HOW DOES BEING a part of the Jewish community deepen an individual’s experiences? Studies show that connecting and engaging with one another has a positive effect on people. With school starting and the Jewish New Year right around the corner, I asked community members about how they became involved and they see the value in connecting.
Robert Weissman has been a member of the Jewish community wherever he’s lived. So it was a given that when he moved to L.A. from the East Coast in 1984 as a high school senior, he’d become part of the L.A. Jewish community. However, he found that out here it was completely different than what he’d grown up with back East. “I was kind of lost.” Back East his community was more cultural than religious. “We just all hung out together and were in the same school. The town I was in was a small Jewish community but we were tight and pretty integrated with the rest of the community.” While living on the Westside, Weissman turned to the Jewish Federation and got involved in a youth program called Havurat Noar. “That was my Jewish identity for quite a few years.” Now, as a Pasadena parent, Weissman remarks how our community was there for him when one of his children ran into a problem clear across the country. “I spent hours on the phone with emergency personal, first responders and administrators [trying to find out] where my son was,” all to no avail. “One call, literally one phone call to a local Jewish community leader and within 10 minutes local representatives near my son were on the phone with me, offering support and helping my kid out. That’s community. That’s my community, that’s your community, that’s our community at work— day in, day out for almost six millennia.”
Mary G. followed a different path. Though a lapsed Catholic herself, her late ex-husband was Jewish and, when she got married, she agreed to raise her children Jewish. For the 12 years of her marriage Mary had services at home every Friday night and certainly celebrated the major holidays with big dinners for family and friends. “When he died I did not keep that up as I had never converted myself, and we had been long divorced.” Around 10 years ago Mary reconnected with the community by getting involved in the Pasadena Jewish Theater Company at PJTC. That company eventually morphed into the J Fed Players in 2011. To this day “they are like my second family.”
Kristine Henriksen Garroway of Pasadena and her husband are professors at Hebrew Union College. However, as a mom of boys ages 6, 7 and 9, Garroway connected with the local Jewish community through camp Gan Shalom when her oldest child was in B’nai Simcha preschool. The camp had placed flyers in the preschool office and the director had said, “Oh, I think your family would be a good fit for Gan Shalom, you should consider it.” Then, at the preschool fundraiser that year they bid on the prize of the week and won. “That started what has been for our children a life-long connection with the camp. Each of them has gone to camp as soon as they’re old enough.” Along the way the Garroways also helped create a parent board with other parents to assist the camp director. The positive effect from being part of a community is best exemplified by Kristi’s reply last year on the camp evaluation form when asked, “What do your kids like about camp and what do you like about camp?” “One of the things that I wrote was the children come home on Friday and they ask, ”can we go to services, Mommy and Daddy?’ To hear that from a child it’s like, whoa! Camp has done that for you, that you want to go and be a part of Jewish life, which is great!”
When Hadar Cohen’s first child Ethan was born in February 2016, the family lived in West Los Angeles.Then four months later, they moved to the San Gabriel Valley. “At that time, I wanted to have a community, not just for myself and my husband, but also now that we had a child it was very important to strengthen his Jewish identity as he grew and build that community for him as well.” A friend told her about Gan Katan which is through PJ Library (a pre-Shabbat play group) and the Jewish Federation in Monrovia. “It’s basically a Shabbat meetup group every other Friday.” They do arts and crafts for the kids. Jewish topics are discussed. Afterwards they conclude with a mini Shabbat service. “I think we started when he was six months old because it starts in the fall…now he’s going to go into preschool so we’re not going to be doing it. I’m actually pregnant with child number two, so once I have this child and it’s old enough I’ll be going with this baby.”
PJTC’s Rabbi Raucher feels that whatever people call their Jewish community, whether that be through affiliated synagogue status or independent Jewish identity from a formal community and done through peer group, in order to connect they need to be active and can’t just expect it to come to their doorstep. “You actually have to go out there and pursue it.” He says, “If people are clear about what they’re looking for, if they can find some way to articulate what they’re yearning for, they’ll find that there’s definitely someone out there in the Jewish community who is looking to go through it with them.”
For first timers, Rabbi Raucher suggests contacting any Jewish community as a baseline. The Federation is also available to those seeking input on synagogues or those interested “solely with cultural life or something else related to Judaism that the synagogue couldn’t offer.” The Rabbi also suggests looking [at synagogues] online first then checking places out…“see their actual spaces, meet with the people who work there. Ask questions about what’s going on. If you come to the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, I’d love to meet with you and sit with you. In fact, we can go for coffee across the street and I’ll treat you. The point is if you come in our doors, we’ll be willing to answer your questions and guide you.” And for homebound individuals, “we will come to you.” No one should feel shut out. “The Jewish community has flourished in the digital age. There’s so much out there and it’s really wonderful to enable one’s Jewish life, but I think you just have to be careful what you’re looking for.” He cautions against Jewish Messianic websites because Messianic Judaism is not Judaism.
Rabbi Raucher believes that cultural Jews bring something to our community as much as our community brings something to them. “There’s something for cultural or spiritual or religious Jews to all be together. I would hate to think that we needed to be separate communities…there can be a really beautiful celebration of all those things in one spot showing how each one of them strengthens us, either all working together or independently, but all under one house.”
I know firsthand how community can make a difference. When my husband and I moved to London from Frankfurt in 2000, our daughter was five. Making friends there was difficult because, despite speaking the same language as our British neighbors, we had very little in common. When I became pregnant, the need to connect with Jewish families who shared the same values we did became a driving force behind joining a synagogue. Prior to our move abroad we lived a secular life and never felt the need to seek out a community. Our closest friends were Jewish. In Frankfurt we bonded with the American ex-pat community, but in London, trying to push open the many closed doors we encountered was frustrating. We wanted doors that were wide open. That’s exactly what we found at the warm and welcoming Wimbledon Synagogue. Our lives changed overnight. Our children easily made friends as did my husband and I. We attended lectures and quiz nights, celebrated our children’s Hebrew naming, enrolled our son in their nursery and I attended their fascinating Jewish Arts and Literature class taught by professionals. We’re still in touch with our friends there despite having repatriated 12 years ago! When we returned to L.A. in 2006, the first thing we sought out was an active Jewish community and we’ve never looked back.
Regardless of how we choose to get involved, the key is taking the first steps. Only then will reaping the rewards of connectivity follow.
Ronna Mandel is a contributing writer to JLife. You can find her blog at goodreadswithronna.com.