Won’t you be my neighbor?

The  new television comedy The Neighborhood takes an old trope – the first African American family moving into a white neighborhood – and turns it on its head.  In this case, a white family moves into a black neighborhood.  Funny things follow.  (Well, some people’s sense of what is funny, anyway.)

Who is in your neighborhood?  Who do you view as “in?”   Where do you draw geographic  boundaries, or mental ones?  These are not merely abstract academic questions.  They have important real-life consequences.

Even how we ask such a question or what we focus on differs depending on where we live.  It is one kind of question on the mainland of the United States, another in the Virgin Islands where I now reside.  And it plays out with different implications in Israel, or other places which define themselves in part based on an ethnic-national identity.  (In Israel, of course, the question echoes about different “sectors,” not just Jews and non-Jews but different types of Jews, and many nuances within that definition as well.)

Multiple studies in the United States have explored the question of what different races or groups or “sectors” view as the “ideal” mixture of the neighborhood in which they live.  (A quick search online did not turn up the recent study I had in mind, so the numbers which follow are used as examples, based on a guess of memory.) Research reveals, for example, that if many whites are comfortable with a neighborhood which is composed of, say, 25% ethnic “minorities,” many of those minority groups would prefer to live in a neighborhood in which their own group represents, perhaps, 40% of the residents.

Whatever the exact number, the gap in preference is striking.  Many members of minority groups would, ideally, want to live in neighborhoods in which they represented a higher concentration than white residents are comfortable with.  But at the same time, overall, and obviously with individual exceptions, if I am reading this correctly, it seems that many minorities would not want to live in places where there were an absolute majority.

Obviously, unless or until something changes, such differing levels of comfort will lead to a constant churning and changing, as a psychological sub-text drives different groups to strive for divergent goals, without their necessarily knowing what is going on.  In other words, geographic communities are forever in flux.

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about neighborhoods, and Jewish identity.  I know many who view themselves as culturally Jewish, whose associations with Jewish life go back to sights and sounds and smells, the Old-World accent tinged arguments of socialists and radicals, the chopping sound at a butcher, pickled jars in the deli window, a kind of added energy in markets on Thursday night and Friday morning.  It may still be true in many parts of Israel.  But in North America there were enclaves where… you didn’t need God, you didn’t need prayer – you picked up being Jewish from the air.

The problem, of course, is that, if being Jewish is important to you at all, if you want something of that warm feeling of closeness and cohesion and an inner resonance to survive at all, and you passively depended on your surroundings to do “it” for you…that neighborhood does not exist anymore.

I remember calling my father, once, telling him that I was making the call from a Starbucks on the Lower East Side.  He was dumbfounded.  Or at least confused.  It did not fit his memory or mental picture.  “You are calling me from the what?  Where?”   Delis are sushi bars and Thai bistros and fusion cuisine, the old shvitz is a microbrewery, and on the outer edges of those storied streets even Italian and Chinese signs are edged out by newer languages, and though we once thought of it as a mental anchor in fact the only constant of those historic blocks is radical change.  The neighborhood is gone.

In North America if you want a Jewish cultural tradition to survive, the reality is, basically, in most places, that you have to join a synagogue. Community centers gave it a valiant go, but in most of North America, most of the time, even if you are not traditionally religious… religion is the vehicle through which Jewish cultural values are transmitted.  The “place,” the neighborhood that sustained it by itself and without effort… is gone.

Except…. Except in some parts of Canada, perhaps.  And, maybe… maybe…  except in Squirrel Hill.

It was a special place, even until recently.  New eateries arise and all the ethnic food in the world is around a corner.  But in 2010 it was still 40% Jewish.  Funny – that’s the same percentage I recall, accurately or not, that minorities imagined as an ideal.

I went to Squirrel Hill most frequently when we lived in the very small Jewish community of Erie, Pennsylvania — with an area considered “Jewish” if there were three Jewish families in a three-block radius.  I remember marveling at synagogues clustered close together, the “flavor” of the neighborhood, Jews of different “preferences” mixing and mingling in the streets.

An attack on Squirrel Hill, at least subjectively, to me, is a hit at one of the last thriving Jewish “places” in North America.    I have not been there in years, but it is a cut to the heart, an attack not just on Jews, and not just in a synagogue, and not just on Shabbat, but a strike at a Jewish place.   Somehow that makes it seem like even more if a blow to the place of Jews.

And yet nostalgia or yearning for that magic mixture can close our eyes to something else.  Many of us live in areas where there is no predominant Jewish feel or flavor, where “place” must be consciously created or it will not be passed down at all.  But as in Star Wars or the book of Esther, “help will come from another place.”

The greatest solace I have taken, the comfort that has come… has been from the calls of those who care, and did not have to.  The greeting of a bishop, the call from our territorial delegate to Congress, outreach from a governor, messages from the Imam, concern from a pastor down the street and another working to build up his own new “place” of God.

We are forging a new reality.  It is harder to keep that flame of Jewish life alive, and yes, we have to work at it.  And yes, a synagogue community needs you – as members, as people who read ourselves “in” to the internal life of a community (whatever its perceived flaws or foibles might be.)  But we are creating a new sense of connection and belonging and place.

Squirrel Hill has one more secret to share, one more lasting lesson for us all.  I comes from the calming voice of a famous resident.  It was also, it turns out, “home” to a Christian clergyman who asked a very, very Jewish question.

For a new world, with its vibrant colors and flavors and feel, with a changing brew of people, with the energy of life but also its dark edges… in the face of darkness, as an answer to hate, Fred Rogers asked one thing of those of all hues and creeds, no matter your background, no matter occupation or inclination.  And this question – it depended less on where you came from, than where you are now, and, in vision and values, where you are going.

Friend, he asked: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.