Creating Community, Part 2: Better Than Couch Surfing

This on-going series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 focused on a contemporary approach, the list-serve; in this article, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; future articles will focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion, and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

Recently, my daughter’s new apartment was burglarized, so I found myself making travel arrangements on short notice.  I couldn’t find hotel space close to her Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, so I reserved the bedroom and bathroom offered by a young couple on the Airbnb website.  My daughter stayed with me there for two nights and it was perfect for our needs.  Later this month, I will return for another visit, this time with my teen daughter.  The very day I landed in Chicago, the New York Times ran a feature on Airbnb and its placement service in its Business section.

As comfy as were my accommodations– far better than couch surfing!– the placement service does not yet compare to the generous hospitality that I know in the Jewish community in my role as Hospitality Coordinator for my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue.  Orthodox Jews have such a strong sense of connection with other Shabbat-observant Jews that we can travel the world over and ask for (free) Shabbat and Yom Tov (holy day) hospitality from local Jews.  Usually, it’s because of work or non-Orthodox family celebrations that we find ourselves far from an Orthodox synagogue.  (We also get the occasional appeal from a shul member overwhelmed by the number of out-of-town guests for a simcha (religious celebration)).  But it is also when we travel for pleasure that we can ask for help finding kosher food and accommodations.

However, we Jews have been thinking a lot about trust and safety recently after the little boy, Leiby Kletzky, was murdered in Brooklyn, after he asked for directions from a man who looked legit, like someone who held the same values.  Similarly, Airbnb had to revise its policy after several hosts complained of paying guests who trashed their homes and stolen personal property.  A few days after my return home, I received a letter from Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, stating their commitment to supporting their hosts with a newly instituted guarantee coverage for up to $50,000 in damages from paying guests.  So, how do we deal with the issue in my community?

Some people would say we’re crazy for opening up our homes to strangers.  I have even placed guests in local homes while the owners were away.  In one incidence, the guests were coming from London for a bar mitzvah, they later connected with their hosts, and the shul family’s daughter was able to stay with them while she was doing her semester abroad.  In a dramatic example of the Biblical quote from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that can be translated as “Cast your bread on the waters, for you shall find it after many days”,  this same host family found themselves in need of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) this summer when they made a wedding for one of their daughters and their machatanim (parents of the other member of the wedding couple, in this case, the groom) asked for an empty house, because the groom’s father is wheelchair-bound and he has to use a hospital bed.  To my amazement, with my very first phone call, I was able to make the shidduch (match).  Another example came four summers ago, when I got a frantic call on a Friday afternoon.  A woman was stranded at the airport because her plane had been delayed and she needed a place to stay for Shabbat.  I made the shidduch, then because her luggage had been routed to Boston (where the rest of her family was headed), she wore her host family’s daughter’s power suit to shul the next day.  The only marvel to me was that she, a mature woman in her late 50s, was the same size as her host family’s 19-year-old daughter.

After the boy’s murder, my Rabbi gave a drasha (sermon) on Shabbat about reaching out to the loners in our midst.  He also reassured me that we were doing just fine with our hospitality placements.  I later consulted with my co-coordinator  about changes we might have to make, as we are not in a position to offer any monetary guarantees against damages.  We decided to continue with our modus operandus, by inquiring about the community that a prospective guest hails from and how did they find us, as a community referral is best.

We are not unique in our commitment to hachnasat orchim. The website Shabbat.com was created by a web designer in Monsey, NY in 2010 and, after the webmaster of LMShuls posted a notice about it on our list-serve, about 20 local families signed up as hosts that week.  We cannot make the bad headline news go away, but we can focus on building community in the way we know, one mitzvah at a time.

This series will continue in September.

Keeping One Foot in Each World

In the three-and-a-half years since I’ve started this blog, I’ve written about issues from the Chinese, American, and Jewish perspective, but I’ve never yet written about what it’s like to be Chinese in a Jewish community.  I didn’t feel ready, since identity is an ever-changing phenomenon, but an article in this past Friday’s New York Timeson a summer camp for Jews of color as well as its on-going series on race in America, made me stop to reflect on my experiences.

While I’ve heard of incidences of prejudice both overt—  a family not wanting their daughter marrying into a family with a giyoret (female convert) or a Kallah teacher abusing a young bride with non-Jewish parents— and subtle, I’ve been incredibly fortunate.  Maybe, it’s because I am of Chinese heritage–  one generally regarded positively by the Jewish community— or that I was already an educated adult who could choose my own community and establish a network of friends.  One cherished comment came from one of my oldest friends in the Jewish world, who told me that it would be alright with her even if I didn’t go through with the conversion process (as the Orthodox bet din is more strict than others).  (As I’ve written earlier, I have a personal mission to eradicate the term, “Chinese auction,” but its usage stems not from outright racism, but rather from the insularity of some Jewish communities.)

