Building Jewish Community Outside the Synagogue
Synagogues have a problem - a major one. It's one that has been heightened by this past pandemic year, and that is the problem of doors. You see, when synagogue doors are closed, many Jews feel like their community is closed, or only reachable through their rabbi. When synagogues are open, many Jews feel like you need to go through the doors to get to the community. And once people get through those doors, what do we do?
Services! Lots of them!
... which works for some people, but not others. Here's where other Jewish institutions are helpful. Your JCC isn't going to be peddling religious services. They've got a pool, a lecture series, a café to meet in, places to go for help. Your local Jewish preschool is a fabulous place to meet other parents and their tiny tots. Your local Jewish retirement home is a great place to spend your retirement years never hearing a Christmas carol in the lobby during December.
But what of small communities like mine here in Reno? Here, we have a Reform synagogue in the northwest, a Conservative synagogue in the Old Southwest, and a Chabad with a preschool in the same area a few blocks away. Hillel is on the UNR campus, but they don't even have an office space. We don't have a JCC, a JFS, a kosher café, a senior home, a day school. Our closest JCC is 2 hours away in Sacramento, over the mountains and in a different state. Or we can travel 8 hours to Las Vegas.
So how do we create Jewish space that doesn't revolve around religious life? Where do we go when we don't want to have to choose between the Chabad, Conservative, and Reform movements? How do we get people together and remind ourselves that we're one Jewish community in a small city like this?
This is one of those things I spend a lot of time thinking about. Even though I'm a rabbi and in charge of religious space, I meet a LOT of Jews who have no desire to come to our space for religious purposes. They'll come twice a year to the synagogue - on Yom Kippur and Pride, or Yom Kippur and Mah Jongg Tournament Weekend. Or they'll come to drop their kids off at religious school until B'nai Mitzvah, after which the whole family will disappear. I'll hear from them five years later when they're cleaning out their parents' house and want to donate books or Judaica to the community.
These people are just as valuable to our Jewish community as the ones who are Friday night regulars and dues-paying members. They just have a different need, and one we're not serving well in synagogues. Especially this past year, when the pandemic made us all stay home, I cannot tell you how many calls I got from congregants to the effect of: "Rabbi, who was that lady I was talking to at the oneg about a month ago? I think her name was Abby... she mentioned her sister was having surgery and I don't know how to reach her..."
We all have situational friends like this at shul, and as adults, it's so hard to nurture them into real relationships. I've been wondering whether having a dedicated online space for our community, via message boards or the like, wouldn't be a great idea. I won't have to be the pass-through if we do this. I love hearing from my congregants, but rather than them calling me hoping that I know someone who can meet their need, why not create a space where that person can go straight to the whole community? A virtual JCC with bulletin boards and chat threads and a place to swap Judaica and put up a help wanted ad or organize events based on mutual interests.
I know that not everyone would want to use such a thing. A congregant of mine introduced me to this fabulous word: oysgezoomt. We are, many of us, oysgezoomt, tapped out on Zoom calls and technology. But I would hope that the value of a 24/7 place to connect with your local Jewish community from the comfort of your home would at least garner a visit here and there, now and then. I'd like to think it would also be a safe place to help alleviate some of the loneliness and alienation of modern life.
Because that's what community should do best, right?