On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Community” from Judith Hauptman

It is easy to speak about the virtues of community when you are part of one. A family of husband, wife, and kids, will be welcomed into whatever community they are inclined to join. The harder topic to discuss is this: since the benefits of community are so extensive, what can we do to foster community for those people who are not as easily absorbed? How do we deal with “old” singles—widows, widowers, and divorced people—who are often sidelined because they are not part of a family? How do we handle young singles who see synagogues as “clubs” for families? What do we do about the three-day-a-year Jews, whom we love to criticize?

The great trait of communities is that they can realize goals that individuals cannot realize on their own. Communities can make sure that the older members, who no longer show up at shul because of frailty or ill health or because they do not feel welcomed, are not forgotten. Communities can assign a rotating group of younger people, including teenagers, who can serve as buddies of the senior citizens and who can call them regularly, visit them, escort them to shul when possible, sit with them at services, and converse with them at kiddush. As for “High Holiday Jews” who stay connected but set limits on their Jewish involvement: rather than castigate them, every larger Jewish community should run a service for them that is free and walk-in. The service might even be geared to those in their 20s and 30s among them, because that age group, in considerable numbers, does not feel comfortable in a synagogue. Such a service need not be held on the synagogue premises, because many unaffiliated Jews are reluctant to cross the threshold of a synagogue. With experience in running such services myself, I can say that their goal is to make Judaism so appealing to these self-distanced Jews that they will keep coming back for High Holidays and Passover sedarim—which should also be offered to them at a low cost—so that someday they may choose to affiliate with a school or shul or other Jewish organization. A synagogue community should offer Shabbat morning services that stimulate the spirit and the intellect. Attendance is down at these services at Conservative synagogues—many say they are boring—and yet that is where communal bonds are forged (not to mention at kiddush, too). The solution may lie in how we prepare students for the rabbinate. Formal subjects like Bible and Talmud are indispensable. But so is training in how to run an engaging service.

Finally, there is one more way in which a community can function far better than an individual. Years ago, I took a tour of Kibbutz Yavneh in Israel. As my friend Ruchama was showing me around, she pointed out one building where the kibbutz housed youngsters from families under stress that were not able to take care of their children themselves. The kibbutz fed, clothed, and educated the children until their families were able to take them back. Amazing. An individual is not in a position to take in children who need help. But communities are poised to do exactly that. Long live communities!