Is Religion (gasp!) An Answer to our Community Care Crisis?

"A big part of why I have become a more observant Jew is because I simply could not figure out how to get a hold of time without it."

Is Religion (gasp!) An Answer to our Community Care Crisis?
Photo by Belinda Fewings / Unsplash

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My recent newsletter about “What is a ‘Sabbath’ when you are Caregiver" provoked some responses that kind of blew my mind. The TL;DR of that newsletter is that I got frustrated when the NYTimes podcast episode between Ezra Klein and Judith Shulevitz on "Sabbath and the Art of Rest" dead-ended with, “it’s really hard to rest if you have little kids.” But when you have little kids is when you are in the most need of rest. Ugh.

Double Shift reader and journalist Elissa Strauss replied to the newsletter, and her email hit me over head with its brilliance. I’m going to share an edited version of our exchange with her permission.

From Elissa: “I think Judith’s answer was lying right in front of her because the whole time she kept insisting this isn’t something you can do alone. Practicing Sabbath is a collective effort, when it came to dealing with little kids, she failed to see how the collective could step up.”

Elissa has given a ton of thought to these issues, and she’s coming out with a book in early 2024 I personally can’t wait to read called, WHO CARES: The power of caring for others in a world hooked on independence.

Elissa describes how she’s found rest in collective religious practice. “I go to a conservative egalitarian synagogue where there is childcare and lunch every week (often a pretty good one with a big dessert table) and the Rabbi truly, truly accepts all kinds of dependency whether it’s people who are mentally disabled, slow moving 90-year-olds, crying babies, or whiny 4-year-olds. He never makes anyone feel bad, young or old.

Every week I get three hours to just be in my body and mind in the sanctuary, the kids are cared for in childcare (don’t even have to pack a snack) then we are all fed lunch that I didn’t have to cook or clean, and the kids run around and play (there is a lawn/ play structure/ basketball court outside) while I talk to my friends. I get home around 1:30 to a clean house and with tired kids. Of course it doesn’t go perfectly smoothly each week, but it’s a system truly designed to welcome caregivers and dependents and I friggin’ love it because where else am I getting anything like this?

I’d also add that the custom of Friday night dinners creates an infrastructure of making meals for other families on the regular, the kids run off and play, and the grown-ups can sit and talk. For me, Shabbat is that extra layer of motivation to make this happen, and then when they happen, they are often pretty nice.”

Elissa’s story is leading me to some ideas that feel uncomfortable and provocative to me. As I obsess about all the ways we can build community, which can sometimes feel individualistic and reinventing the wheel, perhaps I’ve overlooked the most obvious. Maybe organized religion is an answer? I’m not particularly religious myself, and this idea is devoid of any theological or moral agenda. Coming from a lefty feminist millennial, this idea might honestly be one of my most subversive and controversial. It also bucks current trends of the status quo. In 2020, for the first time since Gallup started tracking, less than half of Americans belonged to a house of worship, down from 70% in 1999. Religious participation among Millennials and Gen Z are 30 points lower than people born before 1946.

Many houses of worship may by default cater to their older populations, but plenty of them are very eager for younger members, and perhaps open to suggestions about how to make themselves more family-friendly? From a resource perspective, religious institutions have all of the frameworks for gathering and community building. They have built-in systems for celebrations and rites of passage. They are usually well-equipped at providing support during difficult life experiences, like bereavement. They often have building spaces for meeting, a shared purpose, and funding for programming that makes them free to attend.

Before you think I’m some kind of zealot, I promise I am well-acquainted with all of the extremely valid reasons people have been turned off from organized religion. Organized religion has caused very real harm to plenty of people for generations and has been rooted in patriarchal traditions and in many cases promoted racist values. I don’t want to minimize or dismiss that. But thankfully, in many places across the country there are now denominations that are actively working to do things differently, with progressive political values, diverse, inclusive congregations and self-inquiry into how to do better. While I would never cheerlead joining something that is anathema to your values, I do wonder if our individualistic culture makes it hard to accept something that fits, say 80% of our criteria instead of 100%.

Interestingly, from a Jewish perspective, belief in rituals or even a belief in God is not required for being Jewish or even being an observant Jew. If you are born Jewish, you are just in. Some might say the same is true for Hindu traditions. I can imagine that those raised in Christian or Muslim traditions might feel less comfortable with participating if you feel atheistic or agnostic because those religions require more personal declarations of faith. (I guess that’s why Unitarians and Ethical Culturalists exist!)

please enjoy this photo of me from my Bat Mitzvah luncheon saying the blessing over the bread

As someone who hasn’t belonged to a synagogue or any house of worship as an adult, it’s possible I’m romanticizing all of this. I recognize my interest is purely communitarian and not spiritual, which some people might find odd. I asked Elissa a few more follow-up questions over email about what it went into finding her community and what she gets out of it.

