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BINTEL BRIEFI feel so disconnected from Jewish life. Help me find the right community

Readers say they’re lost and lonely and nothing seems to fit. Bintel crowdsourced ideas for finding and forging Jewish connections

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send us your quandaries about Jewish life, love, family, friends or work via email, Twitter or this form.

“How do I connect to a Jewish community?”

It’s a question that comes up more than any other in letters to the Forward’s legendary Bintel Brief advice column. 

You wouldn’t think it would be that hard. There are Jews and synagogues in every state, Hillels on 850 campuses, 350 JCC sites and 1,000 Chabad houses around the country. And the Jewish Federations of North America raise and distribute more than $2 billion a year with a stated goal of building “flourishing Jewish communities.”

Yet we keep getting letters from Jewish Goldilocks: The available options, they say, are too large, too small, too traditional, too liberal, too old, too young, too left, too right, too cliquish, too cold. 

One letter writer said Judaism is so family-oriented that it’s a “difficult and lonely place” for single adults, especially older singles. 

Yet we also just heard from parents of young kids who feel “disconnected from Jewish life.” The shul they belong to is not a good fit “spiritually, socially, and politically,” and they can’t find an organized Jewish community to “plug into.” 

Other recent letters came from an interfaith progressive couple looking to find the right Jewish circle  in New Jersey — not exactly a desert when it comes to Jews — and a student striking out on Jewish dating apps.

It seems like all these people have essentially the same problem: They can’t find the right Jewish home. (Don’t make me tell that joke about the lone Jew on the desert island with two synagogues!)

I’m lucky: I’m a secular Jew who lives in New York, connected to like-minded Jewish friends and relatives, with all the Jewish news, food and culture I need. But I get it: Especially for those who live outside areas with large Jewish communities, finding the right mix of tradition and culture is tricky. 

To help our lonely letter writers, I crowdsourced ideas from social media and the Federation and JCC world.

What kind of Jew are you?

My Facebook post about this topic hit a nerve, generating dozens of responses.

“The first thing they have to do is decide what kind of Jew they are — spiritual, social, cultural, intellectual, none of the above or all of the above — and only then can they decide where they want to go for fulfillment,” advised one post that resonated with others on the thread. “There are many roads you can travel, but you have to pick the right one for you. No one else can do it for you.”

Another said: “Once you decide that, whatever it is you choose to do, do it regularly. Show up often if you’re looking for community.”

Finding the right community also means taking chances.

“They need to take the first step and walk in that door,” said a woman joining the conversation from the Pacific Northwest. “Many Jewish organizations are not just family-centered. It’s a lot easier to make assumptions and complain when you don’t make the effort to connect in some way. My synagogue calls itself a family and we really are. There’s a lot of love in the community just waiting for new people to embrace. Also: Don’t give up after one try. Did they give up on dating after one wrong turn?”

“Sometimes the only way to find a good fit is to try a variety of things and compare,” chimed in someone else. “It’s not a failure if you try a thing and decide it’s not for you, and it’s not the end of the road. It’s part of the process.”

The High Holidays: Now’s your chance

So, how to implement that advice? The High Holidays are a great time to explore options. 

Check out local synagogues’ livestreamed services from the comfort of your home to see what you like. And look for holiday programming that’s not organized by synagogues — break-fasts, kids’ events and tashlich ceremonies where you can join others symbolically casting away their sins. A quick online search of different regions shows tashlich events for families and singles, tashlich gatherings themed on social justice and even a tashlich waterfront meditation.

One post pointed out that MeetUp, the social media platform for organizing events for people with similar interests, has 315 groups with “Jewish” in the name.

Several noted that volunteering is not only meaningful in and of itself, but is also a good way to connect with a Jewish community. That’s easy if you live in an area with a Jewish nursing home, JCC, Jewish museum or YMHA. If not, spend some time Googling.

If you’re into progressive causes, search for “Jewish” and “social justice” and see what’s nearby. You’ll find synagogue-affiliated groups, independent Jewish organizations and Workers Circle chapters hosting election-related phone banks, meetings on issues like reproductive freedom and volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters. Or take your pick of other groups from across the political spectrum: the Republican Jewish Coalition, a range of Israel advocacy groups and the Anti-Defamation League. Sign up for newsletters, go to talks, make a call. 

