I am, to my knowledge, the only Jew in my family. Growing up in a very small, very Christian town in Michigan, I didn’t meet a Jewish person until I moved to Boston for college; and my experiences of finding Jewish community have, and continue to be, informed by my identity as a gay, nonbinary, white Jew-by-choice.
One of my favorite things about Judaism is that it is reliant on community—an enormous pillar of our faith rests on the idea that we are all deeply interconnected, and thus, carry an obligation toward each other. Or rather, as Rabbi Arthur Green said, “the way to G-d is through the world, not around it.”
That's all well and good, but how do you go about finding a community, let alone joining one?
To help answer that, here’s a short story: a few weeks ago, someone came in to Kolbo asking for a book to help him create a Shabbat practice. To his apparent surprise, I responded with “Well, what are you trying to get out of Shabbat?” It didn’t seem as though the thought had occurred to him, yet it was absolutely vital.
So, to begin, it’s important to ask yourself what you are trying to “get” out of a Jewish community. This doesn’t need to be a question of value, or productivity, or transactional relationships. It might be helpful to think about how you envision “community,” as the word carries as many multitudes as the people who create them. Then go further—when you think about “Jewish community,” do you mean a synagogue? A day school? A social justice organization? A weekly Shabbat potluck? A craft circle? A book club? Is this a community you show up to once a week, a month, a year?
Think about it, talk about it, and think about it some more. Maybe you want to volunteer with Jewish Family & Children’s Services, or contribute to Keshet, or join the Boston Workmen’s Circle. Maybe you just want to find a synagogue you love, or form a group of friends to laugh and study with. Imagine what your community feels like—you might even surprise yourself.
I got some very good advice from a colleague recently after telling her I had been having trouble going to services due to anxiety. She suggested that I go and see the temple through the eyes of an anthropologist: noting how often people talk to each other, how they acknowledge a new person in their midst, how many people sing, any similarities or differences from my usual experience. This is a really powerful exercise that can allow you to experience something new without the full weight of judgment. An open and honest curiosity is one of the best shields against judgment, both internal and external. The most important thing is to try not to apply any kind of “good” or “bad” value on it, rather just to view the whole thing as a unique and fascinating opportunity.
These situations might get uncomfortable, and often do, but don’t shy away from them—rather, try to lean into them. I find it helpful to ask myself why I feel uncomfortable. To ask if that discomfort is trying to keep me safe or hold me back. Rather than just asking ourselves what if something terrible happens, we can choose to ask what if something wonderful happens.
I started my search by googling “Reform Synagogues Boston,” and worked from there. I wanted to learn what it was like to live as a Jew, so I went to services, I joined Facebook groups, I talked to the Jews I knew, I talked to the Jews I wanted to know. I went forward, boldly, not without fear, but full of the belief that there was a place for me—and there is for you, too.
My favorite definition of “community” by far has been an ecological one, borrowed from the Oxford Dictionary: “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.” A community, then, is when and where we, as differing and unique individuals, come together to grow. A place, a feeling, a tethering. We are, by nature, relational beings—we long for connection, even in periods of intense solitude or chaos, and to feel seen.
The communities we find may not always initially feel like a perfect fit, but it could benefit us to actually not look for a perfect fit right away. We owe it to ourselves to try as hard as we can to stay open to the possibilities that might come our way. If we find a community that feels perfect, that’s beautiful. If we find a community that feels so close to perfect but there’s a few things we’d like to change, even better—because there’s the space that’s been left open for us, hoping we would take a brave step forward, and arrive.
Alec Reitz is Kolbo’s Book Buyer, Blog Coordinator, and resident crafting enthusiast. They spend most of their time investigating bouts of everyday magic and studying Jewish mysticism. Their writing can be found on My Jewish Learning, and in Berkeley Fiction Review, The Grief Diaries, and Pithead Chapel.
March 28, 2019
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