What is community

Two plus years ago I took a very scary step. I gave religion a second chance after giving up on it many years ago.

I didn’t feel any fulfillment from organized religion. I had been burned in niche communities with the drama or being used in someones agenda. I had a hard time reconciling faith with science. Despite all that, I stood by the quote from Contact (the movie, never read the book,) “[…] we belong to something that is greater then ourselves […]” This book and movie was before the popularization of the Higgs-Boson, though I suspect Carl Sagan was aware of it when he wrote.

I was gently pushed to try out religion by my then therapist. She had been pushing me to find a spiritual connection again for a long time. I know she felt that it was part of self actualization and becoming ones best self, even giving me some homework of books to read related to that. But what was the tipping point was finding myself in a not so unique but definitely awkward situation that had me thinking a lot of deep thoughts about my life, the universe, and, well, everything**.  It’s funny how the end of a relationship and possibility of new life does that to one. /sarcasm

I knew from the past what didn’t work for me on multiple levels. I had spent the past year plus studying Judaism and loving everything I read or experienced. So I took a step in that direction. That step turned into a leap that ended with me running, as I do.

Running included my attending nearly every Friday night Shabbat service, taking multiple classes, studying with a rabbi for conversion and all that entails (which is a lot,) and being active in the community on many committees, attending many events, etc. Through all this I developed some close relationships, or so I thought.

I have found that I am a very emotional person. That due to various factors in my past, I tend to quickly attach myself to those who show me interest or good will. I’ve gotten better about discerning people, their intent, etc. to protect myself. But it also leads to a lot of situations where I feel something is more than the other does. (Side note, this is part of why I have trust issues and a hard time believing someone I would be in a romantic relationship actually cares for me.)

There are common phrases that ‘Judaism is not a spectator sport,’ ‘you get out of [it] what you put in,’ and ‘one cannot be a Jew in a vacuum*.’ The first phrase was used often in the synagogue (aka shul) I am a member of in trying to drum up volunteers and participants for various activities. There was a subtle element of guilting involved there, but when I was already planning to attend and/or help out, it didn’t phase me much, at least that I recognized consciously.

Then stuff started to happen. Some of the relationships started to fracture. The programming at shul became things I was not as interested in, as I was not part of a niche audience that was being targeted. I also was getting serious in a romantic relationship with someone who was very attached to a different shul. All of these things caused a lot of internal strife.

Then I had a series of misfortunes. The first, the car accident, I received some moral support from the community. Then with the need to focus on (my boyfriend’s) family who were going through serious situations (not my place to talk about) and I asked my community for support, but got nothing. When I got sick, I received no support. When I lost all my food from a (winter storm) power outage (over 48 hours) and had no money so I was eating crackers for a week… no support when I asked for it.

Now, to be fair, I wasn’t very obvious in my asking. Also, I am willing to bet that in many situations (such as being (mostly) alone for Thanksgiving) that the community made an assumption that I would be with my boyfriend’s family.

Then I experienced the death of someone. Granted, they weren’t close to me. But their death did impact me. It was a relationship that had anyone else been in it, they would have understood and also needed support. This time I reached out much more obviously, and dropped whatever masks I had in place of trying to appear competent and in control. I still received no support.

In the months where I drifted away from my shul, it was rare for folks to ask how I was doing, what I was up to. I realize that everyone has their own drama and life – I am not the center of anyones’ world, other than my own. I don’t fault anyone, because I also fall away for months (or years) at a time, but still consider folk friends and that our friendship is the same despite that intervening time. But this, this was the breaking point for me.

See, when a congregant has a death in their family (such as a father in law – though I get being divorced makes it a bit gray of an area) a notice goes out to the congregation so that they know to support the person in need. This didn’t happen when my step-grandmother died in Jan 2017. It didn’t happen with my ex-FIL in Jan 2018.

I began to question. I had put so much of myself into the community. There were months where I was at shul or a shul related event 4-6 days a week. Yet here I was in need and drifting, yet no one seemed to really care. I wasn’t getting back what I had put in. I began to feel used.

Luckily, both with my own connection to Judaism as a whole – separate from my shul – as well as experiencing other shuls (aka myboyfriend’s) the idea of spirituality and the mitzvot hasn’t been shaken. But this whole thing has made me question – what is community? Is it the friendships developed? Is it just doing similar things in the same space? Is it similar ideals? Is it a healthy back and forth of giving and taking when there is need? Is it all of this in a complicated way?

The nerd in me turned to empirical sources (1, 2) which found it is all of the above. Which further saddens me that once again, I grew attached to and gave so much to a community that… I wasn’t discerning enough about. While I am lucky that there are some wonderful connections I made because of it, and I certainly have grown a lot in my time with that community, it hurts to have to let go. I don’t have to completely let go, but enough that it won’t feel the same – for me or them – as it was. It’s ok to mourn that a little bit, right?

*I feel like this came from one of the many Rabbi Kushner books I read, but I could be wrong.

**Thank you, Douglas Adams.