One of the unique challenges of life in the United States is that we grow up in a context that does not do community very well. This country is built on individualism, and it was with that spirit that the west was developed and settled. Until recent years, at least, there was the character of neighborhood that enabled people to feel connected, whether borrowing a cup of sugar or times to gather together at block parties or special times to celebrate, with parades going down Main Street. Much of that is gone, largely due to high mobility; people moving in and out of the neighborhood made it more difficult to establish and keep long term relationships. We know of that phenomenon in recalling synagogue members who moved away for varieties of reasons. How well do you know your neighbors today, and how does that compare with how things were when you were growing up? Lacking a philosophy of community, there isn’t much left to bring people together when there is no longer the neighborhood you can count on, with people living their lives in the same homes and same communities.
Judaism, on the other hand, is built on community. There are things we cannot do without it; important rituals, such as the Kaddish, marking transitions in the service, and the words by which we recall and honor loved ones, can only be done in community, a minimum of ten Jewish adults (13 and over). All of our core worship language is in the plural, such as our visit with the Creator in the Amidah, the standing prayer of connection with God; all of the wrong doings we utter during Yom Kippur are in the plural, as accountability is shared, and we think in terms of “we” rather than “I”. The revelation of God’s presence and guidance, in the giving of the Torah, was given to the entire “community”, and the Judaic system emerges as a program, not of individual religious identity, but, as a system for creating a community-based and centered society. The smallest unit of significance in Judaism is not the individual but the family, and with the official formation of the Jewish people, with the going out of Egypt, it was left to each family, in the context of an entire community gathered together, to lead their own family Seders, which is why the ceremony is laid out in a format designed to be easy for each household to conduct.
There is tremendous value in community, in the support people can provide for one another. In Jewish history, lacking such a focus, it is doubtful Judaism could have survived the historical onslaughts against Jewish entities, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora (Jewish experience outside the land for over 2000 years). Knowing you or your family is not alone is of tremendous strength, both in celebrating good times and, in particular, in weathering the storms of troubled times, when Shabbat shared in Jewish community would provide an oasis from the pressures and stresses of the outside world.
In these times of overwhelm in society today, never knowing what may come next in a world with people who oppose community and civilization not defined by their particular rules, contexts for people having each other to turn to are more important than ever.
Today, you may have to drive to your neighborhood, as in times we gather at B’nai Israel, to celebrate your joys and hold each other in moments to seek comfort, whether in dealing with loss of loved ones, or pondering so much pain and suffering in the world. Making an extra effort to participate in the B’nai Israel community not only can add to your own sense of connectivity; it can also help to assure that this community remains strong and accessible for all of us and allows Judaism to function at its highest level as a place of nurturing and continuity.
Summer is a time to slow down a bit and to reflect on life and how the years are going. May this season be one of blessing for you and your family, and as time to anticipate the coming year; consider how your part in community could grow and strengthen, especially the Jewish component of that, given Judaism’s existence throughout the ages as an approach to building a healthier society, focused on “we” more than “I”.