There Are No Good Jewish Communities

Earlier this week was the 9th of Av on the Hebrew calendar, a time of mourning for innumerable calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout time. Over and over, there would be major moments in history that would destroy the established Jewish community and force it to rethink everything they knew. The twelve Meraglim (often translated as spies) that the Jewish people sent to scope the land of Canaan while moving through the desert for 40 years came back with a doubtful report on this day. The fear and doubt spread by this mistrust led to almost the entire generation that left Egyptian bondage dying in the desert and never seeing the holy land. Bye bye, community… Bye bye, happy ending to the exodus from Egypt.

The same could be said of the destruction of the Solomon-built Holy Temple by the Babylonians in 597 BCE, which led to the first exile the Jews faced after settling comfortably in Israel. We thought we had settled, but we ruined it. We had knowledgeable leaders, but now even they were split, resulting in separate Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Flash forward 490 years, and we have a new, Second Temple thanks to some Persian love. But of course the Romans destroyed that in 70 CE, and now the era of sacrifices and Temple pilgrimage services and pretty much 75% of what being Jewish was up until that point became moot.

Then we relied on Rabbis figuring out what this religion would be, and hit the road (without consent).

Long story short, The First Crusade in 1096, The expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion from France in 1306, the deadline to leave Spain or be Inquisited in 1492, the declaration of World War I in 1914, the approval of The Nazi’s Final Solution in 1941 and the deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 all happened on this very day- the 9th of Av.

And it got me thinking.

“Can’t we all just get along?”

But more importantly, are we even supposed to have a Jewish community? We try time and again, and it leads to heartbreak.

This parade of calamity directly and indirectly led to me growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis Jewish community probably sounds like a joke to anyone who hasn’t been there, and I used to feel like I had to explain it to my coastal friends. Now I wear it like a badge of pride. “No, I’m not from around here, but I’m making my own path in the world.”

Truth be told, I’m not even from one of St. Louis’ two major Jewish neighborhoods. I grew up in an area that just built their first synagogue within the last five years, and yet was close enough to University City, bastion of St. Louis Orthodox Jewry, that if I really wanted to travel a few miles I could participate in their lifestyle. Or I could travel the same distance in the opposite direction and find myself among the many Conservative and Reform congregations.
Either way, I was an automatic outsider.

Growing up, an ideal Friday night was having dinner with my family and then retreating to my room to read comic books at the edge of my bed. We didn’t go to services Friday night (of any denomination), didn’t sing songs at the table (unless the occasional Beatles song counts), and the main stringency we had is that we would say Birchat Hamazon, the blessing after the meal, which would be consciously or unconsciously ignored at any meal during the week.

Religiously, my family didn’t fit in anywhere. My siblings and each of my parents have subsequently taken our own paths on what Judaism is. Like any comic book-loving kid, I was fantasizing about a world of strength and leadership in a world where it felt like I didn’t have any. I’m the youngest. I am small. I switched schools every few years. Synagogues were places for old people. I had a lot of frustration and anger at my school, my family, and myself.

I don’t need to repeat the laundry list of schools I went through, but needless to say I never found my communal niche in any of them. I identified with the students in my class whose families had escaped the Soviet Union because they were also coming from a home life of little Jewish knowledge, relied upon to participate and find meaning in a lifestyle that had no backing. Out of the students from that community I knew in Primary School, a few of them changed schools by Junior High. Then when we graduated in 8th grade, only a few went on to the Jewish high school. None of those went to spend a gap year at Yeshiva, and today I have no idea what their actual practice is. This isn’t a condemnation, it’s actually the opposite- these were students who, along with their families, figured out what worked best for them at various points in life.

I remember being in Junior High, when we were expected to pray Mincha, the afternoon service. The transition from only morning prayers to including more came suddenly, without explanation. There was a dividing line that formed between the kids who understood what we were doing there and dedicated themselves to it, and the ones who faked their way through it. I fell somewhere in between. What separated me was that I cared about spiritual practice, I just didn’t know how best to manifest it. So I would take my time, try to learn the prayers, but ultimately get frustrated by how quickly others would finish.

This was the beginning of finding my own mature path. And it had to happen for me and me alone.

Trial and error continued over time, but by age 18 the concept was clear: I didn’t belong in the Yeshivas, the congregations, the gatherings or the youth groups. I belonged to the concept of spirituality, but on my own with G0d.

Spirituality is a fickle mistress. You will court her and tell her you love her, but she will leave you. Then one night she might return, and you will have the greatest reunion. Things might be good for a while, and then one day you realize you doubt your feelings and things get wobbly all over again.

