Thursday, October 28, 2010

Solutions for small Jewish communities

[Post on my mind today: Blame it on the bus, from Modern Uberdox]

The transience of Jewish communities is an appropriate hallmark of life outside of Israel; Jews are not meant to remain outside of Israel. A big problem, though - at least in my mind - is the death of halachic community services (synagogue, school, kosher food, eruv, mikvah) while Jews yet remain in those communities.

Halachic services are expensive to maintain. Aside from the the obvious issue of financial cost, a great deal of infrastructure is needed just to keep committed professionals in the community.

A community with 4000 Jews in it will likely have no day school for kids, and no kosher food beyond whatever the supermarket happens to stock as part of its chain's offerings. There might be a chavura of some variety, but that's about it. And so the kids who grow up in that community will be missing what could have been a major influence in their lives, beyond what they randomly pick up in the media or on the internet.

Of course, these communities themselves rarely harbor families who would identify themselves as halachah-observant or even halachah-concerned. But for those of us who believe it's important for Jews to have a mikvah, religious education, lulav and etrog and matzah, and so on, what are our options?

Of course, there is Chabad. Chabad offers such communities professionals and services, funding them first before looking to raise the funds inside or outside the serviced community.

There is also NJOP, which doesn't provide people but does provide free programs and materials to those who would run them.

And there is another model, which I've seen operated by Federations. They hire an itinerant rabbi, generally someone older, who does not have children at home, and assign him a set of communities to which he travels and whom he serves.

The goal is not to run a shul. Rather, it is to have a rabbi who does active research (on-line, and through personal networking; we are past the age of looking up "Cohen" in the phone book) to identify Jews in those communities, and offers them his services. Who travels there perhaps monthly to run programs for youth and adults, and who keeps in touch with people between visits. No budget to run a building, not enough for a school - but perhaps enough to provide a spark which might lead a child, when he grows up and moves out, to look for something Jewish on campus, or in his new community.

What other options have you seen, or do you think might help with this problem? Or is it not a problem at all?


  1. Off the bat, thanks for the link.

    I think that unless there is a frum chevra of at least 40-50 families in the "smaller" communities then these places will be history in 80 years. Hopefully we'll all be in E"Y by then.

    The communities out there that are surviving are those that are close enough to bigger communites with high schools.

  2. Our family is currently involved with a small community 100 kilometers from Toronto. They have a beautiful building, but it takes money to maintain it.

    Right now, it is a viable community even though small, because some of the regulars are young families, with children. They maintain minyanim on Friday night and Shabbat morning, and a small Hebrew school.About a dozen show up all the time, most of those Shomrei Shabbat.

    They happen to be within a reasonable (not quite, on a short Friday!)commute of a big city, so a
    Shabbat-only rabbi is an option for them.

    It's not easy work, there is some sacrifice involved. But the rewards can be wonderful.

    What about the kids? True, they have no Shabbat friends, other than each other and whoever shows up in shul. But they are learning that being part of a community means not just rights, but responsibilities, which I think is a much harder lesson to teach in a mega-shul. It's good for a bar mitzva bochur to know that he is needed for the minyan, for a teenager to know that if he wants to hear a good Kriat HaTorah, he'd better learn it well.

    You want to know what the options are? Small community living can be great, but you have to work at it. Maybe we need 'garinim', small groups of families willing to go out there and support each other as they support the community. Maybe they could be a kind of virtual tele-kollel, hooked into a larger beis midrash.

    At least it's cheaper to live out there.

  3. The problem you describe and solution may be relevant for North America, but in other parts of the world, much smaller communities exist and continue to function even without a core of Shomer Mitzvot members.

    I grew up in Wellington New Zealand, which has far fewer than 4000 Jews, probably less than 2000 (although there are no accurate figures), and fewer than 5 Shomer Miztvot families, yet the community maintains an Orthodox Synagogue, Youth Movement (Bnei Akiva), Mikva (seldom used, but available for anyone who wants it), a Chevra Kaddisha, Shalichim and Rabbi, and makes sure that kosher meat, matza, Araba Minim, and other necessities are available for those who need it.

