Ultimately, Community Is Not a ‘Thing Out There’
We are always looking for the next great Jewish idea. Funders are looking for innovation and originality. Federation is often the last thing on this list.
This is unfortunate, because our Jewish communal network is the envy of every ethnic community in America. We ignore what we have: a network than can restore and revitalize communities, rescue populations in danger, absorb immigrants, and educate people returning to their Jewish roots!
If this is true, we need to ask ourselves, why have so many ‘checked out’? I’d like to share two stories that frame the challenge.
Story Number One. I had the honor of participating recently in a Jewish Federation of North America Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Kiev and Israel. I met Lev Shechter, a 98 year old man in Kiev. Lev is one of more than 160,000 older Jews in the Former Soviet Union, and is supported by our Jewish Federations through our partner, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Lev has outlived most of his friends, and has never left his native Kiev. He spent his life as an electrical technician in the Soviet Union, serving in the Russian army during World War II, and retiring in the mid-1990’s. After the break-up of the Soviet Union and as a citizen of the new country of Ukraine, he received a pension of approximately $150 dollars a month, barely enough to eat. Lev lives in a small two-bedroom apartment that has not been updated in more than fifty years. This three hundred square foot apartment with drafty windows, a bookshelf, bed, and table, is the product of an entire life of work. Yet in spite of his meager surroundings, Lev felt enormous gratitude. He is a recipient of services through Kiev’s Jewish social service agency, Chesed (kindness), a program receiving professional and financial support through the JDC. Lev receives food and medication, a weekly visit from a social worker, an aide who visits and cares for him daily, and Lev periodically attends the social hours for older adults at the local chesed, especially when the weather is warmer. Lev shared with us that Chesed is his lifeline. Let me rephrase this – our support of Federation programs are his lifeline. People he has never met transform his life every day.
Story Number Two. As a Federation professional myself and director of our Jewish spiritual care programs, I recently staffed one of our major annual philanthropic events. At the event, one of the speakers spoke about the culture of welcoming, and that for so many the Jewish Community is uninviting and alienating.
The room echoed with thunderous applause.
A few minutes later I encountered a lay leader, a single women in her mid-fifties, who became involved in the past few years, even participating on a mission with us. At least in theory, she was not one of the ‘alienated’ Jews to which the speaker referred. Pulling me aside, she looked at me directly in the eye. “You know what that speaker said? I am that alienated person.” She went on to tell me she had no idea why she ever comes to these events, as when she attends as a single female in her fifties, she feels marginalized. “People here only connect to those they already know”, she added. I know she felt the same way at her synagogue as well when her mother died last year. Despite her involvement in the community, no one beside the rabbi reached out to her.
That same week I met with another Jewish communal professional, the director of an outreach and engagement project. A young married mother who admitted to me her lack of Jewish literacy and told me about her experiences in many synagogues and why her entire network of friends look elsewhere for community. “When I walk into many synagogues, not only do I not feel welcome, I feel shamed. I feel automatically judged for not being a member or not knowing enough.”
The words ‘shame’ and ‘alienated’ stick with me. Whether the sentiments of these two women reflect upon them or upon the community is irrelevant. The only thing relevant is that they feel this way.
This is a great irony: we can connect with those across the world but fail to connect with those right next door. Jewish peoplehood in some ways is so much easier to talk about when it is someone thousands of miles away. For those already in the inner circle, Federation may inspire and transform. However, for so many others, it is just another institution.
I believe it takes a paradigm shift that puts each human being, each neshama(soul), in the center. The language and discourse of community needs to validate the journeys and needs of each person we serve. As a board certified chaplain, I have learned about the art of sacred listening and presence, of taking the time to model compassion and concern. I believe each of us can engage in this type of listening, creating the bridge between each of us and our fellow Jews.
Ultimately, community is not a ‘thing out there’. It is not a disembodied network of agencies, JCC’s, synagogues, and schools. These are the means for community but not the end. Community is about a web of interwoven relationships, a covenantal bond which links each of us to one another. I truly believe that if each of us as individuals experienced this embrace of community, especially during transitional times, not only would we be transformed personally, but would be more committed, more caring, and more driven in our holy project to transform the world, one soul at a time.
The question that remains is how we do it. As Jewish leaders, I think this is a worthy conversation to have. Your ideas and comments are welcome.
Rabbi Frederick L Klein, MPhil, B.C.C. (Wexner Graduate Fellowship Class VI, Ordination Yeshiva University) is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection to Spiritual Support of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.