Engaging with the Tribe When You Don't Live Anywhere Near It
To be a Jew is to be part of a community, affectionately referred to as a “Member of the Tribe,” the People Israel. Indeed, much of Jewish life requires more than the individual: traditionally, a minyan, a group of 10 learned Jews, is considered essential to many parts of Jewish worship. While it is possible to engage in Jewish practice alone – through Torah study and prayer, for example – no Jewish life is complete without a community of other Jews.
Where does this leave those of us who find ourselves in places without a synagogue or local Jewish community? What if you were to find yourself a stranger in a place devoid of Jewish life? In the modern age, Jews are in almost every corner of the world. But what if your corner has no other Jews?
Living in a place like Ghana, this question is very real to me. I have been assigned here as part of my work and expect to be here for at least three years. There are no synagogues in Accra, where I live, or anywhere in the outlying areas. While I have met other Jews traveling through the region, they are few and far between, and certainly never enough to form a minyan.
What’s a Jew to do in these circumstances? What activities could I engage in that would make me feel like I am part of the Jewish people? Here are some ideas I’ve come up with:
- Become involved with a synagogue online and in your time zone. Do more than just lurk! Find a congregation online, then contact the rabbi or membership coordinator and let them know that you want to connect. I currently attend Shabbat service with a Reform congregation in the UK that streams their services live on the internet. I sent an email to the rabbi to let her know that I was participating from afar, and funnily enough, a few weeks later, she found herself giving a blessing to one of her congregants who was traveling to Ghana to volunteer. She put the two of us in touch so we could share Shabbat and watch services online together.
- Celebrate Shabbat in your home, no matter what. In the absence of community, increasing home observance supports your connection to Judaism. Invite other Jews to join, even if they do not celebrate Shabbat regularly or celebrate differently than you do.
- Leverage social media. Put yourself out there on Facebook and Twitter. Like and follow Jewish groups, rabbis, and causes that interest you and make you think. Join in the conversation. Reach out, chat, and message.
- Write about your Jewish life and follow the blogs of other Jews in similar circumstances. Nothing has brought me closer to other Jews than my blog, JewSchooled. The online Jewish world is incredibly vibrant and diverse. Search, bookmark, and challenge yourself to find a new online resource every week to supplement your weekly Torah readings.
- Be open to relationships with other Jews who express their Judaism differently. Ask the administrative officers of Embassies, High Commissions, International Organizations, and Chambers of Commerce in your area to post a message on your behalf inviting Jews to contact you for Shabbat or holiday celebrations. You may learn something from your new friends, and so might they.
- Engage in tzedakah, charity. American Jewish World Service supports numerous projects around the world. I found one they support not far from Accra called Challenging Heights, a foundation engaged in the fight to end child slavery. I organized a small fundraiser for them with my colleagues at work and was thrilled to meet with the organization’s founder to discuss new ways to support the wonderful work they do.
Paradoxically, it is sometimes in the absence of Jewish community that we realize just how valuable such community can be. Isolation forces you to be aware of your Judaism, to have your Jewish radar on, and to be creative in your approach to connecting with your People. It leads you to meeting Jews you otherwise might have ignored, attending services that otherwise might have never been on your agenda, and sometimes experiencing your Judaism in an uncomfortable way.
Being a Jew in a place where Jews are typically absent produces an instant connection among Jews who happen to meet, and a welcome to Jews just passing through. It awakens your connection to a common history, worldview and struggle. It is a reminder of your membership in a larger community: that of the Jewish People.