Shira Sachs and Dan Shmilovitch at the Bayit’s Belong launch May 12. (photo from facebook.com/thebayit)
Earlier this year, the Bayit in Richmond launched Belong. The goal of the program is “to create a community where belonging grows and isolation disappears.”
Belong was developed by a committee of six Bayit members: Mel Bauer, Matti Feigelstock, Shelley Goldberg, Shira Sachs, Dan Shmilovitch and Rabbi Levi Varnai.
“There are people that you know you should be connecting to, [or] they should be connecting to you as an organization, but, for whatever reason, they’re not. So, we started talking about how we could address that issue as the Bayit,” explained Shmilovitch, who has been active in the Jewish community for more than 30 years.
There is never just one reason why people feel isolated, he said. “People are isolated for a whole range of reasons – health issues, economic circumstances, mental health issues, maybe they are recently widowed or divorced.”
It is easy to assume that Jewish communities are inherently so strong as to make isolation impossible, but this is not the case. Shmilovitch spoke of the need for “deepening Jewish connections … because isolation is a huge problem in every community and it affects the Jewish community as well, for all age groups.”
There are challenges in combating isolation. “As a Jewish organization, as a synagogue, you’re always looking to invite people in,” he said. “But, when you have people who are isolated and really disconnected, your approach has to be different to get that connection because that’s not their mindset. At that moment in time, that’s not where they’re at.”
The Belong committee started their planning by examining the obstacles that prevent people from making contact. There is more to being a community member than simply going to shul, explained Sachs, who is a teacher at Vancouver Talmud Torah.
She noted that people can still feel “uncomfortable or isolated” attending social gatherings outside regular services. She talked about how loneliness has a profound effect on a person’s health and can lead to depression. Using her own childhood story as an example, she described arriving in Canada when her mother, now deceased, was pregnant with twins; Sachs is the oldest of four.
“Community became so important to us,” she said. “We didn’t have the language and, within a couple of months, we went from a family of four to a family of six. My mom was a new mother in a new country, with twins.”
Going to shul helped the family make connections, learn about which schools the family wanted for the children. As a parent herself now, Sachs described how this ethos has shaped her own approach to family life. “When we came back from L.A., it was the number one thing to do – find a community and slowly grow with it. Now, how do we do that for others?”
The Belong committee determined multiple strategies for community development, the first of which was through Friday night dinners. The Belong team sought Bayit members who were willing to invite people to meals at home. They also reached out to Jewish Family Services for help locating people in Richmond who needed help.
“If you have a lady who is a single parent, you match them with another single parent,” said Sachs. “If you have a person who is passionate about literature, you sit them with someone who has the same passion. It was all assigned seating.” She added, “It’s comforting to know, ‘I don’t have to worry about that.’ Maybe that anxiety is why people haven’t come to a dinner.”
Belong is also working to offer food deliveries to families in need. “Food security is an issue in the Jewish community,” said Shmilovitch. The program has been running for awhile now but he hopes that deliveries will become more frequent in future.
“There are vulnerable people in the Jewish community – whether they don’t have enough food, feel isolated for a short time or in the longer term. Regardless, it’s hard to come out at the other end. That’s what drives us.”
In addition, Belong has created a support structure for new mothers. Inspired by and in partnership with Mamatefet, a support organization for Hebrew speakers in Vancouver, Mama Belong will work to diminish the feelings of isolation that often follow the birth of a baby. (See jewishindependent.ca/mothers-embrace-mamatefet.) Mama Belong started delivering baskets to Jewish mothers this summer.
The future of Belong came into focus at the May 12 launch. Current members of the Bayit were invited to learn about the new program. Guests were given a card with tear-off tabs that suggested a wide range of ways in which people could contribute, including hosting Friday night dinners, Russian language conversation groups and cash donations, among other ideas. Between 90 and 95% of the attendees folded over a tab.
From Mama Belong to food bank deliveries and Shabbat dinners, the program is striving to create a warm sense of community for those in need. “You never know what’s going to happen at what point in your life,” said Shmilovitch, but “something’s going to happen to connect you.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.