In the fastest-growing city in America — Elk Grove, Calif. — there are no synagogues or Jewish community centers, but there is an upstart messianic congregation that offers a place for people of Jewish descent to worship Jesus.
A far-flung suburb of Sacramento, Elk Grove offers a window onto the religious trends on the booming suburban fringes of America. The Census Bureau’s recently released list of last year’s fastest-growing cities is dominated by suburban satellites of American cities in the South and Southwest: in addition to Elk Grove, places such as Chandler, Ariz. and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Given the lack of established religious institutions, the exurbs, as these areas are known, often serve as fertile ground for entrepreneurial spiritual outfits, such as evangelical mega-churches and proselytizing messianic Jewish outfits.
A survey of the Jewish life in these cities reveals that it also has been the most aggressive entrepreneurs of Judaism, emissaries of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, who have made the clearest mark — setting up institutions in eight of the 15 fastest-growing cities with more than 100,000 people.
More traditional Jewish institutions have been slower so far to wade into the waters of these new population centers. The Reform movement has synagogues in three of the 10 fastest growing cities, while the Conservative movement has only one. In Rancho Cucamonga, Chabad’s only competition comes from Christian-aligned messianic congregations. Chandler, Ariz., is, in fact, the headquarters of Messianic Jewish Movement International.
“Chabad have been the early adapters,” said Nancy Eiesland, a sociology and religion professor at Emory University. “Some other religious denominations help plant congregations in these new areas, but that’s not a strategy you see used a lot among synagogues.”
Eiesland, who has written a book about religious life in the exurbs, said that the development of synagogues and churches in these areas is particularly vital because of the central role that religious institutions play in the daily life of the booming burbs. In older urban centers, Eiesland said, secular civic institutions such as preschools and Little Leagues have had decades to take root, but in the new exurbs it is churches that have leaped into the void and become civic linchpins.
“As people move further and further out, there are fewer and fewer services, even things like sewer and water,” Eiesland said. “Religious groups are relied on to create a relatively new cultural infrastructure.”
In quickly growing Moreno Valley, Calif., the Chabad rabbi who recently set up shop says that his synagogue has become like a Jewish community center, providing religious services but also helping with people who fall behind on rent or mortgage payments. “Otherwise they go to Christian organizations,” said the rabbi, Shmuel Fuss. “They know the churches will help them when they are having troubles.”
It is hard to find firm statistics on whether Jewish people are moving to new exurban areas at the same rate as the rest of the population. In one city on the Census Bureau’s top-10 list, Miramar, Fla., locals say that Hispanic immigrants, who actually have replaced Jewish residents, have been feeding the growth. But in most of the fastest-growing places, scattered demographic studies and anecdotal data suggest that people of Jewish descent are well represented.
In Port St. Lucie, Fla., which is ranked third on the Census Bureau’s recent list, a demographic study showed that the Jewish community grew by 32%, or 1,900 households, from 1999 to 2004. Port St. Lucie, located 90 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, is a rare exurb with an existing synagogue due to the town’s origin as a retirement community. The Reform temple there recently added a Hebrew school, and in the past two years it has grown to 60 students from 30.
Elk Grove is perhaps a more representative exurban area because it has shot up from almost nothing in the past decade. Moreover, this growth has occurred on the outskirts of a city, in California’s central valley, that rarely enters the radar of coastal decision makers. Rabbi Mona Alfi, who leads the closest synagogue to Elk Grove, the Reform temple B’nai Israel, estimates that Jews are as well represented in Elk Grove as they are in the country at large — accounting for about 3%- 5% of the population.
Alfi moved to Sacramento just two months ago, and she says she has tried to quickly ramp up outreach to Elk Grove after seeing how the Jewish communal establishment in nearby cities has ignored the city’s growth. “Our synagogue is looking at ways to be more public in order to reach out to the Jews who feel they are invisible down there,” Alfi said.
