I was raised in a small but active Conservative Jewish community in a mid-sized east coast town. Although we did not live in a metropolis, our community had one each of Reform, Reconstructionist, and Chabad congregations, with a modern Orthodox shul not too far away. If you wanted to practice Judaism, there was a community for you.
I remember celebrating Shabbat while swinging on barn stalls when our congregation didn’t have a building. My parents started “camp mini-minyan” so my brother and I would look forward to celebrating our Jewish identity with friends. We marched with apples attached to Israeli flags on Simchat Torah, and invited 100 people over for Break Fast each Yom Kippur. There were sukkah parties and Purim shpiels and Hebrew school bagel breakfasts.
It was easy to be Jewish. To “do” Jewish. I assumed it always would be.
As newlyweds, my husband’s job landed us in a small town teetering on the edge of rural and suburban. We set up our kosher home, committing to a three-hour round-trip drive to purchase kosher meat a few times a year. While I knew going into it that there wasn’t such a bustling Jewish community, I also knew there were two small-but-established congregations within a reasonable distance. We immediately joined the unaffiliated but Reform-leaning shul closest to my office. As a young attorney I figured it made sense–I’d work until Shabbat on Fridays, my husband would meet me for services, and then we’d go home to enjoy a Shabbos meal.
I brushed off the piano playing during services. It wasn’t my tradition, but I thought I could get used to it. We made the best of social events that were only attended by congregational elders and families with Hebrew school-aged children. But we had to draw the line when the community Pesach seder was held at a BBQ ribs restaurant. While the congregation was close knit and doing beautiful Jewish things together–it was not our spiritual fit.
Within a year we had our first child, and I wanted desperately for him to grow up with the sounds of services as familiar as lullabies. We joined the other shul–also unaffiliated but Conservative-leaning–thrilled to discover that the rabbi was, himself, father to a young child. Unfortunately that rabbi left due to health issues–but in what seemed like an amazing twist of fate, a childhood friend (the daughter of the cantor that I grew up with!) took over the pulpit. For about a year we attended Tot Shabbat and I felt the comfort that only comes from being part of a bigger community. But at the end of the year, a new rabbi came into town, and she was not family friendly. And by “not family friendly” I mean that our 2-year-old son was upset that no matter how much he tried to get her to say hi to him after services, she didn’t engage or indulge him a single time. By that time we also had a second child, and we decided that we would rather our children have no Jewish community experience than bad experiences.
So there we were–three years and two kids into marriage with no Jewish roots. We were too observant for one community, and too kinderlach for the other. Moving wasn’t an option, as much as I would have loved to dig up our not-so-deep roots to relocate to somewhere, anywhere, with a larger community for us.
It turns out it is really hard to be Jewish, to do Jewish, when you’re the only ones. Hard, but not impossible. We’ve done the only thing we knew how: We’ve built our own community. Only, our community is not filled with Jewish people. Instead, we are surround by people who love us enough to celebrate with us, even when they may not know, at first, what or why we are celebrating.
The first Sukkot after we left our second synagogue, I looked at our bare sukkah and knew it needed to be filled with decorations. My kids were 4, 2, and almost 1 years old, so not quite up to doing the job entirely on their own! I remembered the sukkah parties of my youth, when I’d go to friends’ homes to cut apart holiday cards, and have friends over to my home to paint plaster fruits. We decided to invite 30 friends to decorate our sukkah. I set up six stations for making decorations–plaster ornaments, like I grew up with, and coffee filter butterflies, like I found on Pinterest. As night fell, our sukkah was aglow with twinkling lights, we ate in and around our now beautiful temporary home, and my heart felt full watching my children, surrounded by their friends, celebrating our traditions.
When it came time to enroll our oldest son in school, we decided against our local public school where he would literally be the only Jewish child. Instead, we chose a small private school that went further than embracing us–they encouraged us to share our religion and traditions. We’ve celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Tu Bishvat, Hanukkah, and Purim with the school community. I’ve watched my children, including my younger son who currently attends the school, share their traditions with such pride, and their friends take part in our celebrations with equal joy.
I never imagined I’d be a Jew without a Jewish community. There were days I felt lost and alone, that’s for sure. In some ways, our Judaism is strengthened because it isn’t easy. We don’t have a Jewish day school, or even a Hebrew School, to rely on to teach our children. So we teach them ourselves. We don’t have a rabbi to turn to for answers. So we research, call my dad to chat, and draw our own conclusions. We don’t have a Torah Tots group to prepare our children for each upcoming holiday. We do it ourselves. As time goes on and our children get older, I do hope that we will one day live in a community where being Jewish is easier. I would love for them to get invited to a friend’s sukkah party, or put on a Purim shpiel with friends instead of for friends.
Once I decided to “grow where I was planted,” I suddenly found myself surrounded by the most welcoming and supportive community. For now, we’re finding our path to do Jewish in beautiful, meaningful ways. Although we aren’t part of an active Jewish community, we are surrounded by a community that helps us actively practice our Judaism. And for now, that’s enough.