Having historically made moves for my job, I've always had a natural way to meet new people and make new friends. Moving to a new community at the age of 62, without a job in hand, is quite a different kind of challenge.
Rick and I have always lived in large cities, so making the move to Mendocino, California, population 1,000 (10,000 if you include the surrounding area) is quite the culture shock. How do you go about making friends and community?
So let's see, what am I passionate about? I love quilting and making crafts, I'm a huge reader, I want to get fit and healthy and of course, I'm passionate about the Jewish people. We've moved to an area that does not have a huge Jewish community, though it does have a vibrant Synagogue. I love all kinds of people so am happy to immerse myself in the new and different. Having worked for the Jewish community for the lion share of my life I am happy to venture out and don't feel a need to wear my Jewishness on my forehead. I don't need to be an example or a walking educator. I can just be Tracy.
My first foray was to a quilt retreat. No one understands history and family like a bunch of quilters. So off I go to attend a four day quilt retreat in nearby Fort Bragg. I'm introducing myself around and everyone is so welcoming and warm. I'm just like everyone else.
There is the potluck lunch. "Tracy, try this dish.." - so I softly admit, that I keep a modified kosher diet and what that means. Still flying somewhat under the radar.. and then it comes. "Tracy, help us with our community project.. it is so great." "Wonderful, who's it for?" "Oh, the greatest group- here's their brochure." And sure enough, it is to support a Christian Missionary group. No longer flying stealth.. "Gee, it looks great, but, well, I'm Jewish and I just don't feel comfortable participating in this project.." Everyone was gracious and supportive, though they didn't understand why I didn't want to be part of the quilt guild photo holding up the project. If it had been for a Christian group that was providing dresses to the under-served in a community, I would have been all in. It was the missionary part that I had a problem with.
I was then invited to join a book group filled with bright and gracious women. The conversation was interesting and everyone was warm and funny. The friend who invited me along mentioned that I stay away from reading about the Holocaust as the book they were reading took place during WWII in Italy. I explained that being Jewish it was just too painful. It was one line in the entirety of the meeting.
Upon returning home there was a round robin exchange welcoming me to the group in which one of the club members who had not been able to make the meeting noted how wonderful it was that I'd be joining and that she looked forward to meeting me at the annual Christmas party. One of the members suggested that the group refer to the event as a Holiday party to which the club member replied, "Why? We are all Christians in the group, even if we are non-practicing."
I then had coffee with Rabbi Margaret, who is a wonderful, kind, spiritual Jewish teacher and guide. I admit it, I took my first deep breath. Attending Shabbat services last Saturday it was a different kind of welcome. I love all kinds of people. I love difference. And yet there is something special about being with those where you don't have to explain anything, where you share a common shorthand and understanding without having shared anything other than your name.
In the early days of my professional life I felt uncomfortable about being considered the Jewish expert. I'm not. I have yet to become a Bat Mitzvah and so much of what I have learned is self taught. And then I realized that I know more than most non-Jews and, in fact, many Jews. When I realized that to so many we are "Other," I understood that part of my life's work would be to demystify Judaism, to provide pathways of understanding to our history, religion and customs.
So yes, I replied to the Book Group email how Jews feel attending a Christmas party; that we are always happy to help our friends celebrate their holiday, but that attending a Holiday party is about celebrating all of our traditions.
I have to chuckle at me being me. Even thinking that I'm going to be the quiet one at the table, well, It just isn't who I am, but more importantly, providing pathways to understanding, by including everyone in our Jewish traditions and celebrations we build greater understanding and community. Talking about issues that are sensitive and occasionally uncomfortable, provides clarity and insight into each other and ideally helps us appreciate each other even more.
I look forward to Synagogue involvement, the Quilt Guild and the Book Group, and meeting all kinds of people. I look forward to Tracy being Tracy just in a new community, and no, I won't be flying under the radar.
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.