This past weekend's 'Style' section in the New York Times contained a couple of thought-provoking Jewish-themed pieces. I'm leaving the one about Bar mitvah studies on the Web to our Director of Education, Ira Wise, who has written a great blog response here. The other article that caught my eye was 'Time-Shifting Holidays', written by Bruce Feiler.
In this latter piece, Feiler confesses that, having brought the family together for Thanksgiving, which they celebrate a day late, they then conclude '...the following day when we celebrate all eight nights ofHanukkah in one madcap afternoon.'
Feiler acknowledges that he has heard the disapproval of a Rabbi who critiques this pragmatic decision because it makes the family dining room the hub of Jewish life instead of Jewish community in the wider sense. Toward the end of the article, the Rabbi gets to speak again, this time somewhat acknowledging the good intentions of bringing a seasonal Jewish festival into the home at a time when the extended family is present to share the celebration, but encouraging the individual elements of that family to seek out a community where they can also celebrate at the appointed time back in their various home towns. I rather like that answer (although I might not have been so begrudging in the way I would put it).
But it seems to me that there is much of importance that is left unsaid. That a Jewish family wants to take advantage of the hard-to-find opportunities to be together to acknowledge and celebrate the Jewish in their lives is important and admirable. Jewish organizations and community professionals can be thinking of resources that we might provide to help families make these festival celebrations meaningful in their home settings. For those who live far from a synagogue community, there are other models of creating Jewish community with non-family members (the chavurah - a smaller, less structured gathering of families from a geographical area - being the most obvious model), and there is value in doing so.
What struck me about Feiler's piece, and the other piece that highlighted the use of technology to facilitate bar and bat mitzvah training without the need to be part of a Jewish community (although, as Ira shares in his blog, the technology is valuable in many ways within the context of synagogue community life too), is how little was conveyed about the purpose of being part of a larger Jewish community.
Too often I hear critiques of the kind expressed in these articles where the argument 'but you are separating yourself from the community' is presented as a fait a complis - it is assumed that everyone knows what that means and that those who make an active choice not to join a community are either woefully ignorant about the centrality of community in Judaism or are intentionally choosing a scaled-down, privatized (and implied is often 'selfish') version of what our faith has to offer.
I assume neither of these things. I think that articles like these provide wonderful opportunities for synagogue communities and Jewish professionals to think more deeply about what makes being part of a Jewish community meaningful in the lives of Jewish families and individuals. And then to think about how to get better at conveying this meaning to those who haven't 'drunk the Kool-aid' yet. That's not just those who are not yet affiliated with our communities, but also those who are affiliated but have done so with the narrow agenda of giving their children a Jewish education through to the end of middle school and who haven't been adequately exposed to the far greater potential that exists for their entire family in engaging with the community in a more holistic way - one that will continue to be meaningful when their children have grown up and left home.
How we do that is not something easily conveyed in a brief, sound-bite blog answer. Its something that is experienced more than described, so the first step is about getting better at sharing the experience, so that others will want to have that experience too. Congregants who have fallen in love with celebrating, doing social action, comforting, learning, and sharing life's transitional moments (birth, weddings, bar mitzvah, funerals of loved ones etc.) in the context of community are some of the best ambassadors of meaningful Jewish community life. I love seeing members of our congregation post something on their Facebook about their anticipation of a community event, or sharing the pleasure of having just returned from one; if I'm seeing it on their wall, then so are all their other Facebook friends. When that leads to a trail of comments and 'likes', the feel good of Jewish community life can become infectious.
I recently heard about a wonderful email sent out by one person to a group of others about our Young Families Chavurah - a great opportunity to start experiencing meaningful Jewish community life while our children are still very young, which meets at B'nai Israel every Shabbat morning from 9.15 a.m.-11 a.m. This young mother hadn't had an opportunity to attend with her children since the program started, but she'd heard such great things about it that she was looking forward to her first opportunity to do so, and hoped other families would join her family in tasting this experience for themselves. There is no flyer and no email that the professional staff of our synagogue could have created to better convey the potential of participating in the chavurah than this one mother's email to her peers.
We've still got plenty of work to do at B'nai Israel, but one of the things we've learned is the importance of putting the structures and means of communication in place so that everyone in our community can access community living, and be a part of sharing that experience with others. This blog is just a little slice of communicating that message and, if you're looking for your way in to the experience of being a part of a vibrant, Jewish community, I hope we can help you find the gateway that is right for you.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz