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Why my friends rock: A tale of everyday heroes

Take pride in the engineers, therapists, architects, and all-around thriving community members who rock not being married in a world focused on spouse-finding
George Washington Bridge as seen from 181st street in Washington Heights, NYC.
The George Washington Bridge as seen from 181st street in Washington Heights, NYC. 

Initially, I did not want to host at all. But one of my oldest friends from home was driving in for the weekend and another friend had just moved to “The Heights.” No one was officially invited to this later minute lunch meal; yet before I knew it, I was responding to twelve or so messages from known and unknown contacts. “Hey friends! It’s going to be a chill deli sub shabbat meal – looking forward! Feel free to bring whatever you like. 56 Bennett Apt 4C – 12:30ish.” Deli subs are delicious and easy. They also spare me from dealing with raw chicken and annoying hot-plates and timers.

It was Parshat Lech Lecha and Emily and Aliza crafted a perfectly parsha themed icebreaker for our meal. They posed the question – where was somewhere you left and then went to, either metaphorically or geographically. Rachel just gave notice before shabbat that she would be leaving a large accounting firm because the lifestyle was not jiving with her life goals. Sarah moved away from family and her hometown for the first time to begin a new travel nursing opportunity. Jen recently traveled through Italy. Atara is leaving the mindset of academic perfection to more fully engage in a balanced life. Emily just recorded and produced a new music album!  People really listened…and spoke. There was a palpable genuine interest in what each person had to share. I felt privileged to learn from the brave transitions and successes of my friends through personal anecdotes. I simply felt lucky to hear it all… and to be a part of this awesome group that spontaneously erupted in clapping for one another in support. Elsa baked mouthwatering challah topped with ‘everything but the bagel spice’ and the food was charming and abundant.

Rocking Jodi gets up and announces she booked a karaoke room for Saturday night and we were all invited to join her with funky scarves and cowboy hats. Not to worry, she would contact everyone through a Whatsapp group for ‘the best meal ever’ to stay in touch and network. A friend that was new to the community shared how much she appreciated the meaningful conversation and zmirot. While we played Codenames and passed rainbow-sprinkled cupcakes and Trader Joe’s Babka around an insular uptown apartment, I wondered if maybe outsiders could benefit from tasting from our tables too.

A data breach of thousands of Orthodox dating profiles a few weeks ago stirred many young professionals and their communities. I first read “What Happens When Thousands Of ‘Shidduch Resumes’ Are Leaked?” by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in The Forward, when it was posted on a Jerusalem community Facebook group. The article elicited responses of disgust and disbelief from community members.

As with many news stories, we often only encounter individuals or communities in their time of misfortune. We read of “singles communities” in reference to “crisis” and more recently with “leaking resumes.” Therefore, friends and I from the Washington Heights community were thrilled to see an honest and positive representation of the community written from the perspective of an inside Rabbi. Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, after a decade of service to Mt. Sinai shul in Washington Heights, a congregation mostly comprised of single individuals and young married couples, wrote “Living Single” featured in Tablet Magazine describing the challenges and advantages of the emerging Modern Orthodox singles community. He detailed various aspects of the communal and personal life of community members and highlighted ways in which the Orthodox singles community can serve as a model for the broader community. As an insider, I felt it would be a missed opportunity not to highlight the colorful individuals who make up and build up this community.

Hence, I invite you to meet my community. Of thriving individuals in daily life. Of friends who experiment with new recipes, whip up funky desserts, and enjoy those desserts mid-meal. I insist you meet my hilarious, resilient, loving roommates who hula hoop, dance, and hold jam sessions on the daily. I want to show you our sweet end of year video and I want you to taste our confetti flavored birthday celebrations. This is my Washington Heights community and these are its vibrant men and women in their rich hues and dimensions.

They are chemical engineers, art therapists, and architects. Constructing airplane parts, empowering middle-aged individuals who struggle with substance abuse, and designing buildings in the downtown section of New York City are some of the ways they contribute to society daily. They are educators, PhD students, project managers at Jewish non-profits, genetic counselors, and analysts at health tech companies. They set their shabbat tables alternating polka dot and striped napkins before welcoming old and new friends who they invited on a community group. They fight the fight against transience by decorating their rooms with brightly colored tapestries and loosely hung fairy lights. And they paint their lives with the colors from their tapestries and ignite their worlds with strings of funky luminescent light bulbs.

They show up as greeters at the entrance to their shuls to further create a community with soul. They are board members and leaders and create programming for the people by the people. They create welcoming spaces for those on the fringes and help all to find belonging. They initiate gmachim for games, wedding shtick, and crutches. They spend their time visiting patients in nearby hospitals when they have off from work or are between jobs. They courageously attend singles events often encountering the uncomfortable faces of past, lost potential in hopes of actualizing new potential. They study new fields of interest, coach soccer, and are committed to improving their mental health. They don light up shoes and dance with hearts full of joy at the weddings of their friends despite a certain loss. They hold in the same palm a sense of longing with a fierce gratefulness of what is. They are unmarried and rocking it.

Each is a masterpiece and each holds a unique story in the history of the world.

I want to expose a certain strength and nachat (pride) to their families and friends, to our families and friends. A nachat, for commitment to ideals, values and a celebration of each stage of life, particularly a stage that wasn’t necessarily expected or not anticipated beyond a certain length of time. For rising to the internal and external challenges of not yet having found a spouse in a world quite focused on spouse-finding. We often speak of nachat with regard to bringing grandchildren to the older generation, a wonderful expression of the joy of Jewish continuity. I suggest we also apply this concept of nachat, a pride in our children, to our unmarried community members. For it is specifically in a setting of uncertainty, of plans not going as imagined, that there is a strength in living with valued principles and in choosing karaoke.

As we approach the new year, a time when G-d metaphorically opens up the books of our actions, we can be reminded to open the unique stories of all of our communities and community members. To visit unfamiliar circles and engage with new associations — for knowledge and leadership are not limited to particular infrastructures alone. We can enrich the texture of broader Jewish communal life through newfound awareness and ignite our sometimes latent interconnectedness by actively seeking the wisdom each person holds. This year, we can approach all of Am Yisrael with a keen eye for the zest and zaatar they bring to our dynamic table.

For these are the learners and dreamers; the community builders and the newest taxpayers and health insurance policy holders. They live in Washington Heights, Baltimore, Katamon, Teaneck, the Upper West Side, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles… some live within specific young people communities and some do not. These are my heroes. And these are my friends.

About the Author
Vivi (Vivian Jennifer for fun) works as an occupational therapist in adult rehabilitation and pediatric settings in New York City. She can be reached at vivikelman1@gmail.com.
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