Jews consider must-haves, such as a Modern Orthodox high school.
Attracting enough students for a high school is what motivated Friedman, a 38-year-old realtor and father of three, and his wife, Devorah, a nurse, to get involved. "My wife is not one who could send our kids away to school," he says, which is what some Denver families opt to do so that their children can attend an Orthodox institution.
Friedman would also like to see more culinary variety. Tucked in the back of a market that sells kosher meats, produce and toys — such as Aleph Bet Bingo — the East Side Kosher Deli, 499 South Elm Street, is the only sit-down kosher eatery in town. On a recent afternoon, Friedman circles the small dining room, shaking hands and chatting with the other diners, most of whom he knows by name.
Over a cup of soup and half a turkey sandwich, which the waiter places on the table next to Friedman's iPhone, he talks about the recruitment plan.
"The first step is creating buzz," he says. DAT Minyan's marketing plan is still in the beginning stages. It has a Facebook page, "I Want to Move to Jewish Denver," and a website, www.JewishDenver.com, listing area schools, shuls and Torah study institutes. Sections on the cost of living, housing and jobs are still under construction, though.
The site does contain information about the city's three eruvim, the plural of "eruv." An eruv is a collection of properties bordered by a physical barrier. The barrier can be made up of existing structures, such as walls, or it can be constructed out of string hung from utility poles. Certain laws concerning the Sabbath, such as one that forbids Jews from moving an object — be it a book, a set of keys or a baby — don't apply within the eruv, which allows modern Jews to live life more easily on the Sabbath.
"The nature of Orthodox communities is tight-knit," says Alter, who also serves as head of school at the Denver Academy of Torah, one of the city's two private Jewish day schools. "On the Sabbath, we can't drive, so we need to live within walking distance of a synagogue. Everyone tends to live in the same neighborhood."
Of the three eruvim, the biggest is in East Denver. It covers eleven square miles and is sort of shaped like Texas, if you squint. It includes a good chunk of the city east of Colorado Boulevard, including Lowry and parts of Glendale. The northernmost barrier touches 14th Avenue, and the southernmost point is the intersection of Cherry Creek Drive and Holly Street. There are also eruvim in West Denver, where many Jews lived in the 1940s and '50s, and Southeast Denver.
So what's the hook that will encourage out-of-state Jews to pack up and jump eruvim? DAT Minyan's secret weapon, the pitch that they hope will seal the Denver deal? The Mile High City's quality of life: "Not as obsessed with work, 300 days of sunshine a year, the Rocky Mountains," Alter says.
For the past two years, Alter, Friedman and others have made the trek to Manhattan to tout Denver at a job and relocation fair sponsored by the Orthodox Union, a Jewish outreach and social services organization. This year, they set up a booth alongside 21 other small Orthodox communities, including New Orleans, Allentown and Des Moines.
They hope to do essentially the same thing with graduates of Yeshiva University, a prestigious New York City college. Alter and others have also made recruiting trips to Los Angeles, where they advertise their visits in local Jewish publications and then set up individual meetings with families or young couples looking for more affordable alternatives to L.A.'s pricey neighborhoods.
They'd like to offer those families financial incentives — such as relocation bonuses or discounts on day school tuition, which can cost up to $10,000 per child — but Friedman says they haven't yet figured out how or how much.
DAT Minyan is also flirting with the idea of sending Alter on weekend trips to Chicago, Miami and maybe even Dallas or Kansas City, to be a sort of guest speaker at different synagogues – the perfect opportunity to give members there an earful about sunny, friendly Denver.
And there's no need to convince the entire congregation — not by a long shot. DAT Minyan's goals are modest. Friedman and Alter figure that if they can attract ten new families a year, they'll be on track to reach the critical mass they need. And once Denver doubles its numbers, they say, it'll take almost no work to quadruple them.
"Once you have a critical mass," Friedman says, "the floodgates open."
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"It was not that long ago that 'marketing' felt like a dirty word in the synagogue world."
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