The Introvert from Egypt

Image: A green game piece stands apart and separated from a group of red game pieces. (tillburmann /Pixabay)

Yesterday, I wrote about the question of the introvert in community by asking a number of friends how they handle it. Today, I thought I’d share the fact that I’m very much in sympathy with the student who asked the question, because I am myself an introvert, and suggest some insights that have helped me.

  • The more structure there is to a community event, the less it stresses the introvert in me. Attending services, I am there with others, I participate. In the service itself, once I learned how to participate, I could be completely present but also quite comfortable, sure of each interaction. After the service, then there’s the oneg, which is something else altogether.
  • The more UNstructured the event, the more it stresses the introvert in me. The oneg after services is a prime example. People are there, some I know, some I don’t, and some who look familiar but I am not sure. At first I am afraid that no one will talk to me. Then, when someone approaches, I’m worried about improvising in a conversation. My go-to when I feel completely at sea is to look for someone else who is standing alone. I walk over to them and introduce myself.

Strategies for settling into a community:

  • At first, concentrate on structured events: going to services, classes, funerals, shiva houses. Usually these events have someone leading, and all we have to do as participants is find a seat and be there. Cultivate some very small talk for before and after: “Hello. My name is…”– “The music was beautiful, wasn’t it?”– “This topic is fascinating! What draws you to it?” — “How did you know the departed?” — and once you can get the other person talking, just listen.
  • Having a task to perform lessens the stress. In the service, if all you feel comfortable doing is saying “Amen” at the appropriate times, say it with gusto. In adult ed classes, strive to look interested (the teacher will love you for it.) And at funerals and shiva houses, remember that your simple presence is the mitzvah; if you are there, and say little or nothing, it’s ok because you were THERE. You don’t have to talk at any of these high-structure events, except possibly for some classes. At the scarier, low-structure events, I do what I mentioned above at onegs: I seek out another wallflower and say hello. Then, even if we don’t sustain much of a conversation, at least neither of us is standing alone.
  • Eventually, try some less structured events: join a committee at synagogue, volunteer to help with an event. Here, again, having a task will help with the stress. In a committee, you can ask for a partner to help you do anything you want to volunteer for but feel unsure about: “Could I have a partner for this?” If you go to an event and there is clean-up afterwards, stick around to help with that. I have made lifelong friends that way.
  • Finally, remember that when God finished creation, God said, “It is very good.” You are a good person, introversion and all. Take time for yourself to recharge.

If you engage with community in small steps, the day will come when you walk into the oneg after services and it is no longer a wilderness of strangers. The day will come when you will gladly wave to friends and then, because you remember being a stranger, you will tear yourself away from friends to seek out the newcomers and the people who are standing alone.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19

“I’m an introvert! How can I be part of a community?”

Image: A pen puts a check by “Introvert” on a survey. (Yeexin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Recently one of my students said, “I’m an introvert. My rabbi says I have to spend time ‘in the community’ and I am not sure I can fit in.”

As Robert Putnam pointed out almost 20 years ago in Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, Americans have become less and less connected to each other. He wrote this before the rise of social media: MySpace, Facebook. Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, QZone, etc.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Americans remain reluctant joiners. For those those who are also naturally inclined to introversion, the prospect of walking into rooms full of strange people may be downright upsetting. For someone like my student, it is dismaying to hear, “You have done well on classes, etc, but you need to spend more time in the Jewish community.”

First of all, why would a rabbi insist on such a thing? Isn’t one’s religion a personal matter?

There may be some religions that are purely personal and private, but Judaism is a communal package of more than just religion. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan z”l famously described Judaism as a civilization, making that the title of his magnum opus on modern American Judaism. Even purely religious elements like prayer often require a minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews.

So it is a wise rabbi who insists the candidate for conversion spend substantial time doing Jewish communal activities, and that the person spend time with real, live Jews. It happens all the time that people fall in love with Judaism in the abstract. To be happy and successful as a Jew, one needs more than the abstraction: one needs to get accustomed to the mishpocha [family] in all its (sometimes dysfunctional) glory.

