Fish vs. Pond Size – Jewish Community Edition

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.

Party time! Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

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.

Self-portrait of me as a big star fish in a small appreciative pond. Photo by Kyaw Tun on Unsplash

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.

Self-portrait of me as bleached coral, ignored by the fish. Image by csharker from Pixabay

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.

Looking Ahead

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.

Like this guy, content in a not-dried-up pond. Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

39 comments

  1. Interesting! And nice fish pics. When I was married, we belonged to a reform temple, and I really enjoyed my small-fish status. It was nice to go to Friday night services and just zone out in a big group during the sermon and singing. A perfect thing to do at the end of the work/mommy week. I had no desire to stand out in any way and avoided volunteering for things. My life was already too busy. Later on though, as a single person, I tried a couple other services (didn’t want to return to the former temple because… reasons), but didn’t enjoy being a nobody in a large group. I ended up not doing anything ever. I celebrate holidays when I visit my orthodox daughter, but otherwise ignore Judaism. I didn’t even light my menorah this year because it was all gross with wax from previous years that wouldn’t come off. I think the little oil cups are the way to go for someone as OCD as I am…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You bring up a good point about community involvement through different life stages, as well as that small fish/big pond dynamic.

      I really like Reform services for Friday night. With the music, I just find them really awesome. Fridays are usually a clusterfuck and I haven’t managed to get to services in a while.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have similar thoughts about communities that I wanted to post yesterday, but ran out of time. Maybe today. In short, I’m beginning to think that I’m better as a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big one (which is the current situation), although I don’t know how I get my confidence back up to Do Stuff.

    I’ve noticed you often tell us that we shouldn’t feel sorry for you. I was just wondering what you thought would happen if we did feel sorry for you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why would you feel a lack of confidence about doing stuff in a smaller community? You are knowledgeable and dedicated. Also, fwiw, in my experience, communities are so thrilled to have volunteers and that overwhelms the potentially more critical voices. Sure, I’ve been told that I read some trope wrong, but more often, I’m thanked for leyning in the first place. The Orthodox world might be different though..

      It’s not like there are catastrophic consequences to people feeling unnecessarily sorry for me, but I would feel guilty about giving the wrong impression. In any case, I decided to edit this part out of this post because it wasn’t particularly relevant.

      Liked by 2 people

        • FWIW, I think the dvrei Torah that you write are very good, so I would imagine that you would be good at giving drashas as well. Yes, these are different skills but they are related.

          I realized that I don’t have a lack of confidence when it comes to Jewish community participation (although there are plenty of things I should feel less confident about because I don’t have much skill yet I do them anyway, like being a gabbai), but I have a lack of will. Like I’m only willing to do certain tasks and I’m not at all willing to do others, even if I have or could develop the skill to do them. It’s not lack of confidence as much as lack of interest.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for saying my divrei Torah are good. I’ve given drashas before and been well-received, but I haven’t done any public speaking for well over five years and feel very anxious about doing it again.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Unsolicited advice that I’m totally unqualified to give but will give anyway and which you are free to ignore:
            1) If you’re contemplating giving drashas in a new congregation (US?), hold off and get to know the new community a bit first. Public speaking is more successful when you know your audience.
            2) To ease back into it, pick a day when the Rabbi/regular-drasha-giver is out of town, which may help to lower expectations. Or a time of day with lower attendance. Then practice beforehand.
            3) Put the potential consequences in perspective. Let’s suppose worst case scenario, you give a drasha and it does not go well. I don’t know your community, but other than people complaining, what is the worst that would likely happen?

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I would say I’m a small fish in a moderate pond at the two main churches I go to. I do little things here and there but no starring role (don’t want one–I think you need to be a grandma lol). I’m a negligible piece of coral. During the pandemic, the church was able to stay open 24 hours a day except when Mass was being celebrated. I was already part of a force of volunteers who spend an hour a week in a 24 hour chapel which had to close because the space was too small, so we continued in the church building. I do other little things and am known as someone who’s.. around, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. The star fish and coral pillars are mostly the older people, but synagogues are desperate to get more young people and would be overjoyed if a young person did more starring roles.

