Two years ago, I woke up on Shabbat to disturbing text messages from the senior staff team of my Jewish community. From the Executive Director: “There’s been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. We’re going to change our security protocol for the morning.” I received another text from my rabbinic supervisor: “Good Shabbos. Please let me know if you want to talk through anything before the service.” As the rabbinic intern, I was scheduled to lead Shabbat morning prayer. The date was October 27th 2018, the day of the shooting at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. My mind raced. “What would people need to hear from me? How should I change the service to match the morning’s tone? Would it happen again at a different synagogue?
At the start of the service, the chapel was more packed than usual. Heaviness permeated the space. Some people were crying. All were quiet. We began. I attempted through my music, my words, and my presence to offer comfort. I couldn’t make sense of the shooting, but that also wasn’t my goal. Instead, my goal was to provide space for gathering. Looking back, I feel thankful that this service, which occurred every other week, happened to be scheduled for this week. This was a time when people desperately needed to feel a part of something larger themselves, to feel a part of their community.
Two year later, Coronavirus has muddied what it means to be a part of community. This past July, I was struck by something my mom shared with me. She revealed that her and my father were considering not rejoining their Los Angeles synagogue. She said she felt guilty, but at the same time, questioned the value of their membership if she couldn’t physically be there and anyone, members and non-members alike, could now take part in the synagogue’s virtual offerings. My parents are not alone. Synagogue membership across the country is down. Over this past summer I’ve had countless conversations with Youth Education parents who have decided to sit this year out, take a break, opt out, and come back when the world goes back to normal, whatever that means.
I understand the temptation of taking a break from Jewish community. With fires, hurricanes, an approaching election, racial unrest, growing antisemitism, and Coronavirus, it all feels like too much too much to bear. Being active in Jewish life isn’t the most pressing concern. This isn’t a Jewish phenomenon. This is a global phenomenon. Religious affiliation is down. 21st century people often view religion as an unnecessary recreational activity for when all else is under control.
The conversation needs to shift. We need Jewish community now more than ever, and, Jewish community needs us.
Jewish community, and the learning and living that comes from being active in Jewish community, has never been more relevant. First, Jewish rituals provide meaning and structure during chaos. Back in March when quarantine first began, I remember looking forward to Shabbat each week in a way I never had before. The days blended together but I knew that Friday night, Shabbat, would feel special. Second, our Jewish stories tell of ancestors who came before us, faced similar struggles, and emerged from these struggles stronger. Miriam was inflicted with Tzaarat, a mysterious biblical skin disease long before Coronavirus unleashed itself onto the world. She quarantined from the Israelite camp for seven days. Sound familiar? Last week, all of us in the Bay Area woke up to a dire scene when it seemed as if the sun hadn’t risen. The world around us was on fire and everything was immersed in a blood orange haze. You know who first experienced a similar darkness? Moses and the Israelites. We read in Exodus about the 9th plague, “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where they were.” Third, a Jewish worldview posits that light triumphs over dark. Out of the ten plagues came the Israelites making their way to freedom and becoming the People of Israel. This year, against all odds, we have the audacity to be here tonight for a beautiful service and to wish each other a Shana tova and, hopefully, truly believe it. Finally, Jewish community provides a place for us to turn for comfort when we don’t know where else to go.
Not only can Jewish community provide important reminders for our time, but the Jewish community actually needs us. When talking with my mom, I retorted, “Yes but if everyone decides to take a break like you are, what will be left of the Jewish community a year from now or two years from now when the pandemic ends?” The Jewish community isn’t indestructible. It stands on our shoulders.
The Talmud, one of Judaism’s most definitive texts, contains a powerful teaching about a Rabbi named Hanina. In explaining what he believes to be the purpose of Jewish community, he quotes the book of Isaiah which says, “And all your children, banayikh, shall be taught of God, and great shall be the peace of your children.” For him, belonging to a spiritual community of Torah lovers brings peace to the world. The sages in conversation with him interrupt. “No no no,” they say. “Do not read this verse as banayikh, your children. Instead, read it as bonayikh.” The word sounds similar but it’s a little different. It means, “builders.” Understood this way, the verse translates as, “And all your builders shall be taught of God, and great shall be the peace of your builders.”
That’s truly what each of us are as members of the Jewish community. Builders. Jewish community is not a transactional purchase in which you pay membership dues or enrollment fees and receive spiritual nourishment in return. Community is built on us–on clergy, on staff, on Preschool and Youth Education teachers, on those who keep our physical building running, and on all of you. It’s built on caring about what’s happening in each other’s lives, on showing up during times of need, and on offering our unique ideas, our resources, and our time because we have a lot to offer that can strengthen our community and help our community share its values with the world. Our Peninsula Temple Sholom mission tells us, “We strengthen our community by caring for one another and the world around us.” Community isn’t a noun. It’s a verb that continuously emerges through the way that we act upon our values. This important work can’t happen with large numbers of us taking a break. We need you.
Mishkan HaNefesh, the prayer book we are using right now contains the following blessing:
Blessed are we, blessed our gathering,
as we open our hearts to the voice of the shofar.
Blessed are we who hear in these blasts of sound the voice of community.
Happy are we
who know its embrace,
its season of celebration
its quest for connection and purpose.
Holy is the gift of community, blessed the act of belonging.
In this new year, let us appreciate this Peninsula Temple Sholom community and all our communities. Let us remember that we are builders who uphold our communities and in doing so, we make the world more whole. Thank goodness that the Jewish community stood strong on October 27th, 2018 when people so desperately needed to feel a part of something larger than themselves. Let us build a strong Jewish community that will stand firm for generations to come.