The Secret Ingredient for Jewish Community

I’ll give you a hint – the secret ingredient isn’t young people. Photo by Olya Kobruseva from Pexels

I am going to write this post without actual location names, making this post more vague and harder to follow. Sorry not sorry.

***

Hometown Rabbi z”l was famous for saying “All roads lead to [our deeply boring, small, unremarkable municipality]”.  It proved to be a true statement on many occasions.  There would be many random people meeting in far off places discovering odd mutual connections to Deeply Boring, Small, Unremarkable Municipality, aka Hometown. Hometown didn’t even have a large Jewish community and yet the Rabbi’s quip still proved often true.

That said, my hometown was and still is Deeply Boring, Small, and Unremarkable. So when I got a job that was a 10 minute commute from a larger, more active Jewish community, I moved there. That larger more active Jewish community has been my Current Location ever since (although I don’t work at that job anymore).

Current Location vs. Hometown, Part 1

Why did Current Location have a larger, more active Jewish community? Current Location had an eruv, effectively concentrating the Jewish community into a smaller, walkable space.

The eruv, which may look like a rope or wire, creates an area considered a private domain in which one can carry objects on Shabbat. Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash

[In contrast, in Hometown, the walk from my parents’ home to the synagogue is just under 3 miles each way – and yes, I did walk it when I became Shomer Shabbat and visited for Shabbat/holidays].

Current Location also had a lot more synagogues and minyanim (small independent congregations/prayer communities), more kosher restaurants, more Shabbat-observant people into the practice of hosting guests for Shabbat. Current Location also had more young people. (Not that I ever loved young people generally as a collective, but I couldn’t deny the advantage of having them.)

Current Location was Home…

At one point, I might have described my decision to move to Current Location as the best life decision I had ever made. The community was a perfect fit. I found congregations with lively melodic egalitarian services. Plenty of Shabbat hospitality invites. I felt inspired to become Shabbat observant, which brought a lot of joy to my life for a long time.  I met the man I would later marry, and for a long time, we had a relationship that was beautiful, fun, and not significantly flawed. Also, Current Location was located such that I was able to go back to school part-time while working full-time, which was helpful for career advancement. I had a ton of friends.

…Until it wasn’t…

It’s hard to remember exactly when and why things changed and in what order, but needless to say, they did. Fewer friends (they moved away and/or had kids). Fewer invites (we were no longer cool enough to receive them). The robust community seemed less robust.

Then COVID was the final nail.  It felt like the best aspects of the community were gone overnight.

To be fair, COVID affected every community.  No matter how kind, warm, and well-intentioned the community, Shabbat hospitality in pretty much every community is basically a crapshoot now between COVID restrictions, new cases, people’s comfort levels, and the constant changing of all of this.

Current Location vs. Hometown, Part 2

But Hometown, Deeply Boring, Small Unremarkable Hometown without a large Jewish community, seemed to recover better from the pandemic.

I mean, things didn’t go 100% back to normal. There were capacity restrictions, sign up sheets, vaccination policies, mask policies at different points in the pandemic and some of this is still in place. The laptop on the bimah (podium) is still in place for hybrid Zoom/in-person services. But even with all of that, services at Hometown Synagogue feel so much more normal than services in Current Location.

Which seemed odd. Shouldn’t Current Location, with its more robust Jewish population and communal infrastructure, have gone back to normal first?

Then I figured out the secret ingredient.

The Secret Ingredient

Pre-COVID times, I would have guessed that the secret ingredient to Jewish community was the eruv, which effectively creates and concentrates a Jewish community in a particular walkable area.

Now I know better. The secret ingredient is the communal food. By “communal food”, I mean the kiddush (light luncheon) served after Saturday morning services. I am also part of a congregation that did a potluck lunch after Saturday morning services. This is what I mean by communal food.

The secret ingredient. Photo by Lucie Liz from Pexels

Why?

