Bagels and Brotherhood: How Guys Grow a Community


Bagels and Brotherhood: How Guys Grow a Community

Several of the members in the Men's Club

by Rebecca Rosenthal - Sussex County, NJ

August 20, 2007

At the new members brunch on Sunday, the Jewish Men's Club of Sussex County had more to offer than sesame bagels, lox and vegetable studded cream cheese. Those who took part defied statistics that say that civic life in America is a relic of a dying past.

Over cups of coffee and between bites, the camaraderie flows. A few of the regulars at the Jewish Men's Club of Sussex County have yet to show up, but the room is already humming with chitchat punctuated by laughter.

Jeffrey DeChacon, originally from Santiago de Cuba, cracks jokes like the one about why Jews cannot stay in jail – because they eat lox. It's clear the guys enjoy each other's company.

"We are there for each other," said club president Dr. Joseph Haddad. Their buddy system is precisely what most Americans miss out on.

In his 2000 bestseller Bowling Alone, Harvard's Prof. Robert D. Putnam charted the disintegration of social groups. Over the last 25 years, club attendance in the U.S. has dropped by 58%. Bridge clubs, knitting circles, alumni associations are folding. Prof. Putnam decried its detrimental effect on society. As Yogi Berra put it, "If you don't go to somebody's funeral, they won't come to yours."

As Rabbi Shmuel and Toby Lewis got to know Jewish families as the Chabad representatives to Sussex County, they noticed that the area was missing something.

"People in the community do not have roots from generations of living here. People come from all over the place," said Rabbi Lewis.

"They were getting to know us, but not each other that well." The Lewises began urging the group that assembled at Chabad of Sussex's twice-monthly Shabbat services to enrich their lives by sharing more than formal prayer services.

Nine months ago, Dr. Haddad, a dentist, answered the call and held some of the first meetings in his home. Sinking a shots at the Haddads' pool table rounded out the proceedings. Now up to 20 members, with the majority showing up to each monthly meeting, the Men's Club moved to the Chabad house on Woodport Road. The club "reminds us that we are all important pieces of the puzzle. We are not here to be by ourselves, but to develop a community," said Dr. Haddad.

After a meeting a few months back, when one of the members suffered a massive heart attack, the club put their ideas about community into practice. The club email chain was used to mobilize a network of caring. Members arranged hospital visits, brought over dinners, and checked in on the member's family. A closer-knit Men's Club was born through the experience.

"Knowing that someone who might not have been with you anymore, someone you prayed for, is now sitting with you and laughing at the men's club had an effect on all of us," said DeChacon.

Formal Jewish affiliation or observance is not a requirement to join. Rabbi Lewis is a member, not an organizer. But a side effect of the chumminess has enhanced the atmosphere in the synagogue.

When Toby Lewis gave birth to a baby girl, men's club members made sure a minyan would be present during the week so the naming ceremony could be performed. Another time, when the Lewises had to be out of town for a family wedding, the men's club stepped up to ensure the Shabbat minyan would continue. Members learned the ins and outs of synagogue protocol, studied the cantillation for the week's Torah reading and even taught the morning class in Chasidic philosophy.

"People have become much closer," said Rabbi Lewis. "We have truly become a community."

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