I am myself an introvert, as are many rabbis. However, rather than parrot what works for me, I thought I’d crowd-source some ideas about participating in community when one isn’t accustomed or naturally inclined to do so. Here’s what I learned from a random assortment of people on Facebook, some who are Jewish, and some who aren’t, when I asked:

Do you consider yourself an introvert? If so:

– Are you part of a community (a synagogue, a parish, etc.)?

– How do you participate in that community?

– Do you have advice for other introverts who want to participate in community but aren’t sure how to go about it?

Here are some of the suggestions:

I jump in slowly. Maybe I wade in. 🙂

– Allison Landa

Get on a committee and participate with what they do.

– Belle Rita Novak

My advice would be to…

1. Go to classes at the synagogue, where you have meaningful discussions about the big questions in life rather than engaging in just small talk.

Torah Study, Intro to Judaism, Beginning Hebrew, etc are all great example classes.

2. Volunteer to lead/organize an event at the synagogue. That way people will come up and introduce themselves to you with questions about that specific event, instead of you having to go up to them and try to make small talk in order to get to know new people.

– Rabbi Ahuva Zaches

Start small and add on as you want to challenge yourself.

– Christo Chaney

Others agreed about classes and committees, and suggested a Jewish book group. Two people mentioned the importance of alone time to re-energize after spending time with others.

And it turns out a rabbi I respect very much, Rabbi Elisa Koppel, has written an entire blog post, Learn: The introvert and the oneg: How I learned to step out of introversion every now and then. She is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE and has a lot to say on the subject of introversion and membership in community. Rather than give you excerpts, I am linking to the whole blog entry, because it’s all good.

If you are an introvert who has found comfortable ways to participate in Jewish community life, I hope you will add to this list of tips by using the “Comments” reply section. And if you have specific questions about this, I hope you will share those too – talking it over, sharing ideas, these are also part of being in a community!

Lessons from the Elevator

Image: Me and my scooter.

I’m staying at a hotel this week, and my room is on the eighth floor. I can’t walk very far without my mobility scooter, so every time I leave the floor, I use the elevator.

I press the button and wait. I never know what or whom I will see when the door opens; elevators are all surprise packages. The hotel is busy, so usually I ride with other people, and if I ride alone, someone is waiting when the door slides open in the lobby.

Nobody expects to be greeted by a fat lady on a tricycle when the elevator doors open. There are always nervous giggles and hesitation when other riders first see me. I get that. I would be very surprised if the door opened and another scooter-rider greeted me!

I would be content if they ignored me, per the usual elevator etiquette, but many men (it’s always men, for some reason) seem to feel they must say something. The comments are usually spoken in a jokey tone:

  • Wow, how fast does that thing go?
  • You don’t drink and drive, do you?
  • Look out, Evil Kneivel is riding with us!
  • Where did you drive from on that thing?
  • Hey, Speed Demon!

I have heard each of those jokes more than once this week, except for the Evil Kneivel one. That one was original, I will admit.

From their expressions I can tell that the speakers are uncomfortable and are trying to be friendly. The problem is, those comments do not start a conversation. There is nothing to latch onto, no reply that makes any sense. So I smile vaguely without making eye contact and hope that one of us can exit soon.

Why talk about this on this blog? One of my fondest hopes is to make more people comfortable in synagogue. And this elevator talk is a sterling example of a kind of behavior that makes everyone UNcomfortable pretty much anywhere.

When we meet someone who is different than the ordinary, we feel uncomfortable. That is normal, and there is no need to feel badly about it. What we must learn is a routine to move past that discomfort quickly, if we are going to welcome people to our synagogue, or to be gracious guests in a synagogue. Jokes are counterproductive; comments on the other person’s appearance or person will get awkward fast.

It is counterproductive to focus on the thing that is different (the scooter, the tattoo, the skin color, the accent, the hair, whatever.) Commenting on it, or joking about it risks saying something at best annoying (how many times has the tall guy been asked how the air is up there?) and is at worst truly offensive (racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) Instead, wise people focus on whatever things we may have in common:

  • Wow, this elevator is slow!
  • The weather is lovely today!
  • Have you seen the garden here yet?
  • Welcome to Beth Plony! Want a coffee?
  • Wow, how about those Dodgers?

