A few years ago, we moved. “Downsized and modernized” was my mantra. We lived on a small block with a lot of activities – annual Labor Day Block party, December holiday gatherings. There was even a communal snow blower. Picture a Norman Rockwell painting of a New England neighborhood.
But in New Jersey.
One of the downsides of our current condo development with 78 units in an enclave right off of Main Street is the lack of community feel. People are certainly nice, but there is no natural opportunity other than the annual Condo Association meeting to bring people together.
Our synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid, remains a vital anchor in our quest for community. The move brought us a little further away distance wise – 2 ½ miles more and a couple of steep hills. But the synagogue remains a big part of our lives, and of course our support system. To us, it seems logical that feeling a part of a community is part and parcel of synagogue membership. As many of you know, there have been many many blogs and articles written and workshops offered about how often this doesn’t happen.
When it comes right down to it, most people throughout their lives are looking for community. Parents want their young children to be a part of a playgroup – and they want to form a bond with the other parents. In college, we gravitate to people with similar interests with whom we could solve the problems of the world, play basketball, listen to music and hang out. As adults we want to get to know our neighbors or even the people on our commuter train.
When my parents, in retirement, moved to Florida, they became a part of a self-directed group of retirees with weekly breakfasts, book groups, interesting speakers and social gatherings.
Joining a synagogue follows this theme.
Millennials are finding community through Facebook and other forms of social media. I posit that they can solely rely on their laptops and smartphones for community. At some point, a desire for human contact will kick in. There will be the rare individual who would rather be a total recluse and choose most often to keep to him or herself. At some point, one needs to physically be with others.
When it comes to building community in synagogues today, we use a lot of buzzwords: “engagement”, “relational Judaism”, “outreach”, “membership”, and now “Small Groups”. Perhaps the Chavurah movement in the 1970s was in incubator for this. Small Groups bring people together to pray, to eat, to do social justice projects, and really to be a part of the synagogue in meaningful ways. Many churches today are also using Small Groups in similar ways. The challenge to engage people so that they feel a part of a community is similar, no matter the size of the synagogue or church.
The biggest challenge for synagogues is starting up such a program. Involvement of clergy to initially bring groups together and lead initial programs and provide ongoing ideas to help nurture Small Groups is critical to success.