I entered into these High Holidays with excitement, and also with some trepidation, with some curiosity. Because, I didn’t know what was going to happen tonight and the days to come. Years prior I knew what to expect, the hum of the sanctuary, the excitement of return, the convergence of all of us here in one space. When the pandemic began, then too, it was clear in a way: we all stayed home, turned on our computers and joined together in a new way. I reached out to you across the wavelengths and yet we were still together, still connected—it was a different type of excitement, and one that was no less potent. And last year we did the same, with a few more people in the sanctuary, again demonstrating that we are able to create community in new ways.
This year, with the doors of the building as well as the zoom room open, I really didn’t know what to expect. How many people would be in person, and how many on zoom. How can we maintain the same feeling if connectedness when we are not all in one place (for hybrid is different, whether in person or on zoom, previously we were all in one place.) But we are not going back, for we have learned that hybrid grants broader access and accessibility that we need to maintain and we will maintain.
When we started going hybrid a few months ago the numbers were weighted in favor of online attendance, and they have remained that way. Most people stayed on zoom. And I understand that—the pandemic is not over, we are not free from Covid. Our congregation developed a robust policy, a path to move forward, and we move forward from there.
One thing I need to keep reminding myself is that the how questions are different than the why question. That is, how we do spiritual community is changing, has been changing, over the past few years (if not longer, even before Covid.) It is—and this is the main source of my anxiety—unclear as to what that change is, and what spiritual community will look like moving forward. We are continuing to adjust, rethink, and tinker with the how. There is no going back, but I’m not really sure where we are going. Except for the fact to know that we are a community congregation.
On the other hand, the why question—why is spiritual community important—is a different. And those answers, I believe, are established even if they are not known. We don’t often think about the why of spiritual community. Perhaps it comes to us intuitively. Perhaps we are just not sure.
As I often have, I have come to you on Erev Rosh Hashanah with a list of lessons learned or insights gleaned over the past year. And this past year has been another one of navigating a pandemic and learning how to do things differently. It got so overwhelming for me this past year that I needed to take a step back, and I am so grateful to this community, for this congregation, for granting me a 6-week sabbatical so I could restore myself. And no, this is not the seven things I learned on my sabbatical so if that’s what you thought I’m sorry.
No, what I want to share with you are the answers to the why question. Why is spiritual community important. So here are my seven answers to that question. Here are seven reasons why spiritual community important. And my hope, is that if I share with you my perspective on the why question, we will be able to address the how question together.
We need a place to eat with other people
One of the things we have lost due to Covid that we have not yet fully regained here is the sharing of food. Whether it is an oneg of snacks after our Shabbat service, or a communal Shabbat dinner, or bagels and lox at Torah study, or our Passover Seder, or the apples and honey we share on Rosh Hashanah or the Break Fast on Yom Kippur, we have not yet as a community come back to our communal eating. And the sheer number of examples I have just mentioned indicate how central our shared food experiences are to our communal Jewish experience. They are not an addition to but an integral part to what we do. They are ways we celebrate, they are ways we console, they are ways we maintain our traditions.
And they are ways we strengthen our connections with each other for our own benefit.
People have studied the benefits of social eating, communal eating. It’s been determined that social networks are important in combating mental and physical illness. In one such study, Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford notes that a significant proportion of survey respondents “felt that having a meal together was an important way of making or reinforcing these social networks.”
And sacred community is one of the places where it is natural to have a communal meal. When we eat with others it is usually in smaller groups: family dinner, or a night out with friends, or a work lunch. How important it is to draw together in larger numbers—including those outside your family, or friendship circle, or work cohort; sitting down to eat even with people you don’t even know.
The synagogue is one of those places that facilitates and prizes communal eating. Our tradition teaches this, not only by making some of our ritual practices and holiday celebrations dependent on food, but overtly when it teaches, “Three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten at God’s table” (Pirke Avot 3:4) Social eating is important to our well being, and spiritual community is one place that we do that. And it is my hope that we can find our way soon to once again safely creating these opportunities for sharing food.
