Sunday, February 11, 2007

Tell us what more we can be doing

My rabbi said that yesterday. At the time I didn't know how to answer.

I talked with my husband at greath length this morning about yesterday. We talked about whether expecting true community, people caring about one another, was unrealistic. We talked about the fact that this was not an isolated incident, for me or for others.

We know people who have left the shul entirely because they did not feel supported. We know people who no longer stay for the kiddush luncheon because no one talks to them unless they initiate it. We know people who never receive invitations to Shabbos dinner or a Seder.

I don't know if the rabbi knows this or not. I don't know if he knows that new members are welcomed and embraced in proportion to the amount of money they make, what they can offer the shul, or their ties to long-established members of the shul. We have been members here for almost twelve years and we would not be considered long-established members.

I don't know if he knows that during the kiddush luncheon or any other social time, people gravitate toward their own social circles and tend to ignore everyone else. I don't know if he knows that if you are not wealthy or not politically connected or not related to someone popular in the shul, it is easy to be marginalized.

I don't know if he realizes that social events, including after shul on Shabbos, is just like high school all over again. But whether he knows it or not, I think he needs to hear it from us. I think we owe it to him, to the congregation, to all those who have left, are considering leaving, and those who have yet to be disappointed and cast aside, to tell him.

He cannot legislate community. He cannot force others to care. No one can. But I am sure there are ways, inexpensive easy ways to drive home the point that we all have an obligation to one another. Even if we ourselves are not in a position to help right now, we have an obligation to find someone who can.

One of the basic fundamentals of Judaism is that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. A Jew does not live isolated from the rest of the world, nor can he be concerned merely with his own existence and survival. Jews must reach out and give of themselves to their fellow Jews.


A commenter asked, Do you usually stop to comfort someone who is crying and upset? The answer is yes, I do. And if for some reason I am hurting too much myself, I will--and have--found others who I know can do something. I am not particularly extroverted, even in the best of times. I find it very hard to trust people. But I know what it's like to be in pain and be Unseen. So I do my best to See people.

I see people who want to join a conversation but don't know how and so I ask them a question to include them. I see women nursing their infants in a special sitting area next to the women's restroom and looking like they need something but don't want to bother anyone. I always ask and in particular offer to get them a glass of water. I know how thirsty I got when I was nursing. I see people who are sitting by themselves at a table and I ask if they would like some company. I make a point of looking for new faces, people who are not already engaged in conversation, people who are looking a little lost, and I ask if they are visiting or new members. I often offer to introduce them to a dozen other people I know.

Even as shy as I am, it is not hard to do this. The questions are easy: can I get you something? Would you like some company? Are you new here? But one has to See these people first.

The same commenter said that a more likely reason for not saying anything is not knowing how to proceed and how to offer comfort. This is a problem that has a solution. This is something more that the shul can be doing. We have offered classes in bikkur cholim, how to visit the sick. Why could we not offer information, even from the bima, about how to care for one another? How to ask? What to ask?

If the congregation simply does not know, we can fix that. If they do not care or do not want to see, then we have a bigger problem.

My husband and I are going to try to see our rabbi about this in the next week. This is bigger than just my not being seen. This is about much more than me. This affects all of us. It may not be me who is Unseen next time. I want to spare them the pain I am going through now.


Ayelet said...

I think that is an excellent idea. i keep thinking as I read your posts, "What do you need this shul for? Find a circle of people that will be supportive." But I realize now that that, in a way, is the selfish response. Your approach is the nobler one. You seek to right the wrong and to help everyone grow. I think that is so admirable. I really respect you for that. You are absolutely right. People can be taught what to do. It's definitely worth giving them the chance. Let us know how the meeting with the rabbi goes.

Feel good. You're still in our prayers.

Anonymous said...

This education of empathy & sensitivity can and should be taught at the youngest age possible and reinforced within the school's curriculum.

rabbi without a cause said...

