My first job after college was at a therapeutic group home for adolescent girls. This group home, along with many other family and children services, was operated by the Jewish Children’s Bureau of Chicago (now Jewish Child and Family Services). Were any of the group home residents Jewish? No. Were many of my co-workers Jewish? No. Was there a Jewish education component? No. But, like other urban religious counterparts such as the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Jewish Child and Family Services was backed by such a strong and committed Jewish community, it had a reach that could extend far beyond the five books of Moses.
In more rural areas, be they in Illinois, Idaho, Georgia, or New Mexico, the Jewish capacity for greater social justice and involvement, one of the cornerstones of Jewish ethics, is greatly reduced. It seems, at least here in Pocatello, Idaho, that it’s often hard enough to simply maintain a solid base of active Jewish community members to keep Temple Emanuel‘s lights on.
So Jewish community involvement in a smaller town is more individual–at least in the smaller town of Pocatello. And Temple Emanuel in Pocatello has members at nonprofit clinics and co-ops, on community and philanthropy boards, and involved in interfaith dialogue and relations.
The beauty (and curse) of a small town is that everyone knows everyone. A joke that a friend of mine once made is that there are .6 degrees of separation between everyone in Pocatello. Meaning, we all know each other from at least one source, if not more. So while our arms are stretched taut and our fingers are cramping, the Jewish population in Pocatello does weave a significant ribbon through the greater community, and our local participation in the bettering of the world is significant.
Collective Jewish outreach, I believe, will always be a challenge in a smaller town, or any city with a small number of Jewish residents. While it’s definitely a good thing that one can’t simply walk into a city office and request a complete mailing list of Jewish residents, it’s hard even to reach out to members of our own faith. But, Temple Emanuel’s mailing list is growing, and members who grew up in larger Jewish communities bring their ideas and energy to advance the growth and community outreach of the congregation.
And so it goes on. Now that the winter holiday festivities are wrapping up, it will be a relief to step away from my annual month-long quest for improved religious diversity and appreciation in Pocatello and into some ski boots. The snow dances are in full-force as we pray with Mary, Temple Emanuel member and manager of Pebble Creek Ski Area, that the lifts will be open soon.
Pebble Creek Ski Area is the social hub of the winter season. During the summer in Southeastern Idaho, the outdoors enthusiasts are all dispersed—on bike trails, rivers, mountaintops, gardens, climbing areas. But people you don’t see all year long become regular pals when the snow flies. You might ride the chair lift up with a city official, or share a pitcher of beer and the best cheese fries ever with a member of Rotary. As a small business owner, board member of Pocatello Neighborhood Housing Services, Girls on the Run coach, or whatever else I have my hands in at the moment, there’s always an opportunity to advance a cause on the deck of Pebble Creek. Unless it’s a powder day and I am overcome with God’s majesty in the Far Glades.