Judaism places such an importance on the group experience that the Torah has multiple words for groupings, including shevet, edah, and kahal. The last one, kahal, has remained in modern Hebrew to denote congregation. It is also the word most similar to the Hebrew word for community, kehila. In fact, in Hebrew, only two letters separate the congregation from community, “yud” and “hey,” letters that spell out one of Judaism’s names for God…This is indeed the essence of Judaism: our purpose is to make God’s presence felt through the creation of community. If we succeed in maintaining that community all of the time, then the community will naturally be there through happiness and sadness, when we need it most.
These words of Arie Hasit – an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel, in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz (May 30, 2012) – say so much about the sense of social interaction that is inherent in Judaism. We can feel Jewish, and we can engage in individual mitzvot, but we can truly experience Judaism in the collective sense. While there are many paths to finding one’s place in the community, they all lead to one place – a collective consciousness, a sense that we are one with the Jewish people and linked with one another.
The world of 5774 is different in many ways than the world of previous generations. We spend a lot of time alone with our electronic devices. We live in communities far from where we grew up. We think an e-mail or a text message is a substitute for a conversation. We often lose ourselves while dwelling on getting ahead and having material possessions or finding our personal space.
As the High Holy Days approach, we seek to do more than turn off our laptops and cell phones for a few hours. We hope to find a connection with God, with our fellow Jews and with the chain of tradition that has linked us together for generations. How do we do it, and where do we go?
It all starts with a sense of community – a congregation where we are surrounded by like-minded people with like-minded purpose. While Jewish prayer has specific content and specific choreography, it often requires a collective presence. Perhaps knowing that at least nine other people are needed for certain prayers motivates someone to be at services, but the sense of community goes much deeper. A congregation is there for a Jewish person in simcha and in sorrow, in the good times and the bad times. It is not just about the High Holy Days; it is a lifeline for 365 days a year.
Still, the High Holy Days provide a great incentive to start our spiritual quest. At this time of renewal, we need to turn both inward and outward. The Orange County Jewish community offers many choices for finding a congregation, learning how to pray as part of it and engaging in meaningful activities to be a link in the collective whole. Just as Elul offers a time to reflect, Tishri provides the prodding to move forward. Seize the moment and hold onto it.