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As a rabbinical couple in a major Jewish community, we hear some common questions from young couples contemplating a move to Southfield, Michigan, home to a growing and vibrant frum community: What are the job opportunities? What are the yeshivot and day schools like? What kosher food and restaurants are available? What about an eruv, mikvaot, housing costs, and so on? During this exploratory stage, what we rarely hear is, “How can I get involved in and contribute to the community?”
In more than twenty years of serving as rabbi and rebbetzin at the Young Israel of Southfield, we have learned that a great community is sustained not only by what the community offers in terms of amenities (although those are obviously important), but by what the members are willing to contribute to the life of the community.
Take, for example, Sara Mor, who is a staff attorney at a US district court. Sara moved here three years ago with her husband and two young sons. They have been blessed with two more boys since their arrival. Originally from West Orange, New Jersey, Sara was used to welcoming new faces to town there and in the multiple cities where she and her husband, who was in medical school and residency, had lived during the previous eight years. Once settled in Southfield, she understood the importance of becoming involved in the community but didn’t want, in her words, to “recreate the wheel.” Rather, she decided to volunteer where she saw a genuine need. “When I come to a new community, I like to first observe,” Sara recently told us. “I don’t assume that the community will have everything I am looking for. So I take notice. What is already in place? What might be lacking? What can I do to make a positive impact?”
At the heart of every community, no matter the size or location, are the people who make up that community. They are its lifeblood. They are what makes it such a great place to live, grow, thrive and raise a family.
Soon after she moved to Southfield, Sara found a niche that combined her passions: children and education. She began working on Shabbat morning programming for some of our youngest members. While our shul has an attractive playroom for toddlers, well stocked with age-appropriate toys and Jewish-themed books, and a babysitter tending to the children’s needs while their parents daven in the main sanctuary, Sara felt more was needed. And so, Tot Shabbat was born! Each week, a different parent tells a Torah story to the toddlers, sings an assortment of Jewish songs and tefillot with them, and shares a snack. Parent volunteers run the program on a rotating basis. The children look forward to Tot Shabbat, and it inspires more young parents to bring their children to shul.
When evaluating whether a particular community is a good fit for one’s family, one should not only look at the amenities it provides, but he or she should also focus on two essential questions: What kind of impact can I make that will strengthen the community for me and all who live there, and how will my unique contributions help me grow as an individual?
“At the heart of every community, no matter the size or location, are the people who make up that community,” says Sara. “They are its lifeblood. They are what makes it such a great place to live, grow, thrive and raise a family.”
When new members move into the community, we encourage them to volunteer and get involved. We discuss with them what components of a community are of value to them and where they feel they can best contribute.
Two other examples of proactive volunteerism:
Ayelet Ellenbogen, originally from Teaneck, New Jersey, moved to Southfield last summer. A real “doer” who is committed to working for the klal, she had seen her parents and grandparents act as role models. “I was taught early on that if you see something that needs improvement, don’t complain; do something about it,” she says.
Shortly after moving to Southfield, Ayelet became aware of a genuine concern: we no longer had a viable mikvah within walking distance of our community for Friday night and yom tov use. She joined a dedicated group of women who conducted a major fundraising campaign to raise the remaining needed funds for a new mikvah. A clinical psychology doctoral candidate who happens to be a social media whiz, Ayelet prepared an impressive social media campaign for what turned out to be our largest fundraiser ever, bringing in over $400,000. With the added revenue, the mikvah is slated to begin construction this spring.
“I like to think of our community as a patch quilt,” Ayelet says. “Together we make up a beautiful tapestry with rich color and texture. What’s amazing to me is how you can see each person’s contribution, and how together we create a warm and vibrant community, turning new friends into family.”
Asher Goldberg, a senior infrastructure software engineer, grew up in Chicago and lived in multiple cities in the metropolitan New York area and Israel before settling down to live in Southfield ten years ago. He had always been involved in community volunteerism, growing up in a home where shul as well as Bnei Akiva were paramount. As a national board member of Bnei Akiva of the US and Canada, Asher played a vital role in helping to bring a new shaliach family to Southfield, elevating the level of Torah learning and Religious Zionism in our community. He also serves as a board member of Yeshivat Akiva/Farber Hebrew Day School, the local Modern Orthodox day school. Asher regularly leins and coordinates Keriat HaTorah in the shul. And with his culinary passion and expertise, he helps cook for the annual Men’s Seder, Shavuot Siyum and BBQ, men’s monthly learning program and weekly kiddushim.
“You can attend minyanim, shiurim and programming in any community anywhere,” he says. “But supporting a community is more than just participating and giving financially. Being involved in the community as a volunteer can yield a far greater return on investment and help grow and strengthen the community for years.”
We wholeheartedly endorse his message: Get involved, volunteer and participate. Be the change you want.
Sara wanted to keep doing more. Although our shul offers an array of adult education classes and lectures throughout the year, our formal Education Committee suffered due to Covid. Sara worked hard rebuilding the Education Committee in order to create ongoing learning opportunities for our entire membership. To date, the Committee has planned learning chaburot for both men and women, and has brought to our shul a steady stream of compelling lecturers on topics including health and modern medicine in the twenty-first century, the interface between halachah and contemporary Western values, and the interplay between democratic principles and Jewish tradition in the State of Israel. “Even if you move to a community for a short time, you can accomplish so much,” says Sara. “You can provide a new service to benefit and strengthen the community, and then pass the baton to someone else when you leave. In the meantime, you have bolstered learning and growth for your family and community, and all your hard work to bring more meaning will continue on even after you leave. That is your legacy.”
Amenities are certainly needed for a thriving Jewish community. But it’s the people who make great communities.
So what about you? In your community, what are you willing to contribute?
Rabbi Yechiel and Rebbetzin Adina Morris have served as the rabbi and rebbetzin at the Young Israel of Southfield for the past twenty-one years.