Many Jewish institutions host singles nights for different age groups as well as family events. If your age group is missing, offer to organize something. 

If you have children, consider Jewish preschool or sleepaway camp next summer. That will open up a whole new world for your kids — and for you as you meet other parents. 

Don’t forget cultural activities. Look for klezmer music, Israeli folk dance and Jewish food events and courses at community centers and community colleges. A class on Yiddish or making bagels is a golden ticket to finding members of the tribe.

And check this out if your Judaism is of the non-believing sort: The Cultural and Secular Jewish Organization has chapters in seven states.

Advice from a JCC

Sam Dubrinsky, who runs the Jewish Community Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, said our letter writers got her wondering, “despite the significant number of Jewish agencies that exist across the world,” whether the Jewish community is falling short on engagement. 

To the lonely single Jew, she acknowledged that “without family connections, finding your place in a Jewish community can be difficult.” Events targeting singles are out there, but smaller Jewish communities may not have the resources to create programs for every age group. 

Many JCCs and Federations do, however, offer “cultural and educational experiential opportunities or classes that aren’t necessarily billed as opportunities to meet other single Jews, but often provide arenas for thought-provoking discussions that allow for meaningful connections to be formed.” So take that class and go on that day trip!

The disconnected parents had noted in their letter that they attended synagogue regularly until the pandemic, and Dubrinsky observed that for many people, some institutions “seem less relevant” in the post-shutdown world. She suggested finding others who feel the same way, starting with the nearest JCC, or by joining local Facebook groups where you might be able to find other Jewish families.

Maybe put out the word for a Friday night Shabbat potluck and see who shows up?

Alisa Bodner, spokesperson for the Jewish Federations of North America, said the letters reveal not just a “thirst for community” but also, perhaps, “the need for innovation in Jewish life.” 

She pointed to a study that found more than 70% of Jewish adults between the ages of 55 and 74 yearn for deeper engagement with the Jewish community beyond synagogues. She encouraged folks to start by finding their local federation to see what’s out there, including volunteer opportunities, family programming, group travel and activities for older adults. 

Bowling alone or ‘Fiddler on the Roof’?

One young friend observed that finding community has become truly challenging for her generation regardless of religion. 

“So is it the Bowling Alone problem?” I asked. And maybe not a Jewish problem?

If what’s lacking is like-minded friends of any stripe, here’s an inspiring idea. A non-Jewish friend of mine left New York for a conservative Western state, and invited his new neighbors to a Scrabble party. Great way to find the local nerds, and a concept that can be adapted to suit any interest.

But someone else described it as a Fiddler on the Roof problem. When your children disobey you, when you’re forced out of the shtetl, when the traditions that governed your life change, it’s easy to feel disoriented.

Grow your own

Of course, most American Jews rejected the old rules long ago, yet still yearn for connection. One solution: Create your own events and communities.

Start by approaching an existing institution and propose an event or a club. Or create your own MeetUp group or Facebook event. Enlist a few participants in advance from neighbors, co-workers, parents of kids’ friends and the like.

How about a monthly tot Shabbat, hosted in rotation by a small group of parents? Make it as religious or secular as you like.

Someone I know hosts a warm, informal Shabbat lunch every week and invites a dozen family and friends. The guests, a mix of ages, some observant, some secular, don’t all know each other, but the haimish feeling is palpable.

Book clubs, singalongs, Yiddishkeit?

Empty nesters, singles or families could form a group to celebrate holidays or Yiddishkeit together throughout the year — Seders, Hanukkah parties, break-fasts and sukkah suppers. (Sukkahs need not be elaborate; when my kids were little, I improvised with poles, fabric and ivy vines.)

Book-lovers could launch a Jewish-themed book club on Zoom to make participation from home easy, then switch to in person at a bookstore or Middle Eastern cafe.

And here’s my baby-boomer dream: a ’60s-themed singalong or karaoke night for songs by Jewish artists like Bob Dylan and Carole King. Together, we’ll sing Paul Simon’s existential angst: “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

Once you have a half-dozen participants on your list, social media makes it simple to stay connected on platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook or Discord.

Bottom line from a Facebook post: “When one feels a lack of something, there are often others who share their feelings. And so, if they are willing to take the initiative, they may be able to create what they seek.”

Do you have an opinion about this Bintel, or a question of your own? We’d love to hear from you. Email [email protected].

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