      You sound like you’ve been doing a lot of volunteering that is not negligible at all!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s hard to get younger people anywhere. Do you think there are a larger number of young people in more liberal or more conservative congregations? There are more young people in traditional circles here.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I think people are looking for meaning, and when they find it they go all the way. Otherwise, why bother with something lukewarm when you could find what you’re looking for somewhere else?

            Like

          • I hear you. So I didn’t mention this in my post, but my town has both Orthodox and non-Orthodox congregations. We only attend services at the non-Orthodox congregation. We do have friends who are members of the Orthodox congregations and certainly if we were to show up on Shabbat, we would be welcomed. But we have too many philosophical differences with Orthodoxy at this point, so it would never make sense to go there for services.

            The Orthodox congregations have come back post-COVID in a much more active way than the non-Orthodox congregation. To the point where Husband suggested we go to the Orthodox congregation just for social reasons. Like at the end of the services for refreshments and socializing. He has a point, but socially, whereas once upon a time, we would have at least fit in socially, we don’t anymore. Not having children is a big part of that. I think Husband is either so used to this that he doesn’t care (he grew up Orthodox and left, so all his friends were having kids well over a decade ago while he was still single and so he already went through this, while I’m going through the all-my-friends-have-kids-and-I-don’t-angst now) or he just really wants to stay in this area and not move.

            Liked by 1 person

          • So very interesting. I enjoy studying different religious practices. It’s something I’d like to read up on.

            I balked at a social event myself the other. I might need to rent some children to bring with me.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Eh, I think I’m too bitter about not having children at this point to be willing to offer babysitting services to my friends who do in order to show up at a social event with children who aren’t even mine (and have to explain that to anyone I meet).

            I try to appear happily child-free in these situations (without saying these words because that is not actually true) by playing up shit like my career (which sounds impressive to people not in my industry) and travel plans (which are usually not existent because I find planning travel stressful, so it’s more “I’m thinking of going to [insert place name] and then not updating people when I don’t go). I thought I was reasonably convincing, but my sibling literally just called me out on this, so I’m clearly not as convincing as I thought I was.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. The pandemic certainly disrupted a lot of ponds, both big and small, but it sounds like you have a good idea of what you’re looking for and are potentially going through a transition from the pond you’d been swimming in to a new and different one. I hope you can find one that will meet your needs where you can once again be a big star Torah-reading fish. Thank you so much for joining in this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your use of coral and fish as metaphors is apt. Coral as the supporter of tradition and fish as the inhabitants of community works. Also, there are arguments in favor of being the big fish in a small pond and one of the small fish in a big pond. I personally try to find balance between the two.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I understand that feeling. I kind of like to blend in and not stand out too much. Don’t know if it’s my introverted nature. But I think a balance is always important. Keeps the mind and heart at ease. I wish you well in your future pursuits and endeavors. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you. I am a crazy extrovert and I love public roles and getting recognition for them.
      But balance is definitely important. I think in my new community, I’d ultimately want to be something of a medium-sized fish. But most importantly, I want to be a fish and not a piece of bleached out coral (which doesn’t actually live in ponds, but “pond scum” doesn’t work for the analogy)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi JYP.
    You wrote: ‘But it’s been a painfully slow move, and the community is still a shadow of what it once was.’
    I find that so true in our community as well and I think it’s really sad. There are very few in-person classes here. I prefer in-person classes to Zoom. There’s something special about people sitting around a table, talking and learning together. Zoom just doesn’t do it for me. In our shul, vaccinated people are still afraid to be around other vaccinated people. Don’t know when this is going to end.
    😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s been tough to watch. Husband is still convinced that the community is going to come back, but being on the board and listening to the conversations, I am much less optimistic. Truthfully, I have no idea if communities in other locations are really any better. But I’d like to look into it because I don’t have much optimism for Current Community.

      Like

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