Being a part of spiritual community gives you an opportunity to strengthen social bonds over food.
We need a place to sing in public
Without intentionally joining a choir or a chorale, I can only think of three places where we regularly sing together in public: a concert, the ballpark, and a faith community.
Where everyone who walks through the door. Ok so it’s a bit of an exaggeration but think about when and where you sing in public. Not many places. But psychologists again have studied what maybe we know naturally, that singing together is good for us. Studies have been shown that singing is good for the immune system, and learning new songs is good for brain function. Singing in general improves wellbeing, happiness and improves one’s mood. It is a way of making music that is accessible to everyone–everyone can sing–creates a shared emotional experience, and—like sharing a meal—fosters social connections which have been shown to be vitally important. By being one of those places that regularly engages in communal singing as a central part of our liturgy and worship, faith communities thus have the ability to harness these benefits on a regular basis.
Of course it was a choir event that was one of the first superspreader events at the beginning of the pandemic, a choir rehearsal that made the news, and thus has been a challenge. And yet we are finding our way back, slowly and carefully, joining together our voices in song.
So let’s do more. Let’s do more in our community. We have our wonderful choir. I started learning the guitar a few years ago. There are others out there who have musical talent and interests, and there is so much Jewish music being released into the world. Let’s lean into music in our community. Let’s bring everyone together to do a music summit here where we all come together who are interested in music and learning new music and bringing new music to our community to our services and our communal life.
Being a part of spiritual community allows you to use your voice and give expression to your emotions and feelings to connect with yourself, with others, and with the spirit.
We need a place to contain our traditions
I hate to share some bad news on this day of celebration, but the Queen has died. If you didn’t know Queen Elizabeth II has died after over 70 years on the throne of England, which triggered not only the succession of King Charles III but an elaborate ritual of mourning and burial. It was fascinating to watch for me because all the pageantry and participation of the funeral had not been done in 70 years. The people who were at this ritual last time were children, most people were not alive when King George VI died. And yet, the elements were in place and went smoothly.
Which means that there was planning. The rituals: the processions, the services, the lowering of the casket, the breaking of the wand—all of these rituals needed to be maintained and held by a group of people who would be ready to carry it out when needed and able to direct all the parts and participants.
I thought about this in reflecting on our institutions—our synagogues. Our Jewish communities are also the repository for our traditions, our rituals, our practices. These rituals and practices are so vitally important because they provide a container for the ups and downs of our lives. We need ways to frame what happens in our lives that are both personal and communal, both contemporary and timeless. In this way spiritual community helps us shape the narrative of our lives.
Judaism is meant to be practiced every day, in our personal space, in our homes. But it is also practiced in community. And while we individually may not have all the information or guidance, all of us collectively contain the practices and minhagim of our people. None of us, myself included, can hold the entirety of our tradition by ourselves. Everyone is needed.
And in addition, it is by joining together in spiritual community that we give life to our practices and traditions even when you do not personally practice them. We need a place, we have a place, regardless of our own personal practice, where we observe our traditions, where we can say oh we don’t eat that here, or we only do certain things at certain times–blessings, holidays, foodways—because we are a Jewish community and when you are a part of it, it gives you that opportunity to practice and engage in our traditions.
Being a part of spiritual community gives you a connection to the past and a foundation for the future.
We need a place to teach values
You may have already heard but we have introduced a new youth education program this year. We have lovingly retired our “Beit Sefer”—which means school—and introduced a program which “Darchei Noam”—which means “pleasant paths.” It is a program that moves away from the Sunday School model and incorporates Jewish learning on Jewish time, and allows families to build their own education program based on a variety of offerings. And also allows more integration of our families with the rest of the congregation, where anyone can be a teacher.
