When I heard the Topsy Turvy Bus was coming to town in St. Louis, I thought, ‘Great! A Tuesday night activity! Outside-of-work socialization!’ After unsuccessfully marketing this event to three non-Jewish co-workers, I drove out to the St. Louis burbs and showed up 40 minutes late to a synagogue parking lot in Creve Couer, Missouri where two smushed-together buses were parked in a corner, in the shade of big trees, under a low summer sunset.
I should introduce myself, if I am to tell a story about my personal experience. I’m Stef, and I am, as many 20-somethings are, a highly ‘transient being.’ I grew up in New York, went to college outside Chicago, studied journalism, got a job in tech, went to wander the world for ten months, and then started working the 9-5. Perhaps I am even more transient than most – I fly twice a week for work, living in a hotel in a state I don’t call home three days a week, and only spending four nights in the Chicago apartment that I temporarily rent. My life is in constant flux, unending motion, and relentless chaos. I love it. But, at times, it’s quite lonely.
Maybe you now better understand why a Tuesday night social activity seemed so unexpectedly wonderful.
After a joyful reunion with my friend Eli (the mechanic), I got on the bus and felt like I was crashing the set of a Sundance film about an unexpected family of hippy-bandits on a national tour of self-discovery and enlightenment. This is not a far cry from the true plot-line of the Topsy Turvy summer. While nobody introduced themselves to me at first, I had to squish past everyone to find a seat on one of the makeshift beds in the back half of the bus. After a few minutes of quietly observing the bookshelf, and the snack stash, and the dreamcatcher hanging to my left shoulder, I smashed any ice and explained my transient shtick and demanded to know everyone else’s. A few from Moishe House, the program sponsors, a girl from Next Door, a similar community (and her dog), and the five educators had gathered to sit on a slightly sweaty hippie bus that evening. After that initial conversation bump, lead educator Sonia posed an abrupt transition to a deep series of questions to lead into the planned program, a curated conversation on constructing community.
What does community mean? What makes a good community? What makes a sustainable community? How can we make our communities sustainable communities?
Whoa. I spend all day in a spreadsheet, thinking about accounting software and audit documentation. These questions would require a slow, thoughtful unpacking of rich intellectual consideration – more than I am used to in the average 8 hour day. So, I threw the questions back to Sonia.
What do you mean when you say ‘sustainable community’?
Another educator jumped in shortly after, offering up a few texts I recognized from the Hazon Shmita sourcebook, which I had scanned the week before when prepping for a staff limmud (learning session) at Camp Ramah in Nyack, where I had been visiting with old friends. The Jewish world is small but the texts are endless. And, these texts apparently move and follow us – sometimes to a parking lot in Creve Couer.
Using both ancient and contemporary sources, ten 20somethings felt a short but bright burst of community in the experience of this conversation. By listening to one another, by sharing our ideas, we created a brief but important community space. I could detail what we talked about, but you’d lose the essence because you, as you read this, do not have the incredible fortune of sitting on that very bus, in that very parking lot, with those very people.
High-level overview: We talked about ownership, and giving, and openness, and ideologies, and value alignment, and the shmita year, and its practical and impractical implications. We talked about preparedness, hardship, and what it means to live life ‘richly.’
To me, conversations like this, in a slightly-too-warm bus with a motley crew with a lot of cool ideas – that’s living life as richly as one can. An acceptance that things aren’t perfect, but not letting that imperfection get in the way of our enjoyment of our experiences – that’s a perfect state for building a shared space. We talked into the darkness, eating some bok choy with hummus and hearing funny vignettes about the kids these educators are working with each day. We heard about how these five individuals have all-out dance parties in summer thunderstorms while barreling through the Midwest, so they can bring their crazy bus and their crazy dreams with the same vibrancy to the next town they hit.
Topsy Turvy is exemplary of what we were discussing: an evolving sustainable community – on wheels. The impact that conversation had on my optimism for young Jewish potential, the hope it gave me for future engagement with mindful Judaism – that makes driving 40 minutes to Creve Couer certainly worth it. I felt connected, and I felt inspired – that’s why we join communities, isn’t it? That’s why, even on wheels, Topsy Turvy is an admirable and enviable community space – even if it’s temporary. The bus community is new and different every time someone gets on board. It’s a restless reinvention around a peaceful vision of a better world. The intention to create and build and discover carries through the wandering educators and into the lives of the people they meet. From highway to interstate, Topsy Turvy is paving a path for more mindful communities to spring up everywhere.
I look forward to getting on board again soon.