"You're never alone when you say you're a Jew."
Chicago Jewish native Matthew Reitman learned a song--by Rabbi Larry Milder--with these lyrics in Hebrew school. Now that he is an adult, the words ring truer than ever for Reitman, and it's all because of the Jewish people's favorite pastime--Jewish geography.
From finding an unexpected cousin in a local kickball team to discovering that a colleague went on the same Israel youth trip on the first day of a new job, Reitman and countless other Jews love to play.
"It's always so fun to see how you know people," he said. "The Jewish community in Chicago is decently big, but also incredibly small because everyone knows someone who you know."
Sharna Marcus, a transplant to Israel originally from South Bend, Indiana and a past Chicago resident, discovered her own Jewish connections when she was waiting to be introduced as a faculty member at a Jewish high school, where she taught at the time. The person standing in front of her in line, Amy, mentioned that she used to visit relatives in South Bend.
When Amy mentioned Marcus's grandmother's name, the pair discovered that they were cousins whose mothers grew up together but hadn't spoken in 30 years. Amy and Sharna were also both named after Sharna's grandmother's favorite cousin Arnold.
Long story short, "I put [our parents] back in touch, Amy and I became cousins and friends, and perhaps my bubbe and Arnold were looking from above happy that his namesakes had found each other," Sharna shared.
During the pandemic, when meeting in person was not an option, Micah Hart -- a Mississippi native who lived in Atlanta for many years before moving to Spain this year -- became inspired to connect people with Jewish geography online. He started a weekly game show,
Who Knows One?
, based on his observation that "Jewish geography is an organic part of the Jewish experience… and everyone wants to feel like they are a part of a community and something larger than themselves."
In each episode, two contestants compete to bring a mystery person to a Zoom call. This person might be connected through something like family, summer camp, day school, or Israel trips; along the way, the contestants get clues that can guide them to intermediary people to add to the call.
Rachel Rapoport, a Chicago transplant originally from South Jersey, who was called to help a contestant on an episode of
Who Knows One?
, had fun "seeing people who you have loose or old connections to - or you didn't know you had connections to."
"There's a comfort in having a shared connection to somebody else," she added. "It's a starting point in building a relationship."
For Elyse Cohn, that small Jewish world connection crystallized when she and her husband moved their daughter Ariel into her freshman dorm at the University of Kansas and met her daughter's new roommate Maya. After discovering that Maya's parents were also from Milwaukee, Elyse did a little digging--which involved a call to her own mom--and discovered that her parents are longtime friends with Maya's grandparents.
"In other words, [Maya's great-]uncle and grandparents were closely connected to my parents, without anyone realizing until we were moving our daughters into college together," Elyse enthused. "Fast-forward to today, and Maya and Ariel remain best friends who lived together three of their four years in college. And we'll always share this wonderful family connection with Maya's family."
Experiences like these widen social circles and can have a profound impact on feeling connected to the Jewish community.
"I think the biggest contribution Jewish geography can make is to show us all how closely we are connected to each other no matter how we identify as Jews, how we practice, and where we are from," said Hart.