When I spent a semester as a college and yeshiva student in New York, I was advised to “never marry a New York girl; they are so used to buying take out that they don’t know how to cook.”
It was not until decades later that I moved to Long Island and found that the advice was incorrect. In the eleven years here, we’ve been invited to many homes as guests and have found the cooking to be just fine. Having said that, it is, in fact, incredibly easy to keep Kosher and not cook in New York.
Matter of fact, it’s easy to not have to work hard to do anything Jewish if you live in greater New York. Whether you’re in Montauk [the eastern tip of Long Island] or Parsippany, New Jersey [the western edge of many New Yorker’s definition of “civilization”], or pretty much anywhere in between, you’re less than 30 minutes from a weekday morning minyan or a decent Kosher knish. This is a wonderful thing for those who live here, and bad news for those rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish communal workers who often were raised and trained here.
A story to illustrate my point. Once, my family was vacationing in Savannah, GA. We happened to wander into a local synagogue, and, as is my style, decided to do some rabbi-to-rabbi networking. The conversation went like this:
Rabbi Schmendrick [not his real name, but a good description]: Shalom Aleichem
Notorious R.A.V. [not my real name either, but a good description]: Aleichem Shalom. Nice to meet you. How long have you been rabbi here?
Schmendrick: About a year now.
Notorious: Oh, still new here? Where were you before?
Notorious: Oh, and where did you get semicha [ordination]?
Notorious: Oh, and where are you originally from?
So here’s the thing. It is true that the greater New York area has more Jews than the rest of the solar system. And less real understanding of what Jewish America or the Jewish world looks like. There is an unfortunate assumption that Jewish life is easy all over and that if everyone modeled their Jewish community after New York [or just moved here] all would be well.
My experience tells me that this is not the real situation. We spent a number of years enjoying the Atlanta Jewish community back in the day when the closest Kosher restaurant was in Miami, about a ten hour drive. I led high holiday services in Laredo, TX, where some families drove 3 hours to Corpus Christi for Kosher meat. And during a vacation trip to Vermont, I had two communities ready to scour the entire southern portion of the state to help me make a minyan for Kaddish, as they would for their own congregants, even though all they knew about me was my e mail address and that my father had died a few months earlier.
Many of our friends here in New York do not understand how (or why) anyone can be Jewish under those circumstances. They also fail to grasp the deep commitment to Jewish life that exists in the “fly-over states.”
And now to the rabbis, Jewish educators and Jewish communal workers part…
It was a surprise to me to learn that few Long Island rabbis thought it worthwhile to join the NY Board of Rabbis, or even the Long Island Board of Rabbis. One rabbi noted that “I don’t have enough time to spend with the rabbis in my own town, how am I going to find time to spend it with rabbis from all over the area?”
And as a Jewish educator, I know that it is impossible to make an impact on the New York community; it’s just too big. Maybe a person can make a difference in one town or one county, if they’re lucky.
So, New York born and trained Jewish communal professionals don’t know how powerful it is to live in a place in which you know every single other Jewish communal professional in the community by name; communities in which all rabbis sit together and address real issues: responding to Jewish community needs, taking a stand on social action issues, interfacing with clergy from other faith communities with an aim of improving the total community.
And if you don’t know that these things are possible, then your training in woefully deficient.
My modest proposal: Institutions that train Jewish professionals should require that all students spend at least six months working in “real America” (for my purpose, I’ll include Canada. Hell, I’ll even through in Mexico!). During that time, they can better learn to appreciate what it means to have to stretch in order to be Jewish, but also the power of uniting for the issues that really matter.
Lenny Bruce (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenny_Bruce) said that “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish.” What our Jewish professional leaders need to better understand is just how wonderful Jewish life can be, and often is, in communities all around North America.