By Rabbi Ari Moffic
There are certain words that are hard to define. We use them, but when pressed to say what we really mean, we’re not sure and speak in broad generalities.
I can easily explain who my family is, sense them, describe them and feel them. I can talk about my closest friends- those people I don’t see regularly but who would fly here in a moment’s notice if needed and who I can message and call and pick up as if no time has lapsed. I can describe the few people I see weekly who I feel I know. They get me and I enjoy talking with them and sharing life with them. I can talk about acquaintances. But, what about community?
Is my town a community? Geographically, maybe. Is the school where my kids attend a community? There are some friendly faces and I know the names of a few moms. I feel empowered to navigate the educational system. I do think if there were a tragedy, the families would come together. Is that enough to call it a community? What about on-line communities? Facebook sure feels communal or at least supportive to me. I kvell when I see my friends doing cool things, and it’s reciprocal. The advice and resources I’ve gained from Facebook are unmatched.
And, as a Rabbi, I of course talk about Jewish community all the time. Since I’ve spent my rabbinate working with interfaith families, I sort of cringe when even saying the phrase, “Jewish community” because it feels exclusive and leaves out people. We’re not a community of only Jews. What could we call people gathered because of Judaism who are themselves diverse?
I used to think that Judaism could be practiced without a focus on community. I gave an Eli Talk, which at first was called Community Isn’t EVERYTHING. Community is too esoteric and means something different to all of us and is experienced differently by everyone. And why is that always the goal?
For non-Orthodox families, our expression and practice of Judaism doesn’t lend itself easily to community. We don’t necessarily live near each other or see each other because of our Judaism. We, Jewish leaders, try to encourage people in our organizations to bond and offer lots of opportunities for people to get to know each other. However, life cycle events from bar/bat mitzvahs to shivas still tend to be private (meaning our friends and family come) not necessarily the people from the synagogue.
Some voices in the Jewish world still deride people for having “back yard bar mitzvahs” outside of community. This is a euphemism for being upset that they don’t join synagogues.
I’ve come to realize, that even though I can’t easily describe what community is, Judaism is supposed to be done in community. Think about the prayer, Eilu Devarim– “These are The Things” we do in life as people connected to Judaism.
The things we are supposed to do are: visiting the sick, praying in a group, studying with others, rejoicing with wedding parties, consoling the bereaved … all acts that involve PEOPLE.
You can’t do these things with a Rabbi at a Starbucks. You can’t do these things with just your family at your kitchen table. However, just belonging to a synagogue doesn’t mean you’re doing these things either.
And, disparate people are doing these things piecemeal. They study with this group and they meditate with that group and they do social justice with a different group.
And, they have different circles of friends and relatives and acquaintances. And they have online groups, which are real.
So, we know it’s hard to talk about “the Jewish community” as if it’s one entity you can point to, which is tangible and over there somewhere to be joined. Yet, we know we need community in order to live Jewishly. So, we’re going to have to rethink our language to catch up with our reality.
We have micro-communities. These should be supported and honored. It’s not always about having hundreds of members. Sometimes the small group you learn with in your 16 week Introduction to Judaism class feels like, looks like, and functions like a community. Maybe it’s a time-limited community. Maybe a few relationships stick and endure. This is why synagogues don’t have the monopoly on “Jewish community.”
Although we need people to do Jewish things with, many of us are yearning for these smaller groups and for one on one individualized support from someone who knows us. So much of life seems one size fits most and we blend in with each other. We’re wearing the same workout clothes and driving the same cars and ordering the same coffees and buying our kids the same fidget spinners and there is familiarity in that. We belong. We are not alone. Yet, we also want to be seen as individuals under all of that sameness.
When I think about a community of people I would like to explore Judaism with and experience Judaism with, I think about coming to a home and sitting around a kitchen table and having a natural conversation in which we ask questions, look for answers, and try things out. And, then friendship groups and affinity groups can emerge organically and we can experience a full Judaism together. Some people want to be in an inspiring space with inspiring music and an edifying message and the prayers they know. That’s why we need lots of different options for Jewish community. We can create communities that both affirm the group as well as the individual.
I imagine that while I am at this coffee shop with someone talking about how to navigate a discussion with our kids about death, there is a rabbi not far away meeting with a couple in her office who want to join her congregation. And, a couple is hosting their first ever Shabbat dinner and their friends are on the floor around their coffee table because there aren’t enough chairs and they are laughing and enjoying their meal. And, we’re all in an interconnected web of people here and there trying to connect and see each other and find meaning.
The image I have for this is the spiritual eruv. It is the line of connections between everybody engaged with Judaism in all different ways. This is our modern community. This is how we Network. We can find each other in a spiritual eruv and help each other.
Rabbi Ari Moffic is Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago and spends her full-time rabbinate focused on supporting interfaith couples and families who are exploring Jewish life.