By Sindey Dranoff
During this trying time, there are some traditions that will be more difficult to give up than others. For me, the synagogue hug is one of them.
My first experience as a synagogue member was when our first child, who is now 32, began religious school. Being part of a synagogue community was a new experience. One of the first things I learned was that being a part of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, Pennsylvania, meant greeting people with a hug! Some in our congregation jokingly call it the “Kol Emet Hug.” Several previous members, who rejoined our community after a short hiatus, said they came back for the Kol Emet Hug.
I work for a firm that conducts community studies for Jewish organizations throughout the United States. Through our work in Jewish communities I have come to learn that this hugging tradition is not unique to my synagogue, or even to synagogues in general. Although not solely a Jewish tradition, hugging is how we in the Jewish community tend to be welcoming and inclusive – it is a sign of trust and commitment to each other and to working together to accomplish the same goals.
As we all begin to think about what things will look like “on the other side” of this COVID-19 pandemic, and how we will interact with each other as we physically come together again, I continue to return to that hug, which for so long has felt emblematic of the Jewish community. How can we remove the “physical” hug, but keep alive the trust, caring for each other, and the overall warmth and welcoming that it represents?
In a recent eJewish Philanthropy post, Lisa Colton and Aliza Kline suggested that “right now all the rules and norms in our lives are being renegotiated.” I look at this quote as an invitation to begin to plan for the future, even though we do not know what it will hold. We have a choice: we can sit back and let the new norms be determined for us, or we can renegotiate what our communities – and our hugs – will look like.
It all begins with one question – What constitutes a community?
Our work conducting market research-based studies in Jewish communities has led us to ask this question, or a version of it, for many years. Although the answers vary, we have found that people ultimately look to a community to support them and be there for them in good times and bad. Understanding how to best provide that support, now and “on the other side,” will ultimately help communities not only to survive, but to thrive. The physical hug might look different for a little while, but the care and warmth that it signifies can be stronger than ever.
So how can a Jewish community and its organization continue to provide the warmth and welcoming commitment of “that hug” without the actual hug? The results of our studies in Jewish communities across the country reveal common themes that may come into play now.
Those who are part of Jewish community, even on the periphery…
- Care about the community. In our research we use an open-arms approach to sampling, which simply means that anyone in the community who is Jewish (or who lives in a Jewish household) and meets the geographic qualifications of a particular study is welcome to participate. And they do; we consistently have more people participate than we anticipate. And, not only do they take the time to answer quantitative questions, but many also take extra time to provide well thought out and helpful responses to our open-end questions.
- Value being part of their Jewish community. We have found that most people take pride in their Jewish identity and, even more importantly, are committed to instilling this in their children. People want to see their Jewish communities survive and thrive far into the future.
- Are looking for more Jewish connection. In many communities we have found a strong appetite for additional Jewish-focused programs/activities – be they social, educational, or community service oriented.
Ultimately, it is that caring, warmth, and commitment that Jewish community institutions need to convey now, more than ever. Today’s challenges have created opportunities to reimagine the future. What does your community want to be? How does it want to connect? Now is the time to plan for life on the “other side,” so that Jewish communities emerge stronger than ever.
Sindey Dranoff is Senior Project Director and Community Study Lead for The Melior Group, a Market Research and Consulting firm based in Philadelphia. Sindey is also the most recent past president of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, Pennsylvania.