    This type of community has existed in New Zealand for well over 150 years.

    A similar model exists throughout Europe, Australia, South America, South Africa, Hong Kong and other places.

    Not sure why North America is unable to maintain small Orthodox communities even in the absence of Halachically observant families; probably because the Heterodox movements have been so successful there.

    Ironically it would be easier ad much cheaper to maintain such a community in North America where kosher food is available in any supermarket, and importing goods or services from major Jewish Centers is relatively easy.

  4. Neil-
    You're welcome!
    My goal is not to preserve the communities, it's to preserve the Jews who live there.

    Definitely cheaper, this is true. And, more importantly, more fulfilling in terms of the communal role you highlighted. But the garin vision is unlikely, because of the pull of the larger communities. I speak from the experience of someone who worked to draw people to a community of 8000 Jews, which had plenty of amenities.

    Michael Sedley-
    I think one of the major reasons the smaller communities in North America can't do it is that the people who are most committed to creating and funding these services move to larger communities. What other options exist for the Jews of Wellington?

  5. In Wellington there are no other options (other than a very small "pregressive" congregation that caters mainly to the intrmarried).

    The pattern in Wellington is similar to many small communities. People who become frummer or more commited to Judaism often leave the country for a bigger community (normally either Australia or Israel). At the other extreme, a significant percentage loose their connection to judaism altogether.

    It is the middle group, people who stay in New Zealand and identify as Jewish and want there to be a Synagogue available, even if they seldom attend, who are responsible to maintain the building and available services and pass it on to the next generation.

    This pattern has been going on since the first Jews arrived in New Zealand, amongst the first European settlers over 150 years ago.

    I think that the difference in the US is that outside the large Jewish Centers there often never was an established Orthodox shul, and the "middle Ground" Jews are unlikely to invest the time and resources in establishing one, especially if those who are really comitted are likely to move.

  6. It seems to me that what makes or breaks a Jewish community in the US is the presence or proximity of an Orthodox high school. One can pour all the money one can get into a mikva, kosher restaurant, etc., but the viable communities are the ones in which the residents raise their families into their kids' high school ages.

    With a large enough Orthodox Jewish population the costs of the services are divided up among enough people that cost is not that big a factor. If people are not staying in the community then even if a sufficiently large endowment pays for all the services there won't be sufficient people to utilize them, or run the endowment and services for that matter.

    100 years ago Allentown had a very vibrant Orthodox population, with a number of shuls, butchers, etc. There was even a Chief Rabbi (though I don't know how official that was). What was missing was a commitment to a thorough Jewish education after middle school. Now Allentown has somewhat less than that, and frankly poor prospects of long term survival, let alone a return to its former glory.

    Chabad does perform a function, but you rarely see self-sustaining Chabad communities outside of the New York area, especially those started by the ubiquitous Chabad Houses. People who become frum through Chabad tend not to stay in those communities, but rather move to other places, especially Crown Heights.

    The itinerant Rabbi model works as long as people who identify themselves as Jews are extant in those places. Once those Jews leave there is no one for said Rabbi to interact with.

    At the end of the day, if you have a Orthodox high school you will have most of the services (not every place can have an eruv). If you don't have an Orthodox high school you won't have any of the other services for long. I think Neil is being extremely optimistic in his time figure, though he may have access to statistical data I am not aware of.

  7. "Preserving the Jews who live there" has to be part and parcel of preserving the observant community- which was the focus of my comment (sorry I didn't spell that out).

    Marc is mostly right. You have to have a high school, or another option, like a strong youth program geared towards the high school kids with formalized learning involved.

    There also has to some connection to the "bigger" Jewish community. It could be an OU sponsored small community network or even a "sister city" program, where a smaller community can take advantage of a bigger communities Torah resources and the bigger community can understand the strong feeling of family that many smaller "one shul towns" have.