Just the other night, I sat on the bimah with my clergy colleagues and the members of our twenty-twoperson Confirmation class. It was a glorious Shabbat evening experience. It wasn’t just that our teens led the service beautifully, although they did. They had meaningful remarks to share and they led the musical portions of the service with heart. And it wasn’t just that they honored the spirit of the Torah with the way they chanted the sacred words from the Book of Numbers.
The most meaningful part of the service was the spirit of friendship and human connection that emanated from their souls that night. This has been a remarkable Confirmation class from the beginning until their concluding service. It was clear that this wasn’t a collection of unique social groups, rather, it was one large group of peers, of friends, that made up a unit.
And the service reflected it. One student, Aidan Steckley, shared that at the heart of his Jewish faith are values and a strong sense of community. “What brings me back to PTS every week,” he explained, “is the community it brings. Being Jewish inherently bonds us and brings us closer… Most of the friends I have made in religious school are and will remain my closest friends. I believe in this community which I call home.”
Aidan’s words made me think about a verse from the Book of Psalms, “Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad — How good and how pleasing it is when brothers dwell together.”1 The wording is curious in the Hebrew, because literally, the verse reads, “How good and how pleasing it is when brothers dwell also together.” Why the seemingly unnecessary word “also?” We read in the Zohar, the primary text of Jewish mysticism, that the word ‘also’ “signifies the inclusion of the Shekhinah (Presence of God) with them.” And it adds, “Furthermore, the Holy One, blessed be God, listens to their words” and that it is “pleasing to God, for God takes joy in them.”2 So, when we truly dwell together, as one, not only is God present with us, but God takes joy in our sense of community.
The leaders, members and staff of our congregation have worked very hard to create a true sense of community, the kind of atmosphere where Aidan’s comments could be made from our bimah. After a period of study, in 2015, we adopted the following as our Vision: “Peninsula Temple Sholom is an inclusive Jewish community where everyone can find peace, inspiration and their own connection to Judaism.” It all starts with creating a space that is inclusive and that feels safe.
And four of our five core values are inherently relational and involve others — human connection, commitment to community, inclusivity, caring and kindness (the fifth is embracing change). And these values aren’t just words. They play a prominent role in all of our leadership discussions and serve to remind us that a synagogue is not about programs and events. Rather, we are about people, holiness, and helping to make meaningful connections between people.
I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi:
“The Torah clearly teaches what our own life experiences affirm: We were not created alone, or to be alone. We are part of a larger community of human beings, whose presence in the world adds texture to our lives, individually and collectively. Because we know that we are not alone, we must always be aware of others as we attempt to understand the world and what it means to be alive. As a result, how we see ourselves is often dependent on how we see others and how others see us. Only in the process of recognizing the ‘other’ can we begin to understand what being human truly means.”
Toward to the conclusion of the Confirmation service, another teen, Jordan Rich, shared some words about the people with whom she has shared her youth education experience. “I chose to write about these amazing people whom I’m up here sitting with. Most of whom, I consider to be my closest friends. So, the subject of this speech is friendship. People remark to me quite often how close this class is. The fact that we’re creating a program for 11th grade so we can still see each other and connect proves that point. Most of us have been here together since preschool.
For me and a few others, it was third grade when we really met and became the Jew Crew. I immediately felt like I belonged. Another thing that amazes me about this class is how [open] they’ve all been. Whenever there’s a new kid, they’re hanging out with us almost immediately. They aren’t the type of people you have to second guess. With this class, with these amazing people, I found a place where I truly feel like I belong. People who love and care about me, even at my lowest point. The kids in this class showed me that I’m never really alone. Each and every person in this class is one of a kind and has truly shaped me into the person I’ve become. So, to all the parents in the congregation, you raised wonderful kids. And I’m so glad to call you all my friends.
Jordan went on to do something I’ve never seen before in all my twenty-four years in the rabbinate. She used her time on the bimah to talk about her classmates personally. She wrote one sentence about each of the twenty-one other Confirmands, mentioning each student by name, and saying something positive about each one. Each sentiment was heartfelt and warm and clearly expressed how well she knew and how much she respected her peers. For example, about a classmate named Abby, she wrote: “Abby has taught me how to truly listen to people.”
If we ever doubted that what we all do here makes a difference or if the Jewish future is in good hands, we saw proof of both on Confirmation night. We saw how our Jewish faith not only teaches lessons, it teaches a way of life — a way that centers on our human connections. And we saw how what we’re doing here at PTS is conveying those lessons to the next generation.