Because it’s not really about the food itself. (Although yes, having a nice lunch after services is great.) The communal food gives congregants the opportunity to talk leisurely and linger. To build connections in a way that just praying together doesn’t quite do.  (I mean, it’s not exactly proper etiquette to have sidebar conversations in the middle of religious services.)

Due to a variety of factors (COVID case rate in geographic area, building/space set-up, staff, and mainly, priorities) Hometown, Boring Unremarkable Little Hometown, went back to having a communal light kiddush luncheon after services. No synagogue/congregation (that I would be willing to attend) in Current Location did this.

I acknowledge that having food after services is not simple logistical matter. Someone needs to cover the cost. Someone needs to shop for, store, prepare, set up, and clean up the food and utensils. In COVID times, pre-portioning into individual portions must also be considered. Delegating the work to paid staff/volunteers/even congregants themselves via potluck still requires coordination. I have performed some of these tasks before and can confirm they are more annoying and thankless than they initially appear.

Getting these bagels to the kiddush luncheon table takes more coordination than one might expect. Photo by Lucie Liz from Pexels

But it makes such a difference in the community experience.

Now what?

While I didn’t hate growing up in Deeply Boring, Small, Unremarkable Hometown (actually, I had a lovely and fortunate childhood and upbringing), I didn’t think I would ever choose to move back. Also, rationally, I know it is extremely stupid to make big life decisions based on who is serving lunch in this supposedly temporary pandemic (which I stopped believing was going to be temporary two weeks in).

Then again, I do know someone who picked which university to attend based on which one served the best apple juice; he wound up marrying his college sweetheart, making enough money to live somewhere with a high cost of living, having a beautiful baby, and still being happily married to said college sweetheart, so I guess it worked out well for him. But anyway, I digress.

The secret to making life decisions? Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

But the fact that Hometown Synagogue managed to return to normalcy makes Hometown a much more attractive place to live than Current Location. Well to me at least. Husband thinks this is a stupid idea. But then again, he also thinks COVID is temporary, that Current Location will go back to the way it was ~6 years ago, that we still have local friends, and that the eruv actually matters in the COVID world – none of those things are true so I question his judgement, to be honest.

48 comments

    • Yeah. If I didn’t hate peers with small children so much, there are probably a lot of communities in which I’d be pretty happy, including Current One (edit: well, to an extent – many of the “speed of return to normalcy / lack of kiddush lunch” would still be the case, but at least I’d have friends again). It’s also yet another point of contention – Husband thinks we still have friends and that we will end up having children. But I’m in my late thirties already and while I’d be overjoyed to adopt, there are so many logistical obstacles when it comes to adoption that I don’t think this is likely to happen.

      The smart thing to do would be mature enough to get over hating my peers who have done nothing wrong but live their lives and stop being so angry all the time. This is surprisingly challenging…

      Liked by 1 person

        • 🤣 that is a pretty spot-on description.

          Actually, kidding aside, it’s not that the way things were Pre-COVID was necessarily ideal, or that current life is necessarily awful. Hybrid Zoom/in-person services have been nice for congregants who have moved away or are homebound for medical reasons. But I would really like to see a proper kiddush luncheon come back!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I want to believe this, but I am not optimistic. That’s part natural pessimism talking and part realism from having been on so many congregation board meetings (I’m on the board, I should mention) and realizing how far away we are from the comfort level of being able to eat together in any fashion in the “post” COVID world.

            Liked by 1 person

          • “Post COVID World” sounds like a good song title. I used to be on church boards. They seem to foster lots of pessimism in the realism of dealing with all the different personalities and interests.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Being on the congregation board was actually fun at one point. In fairness, I had an “at large” position then where I didn’t really have to do anything, and now I have an actual role with actual responsibilities. Also, the board meetings used to be in person where they served brunch or snacks. I really feel like this makes a huge difference. But I also think being on the board makes you see the congregation in a different light.