Another important fact is that to the Orthodox, the only badge of membership that matters is one’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments).  A secular Jew might have other means of identification, including having Jewish grandparents, or sillier ones like understanding the kind of blended Yiddish (Yinglish) spoken by most American Jews.  The journalist, Samuel Freedman, wrote: “As the largest group of Jewish immigrants to the United States, those from Eastern Europe have set the cultural tone since the early 1900’s.  Their folkways— bagels, Yiddish, New Deal politics, Borsht Belt jokes—became a virtual religion.  Which meant that nobody from outside could ever get completely inside.”  Fortunately for me, my religion is Yahadut (Judaism), not cultural folkways.  Besides, I love the subtle spiciness of Sephardic cuisine over Ashkenazic gefilte fish and brisket, which I don’t eat anyway because I’m a vegetarian.

The children attending Camp Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) felt marginalized in their home communities.  For a while, I’d worried about how my children fared, in cultivating both of their dual heritages.  Recently, I was startled to learn that my college-graduate daughter does not think of herself as “white,” being as she’s been raised by Chinese and Jewish parents.   On the college campus, she experienced more quizzical looks and inquiries into her ancestry:  Mexican?  Filipina?  Puerto Rican?  She was more than pleased by the country having its first mixed-race President.  My conviction is that the only heritages that matter are the ones that you honor by your values and the customs you maintain.

So, just as the first wave of Korean adoptive children benefitted from the Korean culture camps created by their white American parents— this tradition is continued today amongst the Chinese adoptees— maybe these Jews of color do need a camp of their very own.  Maybe one day, they too will feel comfortable negotiating the dualities of their life.  The Torah has 70 faces, teaches my Rabbi, so no one Jew has to feel or do exactly as the next.  As the world gets smaller with world travel and Internet communication, a Jew should feel comfortable within her own skin.  We too can feel as if we’d stood at the foot of Har Sinai where Moshe delivered the Ten Commandments.

Creating Community, Part 1: The New Digital Connection

This series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 will focus on a contemporary approach; in future articles, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; a focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion; and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

In June 2007, I launched the LMShuls list-serve for the Orthodox community of Lower Merion.  It was immediately embraced and, as of this writing, there are 1,195 subscribers.   No, there are not that many shomer-mitzvot Jews even if we are more identifiable by our festive garb on Shabbat and Yom Tov (the Jewish holy days).

The popularity stems from the list-serve’s ability to forge a new sense of connectedness, so now we have subscribers — both Orthodox and otherwise — who live in Cherry Hill, Elkins Park (which recently launched its own list-serve) and Northeast Philly.  We even have non-Jewish subscribers who’d heard about this free service from their Jewish friends and neighbors as a great way to publicize their intent to sell their home.

Several years ago, there was an attempt to create a city-wide directory of Jews and Jewish services, but it was costly to publish and it was quickly out-dated.  A list-serve is uploaded quickly — as quick as the attention of my webmaster,  Eitan Dvir — and it can be read instantaneously or in a Daily Digest format (which I recommend unless you have a terrific thirst to find out the latest real-estate scoop).  So, what is a list-serve?  I think of it as an electronic bulletin board which is monitored.

What are our guidelines?

From our webpage, our policy is clearly stated:

  • Always appropriate: community events in Lower Merion; notices of institutional news and events; events of interest to members and non-members; shiva (week-long period of grief and mourning) notices; community blood drives.
  • Generally appropriate: houses/apartments for sale or rent  in Lower Merion and Philadelphia; cars for sale; Lower Merion business events; Lower Merion garage sales; lost and found; parlor meeting in private residences; information about sports leagues; housekeeper/maid inquiries; rides to a funeral/carpool requests; Lower Merion playgroup inquiries; job postings; backyard camps; babysitting.
  • Never appropriate: jokes; offensive or disparaging e-mails; lashon harah (gossip); posting for an event whose kashrut (kosher certification) is not acceptable to the Orthodox community; and views, opinions, and political news.

Since becoming the Webmaster, Eitan has not become the local celebrity, although he and I get approached by neophyte users, usually the older, less technically savvy members,  about sending and receiving posts.  No, I do not want to get your desperate appeals while I’m driving, so my daughter knows not to give out my cell phone number.  Eitan scans every proposed entry during mental breaks from his day job as founder of E-agle.com for web development and Search Engine Optimization (what Netflix uses to tell you what other movies you would enjoy!).  Even with the public guidelines, Eitan estimates that about 50% of the submitted entries are not acceptable and another 25% of the submissions need additional information.  As Coordinator, I have the less time-intensive but dubiously more enjoyable task of being Enforcer of our policy.  Since I have chosen the Daily Digest format, I receive the posts the next day, about 5 am, and, if need be, I chase the culprit down by e-mail (environmentally, with no high-speed car chases) and remind them, gently, not to abuse the sensibilities of our subscription base.

