While trying to find a babysitter for erev Tisha B’Av this past weekend for our two young children, my wife and I realized the depth of our insularity. We couldn’t think of anyone to help out with the kids who wasn’t also an observant Jew. We have a handful of friends who aren’t Jewish from our professional lives, but shouldn’t it be more than a token handful? How do we expand our social circles beyond the Jewish friends who we see on a regularly basis?
In a Jewish Bubble
You are asking two different questions here, each of which could be a dissertation length expose on the current state of American life. Instead, I’ll try to answer both of them in about six paragraphs total and then encourage you to read and think and talk a lot more about this with everyone you know.
First off, any issues of child care are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our current society, where most people live in single-family dwellings, usually away from extended family, and struggle to find the time, money or appropriate caregivers to be able to get a break from their kids (even if that break is going to Tisha B’Av services). Child care is expensive, finding and arranging it is time-consuming and pretty much every parent I know experiences these challenges.
There are many local Facebook groups dedicated to finding and asking for babysitting. There are websites devoted to this as well. Other parents are a good source of recommendations, as are graduate schools, where places like Penn Nursing have (or at least used to have) a mechanism in place to advertise child care gigs to current students. If your children are in day care, find out if any of the teachers are willing to take jobs with families outside of school. All of this takes a lot of time, but if you can compile a roster of five or six people, hopefully the time up front will make things easier each time you need a sitter.
If your current social circle allows for it, consider setting up a trade system with your friends who have kids. One night they watch your kids, another night, you watch theirs. Also, even among observant Jews, it’s totally possible that there would be a young-ish person who would rather earn some money than go hear Lamentations, and so if you’re comfortable with it, don’t rule out finding a babysitter from your current group of known entities.
Which brings me to the other half of your question: How do you make friends with people who are different from you? The sad truth is that most people don’t. Ideally, we’d meet our neighbors, enjoy the company of our co-workers, associate with parents at the playground, chat with the other people in the coffee shop. Ideally, all of our neighbors, co-workers, fellow parents and people we meet in passing wouldn’t be just like us.
Unless you have a natural “in” with someone, though, trying to force a connection where there isn’t one risks tokenizing or alienating the very people you’d like to get to know. Consider who you talk to at the playground or at school drop off and pick up. Find small ways to expand your circle, like asking other parents to invite a new friend to a group meet up. Seek out social activities or events for your family that based in the wider community and not exclusively Jewish, like the public library, museums, outdoor festivals and children’s sports leagues.
While you asked two questions, they are really both rooted in the problem of isolation. There is no easy fix, but recognizing the problem, the interconnected nature of the issues you’re experiencing and the fact that you can envision a different reality will help both you and your children to get closer to those ideals.