A place to call home

No person is without their challenges, yet stereotypes perpetuate a myth that the Jewish community is uniformly populated by educated, well-off, stable and ever-resilient people from strong and healthy homes. The reality is much different: Need is pervasive and challenges are vast. 

Vulnerability comes in many forms. It can be hidden and it can be visible. It can be a result of the conditions into which we were born, as well as the trials that hit us in the course of life: the product of circumstances and choices, unpredictable situations and even abuse from the people we trust.

Our neighborhoods, synagogues, schools — our own homes — are filled with complex people living complex lives. Too often, we don’t realize how scared or lonely the people around us are. Too often, shame, stigma and the fear of being an outcast prevent people from sharing the reality of their lives. If they reveal their pain, their points of vulnerability, they become risks. Can a child play at a home where there is known drug abuse? Can a mother with depression drive carpool? Will anyone invite me for Shabbat if they know I have an eating disorder? Will someone still take me as their bridge partner now that I officially has an Alzheimer’s diagnosis?

And so they stay quiet, their truths unheard and their struggles hidden.

But it does not have to be this way.

There is so much more that we can do to help and support each other. If our Jewish communal spaces are experienced as compassionate, and if the images and messages we project acknowledge a wide range of lived realities, I believe many more people will walk through the doors of our institutions. If we can help people feel safe and secure in their identities, imagine how resilient the Jewish community as a whole will be as a result. Our tent will be wider and more fortified.

We need to marshal our resources in support of one another and change the discourse in our Jewish spaces around who we are. If we can bust through the stigma around vulnerability, we can truly know another and be ourselves. Yes, it is essential for best-in-class support services to be available within Jewish institutions and be provided by culturally competent professionals; but we also need to build a caring community from the bottom up. Funders, educators, clergy and service providers need to shift the paradigm together, through the following steps:

  • Let’s challenge the authors of our peoplehood curricula and programming to build out narratives depicting our historic resilience in persevering through experiences such as infertility, physical and cognitive disabilities, poverty and loneliness. Let’s rebrand our Biblical characters, our Jewish role models, as individuals with complex lives. We can radically destigmatize challenges through storytelling using all forms of Jewish media, including divrei torah, podcasts, social media, institutional branding and art to portray vulnerability as a key part of our collective identity.
  • Let’s create melavim (peer support and accompaniment programs) in our synagogues and schools, so that we can rely on one another in periods of diagnosis, treatment and recovery and all forms of loss. Let’s train our high school students, Hillel participants, and synagogue members in how to provide needed support and comfort alongside professionals. Let’s ensure that all “billable” care is supplemented by consistent community care.
  • Let’s replace chesed hours for kids — time that is “credited” for doing good — and help our kids foster full and empathetic relationships with people on the block and in the libraries, in our parks and local nursing homes. Let’s build our social fabric through fearlessly knowing the joys and sorrows of the people in our midst. As adults, let’s model for our kids what it means to engage in dialogue and build relationships with the vulnerable people in our community.
  • Let’s provide access to care and support with the same vigor we employ to promote ritual and tradition. Let’s create plans to accompany each other through treatment and recovery with the same commitment we show to filling our auditoriums, gyms and classrooms. 

Life is a journey towards shleimut, becoming your fullest self through being your true self. Our community institutions should help us to own our strengths and our struggles. People will show up proudly if they see the Jewish world as compassionate, welcoming and a reflection of their reality — a place that is safe to call home.

I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper. And so are you.

Alex Roth-Kahn is the managing director of the caring department of UJA-Federation of New York.