A few months ago, in the thick of the pandemic, West Hartford’s housing market really started heating up, as city dwellers in the Northeast began searching for suburban alternatives to living in apartments with no backyards, amid densely populated environments.
Due in large part to the efforts of Rabbi Tuvia Brander, the entrepreneurial rabbi of the Young Israel of West Hartford, the community has become a desirable destination for Orthodox Jews looking for a more affordable, heimishe community in which to raise their families.
Over the past 18 months, Brander and his synagogue have spearheaded a campaign to recruit new Orthodox families to come to West Hartford. Their goal is to grow its Orthodox Jewish life to help bolster the Jewish day schools, Jewish Community Center, synagogues, Chabad and more. And it’s working.
This past summer, 13 new Orthodox Jewish families moved to West Hartford. And in the past eight weeks, 75 others inquired about life in the community. All told, Brander reports that YIWH membership has doubled in the past two years to 130 families, creating a need to build more space in the sanctuary.
“Our objective is not to bring these people to our synagogue exclusively, but to educate them on all the options in the West Hartford area and to connect them to the synagogues, schools and environments that best fit them,” said Brander.
These efforts are due mostly to Brander personally taking the lead in marketing—a task rarely assumed by rabbis—including presenting the case for West Hartford in national Jewish forums and paying for targeted print ads in New York, Boston, Florida, Los Angeles and a few other cities across the country.
Brander says his approach highlights the following aspects of West Hartford life:
Rich Jewish life: West Hartford already has a comprehensive Jewish infrastructure that provides a bevy of religious, cultural and educational options for all stages of life.
“People are looking to be personally involved with their communities, where they can chart their Jewish lives in a warm and non-judgmental community,” said Brander. “Our community is small enough where everyone matters and is welcomed, and big enough to enjoy the full spectrum of vibrant Jewish life.”
Housing and cost of living: West Hartford is very affordable compared to most metropolitan areas. Families looking for more living space without becoming “house poor,” while achieving more purchasing power from their paychecks, will find Greater Hartford very attractive.
“According to the MetroHartford Alliance, the cost of living in West Hartford is 34% cheaper that New York City and 21% cheaper than Boston,” said Brander.
Mordechai Horwath, who was born and bred in Boston, and moved to West Hartford in August with his wife, Stephanie, and two babies, concurs. “We moved to West Hartford because we were tired of paying rent to someone else so they could pay their bills, when we could pay the same amount for a mortgage here and own our own home,” he said. “Everything here is so much more affordable and the kosher food at the Big Y and Crown Kosher Market is better than the stuff we could get easily in Boston.”
Affordable, quality Jewish education: The gross cost of a 13-year, kindergarten through grade 12 Orthodox Jewish day school education for each child in New York City, according to Brander, is $250,000. In Boston, it’s $374,000.
“Send your kid to West Hartford’s New England Jewish Academy [for the same 13 years] and the cost is $116,000,” he said.
One reason for this considerably lower cost is that the New England Jewish Academy (NEJA) offers perhaps the most generous Jewish day school tuition subsidy in the nation, thanks to the vision and largess of West Hartford philanthropists Jeremy and Ann Pava. NEJA now offers tuition subsidies to all students starting at $5,000 for kindergarten; the amounts progressively ascend to $12,000 for high schoolers.
“The Pava initiative has changed the game in how we recruit and the success we are achieving,” said Brander.
NEJA, as well as Solomon Schechter Day School, the area’s other K-8 Jewish school, also provides generous scholarships to ensure that no child will miss out on a Jewish education due to finances.
High-skilled and high-paying jobs: Brander notes that West Hartford is the number one town in the Northeast for job seekers (Indeed) and is ranked fourth in the nation for tech jobs (Money magazine) and for being the “most innovative economy” (Bloomberg). It also made Money’s list of the Top 50 Best Towns/Cities in the country in which to live.
While commuting each day to these cities for work is impractical, going for a “visit for Shabbat or a family simcha is very doable,” Brander said. “And with so many workplaces going virtual, you don’t need to be tied to a large metropolitan area anymore.”
Also seeing this open window of opportunity, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford is at the early stages of an initiative called Destination Hartford, which aims to recruit Jewish families of all denominations and backgrounds to the area. The program design calls for a sophisticated, multi-channel marketing campaign to raise awareness, and a “concierge” who connects potential residents with community resources of all kinds. A job-match program is also being developed to connect people with professionals in their field to help them pursue employment opportunities.
“One of our community’s real strengths is being well-networked,” said Heather Fiedler, vice president of Jewish Education and Leadership at the Jewish Federation, “so we are identifying super-connectors to help potential newcomers explore their options here.”
Meaningful, personal connections and the welcome they’ve received from the Orthodox Jewish community have “blown us away,” said Horwath, who cares for his children and is studying to be an EMT, while his wife works as a nurse at Hartford Healthcare. “From the time we expressed interest in moving to the community, so many people from the [YIWH] synagogue reached out to assist us. And when we got here they arranged for a meal train to ensure we had food. I’ve never experienced anything so amazing in my life.”
For more comprehensive and detailed information, please go to www.youngisraelwh.org/visit.
By Jacob Schreiber