Then of course there’s the very best line for synagogue, if said sincerely:

  • Hi! I’m Ruth. Have we met yet?

Thoughts at a Reform Shiva

Image: Two hands hold two other hands to comfort. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

I did not know the departed. His sister was a friend of mine at synagogue, and her husband and I had learned aleph-bet together years ago. I got an email saying that shiva would be at their house, and I went.

I gave each of them a hug, and then went to find a seat. There was a straight backed chair perched in a corner of the living room – perfect! I parked my cane and settled in to be at shiva.

People poured in the doorway carrying dishes, each greeting the mourners and then hurrying into the dining room, to add to the table of food. Cassseroles, kugels, veggie plates with dip, fruit, breads, muffins, some baked chicken breasts — there was a little of everything there. I had brought a bag of cherries, washed and ready to eat or to pop into the fridge for later.

Elders on walkers arrived, and the Women of Temple Sinai ladies, and twenty-somethings (their daughter’s friends) arrived. The rooms filled up. Periodically someone would come sit by me for a bit, we’d chat quietly, then they’d get up to go get some food. Visitors stood in the kitchen, covered the patio out back, and filled the front yard.

I knew all the faces and all but a few of the names. We’ve gone to shul together for twenty years, some of us. Some are close friends, some barely acquaintances. Some are easy to love, some harder.

But here’s the thing: when someone is bereaved, this group shows up.

This, to me, is one of the great beauties of Jewish community. It is an extended family with a covenantal bond. I show up for you, you show up for me. Is it perfect? No, but it is remarkably consistent. Show up often enough, and you’re mishpachah (family.)

The mourners, who had seemed capable and cheerful when we arrived, gradually lost their masks. They held hands and cried as they told us about the brother most of us had never met. We stood with them for kaddish, blessing them with our covenant: we show up.

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.

You! in the Pew! I See You. I Hear You.

Image: Jews Praying on Yom Kippur (Photo by Trodel)

When I began leading services, I was astonished at some of the things people did while sitting in the pews. They appear to suffer from the delusion that they are invisible.

Sometimes this can be funny, but usually it’s just weird, and not in a good way. If you are in the pew, and people are sitting on the bimah, they can see pretty much anything that you are doing: grooming yourself, grooming your child, picking your teeth, staring at the ceiling, whatever. It is almost impossible for the people on the bimah to avoid seeing you. So, um, please don’t do that stuff. Yes, you know the stuff I mean.

I’ve been mostly a Jew in the Pew myself these past eight years; I teach instead of serving in a congregation. So often I don’t think about these things anymore, except on the occasions when people decide to have a conversation in the pew behind me. Mind you, I am hard of hearing, so if I could hear them, they are LOUD. Usually it’s men who do it, and it’s some sort of discussion about the service. Why they think I can’t hear them – well, maybe they know I’m hard of hearing? Still.

I want people to come to services. I would rather that they came to services and picked their teeth and talked too loudly than that they stayed home. I think most rabbis feel that way. Congregational prayer doesn’t work without enough people to form a proper kahal (gathering.) In fact there are prayers we cannot say unless we have a minyan, 10 adults. So I would rather people were there than not there.

But think about it for a minute: would you like to be at services, mourning someone dear to you, and have to listen to two dudes argue about the relative merits of the Reform and Conservative services while the service is going on? Do you really want the rabbi to know that you pick your… let’s say teeth? And whatever you are looking for on your baby’s head, can’t that wait until you get home?

Really.

Definitely, let the synagogue be “a house of prayer for all people,” as Isaiah says. But let’s try to bring our best selves, shall we?

Where Will You Be for the High Holy Days?

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 9, 2018.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is busy with preparations.

For the “Jew in the pew” September may seem a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who will want a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are likely free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is a stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming sooner than you think. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life!