The Isolated Jew: What to Do?

A reader asked: How can I enhance my Jewish life when there are few Jews living nearby?

Being Jewish can be pretty lonely, especially at holiday times of the year. That’s true even in cities with a significant Jewish population. But what are the resources for a Jew in a small town or in the country? After all, much of Jewish life is experienced in community – what is an isolated Jew to do?

Here are some possibilities for you. None of them is “one size fits all” – your situation is individual, and your solution will be individual too.

Is there a synagogue nearby? Your best hope for Jewish community is a nearby synagogue. “Nearby” may be 50 miles away (or more!) but let’s be honest – how far is it to the doctor’s office or the “good” shopping center? It may be worth the investment of your time and money to connect with those Jews, even if you can only make it to services or events once a month.

“Yes, but…” …They are too goyishe, too frum, too expensive, totally inaccessible, too expensive, too whatever.  OK, so they really are not for you… or the nearest congregation is 150 miles away.  Let’s keep going.

Start a chavurah. Is there one other Jewish household in your area? Invite them over to Shabbat dinner. Get to know them. Find out if they know of any other Jewish households. If so, invite those folks to the next Shabbat dinner, maybe next month. Keep it going. See if anyone wants to have a Chanukah party. See if anyone is interested in a book group or a bowling team.

A chavurah also works if you have a local congregation but there is a barrier of some kind. Are there other disabled Jews in your area? LGBTQ Jews? Jews that the synagogue Jews don’t recognize as Jewish? Whatever it is, make the community you need. Many great congregations started this way: Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf started in 1953 because Deaf Jews were not recognized as Jewish adults by any of the congregations in the Los Angeles area. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco started because LGBTQ Jews were unwelcome elsewhere in town back in 1977. Neither started with a rabbi or a building. They began with individual Jews who wanted community.

But what if there is no other Jewish household?

What about online Jewish community? Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue: provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati. maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube. offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope this helps. Every Jew deserves a Jewish community. Sometimes we have to make our own community, but Jews have been doing that for centuries. I have total faith that you can do it, too.

Looking for a Perfect Gift?

Maryann and I have been close friends for almost 30 years – half of my life. Her 70th birthday is this Dec 7. Besides being the big “seven-oh” birthday, this one is particularly poignant. We nearly lost her last summer to complications of what had been expected to be routine surgery.

So this week Linda and I sent a check in honor of her and her wife to the Transgender Law Center. Maryann identifies as genderqueer, and TLC works to protect her rights. It seems appropriate to celebrate her life by supporting a cause near her heart.

Donations like this have become my go-to for birthday presents and celebrations. For many friends, there’s nothing they’d rather get than a boost for their cause. I send a donation, and the non-profit sends them a card acknowledging my gift in their name. It might be their synagogue, or the American Civil Liberties Union, or the New Israel Fund, or the NAACP.

There are some organizations I’d never send a dollar, and the same is true of many of my friends. When I request donations instead of gifts, I usually offer at least two organizations, so people have a choice. When Linda and I were married, we asked for donations in lieu of gifts, and suggested the Alameda County Community Food Bank as well as the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  I’ve suggested the St. Baldrick’s Foundation as the non-political choice in recent years. (So far, everyone has agreed that childhood cancer research is a worthy cause!) Other easy choices are the Discovery Eye Foundation or

Sometimes, of course, the perfect gift appears and it is an article of clothing or a CD. There’s a package on my dining room table at this moment waiting for a dear friend whose name came to mind as soon as I saw it. (I can’t say what, she reads the blog!)

I’m writing this, though, to suggest that in this “season of gift giving” we can choose to delight our friends by giving tzedakah in their names. I know there’s no gift I’d rather receive.

All of the organizations listed above have received a rating of three stars or better from Charity Navigator, assuring that the money is well spent.

A Kiss is Just a Kiss – Or is it?

Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

In the Torah scroll, the word “kissed” in this verse is always written with a dot above each letter. This is extremely unusual; words in the Torah Scroll usually have no dots or signs at all. While we don’t know exactly why the early scribes saw fit to write the word this way, from the earliest times rabbis have taken it as a sign to pay special attention to that word in the text.

When the text says that Esau embraced Jacob, falling upon his neck and kissing him, the collection of midrash called Genesis Rabbah offers two interpretations side by side:

  1. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that Esau felt compassion for his brother and kissed him with all his heart.
  2. Rabbi Yannai interpreted the dots to mean that the meaning of the word “kissed” is reversed: Esau bit Jacob’s neck, and it miraculously turned hard as marble. The two men wept because Esau’s teeth and Jacob’s neck both hurt.

This is a classic example of two people reading the same text and having very different reactions to it. This happens with many of the characters in Genesis, particularly with Jacob and Joseph. I have seen students get terribly angry and seem to take someone else’s interpretation as almost a personal insult.

When I have spoken with such people outside of class, trying to understand, it began to make sense. They were identified with a character in the story, and it hurt them to hear another student say that character was a bad guy.

Perhaps Rabbi Simeon was an eldest child, and felt sympathy for Esau. Perhaps Rabbi Yannai could not forget the time that his older brother hurt him.

Torah, particularly Genesis,  is a mirror. We look into it and we see ourselves. Sometimes that is conscious, and sometimes it’s a kinship we feel deep in the unconscious.

Is there any character in Torah to whom you feel particularly close? Have you ever felt hurt by someone else’s reading of a story in Torah?

An Interfaith Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Heart of the Universe,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day.
Grant us the love and patience with which to respect,
indeed, to appreciate our differences,
and to seek common ground for this festive meal.

Grant us mindfulness about this food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the brilliant cooks in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we have received.



I posted a slightly different version of this blessing last year; this one is modified to be useful for interfaith families.

Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.


/end rant



Thanksgiving, Jewish Style

Modah ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti b’cḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal Ruler, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

A Jewish day properly begins with gratitude.

Some say Modeh Ani* even before they set a foot on the floor in the morning. Some say it in the synagogue. And even for those who do not say it, it waits in the prayer book.

What is it that we can be grateful for, before standing up, before washing, before the first cup of coffee? We are grateful simply to be alive. “Restored my soul within me” refers to the ancient Jewish belief that sleep is 1/60th of death. We begin the day reminding ourselves that life itself is a gift.

This week Jews in the United States observe the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There’s a particular joy in sharing a holiday with our non-Jewish neighbors: there’s no need to ask for a special day off and no need to explain it to children as someone else’s holiday.

And yet: Let’s remember that in our tradition, every day is thanksgiving day. The Torah teaches us that life itself  is a precious gift: fragile, transient, infinitely precious. Use it well.


*”Modeh” is the masculine form, “modah”the feminine.

My Twitter Policy

I’m well and truly fed up.

I try to cultivate a broad range of contacts, especially via Twitter. I follow a lot of accounts there, including a lot of folks that have ideas I find difficult – it’s one of the ways I learn and expand my horizons.  To that end, I follow a lot of accounts there from many points of view and I try to cultivate a habit of listening more than reacting.

Lately the name-calling on Twitter has gotten worse. It’s happening from all sides of the political compass. It’s as if it’s become too much trouble to explain what is wrong with an idea, it’s just easier to call the person expressing that idea a nasty name.

So here’s the deal: post or RT something with name-calling in it, and I will unfollow that account. I don’t care if I love or hate the politics, I’m going to unfollow that account. Continuing to follow is rewarding the behavior, and I’m not doing it anymore.

Life’s too short. The world is full of important things to discuss, and we should discuss them, not waste our breath screaming epithets at one another.