By Stephanie D. Lewis
Last February, during one of San Diego’s rare rainstorms (my mood dampening as much as the weather when the realization hit me that I would soon be turning the Big 5-0 as a recently divorced, single mother of six, with no career in sight) I nearly declined my dear friend’s impromptu invitation to a “community Shabbat dinner” held in a local recreational room in Carlsbad. Luckily for me, she was extraordinarily persuasive.
Arriving slightly late, shy and nervous (my typical M.O), my spirits immediately brightened as I opened the door to the welcoming glow of Shabbat candles and contagious laughter emanating from the full room. I was immediately approached by a tall, vivacious, dark-haired woman with a warm smile, Cantor Gabi Arad (also an ordained Rabbi). Arad is married to Rabbi Josh Burrows, the infinitely taller, but equally engaging co-founder of the Jewish Collaborative of San Diego (JCoSD).
As I partook in some stimulating conversation whilst sharing a delicious potluck meal with mostly new (yet a few familiar) faces, I surveyed the unusual banners hanging on each of the four walls in the room. “Why am I a member of a synagogue?” “Why am I not a member of a synagogue?” “What can my synagogue do for me?” and “What can I do for my synagogue?”
I realized I hadn’t merely walked into an ordinary room for a nice Shabbat dinner. I had quite metaphorically opened the door to a whole new world, which would turn out to be a life-changing, all-inclusive, ongoing Jewish experience for me.
I called my ex-husband and he, along with my children, arrived within the hour. I wanted them to experience this night with me, too. At 9 p.m., we were strolling home, arm-in-arm, literally singing in the rain. We didn’t exactly give Gene Kelly any competition, but we did belt out our personal encore of “Hinei Ma Tov,” kind of on-key. It was a complete family bonding memory. And it was totally magical.
So what was in the air that night? The same thing that permeates the oxygen I deeply inhale at every community gathering or event I have attended since joining JCoSD: a palpable atmosphere of care, concern, cohesiveness, continuity and collaboration. There’s more to it of course than those five C’s, but here’s how I knew this was the start of something big for me.
That first night we were asked to sit under the sign that “spoke to us.” I consciously chose “What can I do for my synagogue?” because nobody had ever asked me a question like that before. And boy, did I have answers! My ideas were greeted with attentiveness and terrific enthusiasm from the rest of the people under the same sign. In fact, some of those grand plans of mine have already been implemented, (others are very much in the works) and I feel gratified knowing that the very things I am passionate about can actually come to a realistic fruition. This is empowerment with a capital E.
I attribute the intense emotional and spiritual fulfillment I have today to the fact that JCo (a catchy nickname (pronounced Jay-Co), heartily embraces an incredible motto: “Don’t just Affiliate, Collaborate!” This is truly a multi-generational, post denominational, highly democratic, and extraordinarily participatory Jewish community.
But what does that really mean? For me, it means that I matter. My family matters. The 5-year-old member who finger paints Stars of David’s matters. Our 89-year-old member who croons Broadway show tunes to us during our “community lounge nights” matters. Young and old, big or small, it’s all for one and one for all at JCoSD.
And how are these distinctive values and unique perspectives conveyed to members? The first way is with sheer amounts of something so simple, yet scarce and treasured these days: Time. On that fateful, rainy Shabbat evening, I signed my name on a special clipboard, which designated me to participate in a one-on-one talk with either Rabbi Josh or Cantor Gabi.
And talk I did. And Cantor Gabi listened for hours. She genuinely wanted to hear all about my hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And my disappointments, regrets, and grief tumbled out quite organically as well. It was cathartic and I would have spent a fortune utilizing that same amount of time with a therapist! But these sessions are not only designed to help the Rabbi and Cantor get to know their congregation (and what makes us tick) but also to help us figure out what we’re inspired to do at JCoSD; and how we might get the most out of synagogue and community involvement. Because let’s face it, some people don’t even know what’s meaningful to them anymore in today’s harried, upside-down world. It’s amazing that these one-on-ones are offered to and encouraged for every single member.
What stood out for me the most during this one-on-one conversation was that I wasn’t interrupted and my conversation wasn’t steered in a specific direction. It was solely my time, my turn, and my chance to be heard. Do you know how precious that is? I wept. Not because I was sad, scared, or pressured, but because it was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever really done both for and with me.
One-on-ones also guide you to think in terms of more detail regarding a special highlight of JCoSD: cohort groups. In these groups, members connect based on common interests and goals. So far, we have organized ourselves into five general themes: the arts, scholarly pursuits, meditation/mindfulness/prayer, health & healing and social action. As we grow, these groups will become more specific in their areas of interest.
The cohort groups are a completely unique way to facilitate significant social interactions. It far and away transcends and indeed completely exceeds the conventional rigidity I am accustomed to at previous synagogues, which base enrichment divisions on categories like gender (Sisterhood) or age (senior citizen clubs). At JCoSD, you can sing your song, paint your masterpiece, or write your novel.
Recently, members of the arts cohort gathered in an intimate circle of chairs at our brand new facility in Carlsbad, cheering each other on while sharing our gifts, hidden talents and skills. Someone danced, another displayed sculptures, people read their poetry aloud, there was a singer, a member desired critiques on an innovative new product she wanted to market, and a baker needed opinions on her new recipe. Written feedback was offered to the presenters on an optional basis. Afterward, everyone agreed it had been remarkable and would be the first of many such evenings! Personally, my self-esteem and pride could not be contained as I drove home that night.
As of this writing, my 12-year old eagerly attends a personalized Hebrew program with a few other JCoSD tweens in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah in January. My 17-year-old daughter is readying herself to attend a musical workshop with Cantor Gabi. She’s thrilled to know she can pursue her dreams while being taken seriously and treated with respect amongst the adult members. And I love watching each of my children flourish.
At JCoSD, we are building a synagogue interface that fits our interests, needs, and schedules. This includes opportunities to find our own spirituality, join specialized learning programs, work with others to create and share art, work on social action projects and campaigns, get involved in community engagement, provide support and care for those in need, and so much more. We do all these things using Judaism as an anchor and guide.
My final and most vivid memory of that rainy Shabbat dinner where I was first introduced to JCoSD is that of a group question and answer period. People were slightly baffled as to what this new concept of “Jewish collaboration” was all about. One by one, we raised our hands, quizzing Rabbi Josh, “How long will services run?” “Which prayers are you going to decide to recite?” “How many times a month will cohort groups meet?” Each time he replied, I caught on a little more to the forming pattern of his response. “I don’t know. How long do you want services to run?” or “I don’t know. Which prayers do you think should recite?” Clearly there was no “you” or “me” here; JCoSD was going to be comprised of a “we” and an “us.”
As time passes and member friendships strengthen, I like to think back on that wet, stormy night, by recalling the famous idiom, “When it rains, it pours” Only this was truly an outpouring of community, support, love and collaboration!
Stephanie D. Lewis is a single mother of six and a regular contributing writer to the Huffington Post. She is a humorist at Once Upon Your Prime (www.thequotegal.wordpress.com) and has a published novel called “Lullabies & Alibis.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.