How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

January 14, 2014
Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

So, you’ve decided to dive in to Jewish life and find yourself a congregation. You find one not too far from home, and it looks like it might be a fit. Or maybe you’ve found the only synagogue in 100 miles, and whether it’s a fit or not, that’s what you’ve got.  A synagogue community over about 150 people is often a community of communities: an umbrella under which several different groups get together for smaller things, and then all come together for big stuff like High Holiday services. If you only go to the big stuff, you’ll never get to know anyone. These tips can help you integrate into your own synagogue community (and it’s never too late to try them.)

ATTEND. The single most important thing you can do to succeed at synagogue life is to show up!  Find one regular event at the synagogue and commit yourself to being there regularly – say, 75% of the time – for a decent block of time. If it’s a weekly event, give yourself three months.  It could be Friday night services, or Torah study, or an affinity group like Seniors, morning minyan or choir – but if you are a regular, you will make your own circle of friends and feel “at home.”

BE FLEXIBLE. Connecting with people different from yourself but with whom you have shared values can be fun and useful. Be open to connection with people outside your age bracket / income bracket / level of education / profession / marital status. Those friends will broaden your point of view, and they know stuff you don’t. If you don’t know what to talk about at first, talk about the activity at hand: Torah study, the speaker, Scrabble, etc.

ASK FOR ADVICE. The rabbi, the administrator (if there is one) and people on the temple board are good sources of information about finding a likely group to help you settle in. If they don’t have a group for “single thirty-somethings who love to cook” (or whatever your demographic) ask, “What’s the friendliest group around here?”

MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. It’s a great idea to make a “getting to know you” appointment with temple staff or clergy. Trying to build a relationship with them at the coffee hour after services is like trying to play cards in the middle of a tornado.

VOLUNTEER.  I have made some of my firmest friends around shul when I volunteered to be part of the group to clean up after an event. Set up for events often brings out anxieties, but at clean up time, everyone is glad  you are there.

BE PROACTIVE. If I am at a temple event and I feel like a wallflower, I look for other wallflowers and chat them up. I have met some wonderful people that way, and gotten to know people from all parts of the synagogue.

BE POSITIVE. We’re Jews, and Jews kvetch. But unless you want to be someone people avoid, try to balance your complaints with compliments. Longtime members are proud of their synagogue. Staff work hard. If someone messes up, of course you let them know. But if you also tell them  what they did right, they will be more able to hear  your excellent observations.

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. As a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, I have had people say plenty of dumb and/or annoying things to me at synagogue. Out of town, in an environment where I will never see those people again, I generally roll my eyes and move along. But in my congregation, I find that what works best for me is to be willing to do a little education.  I let people know what my limits are: “I don’t like to discuss my health with anyone but my doctor, thanks,” or “You know, Abe, I like you a lot, but I really hate it when anyone imitates my accent.” I tell people what I need: “I can’t take the stairs. Join me in the elevator?” When someone drags out the old saw, “My, you don’t look Jewish!” I just smile pleasantly and say, “This is what Jewish looks like in the 21st century.” When all else fails, my default line is, “Can we talk about something else?”

GIVE EVERYONE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. If someone says something stupid, odds are they didn’t stay up all night trying to figure out the best way to insult you.  If on the other hand, someone is consistently offensive or annoying, maybe you’re just oil and water. In any community of size, there are going to be a few people with whom you just don’t mix easily.  Whatever you do, beware the temptation to bond with others via gossip and mean talk about others. That stuff will leave you more isolated, not less.

BE A MEMBER, NOT A CONSUMER. After you’ve decided this is the shul for you, let “Be a member, not a consumer” be your guide. Keep your commitments to other synagogue members and staff. Treat people like you are going to see them again. If there’s a program or service you want, ask for it, but be willing to contribute to making it happen.

The staff are not the synagogue. The building is not the synagogue. The synagogue is You.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by FoodMayhem.com


Jewish & Christian?

January 13, 2014
Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - What happened here?

Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – What happened here?

Lately I’ve been asked a lot about Judaism and Christianity – specifically, is it possible to be both Jewish and Christian?

And I know there are people who assert that they are, indeed, both, or who say they are raising children as both.

Here’s my difficulty with that: For a Christian, Jesus of Nazareth is God, and he’s alive. For a Jew, he is not God, and he’s dead.

