Who are the Jews in your neighborhood?
It might sound like a variation on a classic song from Sesame Street, but Eli Saulson of Franklin, who sits on the board of directors for the Davidson Foundation and for the Jewish Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, wanted to find out.
Are there pockets of unaffiliated Jewish families in places like Franklin or Farmington Hill’s Rolling Oaks neighborhood? If they received a personal invitation, would they come out and celebrate a Jewish holiday on a cultural level at the home of another Jewish neighbor?
It turns out, there are. And they do.
“William Davidson had a simple yet wise piece of advice that, in part, inspired me to embark on this project: ‘Just start. It’s a good beginning’,” Saulson said.
So Saulson started. He created a $25,000 grant from his director’s discretionary fund to hire a staff person to coordinate what will be a series of “Jewish block parties” — social gatherings not affiliated with any synagogue or branch of Judaism but connected to socializing around Jewish holidays to have Jews meet other Jewish families. He began with last week’s Sukkot gathering in Franklin.
And indeed, it was a good beginning. Nearly 100 multigenerational Jewish neighbors who received carefully designed and mailed invitations sent out to 450 families gathered in the sukkah of Roz and Stanford Blanck. Chef Kari provided refreshments and the grant also helped pay for decorations and Jewish holiday crafts for the young children. And the neighbors provided the warm feeling of community.
“I honestly did not think many people would show up, but I was so pleasantly surprised,” said Roz, who has been active in Federation for many years and was approached by Saulson to host the sukkah party. For five years, she and her husband have been putting up a sukkah designed by Israeli artist Eliyahu Alpern, with its walls covered with a panoramic photograph of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehudah market, but they had never hosted a large gathering during the holiday. “But so many people filled our sukkah with a feeling of warmth and community. We met so many Jewish neighbors we otherwise would have never known lived so close to us.”
Though Franklin has a few common meeting areas, its houses are far apart and, like most suburban towns, neighbors do not know each other. But through gatherings such as this, as well as social media groups that are cropping up on Facebook such as Jewish Ferndale and Jewish Franklin, there are several efforts to strengthen Jewish communal living.
“In shomer Shabbat (Sabbath-observant) neighborhoods like Oak Park or Huntington Woods, houses are closer together, lots of people walk around and neighbors, especially the Jewish ones, know each other,” Saulson said.
“We know that these days half of the non-Orthodox Jewish population is not affiliating with a synagogue or a temple and the other half does not go that much to the synagogue to which they belong. We want these Jewish block parties to build connection and community and are intended to complement — not compete — with outreach efforts of our area synagogues. We welcome input from our community’s rabbis from across all affiliations for our future events.”
Dona Stillman, who works at the Jewish Community Center in many roles, including with J-Serve, is the logistical backbone to the initiative: planning events, designing invitations and providing other organizational support.
Future events will be centered around festive holidays such as Chanukah or Purim. Some may be geared toward adults while others may be more kid- and family-friendly. Whatever the event, Saulson is hoping that Jewish events with more of a social and less of a religious bent will attract Jewish neighbors to find each other and become more involved with Jewish life at the neighborhood level.