Compartmentalization and labeling are two things that we are asked to do on a daily basis. Separate; judge where one thing goes and another thing belongs. Put the vegetables all in the same refrigerator drawer. Pile the bills in the right spot on the kitchen counter. School is for learning. Homework before play. Things we do mentally to move forward in the everyday blahs of life. Human beings need this ability in order to function in a community.
We are often asked to put forth a lot of effort on behalf of our communities. Follow laws. Treat each other with at least a small bit of respect. Keep your front yard tidy, follow societal rules, wear clothing. It’s as though we do everything for our communities. What do our communities do for us? What are our communities meant to be doing for us? What do we expect our communities to do for us?
According to Ron Wolfson, “a synagogue should be like a tent”. It should be comforting, protecting, and able to expand to meet the needs of the community. If you visit myjewishlearning.com, it says;
“Jewish families cannot live in isolation… The community provides services and experiences that the home cannot, and in addition, fellowship and participation in community have inherent spiritual value in Judaism.”
A Jewish Community should be there for the members of it’s community. I hear this so often and wonder what is missing. Our synagogues, Chabads, even the Jewish Federation provide religious learning, spiritual counsel, events for different age groups, holiday celebrations, rites of passage, and every possible way to make each of us who feel separated out and siloed in our different parts of the map, come together.
I recently received a call from a man living on the East Coast. His mother lives here is Southern California. While his father is a member of their local synagogue, his mother is not. His mother had the best years of her life in their family home and is sadly, now suffering from dementia. His family, life, and career are on the East Coast. His siblings similarly built lives away from home. They all love their mother, but are in no way experienced enough to be able to properly care for her. She is most lucid while at home and they do not want to take her from there; the place where all her memories are.
Their current insurance doesn’t cover continued care at the price point they can actually afford. They reached out to wherever they could to get help. Trusted help and not some cheap replacement that will take advantage of their ailing mother. They do not live here, but they know there has to be something or someone that can help.
This son reached me. Me. The new employee at the Jewish Federation. The new resident of Southern California. The new director of Community Outreach and the new leader of the Jewish Counseling and Referral Network (JCRN). The person who doesn’t have any real idea of how it was done in the past, but knows how the Jewish Federation wants it to be done now. I know how I would want it to be done if it were me reaching out for help.
I looked and looked. I asked and asked. Everyone wanted to help, but either the price wasn’t right, or the service couldn’t cover that location, or there was always a reason that these very well-meaning people couldn’t do more than suggest other routes to take. And inevitably, these other routes didn’t pan out either.
I had some long conversations with this son. We had brain storm sessions to think outside of the box. He spoke of older Jewish communities he knew about in other parts of the country. These communities had members that looked in on other community members and cared for them even though they didn’t go to the same synagogue. Like the Russian Shtetls where everyone looked out for each other. He asked, why don’t we have that now? Why do the synagogues ask me if we are members before telling me if they can help my mother or not?
I wonder if this is an ideal that we look back on older communities with rose colored glasses on. With the changing of what it means to be Jewish in America and the pandemic that we have all been pushing through, our synagogues, Chabads, and Community centers are stretched thin. They have a hard-enough time caring for the members of the synagogue, let alone members of their community at large. It’s hard with time being the new commodity that everyone is wanting more of, and funds diminishing as many unaffiliated Jews find their connection to Judaism in cultural ways instead of only through religious ritual. I do not think it unfair that synagogues and clergy try to prioritize the needs of their temple members first. That being said, there should still be a way for the family of this elderly parent to find something as simple as someone they can trust at a fair price to care. The clergy that this family had previously spoken to were still trying to find ways to help. I called them to follow up, and they said that their temple members didn’t currently have the ability to help, but that they would still keep looking.
I will not give up on moving toward a community of shared care. A community that is able to look outside of just it’s temples’ members. A community that can see the Jewish community as a whole and see that we are all a part of it. Even though it may not be me that needs that help right now, I know that it could be me in the future. I know that I care. I know that a lot of this community cares too. I am excited to see what the Jewish Counseling and Referral Network can become, and how our clergy and leaders show how they want to be a part of it too. They are already stepping up and this Network will only continue to grow.
Whether the Jewish Community is meant to provide these things in our community, or just provide connections to these things, we want the Jewish Counseling and Referral Network to be a free, safe place that people can turn to in times of need. No one is alone even though it so often feels as though we are. Let’s not compartmentalize and separate ourselves. What would you want done if it were you?
Rebecca Russell is Jewish Federation’s Program and Community Outreach Director and a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.