City Mouse, Country Mouse: Is Jewish Continuity a Fable?

I’m a city girl from North America, used to big city Judaism. I have grown up and worked in cities with a substantial Jewish community: many synagogues representing diverse denominations, multiple choices for educating Jewish children, assorted summer camps nearby, a Jewish Community Center or two with strong arts and athletic programs, kosher residential eldercare options, and a strong Federation helping everyone fundraise together as they negotiate community politics.

A large urban Jewish community has the resources to promote a particular definition of Jewish identity: Jews befriend Jews, marry Jews, educate their children in Judaism, and passionately support Jewish institutions. Implicit in this definition is a promise: Our community is big enough, strong enough, varied and interesting enough to provide for you throughout your life cycle.

READ: Which Jewish City Should You Live In?

Having seen this promise fulfilled in the lives of my parents, my life, and the lives of my children, I have accepted this paradigm of Jewish identity. It has been easy, for example, for me to believe that a Jewish wedding should be for two Jews and to say, “No, I don’t perform interfaith weddings, but I can connect you with an officiant in our city who will help you design a beautiful ceremony.”

READ: Finding a Rabbi or Cantor to Officiate at Your Interfaith Wedding

Last week, however, I visited a small Jewish community in a small city. Jews there have created a federation, a cemetery, a school, and a few tiny synagogues. But the population is too small to support the promise of an undiluted Jewish sphere. In this city, for example, a young adult committed to seeking a Jewish partner must commit to possibly moving away from family. To avoid this heartbreaking choice, many Jewish families eagerly welcome new non-Jewish relatives. In this little city, Jews yearn for rabbis who will embrace this expanded vision of Jewish community. In fact, they cannot make sense of a rabbi’s refusal to perform interfaith weddings.

Funny, isn’t it? In the big city, many Jewish leaders fear that inclusivity dilutes the Jewish community. In the small town, the fear changes: too much exclusivity decimates the Jewish community.

The truth: neither will cause the downfall of Jewish life.

In fact, a tension between these two dynamics — central city/remote town, exclusive/inclusive – has been a healthy part of Jewish life for millennia. The biblical Book of Kings describes a competition between urban and rural Judaism. One king would support priests in rural shrines as they adapted Jewish practice to local populations. The next king would insist on centralized worship in the capital city of Jerusalem and arrest rural priests for violating priestly protocol. Our prophetic literature presents both exclusive and inclusive perspectives. As Jews returned from the Babylonian exile in the year 539 BCE, the prophet Ezra insisted that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives – while the prophet Isaiah declared that God welcomes everyone who wishes to be part of the Jewish people.

Maybe, as we tell the story of the Jewish people, we’ve got the wrong paradigm in mind. We think we are living the story of Henny Penny, spreading the word that “the sky is falling!” Perhaps we are really living City Mouse, Country Mouse, frightened by an unfamiliar lifestyle we have not yet learned to navigate.

Image credit: Arthur Packham, wikimedia commons

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