I first heard about a community list-serve from the Teaneck Jewish community, where a rotation of five web monitors serve a subscriber base of 50,000 (tally supplied by Eitan).  Eitan cut his teeth working with the Monsey list-serve where he’d lived previously.  I proposed it to the board of my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, which approved it but has not underwritten our costs, absorbed charitably by Eitan himself.  The first month, we had only two posts, but the very next month, the tally of posts went up to 75, and since then we’ve gotten as many as 345 notices this past month of May (definitely a reason to choose Daily Digest).

What were Eitan’s most memorable posts?  He cited the one by a bachelor who offered over-ripe bananas.  Silly?  Note that the poster got 13 responses and someone retrieved the items before Shabbat.  Bakers know to freeze the ripe fruit until there’s a banana bread emergency.  Another of his favorites was the time someone’s fridge went on the fritz and wanted a temporary cooling unit and the family received four offers and got a loan two hours before Shabbat, when religious Jews cannot run to the store for more ice cream.  My favorite notice was the time an Israeli family came for a consult at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and was told their child needed emergency care.  The LMShuls list-serve identified for the family an available apartment and furnished it with donated items.  Another one was by a woman who needed to send medicine to her son who was studying in yeshiva in Israel.  Several people who were flying to Israel that week agreed to be her courier, people whom she would not have known to be traveling or would agree to undertake this humanitarian mission.

What is the most frequent offense?  Spam (unsolicited electronic mass messages), including requests for tzedakah (charity).  The posts garnering the most feedback are the quirky ones, like the offer of black bananas.  An example of a quick response via this list-serve occurred recently when a woman posted a warning that “some of the ACME cookies (like chocolate chip) usually packaged as OU pareve are no longer marked as such.  There is a sign by the front display at the store– but you may want to check packages purchased.”  Jan Moskow, the Lead Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at that store location wrote back publicly:

“Thank you for calling this to our and the community’s attention.  The bagged cookies in question were actually pulled off the display before your notice got posted.  ACME uses only one style bag for all its bakery cookies and even though there was no Kosher labeling on these bags, in addition to the non-kosher signage at the display, the Mashgichim saw the potential for confusion and had the cookies repackaged in an entirely different container.”

This is a brave new world, and you can use or abuse the new technology available to us.  Our Rabbi carries a Blackberry so that he is technically always on call, except for Shabbat and Yom Tov.  Our list-serve is available to our subscribers to reach out and connect.  This is one way we build community in Lower Merion.

Movie Chat: The Help

I went to an afternoon showing of The Help with my daughter (who was clueless) and my friend Susie (who has her own stories to tell).  The movie would be a disappointment to fans of the book, but it’s visually very lovely.  It telescoped many events, dropped some complicated incidents, and softened (for me) the emotional impact of the human tragedy.  It has some fantastic performances from lesser-known actors, both black and white, and a breakthrough serious role for Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.

My complaints?  Skeeter is too beautiful for her role as a young woman whose mother despairs of her ever getting married and her curls are managed by modern mousse.  The queen bee, Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) is too beautiful and svelte, compared to the description in the novel.  Constantine, Skeeter’s nursemaid is too old, but wonderfully acted by Cicely Tyson.  The “white trash” bride Celia Foote is not vulgar enough in the fancy ballroom scene.  And Elaine Stein, the Jewish New York editor, is too smooth-faced and attractive (I imagined her being more masculine and angular).

Furthermore, Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle, is too dark, in a confusing switch from the novel, in which she was considered “too high yellow,” (meaning, looking white) to stay in the South, so Constantine sent her up North in Chicago to be raised in an orphanage.  She grew up empowered by the Black Panther movement, returns to visit her mother, and brazenly walks into a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Phelan plantation as if she’s a member or guest.  Her mother is abruptly fired after 29 years of employment and having raised Skeeter.

The messiness of politics and political campaigns was dropped.

But, most crucial was the decision to end the movie before the novel does.

Spoiler alert: The viewer does not know that Skeeter’s mother does die of cancer, so she’s released to move to New York to take the job at Harper & Row offered by Elaine Stein.  And she arranges for Aibileen Clark to take over her column on housekeeping tips, a racial breakthrough in publishing.  The novel is more hopeful, but the film leaves the viewer in suspense about their future.