Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lincolnton: No Longer a 1-Jew Town

So, as it turns out, I am not the only Jew in Lincolnton. Just how many of us reside here remains to be seen, but I have been informed that there are Jews in Lincolnton. And Cherryville. And Shelby. And Gastonia.

In fact, that there is a small but strong Jewish population spanning a range of small towns on the outskirts of Charlotte.

How do I know all of this? The High Holidays are approaching and I need a temple.

This time last year - when I thought Marty and I were moving to NC (but of course wound up having to postpone) - I asked the rabbi who married us for a referral to a congregation in this part of the world. She suggested I look into Temple Beth El. With 1000+ families, it was (and still is) the largest reform congregation in North and South Carolina. Plus, she knew the rabbi there.

I spoke with someone in membership at Beth El who seemed nice enough, and when it turned out we wouldn't be down in NC for the holidays, I promised to follow-up when we did ulimately make the move.

And that was my plan. Until I actually moved and discovered that the congregation was located about 10 - 15 minutes past my office. Over 1 hour away from home. I thought about making the drive home - late at night after Kol Nidre, home on Yom Kippur when I'd likely be weak from hunger and dizzy from low blood sugar. I thought about the fact that I needed to drive over an hour to find a community of people who shared in my religious beliefs.

Then, to make things worse, I thought about what it means to be part of "the largest reform congregation in the Carolinas." Would I be able to find it spiritually fulfilling despite its size, as I had found my congregation in Houston to be? Would the politics overwhelm the religon, as was the case with my shul in New York? Did I even want to find out?

As terrible as this sounds, I did consider attending High Holiday services at Beth El simply for the networking opportunities it would afford. It seems that everything I do these days takes my job into consideration and the question: can this person or this situation help me raise money? So while hobnobbing among Charlotte's Jewish elite would probably help me work-wise, it otherwise left a bad taste in my mouth. And I don't say that because there is anything wrong with the congregation - I have never attended services, I have never heard the rabbis preach, and I know nothing about Beth El's philosophy.

I say that because what I kept coming back to (besides driving home hungry on Yom Kippur) was having to drive over an hour to find another Jew to worship with me. That didn't seem right.

So I went to the website for the United Association of Hebrew Congregations (which forwards to the Union for Reform Judaism)and searched the state of North Carolina. As it turns out, there are 17 reform congregations in North Carolina. And 2 are within 20 minutes of me.

One is in Gastonia, one is in Hickory. According to the website, both have ~ 70 families in membership. A far cry from the 1000 families at Beth El and an even farer cry (is farer a word?) from the hundreds of thousands of Jews I grew up with in New York. Still, I have exchanged voicemails with the wife of the president of the Hickory congregation and actually spoken to someone from the Gastonia congregation. It was he who told me that Lincolnton is not a 1-Jew town.

In the end, I have decided that discovering my local Jewish community is the most important thing I can do - both for me and for the family I one day hope to have. So Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will likely find me splitting my time between Hickory and Gastonia looking for a local Jewish community that I can relate to and that inspires me.

What can I say. I love my life here. I am happy here. And I don't want to have to give that up simply because I am Jewish.

It's not quite country, but I'll still kiss your...