JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville is known for its beaches, military installations and the slogan hailing it as "the bold new city of the South."
But it isn't known as a major center for Judaism, with the local Jewish community estimated at 13,000, compared to about 2 million in New York and about 550,000 in South Florida.
So Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov said he was puzzled to learn the Orthodox Union listed Jacksonville among 22 "emerging communities" Orthodox Jews should consider if seeking to leave Jewish mega-centers such as New York City.
"Jacksonville really lacks, at this point, the basic necessities for Orthodox Jewry," said Kahanov, spiritual leader of Chabad of Northeast Florida.
The city has no kosher restaurants or grocery stores, so meats and other supplies have to be shipped in from Atlanta, Miami and other cities. The educational system — two day schools, one of them Orthodox, and no high school — for Orthodox youths "is still in its infant stages," he said.
"To be put on a list like this, to me, is surprising."
So how did northeast Florida make the list?
The answer is partly to be found in the nation's ongoing economic slump, but also in decades of Jewish migration from large urban centers in the Northeast, especially the greater New York City area, denominational leaders and scholars said. Others active in the city's Jewish community say its location, climate and welcoming reputation overcome difficulties in obtaining the foods, religious education and other services plentiful in major Jewish centers along the Eastern Seaboard.
Amy Lipper concedes northeast Florida presents a "challenge" to those adhering to the strictest dietary and religious standards in Judaism.
But Lipper said she and her husband, Jay, enthusiastically represented her city and Orthodox synagogue in New York at the Orthodox Union's "Emerging Communities Fair" featuring 21 other communities touted on the list.
Lipper was an ideal delegate for the task: Born and raised in New Jersey, her family moved to Jacksonville in 2004 after her husband lost his job earlier in the decade.
Her family struggled at first without those amenities, but has since thrived with the food co-ops, lower tuition costs and the Jewish community's friendly, welcoming nature. Area grocery chains also are adding a growing number of kosher products.
"You just gotta think out of the box," said Lipper, a member and staffer at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Mandarin.
The Orthodox Union began its list of emerging communities last year, partly as a response to the economic downturn that hit the New York-area economy especially hard, organization President Stephen Savitsky said.
Cities on the list are selected in part based on their "Jewish infrastructure" — a combination of availability of kosher food and religious and educational institutions.
But cost of living, housing prices and the availability of jobs also are considered, Savitsky said.
Jacksonville was added to the list this year because it has an Orthodox Union synagogue, hosts the Torah Academy school and has a ceremonial bath known as a mikvah. The city's diverse economy, lower home prices and a Jewish community known for its social service network and outreach were other reasons, he said.
"It's an atmosphere in which you can raise an Orthodox family," he said.
According to the National Realtors Association, the median sales price of single-family homes in the greater Jacksonville area was running about $154,000 during the first quarter of 2009. Single-family homes were selling from $321,000 to $430,000 in various New York-area markets.
Jobs are another story.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the region's unemployment rate at 9.2 percent, compared to 7.8 percent in and around New York City.
But job seekers from larger metropolitan areas such as New York City "may have a leg up" in experience and reputation when competing for jobs as they start becoming available in Jacksonville, said Candace Moody, vice president of communications for WorkSource, a nonprofit that promotes employment in Northeast Florida.
The Orthodox Union effort comes at a time when some Jewish communities are competing for members.
The Jewish community in Dothan is offering $50,000 to households that relocate to the Alabama city. The community in Tulsa, Okla., is touting its city's job market and lifestyle at JewishTulsa.org, on Twitter and Facebook.
Jacksonville's Jewish population has remained steady around 13,000 since it was last counted in 2002, suggesting that new members are born or move to the city near the same rate they leave, said Joanne Cohen, assistant executive director of the Jacksonville Jewish Federation.
"As opposed to other communities, which are losing members, this is a thriving community where lots of things are possible," she said.
Kahanov said he would be cautious touting Jacksonville as a place for the Orthodox, but added the city has much to offer those "with a pioneering spirit."
But Lipper noted that many Orthodox and other Jews may be willing to overlook their concerns if they are facing economic hardship.
"Up there when you have no job, you have high mortgages and high (Jewish school) tuitions, you really have to go elsewhere," Lipper said. And it might as well be Jacksonville, "where you stand a chance to get back on your feet."