Archive for March, 2012

This week, I took a “gulp” and did one of those things one is always reluctant to do: I pulled the plug. I called it quits on a venture that I was once very excited about, and which, by all outward measures, had clearly failed.

In this particular case, pulling the plug didn’t matter much. It was not one of those Big Plug-Pullings, like ending a relationship or quitting a job. I simply closed the social club I had formed online (at Meetup.com) for Jewish parents with infants or small children.

I had 36 members (supposedly) in Mainline Mazal Tots, and had scheduled more than 20 gatherings or “outings” where we could meet (zoo, kids’ gym, etc). Most of us live within 10 miles of each other. We all have a child under age 3. And, over the course of two years, I only actually met 3 of these 36 people.

It may seem surprising, but this reality didn’t actually “hurt my feelings.” Hey, there’s one upside to surviving teenage social ostracism, right!? Besides, you can’t be rejected by people you have never met.

What endlessly irked me, though, and the truth which I will, knowing me, wrestle with for years, is the fact people simply didn’t care enough to come. Not Jewishly. Not parentally. Not any-lly.

I could have kept this Meetup group going indefinitely. At times, I thought I would. My family went to these places anyway, and we had fun. But the annual cost as an “organizer” on Meetup was $150 a year. At some point you have to level with yourself and admit: Well, I’m clearly an organizer of a group that doesn’t want to “be.” So what’s the point? I’m better off giving $150 to the Ocean Conservancy. The ocean will be grateful.

You, patient readers, are not my therapist. I could vent and raise my voice and flail my arms. But, I’ve already done that. That’s what spouses are for: To be an audience.

The more naked and poignant point is that we live in a society too tired, stressed and stretched out to think that something like this matters.

And / or  another possible answer is, we live among a people that no longer feels an innate bond to make that extra initial effort to form a bond.

We stood at Sinai and have now, literally, become strangers. We moved out of the shtetl, and have, the lot of us, said “good riddance.” Not just to the poverty, sexism, superstition and anti-Semitism (I concur!) — but also to the neighbors, sick bed visits and play dates.


I look back at the rich forest of our history, longing for a sense of community not shared by the community I want to build community with.

Around the year 300 C.E., in the city of Babylon, a nucleus of learned Jewish men sat down and recorded their thoughts and verbal traditions. I could argue with any number of “truths” they offered up about the world, but some of them so resonate this mortal experience.

We human beings aren’t wired to live alone, operate in isolation or bring ourselves up when we have fallen. We, like all good primates, are wired for each other.

Talmud Bavli Berachot 5b tells this tale:

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill and Rabbi Johanan went in to visit him. He [R. Johanan] said to him: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” He [R. Johanan] said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and he [R. Johanan] raised him.

Rabbi Johanan fell ill and Rabbi Hanina went in to visit him. He [R. Hanina] said to him: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” He said to him: “Give me your hand.” He [R. Hanina] gave him his hand and he raised him.

Why could not R. Johanan raise himself? They replied: “The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.”

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Out West where I come from, there are many Jewish communities that are small, and can’t afford their own building. When that’s the case, the community’s first choice is usually to find a Unitarian Universalist church to sublet space from.

Why the Unitarians? One answer to this question comes from an unlikely source: The Rev. A. Powell Davies (1902-1957). In 1944, he gave the following sermon at his church. Substitute the word “church” for “synagogue,” and I think he captured a crucial contemporary sentiment of liberal Judaism completely!

In his eloquent speech, the Rev. Davies gives several reasons for coming together to davven (pray).

Do we pray because God needs us to? No. We pray because WE need to.

Let me tell you why I come to church.  I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow men (and women). I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.
I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. Workaday enthusiasms are not enough. They wear out too soon. I want to experience human nature at its best—and be reminded of its highest possibilities, and this happens to me in church. It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so.
In a congregation we share each other’s spiritual needs and reinforce each other. In some ways, the soul is never lonelier than in a church service. That is certainly true of a pulpit, for a pulpit is the most intimately lonely place in the world—yet it is a loneliness that has strength in it. Perhaps this is because the innermost solitude of the human heart is in some paradoxical way a thing that can be shared—that must be shared—if the spirit of God is to find a full entrance into it.
We meet each other as friends and neighbors anywhere and everywhere, but we seldom do so in the consciousness of our souls’ deepest yearnings. But in church we do—in a way that protects us from all that is intrusive, yet leaves us knowing that we all have the same yearning, the same spiritual loneliness, the same need of assurance and faith and hope. We are brought together at the highest level possible. We are not merely an audience, we are a congregation.
I doubt whether I could stand the thought of the cruelty and misery of the present world unless I could know, through an experience that renewed itself over and over again, that at the heart of life there is assurance, that I can hold an ultimate belief that all is well. And this happens in church.
Life must have its sacred moments and its holy places. The soul will always seek its nurture. For religious experience—which is life at its most intense, life at its best—is something we cannot do without.
Source: from “On Going to Church” by Rev. A. Powell Davies, as reprinted in Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion by A. Powell Davies edited by the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church.
Where’s a Good Yenta When You Need One!? No need to sulk; The Matchmaker Rabbi is in! To see Joysa’s columns for Jdate, visit here. Her forthcoming book on dating in Jewish suburbia is being represented by Red Sofa Literary Agency.

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