For his 50th birthday last fall, 120 friends gathered to surprise and honor Jeff Martin. It was a show worthy of Broadway: Friends who work in theater sang to him, others wrote tributes, his drama teacher from Jamaica High School spoke. “It was the kind of memorial I would probably pray to have at my death,” the entertainment producer and director said, “And it happened when I was there.”
Not one person at the celebration was related to Martin, in a traditional sense. But as Martin explains, “I felt I was in my immediate family.” Like many New Yorkers, Martin has created an extensive, interconnected web of friends who are as dear to him as family. He remains close with his mother in Florida (his father died some years ago) and his brothers, but his friends are his innermost circle. In his case, it’s a very large circle. “We’re a team, a spiritual family that moves together through life.”
The truism that “You can choose your friends, but not your family,” is, indeed, not altogether true. It’s not only possible to create an extended family, but it’s probably a pretty positive way to adapt to modern, urban Jewish living, as many professionals would agree. Whether for reasons related to living far away from their biological families, or not getting along with them, or not feeling accepted because of lifestyle, or, in the case of older people, outliving spouses, siblings and sometimes children, many people are finding alternate ways to build close connections.
Holidays are times that people without traditional families can feel most isolated. Synagogues, organizations and families make efforts to reach out to people who might otherwise be alone, while, at the same time, many single people and couples without children aren’t waiting for invitations, assembling their own tables of friends to share in significant occasions.
“There’s a basic human need for socialization. We need to breathe, eat and drink. We also need human interaction, to know that someone on this planet cares about us, someone we care about too,” explains Dr. Ike Hershkopf, a psychiatrist on the faculty of New York University School of Medicine. “The common way we do that is in family. But family is an artificial biological restriction. No one would suggest an adoptive family is any less cohesive than a biological family.”
“People form families. Singles will adopt themselves into families, or form a chevra. This is not the illusion of family. It is real.” He notes, “They’re responding to a primal need. We’re better off for it. Studies show that people who have families live longer and better.”
Loneliness doesn’t seem to be in the vocabulary of Beverly Schneider, a divorced therapist who lives alone on the Upper West Side. Most holidays, she has more invitations than she can accept. For Passover, the St. Louis native has two Manhattan seders she attends annually “as a regular.” Every year, Schneider, whose own parents are no longer alive, also sees to it that other people have places to go for seders.
At Minyan M’at, a traditional, egalitarian minyan at Ansche Chesed, she makes matches between hosts and potential guests and, she says, all are grateful. The Minyan, as she refers to the group, is Schneider’s primary community, a place of “close and intense friendships” where she shares Shabbat services, members’ lifecycle events, both happy and tragic, many meals and much more.
“It’s truly an extended family, the way extended families used to work. I’m not a believer in the sanctity of the nuclear family. I think that’s kind of an aberration. I think that emotional health comes from growing up in an extended family or extended community.” Schneider, who loves children and has many long-term friendships with the kids of Minyan members, says that she enjoys the “opportunity to be close to children of all ages. It also gives kids an important alternative to their parents.” Schneider babysits when parents are sitting shivah, enjoys talking about tough issues with the kids as they’re growing up, and is known as someone whose door — and heart — is open to them.
A few weeks ago, she was very closely involved in the intricate planning of a wedding for the daughter of Minyan friends. It was Schneider who accompanied the bride, along with her mother, to the mikveh. She explains that her own nephew, whom she is close to, is now planning a wedding in Chicago. “I’m too far away to get involved in this way, so this has been great for me.”
She acknowledges that her life is richer for all of her connections. How does she do it? “The model is to invest in something, to get this back.” When she joined the Minyan in 1980, she began to volunteer and “eventually, found my way deep into a community.”
“I have a sense that as I age, I’m going through life’s stages in the same nest as very close friends, all supported by a caring community.”
Rebecca Anderson, a 37-year-old writer and editor at the World Monuments Fund whose mother lives in Tucson, Ariz. (her father passed away), didn’t “automatically gravitate to a synagogue” as a single New Yorker but has found warmth and community at B’nai Jeshurun. For the past three years, she has been part of a Havdalah group that meets once a month for study and a light meal. She’s the youngest in the group of about 12 people, including some people who are married, some with children, some who are gay, of varying ages. “This is a triumph, what I was hoping for. These aren’t my only friends in the community, but we are closely involved in each others’ lives and have an ongoing rhythm.”
For single people, she feels that it is important “to realize that you’re not just wallpaper in other people’s lives until you create a traditional nuclear family.” She adds, “We don’t have to be just observers. There are many ways to define a family.” She prefers to spend holidays at B’nai Jeshurun with her extended synagogue family rather than visiting relatives she is close to who live nearby. “I’m not cut off from my family in any way.”
Anderson, who lives in Midtown, looks forward to having a family of her own and integrating all of their lives into the community. “That would be my greatest hope.”
What’s the difference between family and community? “Family is a much more intimate place than community,” explains Dr. Michelle Friedman, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s the first place beyond ourselves that we identify ourselves in. No one comes in and talks about the fact that the community doesn’t love them. They talk about family.”
She sees people’s ability to reconstitute family — to find a community that fills their emotional needs — as a very healthy adaptation. “To realize as an adult that you’re not bound by early life, that you can make choices,” is very positive.
Jeff Martin, who has been with his partner John Kroner for 29 years, says that friends “have become my closest family members because I rely on them the way other people rely on their family.” And, he explains, it works both ways. “There’s nothing more important in my life than to be with and support these people. I feel an intimacy with many of my friends that I wished I had been able to experience with my own family.”
Martin’s “family” consists of people of different backgrounds, ages, interests, including families as well as single people, gays and heterosexuals and lots of kids. “I think we all have the same awareness of how the struggles of life can take you to places you never predicted. Those places can be scary if you’re alone.”
An exuberant man, Martin often hosts dinners and holiday celebrations that bring together this extended, lively family. Lately, he’s become more interested in exploring Jewish traditions with friends, and enjoys attending various synagogues around the city.
For senior citizens, many of whom have lost family members and old friends, creating community is both difficult and essential. “We try to find as many ways as we can to bring people together, to help people make connections,’ says Misha Avramoff, co-director of Project Ezra, which serves the elderly Jewish population on the Lower East Side. When they take the seniors on excursions to synagogues that host them for meals and conversation, the people anticipate it for days and dress up for the occasion. Since their van has a hydraulic lift to carry wheelchairs, they can “break the isolation of people who are frail and rarely get out.”
Sadie Sierra, who’s a spirited 89, goes to Project Ezra — her “second home” — every Wednesday to do crafts projects. Although she used to have many friends in the senior citizen’s apartment building on East 1st Street where she lives and in the neighborhood, most have died. “It’s very lonely here,” she tells The Jewish Week, sitting in the garden outside her building. Her daughter, who lives in the Bronx, visits regularly.
For Sierra, who has been working since she had to leave school at age 12, first helping her mother sell bananas from a pushcart and then in various sweatshops and most recently in the ladies room of Katz’s Delicatessen, across from her home, Project Ezra is a place where she feels cared for and remembered. There are peers to talk with, to compare notes about grandchildren and doctors; they argue too. “Ezra is beautiful people. If not for Ezra, I don’t know what I would do.”
A pragmatist and a dreamer in the best sense, Avramoff muses that if Project Ezra had a few million dollars, he’d like to open a model moshav or kibbutz in a brownstone on the Lower East Side, shared by six compatible seniors and a facilitator. “We always accentuate community,” he says.