My wife and I traveled to Florida over the Presidents Day week to visit with family and some friends. Given the weather that New York experienced in December, we imagined that New York might wind up being the warmer of the two places, but as it turned out, we couldn't have been more wrong! The weather in Florida was spectacularly sunny and warm, and the weather in New York has been equally spectacular, but in the other direction, with record cold temperatures. Through nothing but luck, we definitely won the vacation lottery.
This time away has been a gift for us, a chance to recharge our batteries, spend time with children and grandchildren, and also visit with a number of members of our synagogue, friends of long standing, who spend their winters in Florida. I must admit that, at times, it felt as if we were living in an alternate universe, a completely different reality that made me want to check the calendar and make sure that it was still February. A person could get used to this, I thought to myself more than once. The sun was out, the weather was warm, people were lovely and gracious, shopping in Publix supermarkets makes going back to NYC food stores downright embarrassing, and in general, the anxiety level of people is so much lower than what I'm used to. All good… And all very pleasant to experience.
But one thing that we noticed left us wondering why, and what's the message behind it. Virtually everywhere we visited, in a variety of cities, there were very few neighborhoods that had houses fronting the main streets where the traffic flowed. Almost all of the housing was made up of a seemingly unending series of developments, obviously planned, that had arbitrarily selected names, and were set off from the public by gates or fences. I'm not taking about what we would call here "gated communities," where you have to be admitted by a guard. There were indeed some of those, but most were not guarded in that manner. Rather, the communities were built, very premeditatedly, to be set off from the road, quite private in a not-so-subtle way. There were very few people walking the sidewalks– hardly any, actually– and you could drive long distances on the main streets of the residential sections of the cities and still not see anyone besides the very occasional person, or, for that matter, actual houses.
As a resident of New York City (yes, Manhattan people, Queens is New York City!), I found this fascinating. We here are so packed in like sardines, on buses, trains, and even streets, that finding some semblance of personal space takes on larger than life significance. If someone stands too close to us in an elevator, or actually tries to talk to us, we tend to think of that as aggressive behavior. Apartments are small, houses, except in particularly wealthy areas, are on fairly small lots of land, and for better or for worse, we're in each other's faces far too much.
In Florida it felt almost exactly the opposite. Rather than wanting to be left alone, even ignored, it felt to me as if the streets were hungry for people. Where is everyone, I kept thinking. The answer was clear. They were in their insulated communities. The seemingly endless strip malls and shopping centers was where one went to find people, or to restaurants. There are lots and lots of those places. But when it comes to where you live, that's another story entirely.
I am not a sociologist, but I suspect that, if I were, I would have some all-encompassing understanding of what this kind of living represents. It made me think of Robert Putnam's classic work Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Something significant is happening there, something that pulls against the way people most often bond with each other.
And then, of course, being who I am, it made me wonder that the implications of this kind of human settlement are for synagogues.
The original Greek word that gave us today's "synagogue" meant assembly, meaning clearly that the earliest synagogues were places where people would come to be together, either for Jewish prayer in its earliest form, or for other purposes. In the ultimate, it's not all that much different today, at least here in America. In Israel, people go to synagogue to pray…and that's about it. Here, because Jewish identity is not a given in this most pluralistic and open of societies, Jews go to synagogue to be with other Jews, because most of the people they meet during the day, and work with and study with, do not necessarily share their faith. Even when people can't recite the prayers in Hebrew, or aren't particularly familiar with the contours of the service being recited, they come to be with people that they intuitively feel connected to. They share their dreams and fears there, in only on a subliminal level.
When Putnam wrote his book, he was describing the breakdown in America of those ways that people traditionally cohered and created community, symbolized by the decline of bowling leagues and similar activities. I couldn't help but have the feeling that what I was seeing in these kinds of communities in Florida was the next step in this process of withdrawing within one's self, and retreating from involuntary forms of human interaction. It seemed to be saying that we interact when we need to, but not necessarily in serendipitous or casual ways.
I am still asking myself the question of what this means. My instincts tell me that in terms of society as a whole, it's not a positive thing. Something important seems to be to be lost when casual interaction with people is consciously limited. But as a rabbi, it also feels to me as if the role of a synagogue as a place of assembly is even more critical.
All of us who make the synagogue world our primary focus are keenly aware that it's all about community, because without that, neither prayer nor any other activities are likely to flourish there. We work hard to make people, even strangers, feel as if they are welcomed, and to make the synagogue a place "where everybody knows your name." How much more important is that when life outside the synagogue is so isolated from casual interaction?
Two closing thoughts…
First, I in no way intend for these observations to be a global indictment of Florida or its citizens. To a one, the people that we met were gracious and welcoming, and no one has been transformed into a soul-less automaton because of the way Floridians live. Second, I recognize that the phenomenon of set-apart communities has more to do with the way the massive tracts of land have been developed than any conscious effort to change societal modes of interaction. Of course that is true.
But still… After seeing development after development recessed from the main roads of town with nary a house nor a person visible, Putnam's work kept coming to mind. Somehow, in some way that I couldn't quite put my finger on, something important is lost along the way…
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.