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.

Yoga, Chocolate and the Rain Forest: Our Costa Rican Idyll

Last August, my husband and I chose to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary by going to Costa Rica. It was our first vacation with an ecological focus, as recommended by old friends who have more refined tastes and more stringent religious commitments. We were delighted to have our girls accompany us. It was a vigorous vacation with hiking, snorkeling in Puerto Viejo (newly discovered by surfers) and daily yoga sessions. My husband was able to decompress faster — and remain relaxed longer — than on any other trip and my review of our stay at the Samasati Nature Retreat posted on TripAdvisor has been read by enough viewers to garner me a free Shutterfly photo album (which, alas, I was too late to redeem). This was a great way to unplug from the world — no phone, no Internet, no television.

Our bungalow overlooked the mountainside and we woke each day to the sunrise (about 5 am) and the chattering of the monkeys. It was the off season in the Caribbean coast, so we had the resort mostly to ourselves. My family had de facto private sessions with the yoga teacher in the beautiful, octagonal studio.

It rained hard most days we were there but at different times of the day. In the capital city of San Jose, the streets have deep and wide gutters, up to two feet in parts. The locals, called Ticos, carry their babies everywhere, not bothering with carriages, strollers or even slings. People can even steer their bicycles, while holding up umbrellas.

All of us but my husband have studied Spanish — my daughter who is a recent college grad is the most fluent but I surprised myself by remembering words and phrases not used since high school. I realized my mistake in studying only the words of the foods we can eat but not words for the non-kosher species we do not eat. As other friends just back from Barcelona remarked, “there are so many ways to describe pork!” The food offered at the Samasati itself was good vegetarian fare (fish can be ordered for Friday night).

We chose to spend a quiet Shabbat on the mountaintop instead of seeking out the Chabad rabbi in San Jose. We reserved a private tour that was listed as “easy.” What we got instead was a guide who wielded a machete — necessary to hack away at the lusty vegetation — and a sweat-inducing, heart-thumping hike through muddy riverbanks, steep inclines, and rocky streambeds. We were up close and personal with the bugs, fauna, and flora.

Sunday in a Catholic country is pretty quiet, but we stumbled upon a cacao educational plantation and the polyglot European owner consented to giving us a tour. We saw and touched the various plants necessary in the chocolate-making process. We participated in the grinding, kneading, and molding. We were invited to “eat as much as we wanted,” because authentic Costa Rican chocolate is so rich that no one can eat more than a piece or two. We learned that families traditionally make chocolate together during their social gatherings. My daughter wanted to bring cacao beans back to her college campus as a different fun activity, but we couldn’t find any on our last days before heading to the airport.

As our first eco-trip, it offered a phenomenal education. The rain forest is God’s gift to mankind. Scientists are studying the therapeutic and medicinal properties of the plants there as well as the inter-relationships of the creatures. Did you know that a certain species of mosquito has the divine purpose of being the pollinator of the wild banana? We have much to learn and appreciate about this precious Earth on which we live.

Hannah Lee now eats chocolate to support the rain-forest economy and still trying to find more time for yoga.

Introduction

My first post was an article in the blog, The Jew and the Carrot, (which has over 100,000 readers worldwide): http://jcarrot.org/welcoming-the-stranger-a-sukkot-meditation

My refugee family lived in a village in the minority Chin state in western Myanmar, on the border with India.  The military junta was conscripting all the men and boys for heavy labor, transporting weaponry within the country.  Their father died on one of these forced marches two years ago.  The family fled that night and traveled into Thailand.  However, the youngest daughter, aged 11 at the time, was separated from them at the scrimmage at the bus station.  The promised Next Bus never arrived, so they lost touch with her and she ended up in a Christian Community House where she was able to attend a Chinese/Korean Christian school.  The mother and elder daughters got rounded up and sold into bondage to a rubber plantation in Malaysia.  They worked long days until a friend was able to post enough ransom money to free them.  Miraculously, they found their sister/daughter in church one Sunday!  The mother and elder daughters all worked in Malaysia (the youngest was enrolled in school) until their petition for Refugee Status was granted.  They do have relatives in America– their father’s brother lives in Chicago and an aunt lives in Maryland– but they ended up in Philadelphia because their refugee portfolio got awarded to HIAS here.

Based on oral testimony of the eldest daughter, without a translator

Start the HIAS Chronicles from the beginning here.