Just last week, in an effort to reach out to unconnected Jews in the city, Alfi held her first parlor meeting in the home of a Jewish family that lives in Elk Grove. She is also planning on advertising her High Holy Day services in the city’s newspaper, and on setting up a booth at Elk Grove’s annual Christmas street festival. These are tactics she learned from watching evangelical churches near her last posting, in Davis, Calif.
“I’ve been looking at what the evangelicals were doing,” Alfi said. “They do a great job — and we have something to learn from them.” The regions of the country in which the exurban growth is particularly predominant are known for relatively low rates of religious affiliation among Jews. According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study, only 36% of Jews in the West belong to a synagogue, compared with 50% in the Northeast. The trends are exacerbated in the exurbs, which, by definition, draw people who are willing to leave behind their extended family and roots in search of lower property values.
In Gilbert, Ariz., the nation’s fourth fastest-growing city, there is no synagogue. Michele Millman, a 43-year-old mother of three, drives to the Conservative synagogue in neighboring Chandler. But she says that when she wears her Star of David necklace or a T-shirt from a Jewish camp, local Jews who are not affiliated with any Jewish institution frequently approach her in the supermarket.
Millman also noted that proselytization by Mormon neighbors is the most common religious experience in Gilbert. Her 8-year-old son was recently told on the playground, by a Christian playmate, that he would be going to hell. He came home and asked, “How come they’re not Jewish?”
The reason for the slower growth of Jewish institutions in areas such as Gilbert is attributed to the lack of interest among unaffiliated Jews — but it is also explained by the difference in expansion tactics between the synagogue movements and Christian churches. Paul Drazen, a Conservative movement leader, says that many Christian denominations, unlike Jewish synagogue movements, have the resources to plop down a building and a pastor before there is any expression of grass-roots interest.
“Some church denominations are buying property 10 to 15 years ahead of the demographic growth patterns,” said Drazen, who is the director of the department of congregational services at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The Conservative movement has begun to respond to the changing demographic patterns. Last year the movement set up a project called Alim, which is providing grants and resources to new synagogues. In the past year it has helped six new congregations in California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. “We’re trying to be more proactive in finding areas where the Jews are, and saying, ‘Let’s start a synagogue before someone else does,’” said Harry Silverman, director of the United Synagogue’s Southeast region.
The Reform movement has also been in expansion mode in the southwest, adding congregations in Arizona and Nevada. The biggest Reform congregation in Las Vegas is in the process of moving out to the southern suburb of Henderson, which is the 20th fastest growing city in the country.
But it is Chabad that has shown the most ease in doing this. Chabad houses generally begin more like Christian churches, with a lone rabbi setting up in an apartment and going door to door. Ira Sheskin, a Jewish demographer in Florida, says he frequently receives calls from Chabad rabbis asking about the demographic growth in specific ZIP codes.
Rabbi Yossi Cunin, who oversees the development of new Chabad houses in California and in Nevada, says that his movement is willing to go to places even when there has been no grass-roots demand.
“When we opened up in Malibu, people said, ‘Malibu Jews, they’ll never get together,’” Cunin said. “That’s been quite a success.”
One of the newest Chabad houses is in Riverside, Calif., right next to the fifth fastest-growing city, Moreno Valley. The rabbi there, Fuss, says he has moved three times since arriving in Riverside a year and a half ago, each time to a larger property.
One concern for Fuss is that the evangelical churches, including messianic Jewish congregations, are having some success in proselytizing among the hordes of new Jews. But Riverside also has a Reform congregation, Temple Beth El, and the rabbi there, Yitzhak Miller, views the surrounding Christian culture more positively.
Miller says that the predominance of Christianity in Riverside causes his congregants to search harder for meaning in their own tradition. In many cases, this causes people to cling closer to Judaism. But Miller acknowledges that in some cases the culture sometimes pushes away exurban Jews, accentuating a national trend toward a polarized Jewish community.
“Either people are going to identify themselves as religiously different, or people are going to be very uncomfortable and do everything they can to assimilate,” Miller said. “In areas like this, those buttons just get pushed so much harder.”