What makes a congregation into a community?

What makes someone a member of a synagogue community?

Is it the time you spend being there? In the building? Going to services? The time that you put into volunteer work there? Is it the friends you make who also belong there, go there, work there?

Is it the money you pay to belong there? Do you have to pay to belong? Are you a community member if you don’t pay but show up often? What if you do pay but don’t show up, except maybe twice a year, late for holiday services?

How many years do you have to put in before you truly are a community member? Before you are able to say “we” instead of “they”? How long do you have to stay to maintain the membership? Does it end when you move away? When you no longer can pay? When you no longer do pay? When you no longer show up? When you no longer can show up?

These questions have been nagging at us since we heard a sad story last week. An elderly woman, a widow, who had put about 40 years, give or take (because no one is around anymore who remembers exactly) into her synagogue, volunteering, showing up, always being there, died. Before her death, she had faded. She was homebound, with full-time care, no longer able to go to shul, no longer much caring, no longer really able to care.

The shul asked her to maintain her membership, but she did not.

Then she died.

The family asked the shul to send an email announcing her death. Most of her friends — at least the ones still alive — belonged to the shul, and the family wanted them to know.

The shul refused. Notifications of death are a perk of membership, its leaders said.

There are allegations of poor behavior, of meanness, of shouting, of nastiness, from both sides. We have no idea what happened, and we don’t think it’s relevant; it’s hard to maintain equilibrium, on either side, in a situation like that.

But what of the situation? What makes a community?

For one thing, a synagogue has a very real need for money. It needs membership dues to pay for clergy, staff, and overhead. None of us live on air and promises, not even shul employees, and entities like power and water companies tend to become appropriately unhappy when they are not paid. That is not an easily dismissable truth.

For another thing, a synagogue, like any other institution, has to be able to make rules, and to expect to enforce them. A synagogue’s members belong voluntarily, and always can chose to leave. They can deal with rules they dislike by going elsewhere.

But still.

But still. But still.

This woman’s funeral was bereft of most mourners; the elegies echoed in the empty space. Her friends have been finding out about her death little by little, one at a time, and they’ve been upset. They would have gone had they known, they say. And the family, instead of being supported by the community, felt abandoned, just when they needed to feel held, understood, and loved.

We know it’s hard. Our imaginations quickly put us among the mourning family rather than with the rigid, cold-hearted administrators. That might not be fair, although certainly it is natural. There no doubt is more to the story that we do not know.

So, we ask again, what is community? What is our responsibility to an organization? To each other? To community builders? To mourners?

We know one thing, that we wish that everyone who grieves in our community finds comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)