            Boy – you were on the church board and you still got kicked out of 4 churches? Being on the board of this one makes me want to move out of town and go somewhere else, but no one’s kicked me out of the congregation yet.

            Post COVID World is a good song title.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Amazing isn’t it? I was on various boards in three of those four churches. I always seem to be a rebel with ideas contrary to the majority and often differ from the status quo.

            I was on the arts and entertainment board at one church. We started Friday night ballroom dance lessons that went on for about three years. It was a family thing and a lot of people from the substance abuse recovery program came to our dance nights because they could dance and socialize without the temptation of alcohol and drugs. Couples who didn’t want to change partners was fine with us. Couples could come to our dance and dance together all night and we would teach them steps and style and how to look good and feel good on the dance floor. I had to have shoulder surgery in 2007 and stop dancing for three months during recovery. When I tried to start the Friday night dances again, the Baptist leaning admin folks wouldn’t let me. I got calls for over two years from people wanting to know when we would start again. It left a huge hole in the recovering addicts lives who came every Friday night to dance and socialize. It was a real shame that Baptist sentiments prevailed in a Methodist church.

            Liked by 1 person

          • That ballroom dance social program sounds really cool and a really special thing for the community. I think we sometimes forget about the importance of the social aspects of a religious congregation. That is a shame that your church went in an unnecessarily strict (or is it unnecessarily strict? What is the relationship between Methodist and Baptist?) direction. Did they really gain anything by going more strict?

            I’m not Orthodox in philosophy, practice, or upbringing. My husband grew up Orthodox and left. One thing (out of many) that bothered him was the way that Modern Orthodoxy had moved to the right. In his parents’ generation, it wasn’t uncommon for Orthodox schools to be co-ed (his parents went to the same high school, although they were not high school sweethearts), and for Orthodox synagogues to hold mixers so that singles could meet. But when my husband was single, this no longer existed because it was now considered too immodest to facilitate boys and girls meeting each other in normal ways. Then people wonder why there are so many singles.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Methodists and Baptists are opposite in so many ways. Freewill is a big one (Methodists are big on freewill, Baptists you have no freewill), Methodists believe in people’s goodness, all people are totally depraved according to Baptists. Baptists are socially very strict, while the Methodists are traditionally very open and moderate. There were jokes about Baptists like “Why don’t baptists have sex standing up? That would be dancing.” It’s too bad orthodoxy has to regulate social behavior instead of improving one’s relationship with God.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Exactly. So many commandments already in the Torah/Bible to focus on and yet we get religious leaders inventing new ones. Of course, the rabbis would say that they’re not inventing new ones, that they’re just being extra cautious to maintain the tradition and ensure compliance with the existing…..needless to say, I am not Orthodox in philosophy or practice.

            Liked by 1 person

          • There are a lot of commandments. In the Gospel of Mark 12:28-34 a Jewish teacher asked Jesus what the most important command is. Jesus answered “Sh’ma Yisra’el, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, O Isra’el, the Lord our God, the Lord is one], and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your understanding and with all your strength.”† Then Jesus said the second is “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.”

            Many Christians, boil the commandments down to two from this passage in Mark, but don’t necessarily do a good job of following those two. The Ten Commandments are often cited by Christians, and often broken by Christians, as well.

            †From The Complete Jewish Bible.

            Liked by 1 person

          • We are pretty guilty of ignoring the most important stuff too.
            There’s a story told that Hillel the rabbinic sage was asked by a prospective convert to explain the entire Torah while the prospective convert stood on one foot. (Several other rabbis had already dismissed said prospective convert.) Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study!” Sometimes I feel like as a people, we did the study part, but we didn’t really learn anything.

