Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Importance of Finding the "Right" Community

As we just discussed the potential that a convert may need to move to a new community in order to finish his or her conversion (Convert Issues: the Community Requirement), the next step is choosing the RIGHT community for you. And I mean literally "you," specifically. No community will be the right fit for all converts.

Disclaimer: This post is in response to some comments about communities that are not friendly to converts. I'm very blessed that my community is a wonderful one, even before you take into account that almost half the congregation is a convert or married to one! However, when I move in a few months, I'll have to evaluate my new community by these same standards.

My entire philosophy on life can be summarized in one sentence: I'm responsible for my own happiness.

I think that my early life parallels the search for a good Jewish community. I was raised by atheists in the South. As non-Christians, we were ostracized at times, ignored the rest of the time. We had literally one friend in our town (a neighbor), but all my parents' friends lived several hours away. I guess you might say my parents were pioneers of the internet social life! And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree :) However, it made for very lonely weeks between visits, especially for me since they weren't my friends! Especially as an only child, these experiences have made me into a person who is almost too self-sufficient. While those have been good lessons, most people don't survive those kinds of experiences very well. I'm probably an anomaly. I would certainly never wish those kind of experiences on my hypothetical children.

We were isolated and lonely, and people were not very nice to the non-Christians. [The reasons for this are actually more complicated than American society talks about. America is not very nice to us Southerners!] In fact, now I find Southerners to be much nicer and inclusive of me because "even if you're not a Christian, at least you've found G-d!" It was less religious discrimination as lack-of-religion discrimination. When we were unaffiliated with any religious group, we were a (a) free game for "saving" or (b) going to Hell, which we should be warned about in the rudest way possible (to wake us up from our delusions, of course).

Because I'm very comfortable holding my ground and sticking up for myself (I think most societies call this "a big mouth"), I felt it was my duty to stand up for myself whenever people did these kinds of things. In the name of tolerance and understanding, I sought to help people be nice to me. They needed to learn that not everyone, even in the South, is a Christian. Sometimes it worked, most of the time it didn't. Even now, when I told a postal employee in rural TN (during my cross-country drive last week) that I didn't want to buy the Post Office's Xmas CD or DVD because I'm Jewish, I just got a confused stare, as though a flamingo just walked into the North Pole. The feeling was clearly "Sure, you exist. But not here!"

After college, I moved to rural France for a year to teach English, but that was similar to the South in many ways. (Everyone I met was "Catholic, but atheist," but still could not comprehend that I had not been raised as a Christian.) The real difference came when I moved to California!  To give you an idea of how much I bought into the Southern "religious war" mentality, I actually sat down with my career office to discuss how CA employers would view the fact that I had worked for atheist organizations. In response, I got a dead stare and "Why do you think this would matter to employers?" Then I had to explain that almost every job interview I've ever had included the question, "So what church do you go to?" It wasn't being used in the illegal discrimination sense (and I was never discriminated against for my answers), but simply to see if we knew people in common. It was a social segue.

Even though I now live in a place where my non-traditional religious path is not an issue, I still have difficulty believing that the "war" is over. However, the lack of stress and confrontation that I now feel convinces me that I will never live in the South again. The South is a religious battlefield, and I did more than my share of the fight. It's not my responsibility to win the war. I fought many battles, won some, lost some. I worry that I could have, should have, done more. After all, I had the ability and the thick skin.

In the end, I've realized that I did what I could, and I've done more than many. Now, I need to take care of myself. I'm responsible for my own happiness, and the South does not make me happy. Likewise, if a Jewish community doesn't make me happy, I can only do so much to improve that community. And if that fails, I need to look for a new community that will encourage my happiness.

Judaism only asks us to sacrifice our lives for very explicit reasons. Judaism is a philosophy of life. An unhappy life is no life at all. Having a background in working with victims of domestic violence, I see several parallels between an abusive relationship and an "abusive" Jewish community who mistreats its converts (or Jews of color!). As humans, it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't. You've put down roots, there are some nice people, you like the rabbi, your kids like the school, you've got a good job, all your family lives nearby. However, if you're fundamentally unhappy with your Jewish community, you're going to become unhappy with your Judaism. The Jews cannot be separated from Judaism the Religion. There is no point in handicapping your religious life by planting yourself in the rockiest, most acidic soil around. Thankfully, almost all the things you love about your old community can (and hopefully will!) be found in your new community too, in addition to being better able to foster your happiness and spirituality.

Unfortunately, there are only three options I can see:
  1. Move. Ask advice from people who've lived in other communities. Talk to the people in your potential new community. Ask questions specific to the problems you've had in the old community. And make sure you visit several times before settling on a community! It may take a while longer than just packing up and moving, but hopefully a good shidduch (match) will be worth every "extra" moment you spend in the old community.
  2. Unfortunately, if you're a new convert, you probably want to stick it out for at least a year after your conversion in order to not risk your chance to make aliyah. (I've already written a post about this. It should go live about a week from now.) However, if you haven't converted yet, I highly suggest moving to a new community before going to the mikvah.
  3. Stay. I wish you strength and a good sense of humor, but it's needless suffering. Don't let them take you down with them.
And saddest of all, if/when you move away, the negative people in your old community will have no idea of the opportunities they've lost. However, that's not your responsibility.


  1. Altogether, a pretty sensible post. The point of moving, in the eyes of the beit din requiring it, is to have a support system and services available to help ensure success as a Jew. Folks don't realize how much there still is to learn and aculturate in the first years after conversion. So a community that is a good 'personal fit' is very important. Even if it has all the amenities; if one isn't comfortable with the people and the rav, one won't take good advantage. Of course, many people are captive to their professions and thereby limited in their choices.

  2. At least in America you have more variety than other Diaspora communities. In England there are two major Haredi communities - Stamford Hill in London and Gateshead up north near Manchester - a post-industrial area I find too damp, decaying and depressing. Stamford Hill has an interesting Yemenite community though. The customs are really fascinating, especially the spectacular Purim costumes.

    Large, not-exclusively Haredi communities suitable for converts are found in one borough (suburb) of North-West London and parts of Manchester (a city I intensely dislike). So if you don't want the exclusively Haredi lifestyle and school system, and don't want to live in Manchester you are left with about two close neighbourhods in North London, Hendon and Golders Green, and environs.

  3. Rabbi Scher: An excellent point about being "captive to their professions." I think the most common culprit for people is thinking they're "captive to their jobs," which is a horse of a different color. Regardless, I'd personally rather change professions entirely if I had to (which very few people are actually in that position) if it meant not being threatened or demeaned, as others have described.

    On the other hand: jobs. So many people live paycheck-to-paycheck, which can make it basically impossible to move. But with some planning and some saving, it can absolutely be done. My favorite story is from personal finance blogger Trent at I've followed his blog for about 3 years, so I got to see his transition from being in severe financial distress to having the freedom to quit his job and pursue his dream of being a writer full-time, while also being a stay-at-home dad to three.

    John: Since the LBD is probably the most thorough beit din in the world, I'd guess they take a lot of effort to make sure the community responds well to the individual convert. As for Manchester, I've got friends there, so I know what you mean! Also, that's pretty much how I feel about moving to New York City. It's cold and ugly and impersonal...yet the source of unparalleled Jewish experiences!

  4. fantastic post! I'm going to bookmark this one for reference :)