What does belonging feel like?

By Sara Klein Wagner

In a recent conversation with Keneseth Israel Rabbi Ben Freed, he shared that his experience at Camp Young Judaea motivated his desire to become a rabbi. We smiled and bonded, as many overnight Jewish summer camp alumni do in recalling how the experience — his at Camp Young Judaea and mine at Camp Livingston — inspired both of us to pursue professional lives that are fundamentally defined by what it feels like to belong to something special. and how that feeling endures here at home. It left me asking some important questions.

What does belonging feel like?

Do you walk into a room where people know your name and are they glad to see you? Can you be yourself? Do you want to help make this group be even better? Do you know the basic tenets or norms of the group? Does belonging make you feel joy? Secure?  Connected? Proud?

When we talk about building a vibrant Jewish community, I can’t even imagine what a flourishing future looks like without understanding, what does belonging feel like? In the Study of Jewish Louisville conducted by Brandeis University, my question was asked another way:

To What Degree Do You Feel a Sense of Belonging To…the Louisville Jewish Community and Jewish People? A Great Deal, Any Belonging, or No Belonging?

About half (48%) of all Jewish adults in Louisville feel a great sense of belonging to the Jewish people. However, a significantly smaller portion (18%) feel that same sense of belonging, specifically, to the Louisville Jewish community.

The huge group of 65% who feel any belonging to Jewish Louisville leaves me hopeful — if we are willing to actively listen and seek to understand why this wide swath of people don’t feel a greater sense of belonging to our Louisville Jewish community – that the potential change for these individuals is palpable and achievable. The study identified clear barriers to participation. For example: More than one-third (35%) of Jewish adults under 45 do not participate in activities in the Jewish community because they feel limited by a lack of confidence in their Jewish knowledge. Another 41% indicate that they do not know many people. Other obstacles include cost, uninteresting activities, and feeling unwelcome.

I know I have said this before, but how fortunate my colleagues and I are to see, firsthand on a daily basis, what a true sense of belonging accomplishes. We see it in our Camp J campers who sometimes come with a friend, or often eager to make new friends who learn to be part of a new group or unit. We see it in our group exercise classes, in aqua fitness or senior groups — and if a regularly attending member doesn’t show up, someone else reaches out to check on that person. We see it in our CenterStage family of committees and performers, who count on each other to bring stories alive.

The Jewish Lou 502.0 committee so far has met twice, and their enthusiasm for involving and empowering new voices is fantastic. Thank you to our steering committee members – Head Jon Klein, Bill Altman, Rachel Klein, Jasmine Farrier, Simon Isham, Avery Markel, Benji Berlow, Abby Glogower, and David Kaplan (ex officio) — for your wisdom and energy. At our last meeting we realized that not every volunteer in the group was originally from Louisville, a wonderful nod to the strength of making Jewish Louisville one’s home.

Jewish Lou 502.0 is the next step we will take together to listen and empower others. It’s also a chance to try out new approaches and provide opportunities for every member of our community, as well as those who are already participating. Because we all know that belonging — connecting to a shared purpose – largely determines how we see ourselves in the world. So if you haven’t yet checked out the 2021-22 Study of Jewish Louisville, you can find it online at tinyurl.com/yc2rhtv3. Jewish Lou 502.0 encourages us to better understand the most pressing issues raised by this invaluable study.

Please fill out this short online survey at tinyurl.com/3u8s5spz, or contact Jewish Lou 502.0 project manager Bridget Bard here at the Federation via email at bbard@jewishlouisville.org, or by phone at 502-238-2780.

I know Rabbi Freed and I agree that every day can’t feel like Maccabiah at camp or a sing-down in the Chadar (dining hall). Yet we know Jewish Louisville abounds with warm and spirited folks, who can feel a vital sense of belonging to both the Jewish People and our Louisville Jewish community – if we are ready not only to confront those barriers, but to tear them down.



Sara Klein Wagner is President and CEO of the Trager Family JCC and the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

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