How Do We Connect to Jewish Community?

I think of The New York Times’ Sunday Styles section as one of my guilty pleasures. I love Bill Cunningham’s candid shots of the latest styles as seen on Manhattan streets, I’ve been moved by the Modern Love column and, of course, I avidly read the weddings section. (My sister-in-law and I compare notes on the ones we find most interesting.) But somehow this Sunday, my guilty pleasure became something else. 


Two different articles in the Styles section were about Jewish celebrations, and how these celebrations are being customized to fit the needs of individual families. On the front page of the section, there was an article about the growing phenomenon of children taking Bar and Bat mitzvah lessons over the internet from long distance rabbis and tutors and then having individual observances of these milestone occasions, rather than as a part of a family that belongs to a synagogue and in the context of a formalized Hebrew school education.


In the article, Rabbi Jamie Korngold, one of the rabbis who offers online preparation, says, “Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation…It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives.” In contrast, the article also quotes one of my favorite Jewish teachers, Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who points out that while online Bar Mitzvah training may meet the needs of an individual family, “from the standpoint of a robust Jewish life that will hold a community and its values into the next generation, we’re not going to get there through Skype.”


The second article was Bruce Feiler’s column about how his family combines its celebration of Thanksgiving and Hanukah so that his far-flung family doesn’t need to travel twice in about four weeks to be together. Feiler references a rabbi, Fred Benjamin, whom he has spoken to about this, who reminds him that Jewish holidays are also about spending time with community, at the set times for celebration. (Although most people think of Hanukah as solely a home-based observance — so what’s the loss to community if it’s celebrated at a time convenient for the family — there are actually synagogue prayers devoted to Hanukah. Hallel, the special prayers of thanksgiving, for example, are recited during Hanukah.) While the article is mostly about how families do what they need to do to maintain connection and includes a moving vignette about a father’s Air Force deployments, Rabbi Benjamin says something I wanted to say to the families portrayed in the article on internet Bar Mitzvahs. “It’s America. You can certainly do what you want. And there’s a lot to be said for the reality of trying to get a family together. But there’s also a religious value of community.”


So why did these stories interrupt my usual Sunday morning routine? I guess I am spending a great deal of time these days thinking about the issues of creating and sustaining Jewish community in this era where Judaism is, to many if not most American Jews, not an obligation but a choice out of many. I was surprised to find that The New York Times was seeing the same thing.


The difference is that I am looking for some answers whereas The Times probably isn’t. And I don’t have any answers. I do understand the motivations of people who turn to individual celebrations of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in order to find personal meaning. And I certainly understand how it makes sense to celebrate happy occasions with family whenever possible. I am part of a baby boomer generation that is looking for more personal meaning within the world of Jewish prayer. But I am looking for that meaning in the context of congregational prayer as well as individual prayer. How much more difficult is that search going to be for the parents of the internet Bar or Bat Mitzvah child who doesn’t have the resource of a long-time rabbi or fellow congregants? I love our family’s observances of Hanukah and Passover, but I also enjoy the synagogue celebrations with my congregational family. 


I would say to Rabbi Benjamin that there isn’t merely a religious value to communal observances. There is the value of human connection. That’s what I’m afraid people are missing. The friendships that arise out of shared experiences, of standing in shul and singing together, of making shiva visits in sad times and toasting a simcha at Saturday morning kiddush in good times. I’m afraid that without the individual connections, the larger human connection among the Jewish people that allow us to stand together and to feel responsible for one another will be lost. These fine and valuable things have held the Jewish people together for thousands of years.


So now that I’ve told you what bothered me about the Sunday Styles, I want to share one story that I would normally only share with my sister-in-law that made me smile. It was the wedding announcement of Dr. Jessica Exelbert and Justin Rubin, a young couple who met on JDate, saw each other at a panel discussion sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and finally established a relationship after a scotch tasting also sponsored by the DC Federation. It did me good to see that the Jewish community can still be the source of an intimate personal connection for at least two young Jews! 


Mazel tov to Jessica and Justin, and a happy Thanksgiving to you and your families!




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