And I say this not just as a means to plug a new program here at TBH, but to emphasize how important spiritual education is, and perhaps now more than ever. Our children have also lived through this pandemic—their schooling, their socialization, their development, interrupted by separation and isolation and fear. But I say this without judgment—it is what it is, and there was learning that happened because of the pandemic not despite it. and we are so grateful to our kids who do what they need to do to be safe and keep others safe.
And the spiritual needs are there. The need to belong, the need to have a place, the need to be accepted without judgment. And spiritual community is a place to do it.
And our youth program is not there just to teach kids how to be Jewish. Of course that is a part of it—Hebrew, holidays, Shabbat, customs, prayers—these are all a part of the curriculum. But spiritual education, like here at TBH, is there to teach kids how to be humans. We teach values. We teach character traits.
This is not something that would necessarily be taught in the public schools, where the emphasis is on skills and performance. But it is a necessary part of a child’s education. And so we partner with parents and families to make it here. When others won’t or can’t teach values, then we will. And if the forces of book banning ever reaches this community then I can guarantee those books will be on our shelves.
Being a part of spiritual community prioritizes the creation of the whole person, in all our intricacies, and gives us the tools we need to be our full selves.
We need a place to work for justice
Our values lead to action. And we are a values-based organization not only so that we as individuals can grow, and be fulfilled, but so then we will go out and work in our community. This is not the only place where one can organize and work for justice. But this is a place. And it is our place. And so if you are looking for an opportunity to engage in justice work rooted in spiritual values, then you can be connected to spiritual community. Especially too if you don’t know where to start, here is a place to focus your passion.
One of the things that I think is so powerful about doing this work of social justice through spiritual community is that it provides a narrative, a framework for the work we are doing that is beyond charity, and beyond the needs of the individual. The story of the Exodus, that foundation story that we repeat year after year around the Passover table, tells the story of a people liberated from oppression and brought to safety not so they could live in peace for themselves, but so that they can live in peace for themselves and then work for the liberation of others. How can we expect to transform the world if we don’t have the vision of a world that can be transformed?
We have developed a number of opportunities, deeply rooted in our identity as a Jewish community, to support the work of justice and tikkun olam. We have a Green Team that is leading us in our own environmental sustainability. We have our Immigration and Refugee Task Force, which has done a tremendous job with our sanctuary work over the past few years and continues to advocate. We started a homeless task force this past year, to guide us in contributing to supporting our houseless neighbors here in Olympia. We have advocates for gun responsibility, and in the works are members organizing around racial justice and exploring reparations work. And maybe, in light of recent events, we can begin to do more on reproductive justice.
Being part of a spiritual community reminds us that we are part of a greater whole, and we have a responsibility beyond our own selves and our interests.
We need a place to be comfortably uncomfortable
We have spoken to the point of cliché of the polarization that is plaguing us at this point. Common ground is far and few between, we are in our silos of opinion. It seems that we are losing shared spaces where we can offer ideas, hear others in return, and allow ourselves the humility to learn and grow.
I believe that the synagogue is one of those places, or must be. When we speak of the Exodus, as mentioned earlier, we speak of the erev rav, that it was a “mixed multitude” that left Egypt. Traditionally this is understood as Egyptians who were fed up with their society fleeing Egypt along with the Israelites, and joining together in their journey or cause. Another way to understand it, perhaps, is that there was an erev rav within the Israelite community itself, a community brought together by a shared journey, but of different mindsets, experiences, backgrounds.
Indeed we see this throughout the Torah, as time and time again we have stories of the Israelites arguing, rebelling, challenging. The powerful thing is not that these stories exist, but they are kept in sacred text. Challenging each other is holy. Disagreement is holy. This is an ethic that continues throughout our literature, primarily the Talmud, whose literary style is dialogue and argument among rabbis, with minority opinions not excised from the text but preserved.
Spiritual community is one place in our society where we should be able to come together like the ancient Israelites—a community brought together by a shared journey, but of different mindsets, experiences, backgrounds. A place where we can learn from each other. For how do we change if not pushed to consider ideas, to compromise, to question, to empathize, to be humble—that in and of itself, is spiritual work.
