Tuesday, February 15, 2011

UPDATED: How to Interview a New Jewish Community

Happy Half-Priced Candy Day! Now on to business...

During conversion, you feel like you're the one always being interviewed. And you are.

But at some point, maybe even during your conversion, you'll also get to interview someone: the rabbis and congregants of a new community. Hopefully you have a selection of communities! Even if not, an interview is still a good idea so that you know what you're getting yourself into.

(And I guess non-converts could use this list too, lol...)

Here are some questions I thought about for my own community-selection process, and I hope you'll add your own in the comments! I've divided the topics into categories, but the categories are pretty arbitrary and overlap. (A post about figuring out what you want in a community first is forthcoming!)

a) Demographics of the Jewish Community: Where is the kosher food, the mikvah, and the schools? Where can you buy fresh meat? Is there a kosher butcher? How diverse is the larger Jewish community? How diverse is the shul congregation? What is the Ashkenazi v. Sephardi v. everyone else breakdown? If you are a minority, how well will this community treat you? If you're single, can you find a marriage partner or will you have to look elsewhere? If you're an "older single," how well will this community treat you? If you happen to be a convert/conversion candidate, are there others in the community? Will the community treat you well if/when they know? Ditto if you're divorced and un-remarried, a single parent, a parent of a special needs child, a parent of adopted children, not "Jewish-looking enough," GBLT, or any other thing that makes you "weird."

b) Demographics of the Larger Community: How well do the Jewish community and the larger community get along? Have there been any anti-Semitic crimes or other hate crimes in recent years? Are there sidewalks where you plan to walk to shul? If not, have people been hit by cars while walking to shul? What kind of interfaith interaction is there? How well-lit/safe is the walk? How can you cross the street on Shabbat? Do the "walk" signs change without pressing a button or maybe there's a crossing guard? If not, do you feel safe crossing without a light? If you belong to a minority group, do you feel that the larger community is welcoming to you?

c) Hashkafah of the Synagogue: What is the hashkafah of the shul? (Hashkafah is translated as worldview, but it is often compartmentalized into labels like Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Chareidi, whatever. If you've always lived in a "one shul town," you may not know where you fit in!) Where do the rabbis and congregants see the congregation going in 5, 10, 20 years? Do they generally agree on the trajectory of the congregation? How bad are the synagogue politics? (They're all bad, but some are worse than others!) How is the leadership of the synagogue structured? Is the shul affiliated with a national organization? (If not, why not?) How welcoming is the community to new members and visitors? Do they daven (pray the services) fast or slow? How much singing is there? Are they lackluster singers? If you're female, are you looking for egalitarian or female-only opportunities?

d) Hashkafah of the Rabbi: What does the rabbi think his role is in the community? Where was he trained? Does he follow the rulings of a particular rabbi or rabbinic school? Is "his" rabbi still alive? Either way, if he has a question he can't answer, who does he ask? Does he have a halachic specialty? Are there topics he likes to focus on more than others? Do you want the rabbi to have a familiarity with something important to/about you? (For instance, I would want a rabbi at least somewhat familiar with halacha as it relates to pets!) Google the rabbi and see what you find. Is there more than one rabbi? If so, learn about the others too! If you have my luck, you'll first meet the one you like least! If you're female, it would be best to try to meet the rebbetzin or anyone else who generally advises women on women's issues.

e) Explore the Shul: Where are the men's and women's entrances? Are you comfortable with the mechitza? Where are the siddurs? Where are the bathrooms? What kind of classroom space is there for shiurim/learning? I suggest looking through the library and seeing what kinds of books you find. Is the building uncomfortably hot or cold? Is there a keilim mikvah (mikvah for immersing kitchen utensils)? Will you be comfortable in those seats for 3+ hours at a time? Is there an eruv? Where is the eruv and will you "hold" by it? How will you be notified about the status of the eruv each week? Are children welcomed during the services? Are there childcare/classes/alternative services for kids? Is a police officer present on the synagogue grounds during "high risk" times or even weekly? Is there a newsletter you can sign up for before you move?

f) Personal Growth: How many shiurim are offered each week? Do they fit your schedule? What are they about? Do the topics range from beginner to advanced so that you have room to grow in your learning? Are there other learning opportunities in the larger Jewish community to supplement those offered by your shul? Is it possible to suggest new topics or to arrange for special events of interest to you? What learning opportunities are there for your kids? Do you want special interest groups like singles, teens, young marrieds, Israel advocacy?

g) Arrange for a Shabbat visit when you've narrowed down the contenders. The shul should be able to arrange for hospitality that will allow you to stay with a congregant and arrange meals with various congregants. This is the hands-down best way to learn about the community. If possible, sit in on a class or two and go to a weekday davening.

h) Debrief: What was your knee-jerk reaction? Did people talk to you? Were they nice to you? Were they even polite to you? Did they offer to introduce you to others? Did you feel a connection with the rabbi(s)? Could you see yourself being friends with people in the congregation? Are there congregants of  similar age/experiences? Was the davening too fast or too slow? Does your observance level "fit in" with the community? Do you "fit in"? Did you feel comfortable, maybe even "at home"?


  1. Those are all good questions to ask about a community. Some I find kind of scary (like has anyone been hit by a car) but they're important to think about!

  2. Other common things in NJ for location of the shul are... Is there a crossing guard at the crosswalks/lights? Or automatic four-way stops on Shabbos? Is there a police officer stationed at the shul on Shabbos? Also the very important question -- the eruv! Is there one? Where does it extend? How often is it checked and how do you know it is up?(one shul I go to has a huge letter "E" that hangs off the shul sign if the eruv is up, some shuls have automatic phone calls/voicemail, some do emails, some have a hotline)

    I am sure there is more, but this is a great guideline for anyone, not just those converting!

  3. Sarah, I would only think of it because my community lost a pregnant mother to a drunk driver just a few years ago!

    Leah Sarah, as always, my right-hand woman! Updates made, including a couple more things you reminded me of.