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Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he is changing the mission of Facebook. He cares less about helping people count how many friends they have and more about helping people feel interconnected in communities. Exactly! This is the work of rabbis too!
As I approach my last week as Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, I continue to think about the idea of Jewish community. Over the past six years, I have spent countless hours sitting with couples planning their weddings (and talking about their hopes for their marriages) at Starbucks. We have conversations about how they want to raise children (those who want children) in terms of religion, culture and traditions coming from two different backgrounds. These conversations have been the joy of my rabbinate.
When couples shared their stories, they would start to remind me of one another. I was then able to play matchmaker! I could connect the couple planning a Jewish-Muslim wedding with someone who had done it the summer before. I could connect newbie couples with more seasoned interfaith families for mentoring (If you would like to be paired with a mentor, email Judy Jury, Director of Special Projects). I have recently discovered a group of men who didn’t grow up with Judaism who are expert challah bakers. I can’t wait to bring them together for a kick-ass challah baking session. If you think you fit into this category or would like to, be in touch!
Over the years, couples and families have asked if they can join “my community.” It’s been a struggle at IFF to figure out if we are a community. We have been hesitant to own that label. Our approach has been to usher people, with lots of support, into existing communities and congregations and to one another.
Each of the IFF communities (see—there I go with THAT word) has a Facebook group so that local professionals can share upcoming events and opportunities, so that the IFF staff can share articles and content of interest and so that interfaith families can ask questions and support one another. There isn’t always the level of engagement in the group in Chicago that I had hoped for. I think part of that is that being “interfaith” isn’t the main identity or the way people are thinking of themselves day in and day out. It sure feels salient when planning a wedding, or wondering about a bris, baby naming and/or baptism, but interfaith families often have other main interests.
I am a member of a few Facebook groups that get unbelievable traction and I think it’s because they represent such important parts of our lives. Like parents of children with ADHD need to discuss with each other medication and therapies. Other parents living this reality get each other on a deep and immediate level. I find oftentimes that the people in the group share a major facet of their lives in common but are extremely diverse other than that. In addition, we are part of many different groups, generally, that represent all the different identities we carry with us.
Zuckerberg believes that the world will need to connect better in order to take on international problems such as climate change. He is promoting Facebook groups and making them easier to manage because, as he says, “In order to get there, you need to build a world where every person has a sense of support and purpose in their life so they don’t just focus narrowly on what’s going on in their lives, but can think about these broader issues as well.”
As a Rabbi who has been labeled a “community rabbi” (meaning that I am not a pulpit rabbi) as part of IFF/Chicago, I am often derided by other rabbis for offering Judaism outside of community—meaning synagogue. It’s ironic, I know. And, I’m not sure who my community is exactly.
The other reason I cringe when even saying the phrase “Jewish community” is because it feels exclusive and leaves people out. We’re not a community of only Jews. How do we encompass all people who are gathered because of Judaism and are themselves diverse?
I wasn’t able to keep the amazing people who came into my life through this work as a cohesive community. And I have been unsure how to even talk about Jewish community with an interfaith lens. This has brought me to the question of whether Judaism could be practiced without a focus on community?
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. Congregational rabbis try to encourage people to bond and offer lots of opportunities for people to get to know one another. However, lifecycle 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.
But I 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.
I’ve come to realize that even though I can’t easily describe what community is, Judaism is supposed to be done with community. You can’t do most of 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 automatically doing these things either.
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.
What we do have is micro-communities, like what I think we can provide through InterfaithFamily. These should be supported and honored. And while we need other people with whom to do Jewish things, many of us are yearning for these smaller groups and for one-on-one individualized support from someone who knows us. That’s why my work with InterfaithFamily has felt so meaningful.
So much of life seems one-size-fits-most. 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.
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 that wants to join her congregation. Meanwhile, a couple is hosting their first ever Shabbat dinner (ask your IFF/Community about this—we’ll pay for it!). Their friends are on the floor around their coffee table because there aren’t enough chairs and they are laughing and enjoying their meal. We’re all in an interconnected web of people trying to connect and see each other and find meaning.
There are certain words that are hard to define. We use them, but when pressed to say what we really mean, we’re not so sure and so we speak in broad generalities. Community is sure one of those words. Yet, our communities are the web that connects our humanity and our Judaism.
I’ll miss you as the InterfaithFamily/Chicago director. Stay in touch.
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