The Core Jewish Value of Community

January 2018 Newsletter Article

Almost two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel was recorded as sharing two essential teachings about Jewish life. The first is a simple mandate – “Do not separate yourself from community.” The second, and perhaps the more famous of the two, being – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Both of these teachings, which emphasize the core Jewish value of community, have helped to guide, sustain and enrich the Jewish people through history.

In a temporal and spiritual sense, Jews connect to community THROUGH time. We see ourselves as standing at Mt. Sinai, just as our ancestors did. Each year at Pesach, we say that WE/OURSELVES went forth from Egypt. We relish celebrating the achievements of Jews through time and in other parts of the world, and in feeling such pride, a small part of us feels as though these achievements happened in our “extended family”. We also feel as though the dark chapters of our history are somehow also our own. The significance of the expression “L’dor Va’dor” takes shape in this understanding of community.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the em
eritus chief Rabbi of England, has articulated in a more personal sense, the power of community. He writes in his book Celebrating Life, “Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, how I live and what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name.” He also wrote in the book, From Optimism to Hope, “Community is a society with a human face – the place we know we’re not alone.”
Rabbi Hillel’s and Rabbi Sacks’ emphasis on community raises important questions for our own lives. Do we have a sense of community or communities in our lives and if not, what can we do to build and nurture this sense of connection? What are the benefits of belonging to community and are we willing to make sacrifices in order to benefit and sustain our community/ies?Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, in teaching his congregants about Rabbi Hillel’s adages, asks these challenging questions. I share them with you as a way to encourage personal reflection:

1. Is there such a thing as “the” Jewish community? Who is part of it? Who is not? Who determines these boundaries in the first place?
2. What constitutes “separating”? Why is it ill advised?
3. What defines the Jewish people? Nationality? Ethnicity? Ethical behavior Religious commitments? Shared norms and values? Food? Shared history?
4. What are some times when the Jewish community has been cohesive? What makes those times unique?
5. What happens when a tzibbur [community] holds a set of beliefs and assumption that we no longer hold?And I share these additional questions:
1. If you are a member of an interfaith family, how can all members feel a part of our community at Congregation Shalom?
2. What can the lay-leadership and professionals do to help you feel more connected and welcome?
3. What can you do to strengthen that connection?
4. If the Congregation Shalom community has receded as a presence in your life, is there a way you would like to re-connect.
As you think about these questions, if you have insights to share with me, please do not hesitate to reach out. I would love to join you for a cup of coffee, a phone call or a long-distance correspondence. I have much to learn from others and welcome your thoughts and insights.
On a personal level, I think about the importance of community each and every day that I serve Congregation Shalom. Our founding families were inspired to “build” a Jewish home in which everyone would know one another and in time, many came to see the people of Congregation Shalom as an extended family. Such intimacy is difficult to maintain now that the size of our congregation has grown. In spite of the numbers, however, the importance of kehillah/community still resonates as a central value of our congregation. In our school, Giveret Yael and our teachers make every effort to nurture this sense of kehillah and we hope that every student who walks through our doors will know that they are not alone, that they are truly valued for being who they are and that we know their name!
I have also been inspired by the members of our community who carry that sense of CS connection with them, wherever they travel and wherever they live. It was a joy to see so many people return to the Chelmsford area to celebrate Congregation Shalom’s 50th anniversary gala and more importantly a tribute to those in our congregation who have made on-going sacrifices through the years, to maintain the sense of connection; to celebrate during simchas, to console during times of loss and to encourage in the face of life challenges. Many of our longer-term members who are snowbirds or who have moved south permanently, have maintained this sense of community and a sense of extended family continues in a yearly reunion in Florida. This year I am so excited to travel south t

o connect with CS folks and I look forward to feeling that sense of southern Shalom community!
Wishing you all a healthy, happy, joyous and “connected” New Year!