I thought I’d offer a somewhat different take on Fandango’s Provocative Question, as it got me thinking about my preferences and priorities for the Jewish community I want to be a part of, and how they have changed.
I’ve written before about my love for the singing, dancing, energy and celebration of “Big Party Judaism“. I guess this would be a small fish in a big pond model. Even aside from the fun social aspect, I enjoy the spiritual energy of Judaism in a large group of people.
That said, when it comes to having a congregational home, I found myself more at home in the big fish in a small pond model. I gravitated towards communities where I’d play a bigger more active role, say, as a regular Torah/Haftarah reader, vs. a more passive one. I’m not the only person skilled at chanting Torah and Haftarah, and I’m not the best, but I am pretty good at it. It was a win-win situation – I was happy to read Torah and Haftarah, the congregation appreciated the skilled help, and I enjoyed the recognition. Big Party Judaism events were super fun, but I felt more at home as the big star Torah reading fish in a small congregation pond.
Then the pandemic hit.
Jewish Community in the Pandemic
I can only speak to my experience in my own community, but for me, it felt like the water had dried up overnight. The lively, melodic, energetic Shabbat services followed by communal potluck lunch that had been a hallmark of our small, independent congregation – gone. And while the congregation was trying to decide if and how to do virtual services (The Conservative movement eventually issued a teshuvah allowing the livestreaming of services on Shabbat and although my congregation is generally more liberal than, and not even affiliated with, the Conservative movement of Judaism, virtual services wound up being a sticking point for months), Passover was rapidly approaching, and on top of that, we had a member of the congregation, one of those people who is a true pillar in the community who does everything, be hospitalized for COVID (he recovered, thankfully). Being an active part of the community at that time felt less like being a fish, swimming around and enjoying the pond, and more like being a piece of coral supporting the whole ecosystem. (I get that coral doesn’t live in ponds, but it feels more apt an analogy than being the algae or something.)
To be fair, Jewish communities don’t come about on their own. You can’t only take what you want from the community (the socializing, the events, the hospitality, etc.) and never contribute, and expect the community to continue thriving for your benefit. The community needs coral pillars. And I want to be clear that there were other people who did far, far more to help keep the community running than I did. People who led Zoom services with spirituality and skill, people who did a ton of work to make High Holiday services for 2020 and 2021 happen for the whole community, people who did a lot of chesed. People a lot better at being coral pillars than I was.
It would have been one thing to be a piece of coral for a couple months in a symbiotic relationship with the fish. But I felt more like a bleached, burned out piece of coral getting nothing out of the experience.
After a year and a half of the pandemic, the Jewish community has gotten closer to normality. In-person services with a hybrid Zoom option for virtual attendees, etc. But it’s been a painfully slow move, and the community is still a shadow of what it once was. Especially in comparison to other Jewish communities, like my hometown synagogue, which seemed to do a better job of both providing for congregants’ needs while weathering the pandemic, and also a better job of reopening. I know it took a ton of work by communal coral pillars. But unlike in my present congregation, it feels like the work was successful and that the community is back.
I’ve been wanting to move. At first, I was considering a different living space within the same town, as our living space sucks. But I realized that a) I didn’t really need to live in the town I’ve been living in for any practical reason and b) I may not even want to live in this town anymore.
I find myself exploring other Jewish communities, some out of state. I’m looking for a Jewish community that not only is vibrant and fully egalitarian, but also a Jewish community that is still a moderate-big pond post-pandemic with an existing coral infrastructure. I want to be a smaller fish in this pond. I’d like to grow into a big star Torah-reading fish again. And I’m willing to take on some of those thankless coral jobs for the right community. But mostly, I really just want to feel like a fish again.