Photo: Reuters
Even in snow, there's no place like home: Malden, Mass., shul offers low-cost mortgages
Photo: Reuters

Synagogue hopes for renewal

Fading Orthodox shul in Malden, Massachusetts looking for members by offering low-interest housing loans to potential members

MALDEN, Massachusetts - For most of the week, Congregation Beth Israel is nearly vacant.


Lights are shut off in most rooms and hallways to save money and energy. Echoes and shadows fill the basement room where there was once an indoor pool. Fitness machines in a workout room stand unused. A guest suite, complete with beds and a nearby bathroom, is empty. The synagogue is dark and quiet.


Once the center of Malden's thriving Orthodox Jewish community, Beth Israel is trying to breathe new life into a population that has faltered. Though the synagogue had 300 members in the 1950s, today it has just 100.


Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Rabinowitz would like to help revive Malden's once thriving Orthodox Jewish population - and make Congregation Beth Israel the epicenter. So the congregation is offering low-interest home loans to any Orthodox family willing to move into the area.


"The first step was to get ourselves back on the map, that Malden exists as an Orthodox Jewish community," Rabinowitz said.


The congregation hired him eight years ago and gave him the task of re-establishing the community. The synagogue started making the loans available informally five years ago to congregation members who wanted to buy homes in Malden.


House ads


But this spring, with the synagogue's membership only holding steady, leaders extended the offer to Jewish families around the nation who were willing to join Beth Israel. The congregation began advertising its loans in national Jewish publications, hoping to reach young families who need help buying a house.


Orthodox Jews interested in moving into the area have the option of taking the loan - with nearly no interest payments required - from the synagogue, rather than from a bank, to help with a down payment on a home.


Synagogue leaders are also hoping to capitalize on the relatively low cost of houses in Malden. While the median single-family house in Boston costs USD 190,600, the median price for a single-family house in Malden is USD 176,100.


The synagogue has yet to give out a loan, Shulman said, but about a dozen Jewish families from around the country have expressed interest. Two families have come to town from Los Angeles to check out the area.


"They're very hot prospects," said Andrew Shulman, the synagogue's program director.


"There might be 300 people in the synagogue, but 250 people might be more headed towards retirement," Shulman said.


Malden residents and congregation members Matthew and Leah Garland hope to take advantage of the offer.


Down payment


Leah Garland, 27, grew up in the congregation; Matthew, 26, moved to Malden from Canada. When they got married in 2001, the Garlands decided to stay in Malden.


Now, the couple is ready to move out of their rented apartment. Matthew said they're planning on using the synagogue's money to cover some of the down payment on a house.


"It helps," he said. Right now the only thing keeping him from taking the money is that he's still trying to find the right house.


Living near the 101-year-old synagogue is imperative for congregation members; Orthodox Jews center their lives around the congregation. On Shabbat and holidays, they refrain from using electricity, driving, spending money or doing work.


Beth Israel's idea isn't new. Jewish communities have tried to increase their populations through affordable housing initiatives, according to Steven Bayme, an expert on contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.


Those efforts were largely unsuccessful because the groups were trying to strengthen populations where few Jews ever lived, Bayme said.


Strong Boston


"It's not as if vibrant Jewish communities were created that way," he said.


But Boston's Jewish community is strong. The greater Boston area has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, with about 200,000 Jews, according to the World Jewish Congress.


Beth Israel was once a vibrant Orthodox community. But the population began to fall in the 1950s as families moved to communities like Brookline, which were closer to Boston and had additional amenities like Jewish day schools and a mikve. In the 1960s and 1970s, Malden's Orthodox population continued to spiral as older members died and younger families moved out of the area.


Even an effort in the 1960s to keep families in town by building a massive synagogue with modern features - like the indoor swimming pool - didn't work.


The number of Orthodox Jews who might qualify for Beth Israel's offer is rising. In 1990, just 15 percent of the approximately 5 million affiliated Jews in America were Orthodox; in 2000, that number had risen to 23 percent, Bayme said. And one-third of those Orthodox Jews are under 35.


While Beth Israel leaders try to attract those young Orthodox Jews, the Garlands are still looking for a house.


But they're not thinking of living anywhere else, despite the house-hunting trouble and the lack of a Jewish day school in Malden for their young daughter.


"We just really like the community," Matthew Garland said. "We want to make a home here."


The synagogue isn't relying solely on the home loan program to swell the population. Summer camp subsidies and Jewish day school scholarships are available, as are funds for congregation members to study in Israel.


Those efforts have been successful enough that the congregation hasn't dipped below 100 members.


But leaders want to increase the membership, not just maintain current numbers, and the answer could be in affordable housing.


"If you go to other Jewish communities that might even seem to be sort of thriving now, the question you need to ask is 'How many young families are purchasing homes in the community?'" Shulman said. "If you don't see the younger families that are purchasing the homes, you don't see the future."


פרסום ראשון: 07.25.05, 13:41
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