August 10, 2006
Look for the Overlooked
I must have learned at an early age the Jewish prohibition against separating oneself from the community. Although naturally shy, my proclivity toward being with others has been a constant in my life.
With my hyper-responsible, Type-A, first-born personality, I think that I may have actually been the youngest, recent-college-graduate, grad-school-tuition-paying, no-income-earning individual on the planet writing checks for synagogue membership dues and contributing to The Federation in my early 20s.
So why is it years later that although I still affiliate with organizations, give charitably and attend synagogue regularly, I can't seem to get any bang for my buck?
I don't mean the typical fees-for-service, what-can-you-give-me types of payback here. What I mean is that after years of knowing and benefiting from me, our Jewish community, my Jewish community, has a hard time seeing me, remembering me and finding a place for me.
It would be one thing if after all these years I had become rich, gotten married, borne children or gone out of my way to extensively volunteer. I am sure that people then would have had some clue about what to do with me. But for better or worse, none of those things have happened, and I have gone about my life working hard (for the Jewish community, I might add), affiliating and contributing responsibly, while diligently building pockets of community for myself in areas and with people that interest me.
Let's be clear for a moment. I have amazing friends. I love their children. I would be lucky to find spouses like they have. (Truly!) However, as a single, 30-something, full-time working individual, the communities that I have built for myself have been in constant flux for a while now.
By this time in our lives, my friends are mostly married with children, which, for better or worse, makes their free time and ability to commit much more challenging. And by default, and as it should be, they do not think about single 'ole me at the top of their lists. (Well, I have one friend who regularly prays that I will soon find my beshert, and although that is not what I mean here, it certainly can't hurt.)
By not being on anyone's priority list but my own, I am naturally left alone in the world to fend for myself. I know, poor me. But consider this: Although the Torah teaches us to emulate Avraham and Sarah by welcoming the stranger into our homes, it doesn't really give voice to what should happen when the stranger, no longer new, becomes a regular part of the community. Our community, for that matter, doesn't really encourage that thought either.
My question then to synagogues, organizations, families and individuals is, "How do we (and I consider myself responsible as well) look out for those individuals who are afraid to ask, who need a Shabbat meal or a community to celebrate with? What are our obligations to those people who don't have families of their own, for whatever the reason?
I recognize that such a situation is a two-way street, and that in my own personal case, my timidity may still provide a difficulty in finding and asserting my own place within the community. But give me a break here. How many times do I have to answer, "Actually, no, I don't have any plans," or embarrass myself by asking for an invitation for a Shabbat or holiday meal before someone takes it upon themselves and invites me on their own?
How many times do I have to volunteer my services, knowledge or expertise without being taken up on the offer or offered some other way to get involved? It gets humiliating after a while. Seriously.
So the next time, when a new person enters the community and you invite them to your home or onto a committee or into a group, think about those who are already there who may also be in need of such a welcome, especially the singles, and ask both of them instead. Believe me, it will make a difference.