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Feels like home
MALDEN, Mass. - For most of the week, Congregation Beth Israel is nearly vacant.
The lights are shut off to save money and energy, shadows fill the basement where there was once an indoor pool; fitness machines in a workout room stand unused. The synagogue itself is quiet.
Once the center of a thriving Orthodox Jewish community, Beth Israel in the Boston suburb of Malden is trying to breathe new life into a population that has declined. The synagogue peaked with 300 members in the 1950s; today it has just 100.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Rabinowitz wants to change that, reviving the Orthodox presence here and making Congregation Beth Israel its epicenter. So the congregation is advertising home loans with low interest rates to any Orthodox family willing to move into the area.
Informally, the congregation began making such loans five years ago to members who wanted to stay in Malden.
But this spring, with membership only holding steady, the congregation began placing ads in national Jewish publications, hoping to reach young families who need help buying a house and are willing to join Beth Israel.
The synagogue's Web site pitches Malden as ''an affordable, Torah-observant community in a beautiful, suburban setting.''
The idea, Rabinowitz said, is to show that ''Malden exists as an Orthodox Jewish community.''
Orthodox Jews have the option of taking the loan - with nearly no interest payments - from the synagogue, rather than from a bank, to help with a down payment.
So far, there have been no deals. But Andrew Shulman, the synagogue's program director, said about 17 families from around the country have expressed interest and two have traveled to check out the area.
Malden residents and congregation members Matthew and Leah Garland hope to take advantage of the offer.
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.
Now the couple wants to move out of their rented apartment and use the synagogue's money to cover part of a down payment. The only thing keeping the Garlands from taking the money is they are still trying to find a house.
Despite that and the lack of a Jewish day school in Malden for their daughter, ''we just really like the community,'' Matthew Garland said. ''We want to make a home here.''
Living near the 101-year-old synagogue is imperative for members; Orthodox Jews center their lives around the congregation. On Sabbath and holidays, they walk to temple and refrain from using electricity, driving or spending money.
Other 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.
But those efforts were largely unsuccessful because the groups were trying to strengthen populations where few Jews ever lived, Bayme said. ''It's not as if vibrant Jewish communities were created that way,'' he said.
Boston's Jewish community, however, is strong. The greater Boston area has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, numbering about 200,000, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Synagogue leaders also hope to capitalize on the relatively low cost of houses in Malden. While the median cost of a single-family house in Boston is nearly $1.2 million, the median price for a single-family house in Malden is $356,250, according to the Warren Group, which tracks real estate sales in southern New England.
Beth Israel was a vibrant Orthodox community until the population began to drop in the 1950s. Families moved to communities that were closer to Boston and had amenities like Jewish day schools and traditional bathing houses. In the 1960s and 1970s, the population continued to tumble as older members died and younger families moved out of the area.
Still, 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.
The synagogue has other membership incentives, including summer camp subsidies, Jewish day-school scholarships and money for studying in Israel.
But leaders think the answer could be affordable housing.
''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.''