            Liked by 1 person

    • To be honest, since so many communities have changed in similar ways, I don’t think the specific geographic location really matters for the purpose of this post. Anyway, I feel like I gave the most pertinent info:
      Hometown- Unremarkable and Boring
      Current Location- Once Awesome. Currently Not Awesome.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This post made me sad!! I loved this sentence: I found congregations with lively melodic egalitarian services. Great turn of phrase! 😀

    Gee, finding an in-person community is hard!! I don’t think I have one, either! I’m always grateful for online communities for that reason!! When I was growing up, my mom took me to a nice Episcopalian church. It’s still there, and I don’t know why I don’t go. Well… they all expect me to be quiet and trapped inside of myself. It was a dynamic that took on permanence. Ugh. Hard to break past that sort of thing. But they’re nice! That’s hard to find.

    Your post has been thought-provoking. I was sad when I read this part of it: Fewer invites (we were no longer cool enough to receive them). That’s horrible!! Friends should be more loyal than that! Ugh. I hope you can find a nice community somehow, somewhere!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Making friends and finding community is hard at any age (I think this is actually harder in adulthood in some ways) and offline or online, it’s a challenge.

      There are other factors I didn’t touch on. Our religious practice evolved such that we started spending more time with a congregation that was a better fit religiously. This was good in many ways, but it also meant we were less in touch with the part of the community that was more active with the Shabbat invitations. We also became more settled and established so we arguably didn’t “need” invitations in the same way. But it still felt like something of a loss. And friendship is a two-way street. I definitely could have done a better job of reciprocating. I realize I wrote this in such a way that looks like I’m casting blame, and that really wasn’t the full story. I should revise this.

      Thank you for sharing about your experience with your Episcopalian church. I’m always curious about how religious community etiquette and dynamics play out in other religious communities.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are a fantastic writer.

    This is so true:
    “The communal food gives congregants the opportunity to talk leisurely and linger.”

    “… served the best apple juice ..” Ha!

    Reading about your life made me feel very warm inside. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Re: apple juice-based life decisions, it’s true! That really was this guy’s college selection criterion!

      Exactly – no matter how awesome the Rabbi or the Cantor, no matter how beautiful the service, no matter how sincere and pious the congregation – people come for the food and the socializing. I mean, the above-mentioned reasons might be true too. But one cannot deny the importance of the food.

      Thank you! And again, thank you for popping out of the woodwork!! Truly, it is a pleasure to “meet” you, and your comments make me feel very warm inside.

      Like

  3. When somebody mentions that things would be back to normal, I wonder what normal really is anymore? People are scared to meet neighbours, or call each other like it used to be, relatives scarcely meet, friends don’t call on each other and with every new variant on the rise, I am not really sure what next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate the phrase “new normal” because I don’t like the idea of normalizing the current state of things. But at the same time, I don’t see us going back to “normal” in the way we had before, and I don’t know that any of us know what “normal” will or should look like anymore.

      It’s actually one thing that makes evaluating if/where to move challenging – I don’t know what criteria is relevant to evaluate a place on anymore, and when visiting, it’s so hard to tell I’m seeing the location as it really is and will be in the future. I’m not happy where I currently live, but I really can’t tell if another place will be an improvement because it’s so hard to know what each location’s “normal” will be and when they’ll get there.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Several communities faced the problem to have that unified feeling, missing out to be together ‘celebrating’ a prayer meeting and having after the service the communal food which gave the congregants the opportunity to talk leisurely and linger, exchanging ideas and having a chit chat about the happenings of the past week. For some such gatherings may not seem important but they are the glue to a community, to build connections in a way that just praying together doesn’t quite do.

    In our community in Belgium, France and the U.K we are still careful and for two months provide next to the still going on Zoom/in services the meeting with not too many people in real life. It is great to have that ‘real life’ feeling again and to share a hot meal after the service giving us again that feeling to be ‘one family’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree – there’s nothing like the experience of sharing a proper meal together after religious services. It’s really not just about praying together in the same room but about the larger experience of community.

      By the way, I received your thoughtful comment on my now removed “Fucking Friday” post. I had to take the post down due to privacy concerns, but I wanted you to know that I read your long thoughtful comment and I appreciate it

      Like

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