Rabbi Ruth Adar, the “Coffee Shop Rabbi,” recently wrote up a fantastic guide to integrating with one’s synagogue community. Although some of the details and explanations are specific to Jewish congregations, I suspect people of many faiths would find Rabbi Adar’s tips applicable to the challenge of finding a place in a religious community — synagogue, church, or otherwise.
We military families face the task of fitting in with a new congregation more often than the average bear, perhaps every two or three years (or even more frequently, as in the case of rapid-fire PCS moves during periods of training). If we don’t make a place for ourselves in the community quickly, it might not happen at all. When we do succeed in finding a spiritual “home,” a place where we feel welcome and invested and connected, the next set of orders seems to come all too soon. Off we go to start the process at a brand-new duty station, to be the “new kids” yet again.
Although the challenge of finding a new synagogue, church, or other group exists for all military families who desire participation in a communal religious setting, I imagine that the process can look pretty different for people of other faiths and denominations. My neighbor, a Navy wife and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told me1 yesterday that one of the things she appreciates about her religious community is that the strong central authority and organization means that by the time her family arrives at a new duty station, all of their church records have been automatically transferred and a place in their new ward has been prepared for them. Since their ward is assigned based on geographic location, the notion of “shul shopping” or “church hopping” to find a congregation at a new duty station is foreign to them.
My neighbor’s experience is nothing like ours. She was surprised to learn that Judaism doesn’t have an equivalent to the LDS Prophet/President or the Catholic Pope or any single head of the religion. In her church, a strong, centralized authority ensures a consistency in each local Mormon ward that she finds comforting. In our religion, every synagogue has its own unique flavor or vibe, even within the same movement. I love that variation, and I feel that each synagogue’s harmony contributes to the joyful sound of the greater Jewish community, even if it’s not the place that winds up being “home” for us.
We don’t always have a wide choice when it comes to local Jewish congregations, though. We’re positively giddy when the Navy sends us someplace where there is more than one synagogue within an hour’s drive. We have some Jewish Air Force friends whose current duty station doesn’t have any kind of Jewish community within hundreds of miles, so we consider ourselves extremely lucky when we have any kind of Jewish communal life available to us. When we happen to find that the available local community is a good fit, it’s truly a bonus worth celebrating.
So I’m curious: If you’re part of a military family, how do you go about finding your spiritual home at a new duty station?
Is it as simple for you as it is for my neighbor, or do you find yourselves visiting lots and lots of different congregations before you settle on one? Do you think Rabbi Adar’s tips are relevant for your own “congregation integration” process, even if you’re not Jewish?
1. If I’m getting any of the details wrong, I apologize. I am not an LDS expert, and any mistakes are the result of my own misunderstanding.↩