Michael Feldstein
Michael Feldstein

The Price of Community Growth

Thirty-nine years ago, Sharon and I were newlyweds, and I accepted a job in Norwalk, CT, straight out of business school.  We looked at a map of Fairfield County, and determined that Stamford, CT, could be an ideal location for us to live.  The community had a few dozen frum families … a couple of Orthodox synagogues … a local day school … and a mikveh.  No eruv.  No kosher restaurants.  But it was enough of a base to make us feel we could live an observant Jewish life with relative ease.  So we moved to Stamford, literally on the way back from our honeymoon.

We were immediately embraced by others in the community.  We made friends with many couples 5-10 years older than us, and we became an extremely tight-knit group.  We spent Shabbat meals at each other’s homes, and we watched our children grow up, sharing in their successes and their failures.  We celebrated with each other at our simchas … and mourned together during our losses.  Sometimes a family would leave the community, either for a new job or for other reasons.  And sometimes a new family would move here.  But for years it was pretty much the same core group of families who bonded together, and kept the organizations like the mikveh and the chevra kadisha and the ritual committee at our two shuls operating, despite the small number of observant families who resided in our little town.  We still consider these people our closest friends.

Fast forward about 30 years. This newlywed was now in his mid-50s … and not getting any younger.  And it occurred to me at the time that if the frum community in Stamford was going to survive another 30 years, we needed to attract more than the 3 or 4 families who might happen to move to the community because they accepted a job in Stamford or were doing a residency at Yale. A group of us decided to start a community growth initiative, with the objective of getting Stamford on the radar screen of young families when they were deciding which suburban community in the New York metro area to move to.

It took a while, but it became a huge success.  In the last five years, more than a hundred new observant families have moved to Stamford.  At this point, we are not even actively promoting the community as a place to live because frankly we don’t need to.  Word of mouth advertising is doing it for us, as new residents are telling their friends that Stamford is a great place to reside.  Our local real estate agents have told me that you often cannot find a house to buy within walking distance of the shuls, and when a house does go on the market, it usually sells above its asking price in a matter of days.

My wife and I attended shul a couple of weeks ago, and at the kiddush after shul we were both astonished at all the people we didn’t know.  It used to be that we would immediately recognize a new resident at shul – and it was likely that we would have had several months of advance notice that someone new was moving into town.  This summer there have been several families moving in every week.  I used to keep a data base of new families who were moving here, so we could properly welcome them with Shabbat meal invitations.  Unfortunately, I’ve given up on that, as I cannot keep up with the numbers.

The future indeed looks bright for the Orthodox community in Stamford, and for that I am extremely grateful.  We have several kosher eateries in town now, and there has never been more Torah learning. We have a local yeshiva high school, so those who want to continue their Jewish education after eighth grade don’t have to travel 45 minutes to school.  One shul just completed a building renovation, and the other shul has plans to start a capital campaign in the near future.

But you know what?  While the growth of the Orthodox community has been incredibly exciting, I miss the old days.  We didn’t have any kosher restaurants in town 40 years ago, but we were close enough to many kosher eateries so that once in a while we could treat ourselves to dinner.  We didn’t have an eruv the first three years we lived here, but we managed to enjoy Shabbat, even on those long hot summer days.  Our day school was at best made up of only 15-20% of frum families, but we made a concerted effort to find common ground with those day school families who were not observant.

No doubt the community is much better off today than it was four decades ago when we first moved here.  But I hope that with the growth of the Orthodox community, some of those things that I really love about Stamford – its warmth, its tolerance for those who may not fit the mold of the typical Orthodox family, and its tradition of encouraging its residents to get involved in the shuls and in other organizations even if they may not be part of the inner circle – will not be lost.

Stamford’s growth as a thriving Jewish community in the next decade – and beyond – is pretty much assured.  Now that Stamford is an established location for Orthodox families to reside, I sincerely hope that our community does not lose some of those special characteristics that made it so appealing when we first moved here 39 years ago.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the founder and owner of MGF Marketing, a direct marketing consulting firm. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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