My Community Growing Social Experiment: A Check-In

TCJ-Dec-Galit-Photo-crefit-Nicole-Spangler-PhotographySo first of all I have to tell you how much fun I’m having with this Jewish community growing project of mine. Actually I’ve been told over and over again that it’s really a social experiment so I’ll go ahead and call a spade a spade: This social experiment rocks.

To read more about what I’ve been doing start with, “Confessions Of An Unaffiliated Jew,” where I expressed my thoughts about unaffiliated Minnesota Jews as one myself, and then click over to, “MJF Seeking Jewish BFFs: My Yearlong Search For a Jewish Community As a “Newbie” in the Twin Cities,” where I explain what happened when I was gutsy enough to publish that first article.

But the basics of what you need to know are this: I’m spending the next year-ish going on Jewish friend dates with the unselfish goal of learning more about joining and growing communities and the more selfish one of growing a Jewish community of my very own.

This last month I met so many of you. You’re lovely, dates; kind, thoughtful, and interesting.

I’ve met with such a mix of men and women, people who are my age and my parents’ age, clergy and not so much. This dating diversity immediately led me to my first social experiment conclusion, which is this: You have to be way open and flexible about what community – and friendship – looks like.

I think it’s fascinating what creates a friendship spark, what solidifies a click, and what makes either short or long lasting.

I don’t think I’m alone in my instincts to try to find people who are like me when I’m friend-finding. Families with kids around my kids’ ages are tempting. It seems like we’d have a lot in common and connecting with people who have similar demographics has the added bonus of simultaneously community finding for my kids and husband. This feels like a win.

But I remember Rachel Bertsche’s excellent advice, which is to cast your net widely. You never know who’ll be your “catch.”

This month I met with people about to have their first or second babies. Their bleary eyes and hopeful thoughts about how introducing solid food, big kid beds, and second babies will go brought me right back to that stage of my life. I also met with people whose kids are in college and some whose kids are having kids of their own leaving them to maneuver the grandparent role while I’m very much entrenched within mothering school-aged kids and tweens.

In each case there was so much to talk about, so many ways for friendship to look. Our differences weren’t really a barrier. But a closed off-ness to our differences would have been.

So that first part about casting a wide net has to do with friend finding in general.

But when it comes to community building, looking specifically at growing a Jewish community, I also gleaned this: There’s a (big) difference between outreach and friendship.

Here’s what I mean by that.

There are some people I met who were definitely smitten with their congregation, and/or worked for it, and were trying to sell me on joining.

There’s actually nothing wrong with that at all. As one person mentioned, there’s a business side to synagogues and it involves a space and a staff and programming to pay for, all of which require congregants to fill seats and pay dues; a full house (synagogue!) is a good thing. I respect that.

But when you’re on the perspective joining side of things, you (I) can feel the difference between someone “doing outreach” and someone who wants to meet new people and who is interested in making new friends.

Playing defense a little bit here, I want to point out again that I don’t think that either one of these is wrong or not okay.

But it is important to know your audience and that there’s a time and place for both.

One synagogue member mentioned how fantastic the board is at their synagogue. They’re warm and friendly and good at engaging new people at services and activities. We discussed how this would feel if those same amazing congregants were wearing nametags and identified themselves as board members. We both agreed that this would flip the switch from friendship to outreach and might not have the desired results.

The bottom line is that people like to feel like they’re a part of things in more ways than their checkbook.

So last month I wrote about the realization that in joining and welcoming new friendships and communities, there’s room for effort on both sides. This month I’ve learned that on the joining side, it’s important to be open to out-of-the-box connections and on the welcoming side, it’s important to be mindful of authenticity.

Do you think there’s a difference between outreach and friendship? Does it matter? And how wide do you –and are you willing to- cast your friendship net?