When I moved from Michigan to Monterey, it was from an Orthodox Jewish community with 20 synagogues available within walking distance on Shabbat. Half of those host the three weekday services and provide a learning schedule. The girls had three Jewish High Schools. The boys, four.
My place was one of the three adult Kollellim in Oak Park. This is where the Yeshiva students that grew up continued their learning after work and the kids are in bed. A few lofty intellects were employed by the Kollel as Maggid Shirum and taught public classes, but it was full wall-to-wall with a hundred ordinary Jews who came daily to learn and with no expectation of reward. I learned Daf Yomi of the Talmud in Kollel twice a day, 6:25am and 11:00pm.
I prayed in three main shuls and was close to those three Rabbis. Each prayer service required at least ten men for the Minyan, which would be 30 men that I know and see regularly. That is, if they all came all the time, which they don’t. This guy comes Tuesday, that guy Wednesday… You get the picture. Add the famous Rabbis that everybody knows and the common neighborhood sorts and that created the day-to-day in a vibrant community.
Then, I moved to Monterey.
Strange as it may sound to some, the Orthodox Jews still rely on matchmaking and formal introductions to marriage. My rabbi at Chabad in MI spoke to the local Chabad rabbi in Pacific Grove and a match was made. The cross-country rental truck is an adventure for another story, but in the happy ending I did get the girl. Not knowing it, I traded community for intimacy because the Orthodox families in Monterey can be counted on one hand.
At first, I thought the adjustment to a single shul that meets once a week on Saturdays would be a piece of cake. The wonders of a Jewish wife would replace all those things. It took a short while to realize that is a bit much to expect of anyone, that I would get lonely for all those men, many of which I didn’t even know by name. Kind, dependable, constant sorts; scrupulous in dress and deed.
The need for community is a gnawing thing, an ache that no drug, drink or book can fill. Try as one may, there is no other way to take the edge off than to talk to somebody. My traditional support system was drastically trimmed to the stem and into the void rushed as unlikely a blend of local folks as could be imagined. Life became rich by opening my heart and finding a teacher in every oddball and nutcase that presented himself.
I started hanging around at the Fellowship Hall down by Trader Joe’s during the week, sitting quiet for a few months and absorbing the message of experience, strength and hope that the old-time sober folk shared there. For the most part, I didn’t believe what they said about finding a spiritual solution to a human problem. I didn’t know what my problem was, but I knew all about G-d and the world’s religions. My search has been long and deep. There was no jumping ship or backsliding option. My religious practices were a set constant without substitute. Any solution would have to be caged in such terms.
So, how does a very religious person become spiritual? For me, it began upon learning that they are in fact two different things and the practice of one enhances the other and neither filled the need for community I craved. What that took was putting my hand out and making a new friend. Do that enough times and a community springs up around you. And the spiritual? That comes by loving your new friends and love requires action.
Nothing makes a person feel better than when they give of themselves to a friend that appreciates and reciprocates. Nothing is better. That is life refined to its finest moment. Helping others in a direct manner with what they really need is the very best life has to offer. My life became spiritual when I began actively seeking people who needed what I had, or could get, and giving it away. First a sleeping bag, then a groundsheet. Gone is the tent, knife, light, bike, jacket, sandals, shoes, comics, books… On and on the giving goes. Detachment and humility comes.
It isn’t easy to give stuff away, especially to the weirdly proud hangarounds down at the Wharf that have become my people. Getting to know them is the crucial trick and no act of kindness can be performed with someone who doesn’t trust you. So, it’s first things first. Most of the time, all that is needed is a good long talk. Maybe an introduction. Everybody wants a friend and that is what I always intend to be when approaching gift targets. The more I give away, the better I feel about my life and how I fit in it.
Some of us have had hard knocks. The resultant dents, cracks and scratches on our psyche put up all sorts of barriers to understanding and connecting. Not only with others, but even more so in our own lives when searching for our place in it. All I ever wanted was a life worth living, a life that combines satisfaction with service, where my work is apparent and its result is clear. All this business about “finding ourselves” and “do what you love and riches will follow” and “love others as you love yourself” take on new meaning when a stumbledrunk unintelligible stinky bum gives you a hug of gratitude.
If the chance to return with my wife to an Orthodox Jewish community like the one I left were to arise, I would jump as far and high as needed. But, for now, Monterey is our home and my life is my own to live as I choose doing the next right thing to the betterment of those around me. At down moments, I wonder if what my life has become is the best G-d has to offer. I’ve learned that our Higher Power opens just a hand and every living thing gains its satisfaction. I need to open my own hands to others for my own well being and I have been perfectly positioned to do that very thing. Good or bad, it’s what I do.
In the disenfranchised lunatic fringe of the sober crowd and the homeless I found myself by doing what I love. I can’t tell you much about the riches, but I can tell you how to love others.