How I Found My Own Atypical Jewish Community After Converting

How do you find community where there is none? It turns out, you have to grow one yourself.

A good rabbi will tell you that after conversion, and at many points in your Jewish life, there are going to be peaks and valleys. Sometimes you will feel high on life and engaged with your Judaism; other times you will feel things are kind of bleak and isolating. I had a good rabbi, so I knew a low point was probably on the horizon and I vowed to be ready for it.

I was not ready.

I live an hour and a half away from my synagogue. Being isolated isn’t actually new, but things were easier during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone was isolated. Everyone was attending temple by Zoom and feeling distanced from the heart of the community. We were alone, but we were alone together.

But then things began to open up.

When things opened up, people were attending services in small numbers while masked and practicing social distance. I was still attending via Zoom. I’d planned to attend my temple once a month to establish connections, but then there was an infrastructure failure between where I am and where it is, making the trip impossible. I began to feel the isolation more deeply. I was alone … alone.

I began to feel like I was in a metaphorical wilderness, much like the people of Israel in the literal wilderness. The Israelites moaned about returning to Egypt because while it was bad, at least it was familiar. When feeling like I didn’t have a physical community, I had a fleeting thought of attending a church I’d been part of just to be around people and things I understood and had once embraced. It wasn’t right for me, but at least it was familiar. As a convert, having to learn to speak the language of Judaism can be isolating as well. Beyond that, Judaism is a communal religion; it doesn’t bloom in the desert of isolation.

But how do you find community where there is none? It turns out, you have to grow one yourself.

I found Jews on social media, many of whom were also isolated, either by the ongoing pandemic or by disability or by living too far from a synagogue. But there were also Jews involved in local communities. There were Jews of nearly every denomination and level of observance! I began to connect with them and to have a greater appreciation for those with whom I’d already connected. There were Jews telling Jewish jokes, Jews engaging in serious study and teaching, Jews having fights about Jewish foods — there was Jewish life happening right in front of me and I hadn’t seen it. I embraced it wholeheartedly.

On Twitter, I found #jwitter/#jtwitter (and an ongoing joke about the schism between the people who use one hashtag over the other). I started a message group for converts and prospective converts to bond as I’d recently finished my conversion. On Facebook, I found groups for celebrating Jewish life, including many celebrating specifically queer Jewish life. I found cooking groups where I’ve learned to make cholent and improve my challah. I found groups sharing Jewish memes and even photos of Jewish cats.

I also reached out to my rabbi and talked about the feelings of isolation. He encouraged me not to shy away from mourning my past tradition and current isolation, even using the metaphor of shiva, sloshim and yahrzeit (Jewish mourning rituals) to acknowledge the loss of the community I’d had and the lack of community I currently felt. It’s important to mourn, but to place boundaries around the mourning and not to let it consume you. I wrote about my experiences. I began to blog about them and found people who felt similarly among those who read it.

I contacted my synagogue. I learned it’s incredibly important to advocate for yourself at your temple. Reach out for rabbinical support, ask about continuing distance services and learning opportunities. Ask if there’s a program for isolated members to connect them to the life of the temple. Stay as involved as you can. If there isn’t one local to you, consider broadening your search and cultivate a relationship with one further out. I found that my synagogue planned to continue broadcasting Kabbalat Shabbat services and to continue offering Torah study by Zoom indefinitely. I found my rabbi to be open to conversations about how I’m doing spiritually while isolated. I found out there would continue to be Jewish education by Zoom and Facebook Live. I could connect.

I began seriously to engage with Jewish content on a deeper level. I asked my rabbi for reading suggestions. I filled my bookshelf with books about Jewish history, contemporary Jewish life, Jewish humor, Jewish cooking. I began to explore joining a chevre kadisha (Jewish burial society). I listened to Jewish music. I grew my Jewish identity. Staying in touch with Jewish material rooted me in my identity. If I had to be a Jew alone, I resolved to be the most Jewish Jew I could be.

Eventually, the feelings of isolation waned. I began to feel comfortable with my atypical community. I valued them for what they were and accepted what they couldn’t be. Most of all, they — and I — continue to grow.

Read More