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:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org 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.

JewishWebcasting.com 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.

Online Conversion, Revisited

Back in May, I wrote a blog post entitled Can I Convert to Judaism Online?  I’ve been doing some thinking about it, and today I am ready to share some new thoughts.

I am enthusiastic about conversion to Judaism.  I became a Jew as an adult, and it has been a challenging and rewarding path.

I am an old hand in online communities. My brother gave me a 300 baud modem for my 30th birthday in 1985, and I’ve been online ever since. I’ve seen some of the best and the worst the online world can do in terms of community. I’ve learned and taught online.

Online resources are a mixed bag for conversion to Judaism.  There is a wealth of information available online, and some of it is very good. Some of it is quite awful. A story to illustrate what a bad source of info can do for you:  My Hebrew name is Ruth. I originally chose that name because I read “somewhere” that all female converts to Judaism had to take the name Ruth. When my rabbi asked me what name I had chosen, I said “Ruth” because I thought it was some kind of a test. He said “Good choice!” and put my new name on the shtar (document) of conversion. It was months before I found out that I had had a choice. I’m fond of my name, now, but I wish I’d asked more questions!

Judaism is a communal religion. Ever since the beginning, Judaism has been a practice of a living community. Abraham and Sarah were the first community of Jews, but it was not long before they were surrounded by a community. Genesis 12:5 says that they set out “with all the souls they made in Haran.” Traditionally we understand that phrase to mean that Abraham and Sarah welcomed others to their way of life.

I learned how to behave as a Jew from spending time with other Jews. I ate at the home of fellow Jews, celebrated holidays with them, copied them when I didn’t know what to do, asked questions, prayed with a minyan, studied in classes with Jews, asked more questions, and found my way to an ever-evolving practice of my own. It doesn’t happen privately or in a vacuum: I did this, and continue to do this in community with other Jews. 

Important Jewish activity takes place with a minyan present, a quorum of ten Jews. They don’t have to be rabbis, they don’t have to be anything but adult official Jews, but we don’t say Kaddish, we don’t say Barechu, we don’t read Torah without those other nine Jews.

This is my great objection to conversion that happens purely online: a person may work with a rabbi, they may have a reading list and a to-do list, and they may even travel to meet the rabbi from time to time, but if they are not growing up Jewishly in a community with other Jews, they’re missing out on an essential part of the process: they aren’t spending actual time with actual Jews.

We are called “a stiff-necked people” and we’re all that and more. There’s a running joke about the guy who loves Judaism but can’t stand Jews. As someone told me after my conversion: “The good news is: you’ll never be alone again. The bad news is: you’ll never be alone again.”

There are rabbis online who will sign you up for a class or three, give you a reading list, and work with you for a conversion. Depending on that rabbi’s credentials, it may or may not be a valid conversion (more on that in a future post.) But my point here is: if you want even a minimally good conversion process, you need not only a rabbi, not only a beit din, not only a mikveh — you need a real Jewish community.

A real Jewish community has wonderful people, annoying people, breath-takingly smart people, staggeringly stupid people, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, crackpots, menschen, and that’s just the short list. You’re going to love some, and others you will duck when you see them coming. And that is part of being a Jew, being part of a big, unmanageable tradition with saints like Abraham Joshua Heschel and embarrassments like Bernie Madoff.

If your heart is tugging you towards Judaism, don’t settle for an “online conversion.” Call your local synagogues, and find a rabbi and a community with whom to explore Judaism. If there is no local synagogue, then ask yourself if you, like Abraham, need to “get out of your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and into the land which [God] will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]

If it is meant to be, then a Jewish community is waiting for you.