I went to college in New York with the idea that I would be the lone Jew among the art school crowd, doing my own independent thing. And that’s how I lived. I kept my own kosher to myself, spent Shabbat in my dorm sleeping or hanging in friends rooms, and wore a kippah on my head, but otherwise didn’t reach out or try to unite with anyone else, even though I was in Brooklyn. But my Brooklyn isn’t your cousin Aaron’s Brooklyn. I was living outside the borders of any reputable Jewish community.

That all changed a year or so later, when Rabbi Simcha Weinstein came to the school and started organizing holiday events. Over the course of the next two years we formed a little close-knit Jewish community that was based on being artists and not really being observant but still being accepted for what we are. Those tenets made for the first community I felt comfortable in. And it helped that the Rabbi himself was a creative, out of the box thinker. He wasn’t telling me what to do; he was my friend.

And then I was hooked. I took what I knew of Orthodoxy and let it be part of my life. I learned more about Chabad hassidus and The Tanya. I started attending services every Friday night for the first time in my life, at a Modern Orthodox-with-a-Chabad-Rabbi-synagogue in Brooklyn Heights. My wife and I got married in this mode, even though we aren’t actually Modern Orthodox or Chabad, and set up a life in the general Downtown Brooklyn area based on being a part of that edifice. Our lives revolved around the friends we made there, the inspiration we gained, and the boundaries we pushed spiritually. So much of where I am is made possible by those years and that community.

But as with every Jewish community, there is an end to the standard. And you have to evolve.

A little over a year ago, we started to stagnate. The community was great. It was the same as it ever was. But my wife and I felt like we had changed. We were more open to the possibilities of what was out there. We realized how different things would be if we got married today. There are other factors I could blame- talking during prayers, certain overbearing individuals, and having too many friends move away over time- but for each of those there were more reasons to love it. Overall, there was just a general feeling of just needing something else. Something that got us out of our rut, and inspired us in new ways.

On a personal level, I treated the Saturday morning services the same as I had those initial experiences with Mincha. I didn’t want to half-ass what I knew to be a spiritual practice that was meaningful, but the synagogue was not close by, and with how exhausting life can be, I would consistently, for years, miss morning prayers and even the Torah reading service. And eventually, that wore down on me. Yes, the easy answer would be to just wake up earlier, but honestly I am a huge night owl (words I type at 3:23am) and if I had an option to make my schedule and services work in tandem, I would see what my options were.

And there was another option, walking in the opposite direction to help a small struggling community of seekers we had been flirting with for some time.
In one of the most awkward transitions possible, we changed synagogues without moving out of the neighborhood. At first our dwindling presence may have been blamed on traveling. But eventually people caught on that we weren’t really around anymore. It was painful for us, especially the few times we have gone back to say hi or attend a special event. But it was the right move.

I held no ill will toward the old community, but it wasn’t what we needed to help us grow anymore.

And now, I don’t know what the future will hold. I am flirting with all kinds of life changes and choices, from differing modes of observance. I am surrounding myself with more and more people who make their own way in this liquid Judaism which doesn’t need to be Orthodoxy but still has G0d at the core. What is for me?

I like where I’m from, and I finally settled again into the communal distance that I grew up with. I’m not taking Friday night services as seriously as I was for the past decade, but I’m making it my own. Often when I pray I pray alone. A community is built on selflessness but right now I need to be a little selfish.

So for the time being, I am happy. And awkward, and still questioning whether my new community is really a community or just a slapped together band of misfits who sustain each other. I guess that’s what I was looking for all along.

The new community isn’t a community, it’s an anti-community. It is way smaller; those who attend have scars from previous experiences and are drawn together by an inspiring rabbi and the will to make Judaism work for them. Things are loose, but controlled by a few special people who make things happen wonderfully.

And it pushes my personal boundaries. When I come, I help make the minyan. I can swing in late in the morning and participate in morning prayers. I can be inspired by a long Torah conversation (not pulpit speech- a forerunner of talking during services). And for the first time since my bar mitzvah, I’ve been reading from the Torah, which has affected my perspective on our religion greatly.

One day this may end too. It’s kind of inevitable. My wife and I often ask each other where we may end up in this world. The short answer is always I don’t know.

Maybe G0d doesn’t want Jewish communities to work, or maybe the problem is human error. Either way, communities don’t work for me, but for some reason we keep trying.

Photo by Filthy Bean, all rights reserved.