And we must be a community here that affirms and celebrates radical inclusion, and so must be a place for Jews of all backgrounds, gender identities, abilities, sexual orientations, linealities, racial and ethnic identities and paths to Judaism to find a home here. And that any practice that violate this value of inclusion, even though they fall within the exercise of Judaism, can not play a part in this congregation.
And indeed this radical inclusion itself can be a source of the comfortable discomfort that allows for learning and growth. And I think of my own experiences: I have misgendered people. I have limited access to others. I have said or done things that excluded. When these have been pointed out to me these have been learning opportunities, and we as a community can only grow in our inclusivity if we learn from others.
And this is the heart of teshuvah, of the work that we are doing now, to recognize where we have done harm, and how we can rectify it. And teshuvah doesn’t end with an apology or even forgiveness. In fact, those might not even be part of the teshuvah process. It ends when we have changed our behavior away from our past harms to another way of being and doing. Teshuvah itself is uncomfortable. Spiritual community though can contain that discomfort and, in fact, welcomes it.
Being part of a spiritual community gives us a place to belong, engage with others, and to grow.
And the seventh why of spiritual community, and perhaps the most important and the most difficult, is:
We need a place to bring our pain and our loneliness
I hesitate whether to share this, because its hard to say and talk about, these last few weeks have been very difficult for me as I learned that a good friend from my growing up took his own life. Although we had fallen out of regular contact in recent years, he played a significant role in different parts of my life.
I do not wish to share details of his life or his name or circumstances of his death, and there is still much I do not know. I can not say anything for certain. Can we ever, in circumstances like this. But it has got me thinking deeply about suicide, and the profound sadness that usually precedes it. And how that sadness can be brought about or compounded by isolation.
We are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness in our country. A recent survey out of Harvard University, determined that 36% of respondents reported serious loneliness—feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. This included 61% of young people aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children. About half of lonely young adults in our survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.” In older individuals, other studies have shown that people who are lonely have a greater risk of premature death, of dementia, of heart disease, of stroke, of anxiety, or depression.
We have seen over the recent past more mutual aid groups pop up assisting people with their basic needs. And we also need to be able to assist people with their emotional and spiritual needs. We so desperately need a place to bring our pain, to bring it to others, not to be fixed, not to be advised, not to be remedied—but to simply witness. To share it. To be reminded that we are not alone in it. Brene Brown has this great quote, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away, but church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife. I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, I’ll sit with you in it.’”
That’s exactly it. Indeed, all of us walk along the same path. Sometimes we are the ones with the pain, and sometimes we are the midwife. And what is spiritual community if not a place, a vessel, to contain that hurt. And to emphasize the fact, that we all carry it. Each week we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish at our service. Each one of us will at some point stand to recite the kaddish, and each of us will have it recited for us. The Kaddish can not be said outside of community—you need 10 people in order to say it. You must bring your pain in public, into this safe vessel. Each week we read names, each week people stand, each week the invitation is there to share grief and loss.
Our congregation may not be able to take away all the pain and sadness that we carry, because of illness, because of trauma, because of the world we live in. But we must be the place to bring it, without judgment, without stigma, to be the antidote to this epidemic of loneliness. We need a place to belong. We need a place that we are not alone. We need a place to see and be seen. And this, like other spiritual communities, is that place.
So if you are here this evening, and you need to hear this right now, I will tell you:
I love you.
I care about you.
I’m sorry you are in this pain.
I am here for you.
You are important to me.
You so not need to be alone in this.
Everything we do here at TBH. Every program, every class, every service has this at its heart. This must be at its heart.
Being part of a spiritual community is being a part of something with love at the center.
What is next for our community? Outside of our beautiful new courtyard that we are going to build, I’m not sure. What I do know for sure is that dictum from Rabbi Hillel in that ancient text Pirke Avot, Al tifros min hatzibur “Don’t separate yourself from the community.” Not just because community needs you, but because we all need it.