It's no secret that small town Judaism is withering across North America. From one coast to the other large communities are managing to maintain themselves or even grow but the small ones are diminishing and disappearing. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the early and mid twentieth centuries when small thriving Jewish communities dotted the landscape of Canada and the US and the history of Eastern Europe and its long-lived shetl society. What's changed to cause this to occur?
Right now I'm reading through a history of the Jewish community I come from. That community was always small, maxing out at around 700 families through the 1970's to 2000 but now down to somewhere around 500. What made it thrive? Why is it slowly falling apart?
I would venture the following reasons come into play here:
1) Migration - most small Jewish communities in North America started off slowly, isolated small groups settling in growing villages. All this changed after waves of immigration from Europe occurred, initially after the Czarist pogroms in the waning days of the Russian Empire, then the post-World War I refugees and finally survivors of the Holocaust. In each case a number of immigrants decided the big cities weren't for them and moved to smaller peripheral towns looking for work and opportunities or to join family already living there.
Today there are no migrations going on. The last large one was the Russian exodus in the 1990's and there is no large Jewish community in the world right now, with the possible exception of France, looking to move en masse. Even if the French do make the right decision and flee Croissant Country they will likely either go to Israel or Montreal, not scatter themselves around North America. Thus any small communities hoping to grow from the run-off from nearby metropolitan ones are likely to be frustrated.
2) Retention - life in a smaller centre isn't easy for lots of Jewish folks. For the frum there's a sense of isolation from the larger community. There are less services, less shiurim, less options for davening and less perceived opportunity for personal growth. Even those frum families that build a life in small communities tend to see their children move away after the year in Israel or university as those kids seek to make their own lives and want contact with a larger group of people than they grew up with. What's more, where the children go the parents often follow.
3) Opportunity - as mentioned in (1) lots of arrivals in small Jewish communities in the early and mid-twentieth century chose the location because the big cities were already full of immigrants competing for a limited number of low-level jobs like peddling and scrap dealing. Today small towns often provide less employment opportunities than large cities because of the concentration of growing industries in metropolitan areas.
4) Education - once upon a time a cheder was enough of an educational institution for a small Jewish community. Most people weren't frum and were more than satisfied with their children learning to read Hebrew and a couple of tunes for Adon Olam. Nowadays those who choose Jewish education with a serious intention of teaching their kids something of our national heritage choose day schools and those things are bloody expensive to run. It's a small wonder that any small communities, including the one I live in, manage to maintain a elementary level school. We have no hope of anything secondary, even a mixed community model. Parents who don't want their children moving out for grade 9 don't want to live in such a place.
For these four reasons there is little hope of reversing the ongoing trend of declining small town populations. But what are the advantages of living in a small community?
In my humble opinion I think it's time for another migration but now it should be an internal one. It's time for the frum populations of large cities to consider heading out to the boondocks. Why?
1) Cost of living - Jewish communities in large population centres are faced with huge costs. Housing is expensive. Schooling is expensive. Property taxes are expensive. Food is expensive. The smaller towns some distance from these areas offer many advantages here. Housing is more reasonable. Schooling is a little more reasonable. Property taxes aren't quite as high. Food is still expensive but a lack of restaurants means one eats out less so that'll cut the total somewhat. People struggling with unsustainable mortgages or big city tuitions might want to consider how fiscally relieving life in the smaller city might be.
2) Educational opportunity - yes, I wrote that there is much less choice in a small town but the flip side is that, since the local community school is desperate for any tuition-paying family it can dredge up, the frum family finds itself in an unaccustomed position. In the big city yeshivos and other institutions generally dictate to the families. You want your child to get a Jewish education? You have to follow their rules even when those rules dictate how to live in your own home. In the small town it's quite often the opposite. The school is often more than willing to bend over backwards to accommodate a family with a large number of children and if there's a chance for additional donations, so much the better. Letters from the school like "If you show up to get your kids make sure you're wearing a full sheitl and head to toe robing" are replaced with "Show up naked to get your kids for all we care, just send us kids!" Imagine the power that comes with that.
3) Social pressure - surrounded by a non-religious majority the environment where other frum folks judge you based on their preconceived notions of how you should act disappears. You don't have to keep up with the Jonesteins in a small town and that can be liberating for many. Imagine living the frum life because you want to, not because you don't want to be cast out from the neighbourhood social circle. What's more, in a small community everyone matters. The same person who is a cipher in the crowd in the big city is a meaningful contributor whose presence is noted in the little community.
In summary, despite the disadvantages there are many good reasons a frum family, struggling to keep up with the bills and chafing under endless social pressure would do well to consider migrating to a small town. It might be the start of a positive frum life for many.