It’s called “Christian” because in that way of understanding the world, Jesus is (present tense) the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the ultimate revelation of God, and he is, in fact, God.

In the Jewish way of understanding the world, Jesus was a rabbi who was executed by the Romans. There is only One God, and that God is completely, utterly Other: not human, never has been human. There are some Jews who do not believe in any kind of personal God; they identify as Humanistic Jews or secular Jews.

When you have people in a family with different beliefs, it can be complicated. I have relatives, whom I love, for whom Jesus is the Christ. I have relatives who think belief in God is basically fairytales. We love one another, and we deal with one another kindly and with respect. My son does not say to me, “Mom, you sell fairytales for a living” even though I am aware that from his point of view, that’s what I do. My Christian relatives do not say to me, “You are going to Hell,” even though I suspect some of them fear that’s where I’m headed. And I do not preach at them, either.   We coexist with love and occasional amusement.  I like to think that God finds us amusing, too.

If you are considering raising a child as both Jewish and Christian, I would like you to think about a question you may very well get from a child:  Is Jesus alive, or dead? God or not?

This isn’t about Christmas trees. It isn’t about bacon or bagels. There are many varieties of Christian, and many varieties of Jews, but when we say “there’s no real difference” that’s simply not true.

Image: Copyright All rights reserved by AAAPOE and 1China1 Photos at flickr


“You want to be Jewish and you live WHERE?” An Internet Mystery

November 14, 2013
Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the gre...

Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the great synagogue of Aleppo. Jewish life in Syria came to an end in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are places in the world where there are very few Jews, and where Judaism is officially or unofficially forbidden by the state.  One of the great mysteries of the Internet, to me, is that periodically someone in one of those countries will write to my friends at BecomingJewish.net and inquire about conversion to Judaism. 

All the folks at BecomingJewish.net can do is write back to them and explain that (1) it isn’t safe to convert to Judaism in their country and (2) there are few or no Jews there, so it isn’t possible to convert.

On the one hand, it makes me sad to think that someone who wants to be Jewish is living in a place where they simply cannot become Jewish. On the other hand, it speaks to a real misunderstanding of Jewish life, because even if they could convert, they could not have any kind of meaningful experience of Jewish life without a community.

Judaism isn’t something you do by yourself. It isn’t private, it isn’t personal. It is communal. We pray in a minyan, a group of ten or more. We have a minyan for important occasions, like a bris.  How can you have a seder, if you have no one with whom to discuss? We don’t even study alone!

This is why my first advice to anyone converting to Judaism is to find a rabbi, find a community, and to be regular at everything: services, events, and so on. It’s only by spending time with Jews that you can learn to be a Jew, and get the goodies of Jewish life.

As for the people writing letters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to BecomingJewish.net, I have no idea what’s going on there. If they are real, I hope they can find their way to a place where there are more Jews.


Where’s Your Seder?

March 16, 2013

Deutsch: Sedertisch. Festmahl zum jüdischen Pe...

The first night of Passover is March 25, 2013 – a week away! If you do not have a plan for what you are going to do about seder, now’s the time to figure it out.

For readers in the Bay Area of California, Dawn Kepler at Building Jewish Bridges has put together a very good directory to first and second night seders on her blog.

If you are not in that area, call a local synagogue or Jewish institution and ask them about community seders. Most of these will have a charge for attendance (after all, they have to pay for the food and often the venue) but financial assistance is often available. If you need it, ask for it. Call now, because later in the week the places at the table may be full.

If you will be a guest in someone’s home, here are Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Guest. If you are hosting your first seder, here are Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. If you will be alone for Passover, here are some Tips for that.

However you “do” Passover, I wish you a joyful and hopeful passage from slavery to freedom.


Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi

September 12, 2012

Rabbis are individuals, no two quite alike.

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.

The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old.  This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.

If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens.  My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be.  Oy!)

So you want to find your rabbi.  Here are seven bits of advice:

1.  ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.

2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS.  You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.

3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.  You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them.  Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.)  You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi.  This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.

When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen.  Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can.  Ask her the questions on your mind.

4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.  Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them.  Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!”  So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.

5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK.  If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.

6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”

7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.

If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net.  If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.

Happy hunting!


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