Is Your Jewish Community Inclusive or Does It Need Some Work?

I am writing in response to Devora Mason’s September 18th article “Divorced without a sukkah”. In her article, Devora describes some of the challenges that a divorced person faces during the Jewish holiday season and offers several recommendations for handling the emotionally difficult time. I commend Devora for sharing her personal struggles and I am sure it offered support to a community of people.

I was struck by the similarity between the struggles that Mason describes as a divorced woman and the personal experiences I had for many years as a single unmarried woman in a community where being 30 and single was not the norm. Additionally, I am reminded of the many conversations I have had with my own mother who became a widow at the age of 52 and has been a single woman for the past 14 years. Furthermore, I have a close friend who was trying to have a baby for a very long time and she, too, had a difficult time on shabbat and yom tov being around all families with children.

The holidays and even weekly shabbat are a family time. Life slows down because it is supposed to. You eat your meals slowly with family and friends, you go to synagogue together, and you spend the rest of the day together playing games, reading, walking, or learning Torah. For people who are alone, whether they are divorced, widowed, or single, this time will always be a reminder of what they once had or so strongly desire.

When I was single and getting older it was inevitable that more and more of my friends were married and had children. Many of the shabbat and yom tov meals that I was invited to left me at a table filled with people and I was the only single. This fact alone did not bother me because it was understandable. If there were no other single people around, how could they have made me feel comfortable? What broke the camel’s back for me and I remember it like it was yesterday, was a sukkot meal about eight years ago. Again, I was the single person at the table. One couple was getting married in a few months, one couple was having their first baby in a few weeks and the third couple had two children. The conversation around the table fluctuated between discussions about good wedding songs and dances, sheva brachot ideas, life with a newborn and good brands for diapers, strollers, and car seats. After enduring three hours of this, I realized I did not have to put myself in these situations. It is my choice from now on if I will accept an invitation and that being at a meal alone was actually more favorable to me than being in a room filled with people who did not know how to be inclusive of everyone around them. Being single for as long as I was (I got married at 36 years old), taught me to be an independent thinker and a very strong self-advocate. Additionally, I learned to be sensitive to those around me who don’t have what I have. My husband and I shared our third anniversary this past summer and I asked him to please not post on Facebook happy anniversary to me. When he asked why not I explained that we are lucky to have each other but there are many people in this world that are alone and don’t want to be alone. It’s a personal blessing between a man and a wife.

Being a sensitive person seems like an easy thing to do but the reality is that in their every day lives people forget to think before they speak and remember with whom they are speaking. A woman who is thin but wants to lose five pounds should not complain about her struggles to her friend who has never been thin and has over fifty pounds to lose. One might think she is a good person to talk to because she is also dieting but the person who has 50+ pounds to lose will never feel good about herself when she is listening to a thin woman who is not happy with how she looks. Let the thin woman find someone at the gym who is in her shoes to commiserate with and be sensitive to her larger friend. A woman who is happily married should not brag about the special things her husband does for her to her good friend who is in a bad marriage and unhappy with her husband. We have many friends in our lives and we need to be conscious about the right people to confide in so that it is not hurtful to them. People who are excited about their newborn baby should be excited. But to whom should they be bragging? The parents can tell each other all day long that they have the cutest baby ever and undoubtedly the grandparents and family will want to see as many pictures as possible. However, the rest of the world does not need to hear about it 24-7.  An assistant principal of a high school that I once worked at told me that she never puts family photos on her personal desk. Because she was never sure who was going to walk into her office and what they did or did not have, she wanted to avoid making anybody feel bad because of her family photo. I was so impressed with her sensitivity because I don’t know that I would have thought of that.

As a person who has not had success yet in having children, I can honestly say that “friends” of mine have been stupid enough to complain to me about the trials and tribulations of breast feeding or weight gain that they still haven’t lost since the baby’s birth. All things that a friend should not talk about to someone who would gladly like to be in that position. Sometimes I wonder if I am being too sensitive about other people’s lack of sensitivity. I think not. I have so many good friends in my life that have children, some of whom I consider like my own nieces and nephews. Those friends never make me uncomfortable or feel bad about myself. Those are the people I choose to be with and those are the ones who are my support during difficult times. Always remember to surround yourself with the right people that make you happy, whether you are single, widowed, divorced, or childless. It is alright to make yourself a priority and decline invitations or even phone calls that you know will make you unhappy.

I mentioned my mother earlier. My biased opinion is that she is a fantastic person who is intelligent, outgoing, and friendly. So why is it that in the 14 years since my father died there are only a handful of people who invite her to shabbat and yom tov meals? Someone recently told her that she wanted to invite her but was waiting to invite other people because she didn’t want her to be bored by the conversation only with her and her husband. My mother’s response was: “Imagine how boring it is with only one at the table!” The friend did not get the cue and still has not invited my mother. She lives in a community of people that invited her and my dad all the time for shabbat meals; after the initial shock of his death, they seem to have forgotten that a friend is a friend and even more so it should have been a priority to continue inviting her.

There will always be personal struggles in life. Couples will continue to divorce, couples will struggle to conceive, spouses will die, and there will be single people of all ages looking for the right partner. And yes, all of these people need to find their own coping mechanisms for dealing with these issues as members of the Jewish community. Many of these coping mechanisms are particular to each individual and only that person can determine what truly makes him or her happy. However, the biggest change needs to come from the community itself. Looking out for people who are single and not yet married, or divorced or widowed needs to become as important to the community as behaving like a community during tragedy. The Jewish community is great about providing meals for people during shivah or when a baby is born but this is only one way to provide support to people in need.

I once heard Rabbi Peysach Krohn give a brilliant speech about the importance of being “inclusive” in the Jewish community and along with that inclusiveness comes sensitivity. It is not enough to invite a widow to your shabbat meal and feel that you have been inclusive. You have a responsibility to think about the other company and will they make the widow feel comfortable. You have a responsibility to make sure to keep the conversations in a direction so that they don’t constantly remind the widow of what is lost.

The Jewish principle that “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh, all Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39A) is a reminder that we are all responsible to take action and look out for one another creating a community in which we can all be proud. My suggestion is that each community should work on this individually and strategize about ways to create an inclusive environment. Rabbis and clinical counselors can work together to teach the community sensitivity and inclusiveness. No Jew should feel isolated from the community because they are lacking what others have, whether it be a spouse, child, or money. As we enter a new year, let’s all make a commitment to making our Jewish community one that we are all excited and proud to be a part of.

Shana Tova!

About the Author
Debra Bieler Klein grew up in Teaneck, NJ. She has a BA from Brandeis University and an EdM from Boston University. Having taught high school math for 16 years, she left full time teaching three years ago to start her own tutoring business. She currently lives in Natick, MA with her husband.