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!

The Jewish Introvert

I’ve been absent for a couple of days. I was right here at home, but silent. I’m an introvert, and sometimes we just need to be quiet for a while.

I find introversion and Judaism to be a challenging mix, sometimes. When I became a Jew, someone said to me, “Ruth, the good news is, you’ll never be alone. And the bad news is, you’ll never be alone.” And it’s true: I pray with others, I talk with others, I teach with others, I plan things in conjunction with others, and I write a blog that is, at its heart, about connecting with Jews. So when my honey set off for Disneyland with a friend, I went to ground for a couple of days. I filled up the buffer, to put social media on “hold” for a bit and enjoyed a little sabbatical from connection with other people.

When I really let myself be quiet for a while, it renews me. I used to think it was a character flaw, but I’ve come to understand that it’s just the way some of us are wired. I don’t want or need to live that way all the time, but occasional alone time gives my brain a chance to relax – that’s the best way I can describe it.

Are you an introvert or extrovert? How does this personality trait affect the way you go about living out your Jewishness, if at all?