Hi Rivka,

Your words are as heartrending as they are eloquent. I am glad that you appreciate the difficulties a rabbi faces. I hope you will post the results of your conversation with your rabbi, to the extent possible.

I have posted a link to your blog from mine, where we have been talking about this issue from the rabbi's perspective as well as that of the congregant.

I also expect to send some of your comments to congregants of mine who might be able to learn from them to help others.

Anonymous said...

I would have emailed you the following, but I can't find an email address for you:

Your post was forwarded to me by a friend. Your message is very important to me; thank you for expressing it so well.

I am a synagogue rabbi, and I would like to send a link to your post to other synagogue rabbis I know. At the same time, I don't want to blow your cover. So I am asking first: Would it be all right to forward a link to your post to other rabbis?

Tzipporah said...


we had the same problem in our shul, so we started a committee to try to generate ideas of how we can be more welcoming and make sure nobody slips through the cracks. Guess what? All the people who cared about this signed up for the committee, only to find that we are already doing everything we can individually, and nobody else is interested enough to help. Kind of makes me want to leave the shul, except that ALL religious communities are like this. So I just left the committee.

Rivka said...

Ayelet: there have been times I thought about leaving, though it would mean moving to a new home and changing schools for the children, so it would be a very big decision. But I have been here for well over a decade; this is my family. I can't leave them. I don't know if they even want to learn, but as you said, it's worth giving them the chance.

anon 2/11: I agree completely. Unfortunately, I know many parents who do not, and further, don't care.

Rabbi wac: thank you. Words cannot convey what it means to be seen even through my computer screen. I will definitely post what I can within the confines of anonymity and appropriateness. I wasn't able to get a hold of him today to schedule an appointment, but I will try again tomorrow.

Rivka said...

Anon/Rabbi 2/12: I think that would be fine, and thank you for checking. I purposely did not list an email. If I cannot say it publicly even though anonymously, then maybe it shouldn't be said at all.

I suppose there is a possibility that my rabbi might wind up receiving such a forward and finding this blog. He would most certainly know who I am. I know I said that if I knew he was reading this, I couldn't write it anymore, but I'm not so sure that's true now. I have done everything possible here to give him the benefit of the doubt, to acknowledge that hundreds of people both in and out of his congregation want his time, his energy, his attention. I am only one. I think I will have to do a second What I want my rabbi to know post.

After all that, yes it would be fine to send a link. If it helps others, it is worth the risk of my rabbi finding me. And I'm not even sure if that would be a bad thing.

Rivka said...

Tzipporah: that is very disheartening and sad, particularly that others weren't interested enough to help. It shouldn't be about whether or not we're interested, it should be about contributing to community. But I know that's not reality. It makes me sad. Where do people turn when they are in need?

Anonymous said...


You should never assume that your congregation is as heartless and self-involved as you portray it. As someone who lives with depression and anxiety, I am able to see the impact it has on the people around me- friends, family, people I encounter at shul...

Sure, they don't understand what you're going through. On a bad day,I don't understand what I'm going through- how could I expect that of anyone else, especially someone without professional training?

Of course, people do have a communal obligation to help one another. But part of the pact is that we have to be willing to help ourselves, otherwise this places a responsibility on others which they may not be emotionally equipped to handle. If someone is acting in a way that seems irrational and unstable, they can't realistically expect people around them to be lining up to hug and soothe them in any situation.

You must get effective professional help. Please take up your search for a psychiatrist. Your condition needs to be monitored. You must make sure your meds are correct and dosed properly. You must seek hosptalization, if necessary.

I hear your pain and I can relate to much of it. Please help yourself. Once you've reached a level of stability, things will begin to fall into place. Good luck & you're in my prayers.

Remson Wood said...

Rivka, You see beyond your courtyard. You, who know such mortal pain, offer empathy, kindness, support. Even while you struggle you still reach beyond yourself. Your transcend even your own pain. You have great courage and wisedom. You help me strive beyond myself simply by your own honest example. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Helping ourselves gives us the ability to self comfort. this is a real necesity when opening up to others is impossible.