As a native of Kew Gardens Hills who got married and lived in Flatbush for several years before making aliyah, I’ve always lived in strong and vibrant Jewish communities. There were many schools of varied hashkafos from which to choose. Numerous minyanim were within a short walking distance and, of course, there was no shortage of kosher food and restaurants.
One of the fascinating sessions I attended at the World Orthodox Jewish Congress focused on the future of small Jewish communities worldwide. Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, director of Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Institutes for Shlichim (emissaries) Training, moderated a panel of leaders representing small Jewish communities in Norway, Kenya, the Balkans, Estonia, Italy, Ecuador, and Finland. Rabbi Birnbaum first gave an overview of the different sizes of Jewish communities:
Very large communities have a population of 200,000 or more Jews (e.g., New York, Paris, Buenos Aires). Large communities have populations of up to 100,000 Jews (e.g., San Paolo). Medium-sized communities have populations of up to 50,000 Jews, and small ones have up to 2,000 Jews. Very small communities have up to 1,000 Jews and miniature communities have up to 100 Jews (Zimbabwe, Macedonia). Today, approximately 200,000 Jews are living in all of the small Jewish communities combined. There is some debate about whether we should worry about the Jews in those communities. Some philanthropists don’t want to donate to these communities because they feel it’s not a worthwhile cause. It requires a large investment of resources for a small number of people.
Several factors affect the survival of these small communities. One is the issue of hope. In some communities, people lose hope. They don’t always have the desire to continue to exist as a Jewish community. This can be a big problem.
Another issue these communities face is the problem of globalization. People move around a lot. While a k’hilah may at one point have several thousand Jews, sometimes the young people will leave due to bad economics or the prevalence of a liberal agenda with which they don’t identify. There is also a trend toward urbanization, which affects the size of the community, as well. Today many people are moving from Albany to New York, hoping for improved living conditions. Approximately 15 to 20 years ago, one Jewish family was living in Portugal along with the children of Anusim, those who were forced to convert to Christianity. People realized that Portugal has low taxes and is a nice place to live. Now 1,000 Jews live there. There is even a kosher restaurant.
Demographics also play a great role. Rabbi Birnbaum quoted Rav Soloveitchik who said that two Jews talking to each other is considered a k’hilah. But in reality, when there is no critical mass providing Jewish residents with schools and opportunities for shidduchim for their children, as well as whatever else is needed for their families to live a Jewish life, the community cannot be sustained.
In recent years, virtual communities have been formed, which help support the tiny far-flung communities. Social media allows those who are far-off to connect with others and not feel so isolated. There are also new Jewish communities forming around the world. In China, for example, there are eight to ten new communities. Five to seven hundred Jews are living in Dubai, where there are four shuls and five restaurants. Many are there for business, but they are planning to stay even though they are not able to become citizens or acquire passports. There are communities of geirim, one consisting of Jews who were once Evangelical Christians. They have a shul with a sefer Torah.
Many halachic questions arise in these small communities. In communities where there is no mikvah, people travel for many hours to use the mikvah elsewhere. Are they permitted to use a mikvah during unusual hours in such a situation?
Many questions arise regarding minyanim that are difficult to maintain consistently in small communities. Rav Birnbaum gives examples of some of those questions: Who can be counted in the minyan? Many consider themselves Jewish but halachically they are not. Can someone who goes to church on Sunday be counted? What happens if the tenth man leaves for work in the middle of davening? Can someone be counted if he participates virtually?
There is a daily minyan in Cancun, Mexico, where approximately 100 Jews live. Men from nearby communities participate in a rotation, in which they are assigned specific days when they are expected to daven there and be counted for a minyan. The community also provides a fancy breakfast every day after Shacharis, which the men can eat before heading off to work. This further motivates the men to keep the minyan going. The k’hilah of Cancun is very proud of its minyan. Every single person counts in these communities.
The representatives of the communities each spoke about the community in which they live. They talked a lot about assimilation and intermarriage. Some have minyanim on Shabbos, others just for the chagim. Fifteen years ago, there were 16 communities with a shul in Poland. Today, four communities have a minyan on Shabbos, and four have a minyan once a month. When the rav gives his d’var Torah, he is faced with the challenge of making it interesting for those who are more learned and those who are not learned at all.
Another problem is that shlichim come for two to three years while their children are young. They end up leaving because they can’t raise their children there. Some also mentioned the paradox that the youth are often educated and encouraged to move to Israel or elsewhere where they lead more of a Jewish life. But this trend reduces the community’s ability to maintain itself. If the young leave, there will be no continuity.
Some representatives talked about the need to accept the inevitable end and close some of the communities. One representative compared it to making a patient with a terminal illness comfortable until he passes away. They need to think about what to do with the property, what to do with the cemeteries. Three shuls in Poland became restaurants. Thought must be given to how to close the communities respectfully. Not everyone agreed with this. I sat with one of the representatives and his family over supper. He grew up in Finland and went back to live with his wife and young children. He believes that as long as Jews are living in a community, no matter how few, they should be helped. He and his wife are now at a crossroads, because they would like to stay and help the community, but there is no way for them to provide a Jewish education for their children.
Rav Melchior, chief Rabbi of Norway, ended the session by speaking about the need to strike a balance between maintaining a strong Orthodox community and being open and accepting of all types of people. He also raised the question as to whether there is value in maintaining these small communities. He believes that there will always be Jews living outside Israel. The trick is to make the communities strong enough to stand on their own and not be dependent on one specific person. He stated that while communities may be small, the family becomes big as they all become one big extended family. When someone feels part of a family, it’s more difficult for them to leave the fold.
This session gave me an appreciation of the work that these shlichim do, as well as an appreciation for the communities in which I’ve always lived.