(JTA) — When you walk into the back door at my home away from home, Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, you’re greeted with a faint scent of kosher matzah ball soup mixed with the slightest hint of mildew from a 70-year-old building that can’t quite manage its moisture anymore.
On your left, you’ll see the kitchen, the heart and soul of our congregation. It is often where the most invaluable Torah is taught and learned. That happened a few years ago, when my wife, Mel, was joined one snowy Saturday night by our rabbinical intern.
“Mel,” he asked, “do you always need to make this many sandwiches for the food pantry?”
“No,” she replied. “Demand has gone up over the past few years, but we always need to make double at the end of the month.”
“Why,” he inquired, “should you need to make any more at the end of the month than at the beginning?”
Mel stood there somewhat stunned by a question that should not have felt like a Talmudic riddle. How could he not know? I am sure he knew why we blessed two challahs for each Shabbat meal (to remember God’s grace in the desert, when ahead of Shabbat the Israelites were able to gather double the amount of manna [Exodus 16:22]). But why did he not know why we need to double the number of sandwiches we make at the end of the month?
“Most of the clients we serve, some of whom are members of our own congregation,” she explained, “rely on WIC and EBT, government benefits that are issued at the beginning of each month and that often run out by the end, especially in families with children.”
“Oh, okay. I didn’t know that,” he said with a humility that endeared him so deeply to all of us at Beth Israel.
He didn’t understand the significance of the double portion at the end of the month, but the truth of the matter is before I came to Waterville, I didn’t either. I knew nothing about communities like Waterville. And what I thought I knew was not only wrong, but actually, in retrospect, was harmful and offensive. And if I did think about class differences when I lived in Brooklyn, I rarely thought about it in connection to the Jewish community.
But my ignorance and that of my student should not surprise us. Because how many of us really talk honestly about class? Class isn’t just about money. It’s a messy alchemy of financial wealth, social connections, political and cultural power, the opportunities people encounter in their lifetime and the communal regard they receive. To put it more concretely, someone can have the money — through personal resources of scholarships — to attend a Jewish summer camp. But class is also knowing which brands everyone else is wearing, knowing where to access those in-fashion clothes, and being able to own them.
The trickiness of class is what brought one of my Maine rabbinic colleagues to warn me about sending the kids in my congregation to major Jewish summer camps, “Even if you can get them the scholarship, Rachel,” she said, “the teasing they might endure might not make it worth it.”
Why aren’t we talking about class? The topic is tender because class is inextricably linked with our dignity. In Hebrew, the word for dignity is kavod and it shares the same root with kaved, heavy. Dignity is about how much leverage we have — in creating a world that gives us what we need and brings us into spaces with the promise of fullness, respect and agency. And the inequitable distribution of this kavod is impacting the ability of the American Jewish establishment to sustain functional, holy communities equitably nationwide.
For many small-town rabbis like myself who travel back and forth regularly between large cities and our small-town synagogues, the disparity in services, luxuries and opportunities we witness between urban communities and our home shuls is striking and often painful.
Synagogues like ours are struggling to pay their heating bills so that their pipes don’t freeze. Our congregants often cannot make their rent or pay college application fees, and our boards struggle mightily to raise the funds for paltry part-time rabbinic salaries. These heroic small-town lay leaders work the equivalent of unpaid, full-time jobs so that every member of their congregation can have a human hand to hold when life gets real — during times both of transcendent joy and deep distress.
Over the past 50 years wealth and social power have been increasingly concentrated in 12 metro areas to the exclusion of large swaths of our nation. The organization I lead, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College, estimates that 1 in 8 American Jews lives outside one of these areas. At the same time, we must also see that class disparities exist within every locale. And so, as we plan programs and craft policies as an American Jewish community, I would challenge all of us to ask ourselves and our institutions questions out loud that we usually don’t ask.
Who is included or excluded by the price of this event or membership?
What services should every member of a Jewish community be able to access, regardless of price? Who will provide it? Who will pay those who are providing those services and will they be paid a fair wage?
How do we work to address the pain and shame caused by unacknowledged class differences within our community?
Not all of these questions have simple answers, but we have to start addressing them. There are three steps we should be taking as an American Jewish community to make our community more economically equitable now.
First, even though livestreaming has been a blessing and increased accessibility and access in ways that cannot be overstated or taken for granted, we still need to reiterate — in all of our communities — that it doesn’t replace the importance of physical presence. For most of us, to be human is to be embodied, and we cannot let physical presence and contact become a luxury good.
Second, every state in America should have at bare minimum one full-time, at-large, pluralistically oriented rabbi with an endowed salary that serves the entire Jewish community of that state, regardless of ability to donate or pay.
Third, we need to find ways to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, so that every Jew’s soul is fed. We cannot afford to lose anyone. The eternal faith of the people Israel is a covenant that should not be contingent on one’s class — it is up to all of us to make sure that every member of our people is spiritually sated, held by community, known and called by name. We need a new American Jewish budget that fulfills the basic birthright of every Jew in this nation — to be served and held as a worthy member of our people.
Recently I turned to Central Synagogue in New York City to support the work of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. They answered the call immediately — partnering with us not only financially, but as thought partners in building community and capacity through Central’s The Neighborhood online community and my organization’s programs. Two other Manhattan synagogues — Rodeph Sholom and Park Avenue Synagogue — came in alongside them, eager to help us spread the story of small-town Jewish life and advance our mission. They are funding our National Impact program, Makom, that trains small-town lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals in order to make small-town Jewish life sustainable. They are also supporting our Shaliach Tzibur program that trains small-town Jews to lead rituals and services when no clergy are present.
But there is so much more to be done on a strategic, national scale to ensure that we are touching and serving every member of the American Jewish community with dignity. We will need to continue this work together, large and small Jewish congregations working together to serve the entirety of our people with dignity.
On every Shabbat to come, let’s dream of lechem mishneh, a double portion for all, and let’s start ensuring that everyone, at the very least, has the flour for a single loaf. As our rabbis teach, “eyn kemach, eyn Torah” — without flour, without physical sustenance, our Torah cannot live.
This essay was adapted from a guest sermon given by the author at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.
The post As a rabbi in a small town, I understand the Jewish class divide — and how to close it appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Focus group Oct. 11 at Simkin Centre for people concerned about personal care homes
As Manitobans have gone to the polls and with a new legislative assembly about to begin a new four-year term, the challenges of long-term and continuing care homes need to be communicated.
MARCHE, the Manitoba Association of Residential and Community Care Homes for the Elderly will be holding a focus group on Wednesday, October 11 that is intended to provide the community at large a forum to express thoughts and provide ideas and recommendations for the future.
Please join us on Wednesday, October 11th at the Saul & Claribel Simkin Centre. We look forward to hearing from you.
See poster below for more information and how to register to attend.
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)