• Print

 

 

 

By JOANNE SEIFF

In March, Rabbi Sid Schwarz visited Winnipeg to offer ideas for building community. In his Saturday Limmud lecture, he focused on his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.

These megatrends resonate with “next gen” Jews (Gen X, Y and Millennials): Hochma/Wisdom, Tzedek/Social Justice Issues, Kehillah/Community, and Kedosha/Holiness.

Here’s the third of four columns, on building and revitalizing Jewish Winnipeg.

Jewish community-Belonging and Ownership
In this digital age, we’re connected to the internet but not each other. This creates ‘loners’ who don’t join organizations, including synagogues. Research shows this isolation is bad for our well-being. Yet, these organizations also have to be places to which we want to belong.

Negative Societal Pressures
Recently, Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-Gay, anti-Semitic hate group, picketed my childhood congregation. “We” were in good company. They also picketed the nearby Episcopal (Anglican) Seminary, the Pentagon, and the White House. Temple Rodef Shalom, in Falls Church, Virginia, was “worthy” of this negative attention.
The response was a tidal wave. With peaceful non-confrontation, the congregation held a joyful Pesach Friday night service. More than a half-dozen churches attended synagogue in solidarity that Shabbat. All were protected from harm by local police. The High Holiday size crowd showed that Virginia’s Jews weren’t cowed by hatemongers.
Not long after, shots were fired at the West End Synagogue, in Nashville, Tennessee. We attended West End when we lived in Kentucky. Former Winnipegger Rabbi Kliel Rose (Rabbi Neil and Carol Rose’s son) was West End’s rabbi for 5 years.
I felt concern and anxiety about these events. I also felt proud; though I haven’t lived in Virginia for 17 years, I felt “We’d” done the right thing. In my heart, I’m still a member of that Jewish community – and by extension, a larger one.
Negative experiences can result in a strong identification with other Jews. Yet, while anti-Jewish situations are rising worldwide, fear isn’t why we should affiliate Jewishly.

Positive Interactions
Building relationships takes small things, like a welcome from a stranger when at a synagogue or JCC. As a newcomer, I found positive interactions with strangers hard to come by. Many Jewish Winnipeggers, invested in lifelong family and friend relationships, don’t have time to reach out. As a local explained, Winnipeggers are friendly, but they have enough friends already. As an outsider, it can be hard to find enough good connections to feel like one belongs.
How are you making connections with newcomers or those who aren’t affiliated?

Supporting Life Roles
Winnipeggers marry, give birth, celebrate a simcha, face health challenges or death. While the clergy ritual network exists to marry or bury those with synagogue memberships, we often lack other hands-on efforts, the glue, to hold it together.
For instance, at that Nashville shul, they keep quarts of chicken soup in the freezer. If someone needs help, they hand out chicken soup immediately to show that the Jewish community cares – and follow up later with a call.
In Winnipeg, when I gave birth to twins, all three of us faced health challenges. I asked two Winnipeg synagogues if they had any supports to help newcomers, without family close by, through a difficult time. One synagogue professional told me directly that “We don’t do that. That’s what families are for.” While several Jewish families helped us, their efforts were despite that negative “official” response.
What happened to the Jewish community acting as an extended family – especially while recruiting newcomers worldwide? Since that experience, I’ve heard of Winnipeggers who can’t say Kaddish because no one will give them a ride to shul. Others say how lonely and disconnected they feel.
If synagogues want to “do Jewish”, their membership and Jewish professionals should behave accordingly. A cry for help from another Jew shouldn’t be answered with “we don’t do that,” but rather, “let’s work together to solve this.”
After all, who wants to join a congregation that doesn’t care when you’re struggling? I don’t.

Meaningful connection
Many bonds tie together a strong community. Extended networks, beyond family and friends, are important. These are people who help because Jews help one another. If you feel valued and essential as a part of your synagogue, why?
Is it because you know a lot of people?
Do you feel that you can contribute to the community?
Do you have resources in times of trouble?
How are you enabling younger community members and newcomers to feel the same way?
Since moving here in 2009, I’ve volunteered and even worked briefly for a synagogue – but I felt as though my efforts weren’t needed. In an emergency, I don’t have local Jewish connections to call for help.
As a board member of the (now defunct) New Shul, I felt needed. I felt valued when Chabad asked me to write an article. I contributed when invited to lead children’s services for a few months. Yet these short-term experiences don’t offer membership to Winnipeg’s Jewish “in crowd.”
I reach out because, on a bigger stage, I felt a strong Jewish connection. Yet, others may not have Jewish connections outside Winnipeg. They don’t feel valued or needed. They don’t “own” or belong or have had too many negative interactions. Therefore, they don’t affiliate with the Jewish community. I’m not surprised.
It’s up to us to “do Jewish,” and reach out. It’s easy: a meal for a new mom, a hospital visit, a ride to shul, or a kind word. It’s time to value and help each other. We can do it.

 Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and works as a freelance writer, editor, designer and educator. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com.