Katherine Goldstein: How did you find this synagogue, and did you have any challenges to finding the right community?

Elissa Strauss: “Yes, there were challenges. After we moved across the country, we tried a few places. At one, we were at a Friday night service for the preschool kids, and the preschool director's husband kept shushing the children--there are not enough exclamation points to capture my shock and fury. I then had a love-at-first-service with our current synagogue because the first time I went there I saw a true welcoming spirit to people in all sorts of care relationships. Cherry on top, when the Rabbi came over to introduce himself, he spent an equal amount of time talking to my then 4-year-old son and had a lot of important questions about his stuffed animal. When a child fusses or whines during a service or after it is...okay!...because they are children! And how wonderful it is to have them there!”

Katherine Goldstein: What would you say to people who want something very caregiver-centric (across faiths) but haven't found something as welcoming as you've found. Are there certain things they should ask for/look for when looking for a faith community that is restorative to caregivers?

Elissa Strauss: “I think when it comes to parents feeling welcomed, childcare is key. Without it, there is simply no way parents can be integrated in their community, let alone be leaders who sometimes get in front and share -their- beautiful, maybe even parent-honed wisdom. Children should be fussed over, not chastised.”

Katherine Goldstein: A lot of people have had negative experiences with organized religion growing up or not finding a denomination that was politically or socially aligned with them (or even having age diversity in the congregation). What advice would you have about finding some kind of Sabbath community?

Elissa Strauss: “I think this one is tricky. There is something about everyone agreeing to the same traditions, rituals and, most importantly the calendar, which helps make this possible. I am not too observant, and absolutely do what is considered "work" by more religious Jews on Shabbat. But I set Friday night, Saturday mornings and afternoons (as well as a number of Jewish holidays) as time apart to gather and reflect, and so do others I know, and therefore making plans to come together for a meal with other families who have also committed themselves to these rituals. And even for my not-too-Jewish husband that means something. It just feels fundamentally different than the rest of the week.

Honestly, putting my still very foggy ideas about faith and God aside, a big part of why I have become a more observant Jew is because I simply could not figure out how to get a hold of time without it. I'm sure others have figured out how to do this collectively, and would love to hear how, but I couldn't. It took something ancient, a little irrational, something that demands compromise and accepting that when you join a community/tradition you aren't going to like every part of it or everything about it or even understand it sometimes, to get to the point where I could experience that elusive thing we think of as rest--of having a moment each week when I let it all go. I couldn't do it without community, and I couldn't do it without this particular community that truly sees me and my children and meets our needs without ever making me feel like an imposition.”

I couldn't do it without community, and I couldn't do it without this particular community that truly sees me and my children and meets our needs without ever making me feel like an imposition.”

Elissa has given me a lot to think about. And now I want to ask you, Double Shifters: How have your feelings about organized religion changed over the course of your adulthood? How about since the pandemic? Have you found a fulfilling religious community or does this kind of community not interest you? Members, check your inboxes Thursday at noon for the prompt and thoughtful discussion. If you want in on this kind of fun and other great perks like audio newsletters, become a member. It starts at $7 a month.

Judith Shulevitz, who sparked my initial inquiry into this topic, shared a very thoughtful Twitter thread about gender and Sabbath in response to some of my critiques in the newsletter two weeks ago. Definitely check it out, especially if you are interested in these ideas from a Jewish perspective.

Attention Triangle-area Double Shifters! Our members-only hangout before Angela’s excellent talk in Durham was truly lovely. Everyone I met was so warm, interesting and thoughtful. Y’all are truly the best!! This has inspired me to want to plan MORE Triangle IRL hangouts, as I think there’s a real opportunity to build a meaningful community with you all here. North Carolina members, expect more invites coming your way soon. If you are in the area and want in on this IRL fun, become a member.

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Let’s Start Dreaming Bigger

Reading about our feminist foremothers has made me want to encourage us all to dream bigger about what care and motherhood COULD look like in America, not just focus on tiny incremental changes. Join me for an inspirational, collaborative workshop/conversation with other Double Shifters. This is gonna be a special one!! Members, you should already have details and a calendar invite in your inbox.


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