In honor of my first blog post, I’m going to steer clear of all issues pertaining to elected Israeli officials, elected (maybe?) Iranian officials, and Holocaust museums. As important as these things are, Iâ€™ll wait to discuss the more controversial ideas bouncing around on this blog until I feel a little more comfortable. But in the meantime, thereâ€™s no shortage of subject matter to discuss (we are Jewish bloggers, after all). For now, Iâ€™d like to bring the conversation back down to the lives of Jewish college students, soon to be adults beginning â€œreal livesâ€ in America.
A Long Island town called Stony Brook got some interesting press in this past issue of the Jewish Week. Stony Brook, located out in Suffolk County on the eastern half of the island, a good hourâ€™s drive (at least) from New York City, is known primarily for the university in the neighborhood, State University of New York at Stony Brook. So you can imagine my surprise at the sight of it on the Orthodox Unionâ€™s list of areas around the country that are attractive to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
The articleâ€”as I didâ€”immediately questions the legitimacy of a place like Stony Brook on a list of locations conducive to practicing Orthodox Judaism. Itâ€™s always cool to see Jewish life thriving in unexpected places, but Stony Brook seemed a little offbeat compared with places like Atlanta and Houston. However, interviews with Rabbi Moshe Roffman, spiritual leader of the Stony Brook Hebrew Congregation, and David Ebin, chairman of the universityâ€™s math department and a founder of the congregation 30 years ago, among others, confirm that a small community does exist, though it currently consists largely of members of the universityâ€™s academic community who mainly participate during the school year.
So what would a practicing Orthodox Jew find so special about Stony Brook, of all places? And what does this all have to do with young adults?
I must confess that I am far from an expert on emerging Orthodox communities, mainly because I grew up in the Five Towns, an area on the western part of Long Island that has â€œemergedâ€ quite a bit. The Five Towns are home to such a large percentage of Orthodox Jews that yeshiva parents dominate the school board (a controversial issue that I do feel comfortable talking about and hope to address at some point). Living here has been a privilege. And although I am in no way qualified to tell you anything about living anywhere elseâ€”Stony Brook, Long Island in particularâ€”I can confidently say that given the opportunity to start again, I wouldnâ€™t hesitate to pick up and move out east.
The reason is quite simple: to feel more Jewish. Life in neighborhoods like the Five Townsâ€”where there are three Orthodox synagogues in walking distance from your house and stores are open Sundays because Saturday has simply become the universal day of restâ€”is a privilege. Itâ€™s convenient. Itâ€™s easy. Too easy. So easy that it becomes virtually unconscious, so comes a point when weâ€™re not going to buy kosher groceries, weâ€™re just going to buy groceries. Everything here is arranged and adjusted in line with Orthodox custom to the extent that we fail to see and appreciate the uniqueness of the lifestyle. Iâ€™m of the opinion that though it may seem difficult at the outset, living in an alternative community such as Stony Brook can enhance Jewish values and help Jews to more fully appreciate their tradition without having the convenience of immediate Jewish resources.
One may argue that despite the more â€œunconsciousâ€ lifestyle that exists in areas with larger Orthodox populations, having a substantial community is important. I donâ€™t disagree: A Jewish experience has a strong social aspect. Growing up with Shabbat-observant neighbors, for example, makes a difference for a child. A synagogue crowded with enthusiastic congregants creates a more joyous atmosphere for occasions like Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and aufrufs. Undoubtedly, people are a big part of Judaism. If I had to guess, the services that take place in Rabbi Roffmanâ€™s basement in Stony Brook probably donâ€™t match the lively, sometimes rowdy Shabbat services of a Five Towns synagogue. But thatâ€™s okay. Areas like Stony Brook afford the opportunity to take an active role in building a Jewish community in which to live, to celebrate, to welcome other Jews from different locales, and to welcome Jews from the neighborhood who may have once felt disconnected. By joining a smaller community, one truly has the ability to effect change for the better. This Jewish experience differs significantly from the large, already-established community with hundreds of synagogue member familiesâ€”but there is also something to be said for the spiritual and physical fulfillment of participating in the creation of your own community.
Of course, an emerging community isnâ€™t the right choice in every case, and fortunately, thereâ€™s still plenty of time to mull things over. Big or small, every Jewish community has something to offerâ€”first and foremost, a comfortable place to observe holidays, practice customs, and share the rich tradition that belongs to all of us.