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Mountain Region Chabad House Symbol of Exurbs' Growth Nationwide

Mountain Region Chabad House Symbol of Exurbs' Growth Nationwide

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Rabbi Mendel Bendet, second from left, discusses Judaism with Poconos residents.
Rabbi Mendel Bendet, second from left, discusses Judaism with Poconos residents.

For at least the past decade, demographers across the nation have been chronicling a new form of suburban flight: the booming relocation of city-dwellers and suburbanites to the exurbs, the furthest extremes of the population bands surrounding major metropolises.

Exurbs now dot the nation from coast to coast, from Elk Grove, Calif., to Port S. Lucie, Fla., and several rapidly-growing locales between. They are to the suburbs today what the suburbs were to the cities decades ago – lower density, low-cost alternatives to congested urban living, providing the chance to live close to relatively untarnished natural beauty. They are also defined by having at least 20 percent of their populations making long daily commutes to work.

The exurbs' newly-arrived denizens come from the full spectrum of modern-day American groups, including a fair share of Jewish community members and Israeli expatriates. But as the growth of technology tends to proceed faster than infrastructure can use it, many exurbias glaringly lack the synagogue or community facility almost taken for granted in the big cities and major suburbs.

Enter Chabad.

"If not one more Jew moved here, we'd still have our work cut out for us," says Rabbi Mendel Bendet, the young co-director of the four-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch of the Poconos, which serves a once-sleepy Eastern Pennsylvania mountain country now undergoing significant growth. "But at the same time, we are prepared for the future wave of [Jewish] people moving in. It hasn't peaked."

Stroudsburg, home to the Chabad center and the epicenter of the Poconos' still-booming exurbia, has very little organized Jewish life for its still-growing population, which is precisely why Bendet is there. The rabbi, his wife, fellow co-director Shterni Bendet, and their little daughter moved to the area in September 2003 and set up a makeshift synagogue and community center in their home in the Blue Mountain Lake section of Stroud Township. They began reaching out to Jews one at a time and held their first communal event, a Chanukah celebration, just two months after their arrival; 30 people attended.

They recently moved the operation to a storefront a short distance away. At their most recent community program, more than 100 Jews took part, some driving more than 25 miles to attend.

Unprecedented Growth

Rabbi Mendel Bendet helps a Jewish resident lay tefillin.
Rabbi Mendel Bendet helps a Jewish resident lay tefillin.
"The biggest influx of new residents to the Poconos is families following the American Dream," says local State Rep. John J. Siptroth, explaining that the attainable homes of Monroe or Pike Counties, many with large yards and on wooded lots, are an affordable alternative to the New York/New Jersey metro area. "So we have lower to middle income people looking for their first home, and higher income people capitalizing on what their money can buy here."

For decades, the Poconos was a semi-rural region. It experienced a major shift in the 1970s as developers began establishing residential communities across the area, mainly seasonal vacation homes for wealthy city dwellers. The 1990s saw further efforts to market new homes to young Tri-State families, as well as new arrivals converting older vacation homes into permanent residences. Finally, the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks "substantially escalated the westward migration of home buyers seeking a safer place to live," says Siptroth.

Monroe County's population alone has increased by 19 percent since 2000, while neighboring Pike County has increased by 26 percent.

But with the tectonic shifts came challenges logistical and spiritual, challenges that public servants and Chabad are respectively striving to meet.

"Part of the problem we've had is that there's been tremendous development in the 1990s, with vacation homes becoming full-time homes, and a [resulting] huge increase in property taxes, mostly for schools and roads," says State Rep. Mario Scavello, who partially represents Monroe County, including Bendet's adopted hometown of Stroudsburg. "We've now got three to four times the population we had 50 years ago and no new schools or roads, so we're building, but we've got a ways to go."

Scavello has shared a cordial relationship with Bendet over the past few years, including attending Chabad's annual public menorah lighting at Courthouse Square.

"He's done a fabulous job," says the legislator. "He's brought more possibilities to my area, and if I can help him, I will."

Among those possibilities are vastly expanded programming to meet the spiritual needs of the ever-growing Jewish population.

"The whole region is morphing; there are lots of malls being built and there are dozens of commuter buses now to and from the city," says Poconos developer Larry Simon, chairman and CEO of LTS builders and of the Synchrium Group.

The self-identified Conservative Jew and Chabad admirer adds: Bendet's "effectively got unbounded energy. It's amazing what he does, and I have tremendous respect for the guy. The Jewish people here are much less traditionally Jewish, there are no Jewish neighborhoods. But as business develops, there'll be more Jewish people, and what Chabad is doing is drawing these people."

Other exurbs have been getting their own Chabad centers too. The three-year-old Chabad Jewish Center of Riverside, Calif., for example, services nearby Moreno Valley, another growing hotspot not far from Los Angeles. Upon their arrival, co-directors Rabbi Shmuel and Tzippy Fuss quickly won acclaim from the residents.

They've "touched a lot of lives in Riverside," says Chet Trupp. The rabbi "is a really good ambassador and his entire family is really giving."

Longtime Locals

Children show off their Chanukah pride at Chabad-Lubavitch of the Poconos.
Children show off their Chanukah pride at Chabad-Lubavitch of the Poconos.
In the Poconos, Chabad has also reached out to the Jewish population's small segment of longtime locals.

"It has brought new people from the community that have not participated or affiliated with the religious day-to-day life," says resident Mark Entenberg, an engineering manager at Consolidated Edison in New York, to which he has commuted daily since 1984. "Now, Chabad allows them to participate and to identify themselves with the community and others."

Others heartily concur.

"I would say that the rabbi is wonderful; he and his wife make you feel that you belong there," relates Louise Goldberg, a resident at Pocono Country Place in Tobyhanna, some 20 miles north of Stroudsburg. "They don't tell you what to do, they just tell you to be proud to be a Jew. My grandsons went [there] to be Bar Mitzvah, but they have a teen meeting twice a month and they're anxious to go. That says a lot."

"Rabbi and Shterni go above and beyond the call of duty," adds Iris Grubler, a Stroudsberg resident. "I mean, they reach out to people they don't have to reach out to, even people who are less than secular.

"The Jews that were here from the turn of the century are totally secular: Jewish by birth and fartig," he explains, using a Yiddish expression meaning "that's it." "Today, they have a very nice Hebrew School and the kids want to go."

Bendet contends that he's interested in anyone Jewish, whether they've been in the largely bedroom community for one month or one decade. He also caters to the tourists who come in from New York and Philadelphia for weekends and summers. They make up around 30 percent of Bendet's roster.

Today, Chabad offers Hebrew School, Hebrew High, adult classes, full synagogue services and major celebrations at all the Jewish Holidays, and is planning to launch many more educational programs this year.

Poconos resident Jack Bernbaum, who winters in Florida half the year, talks about what he calls "hidden Yidden," Jews who have assimilated and have become part of the indigenous small-town culture.

"Chabad is finding these people, and getting them to get involved," he says.

It's the concern for that acculturated, token Jewish identity that Naomi Schuldenfrei shares with Chabad. A lifelong resident of Bushkill, a small town about 15 miles east of Stroudsburg, Schuldenfrei says one could probably count the town's Jewish residents on the fingers, "if you know who they are."

"I do hope for a big conversion here from the hiding Jewish population to one which will participate more in services and our religion," she states. "I'm trying to get as many people as possible interested now that" the Chabad center has a proper storefront.

"There is much talk, discussion and debate in this region about how are they going to deal with all the growth, plan for the future, and so on," says Shterni Bendet. "At Chabad, it's crystal clear: We will be ready."



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