/20 Iyyar, 5771
Chancellor Arnold Eisen
Covenant requires community: vital, caring face-to-face communities that are the building blocks of the global community linking Jews across the generations and around the world. The task of building, maintaining, and transforming local communities remains one of the greatest challenges confronting Conservative (and every other form of) Judaism today. Fortunately, it is also one of our greatest blessings. What I most love about Conservative Judaism, I think, is the quality of the face-to-face communities in which it has enabled me to participate: the joy and depth of the relationships it has afforded my family and me as we walk the path of Torah.
“It is easy to speak about the virtues of community when you are part of one. A family of husband, wife, and kids, will be welcomed into whatever community they are inclined to join. The harder topic to discuss is this: since the benefits of community are so extensive, what can we do to foster community for those people who are not as easily absorbed? How do we deal with “old” singles—widows, widowers, and divorced people—who are often sidelined because they are not part of a family? How do we handle young singles who see synagogues as “clubs” for families? What do we do about the three-day-a-year Jews, whom we love to criticize?.”Read More
“Like Arnie Eisen, I have been blessed to be part of many concentric communities. I am deeply connected to these circles—from social justice organizers to women leaders, from the Heschel day school school to a participatory prayer community called Minyan Ma’at. One of the primary benefits of being involved in these close-knit communities is that I have had the opportunity to experience the duality of roles that community lets us play—to be both leader and member, activist and thinker, doer and dreamer, comforter and comforted.”Read More
“Thirty years ago, while a junior in college, I was saying Kaddish for my father. One January day I walked to a synagogue in Greater Boston to make a 4:30 p.m. Minhah minyan, and on the way, it started pouring. By the time I got to the synagogue, I was soaked. When I walked into the building, vulnerable and bedraggled, one of the minyan regulars took one look at me and snapped: “Why do you come here looking like this? You look like what the cat dragged in.” I never went back to that synagogue, but 30 years later, I can still feel the sting of his words.” Read More
We Jews have always needed strong communities to help us take care of one another when no one else will, to provide meaning and comfort in the face of hostility or indifference, and to advance the agenda agreed upon at Sinai. In contemporary North America, facing the unprecedented challenge of assimilation, we need communities of mutual responsibility and shared commitment all the more. Only strong face-to-face community has the power to persuade Jews to remain Jews and to sustain the conviction that our beliefs and values really matter to the world. Jews who have experienced the pleasures of face-to-face communities—whether in a synagogue or school, at a summer camp or JCC, on a mission to Israel or around a Shabbat table—know firsthand that that experience is one of the most palpable benefits of Jewish commitment in our day. A vibrant Jewish community offers a sort of meaning and connection not available elsewhere. It is the source of some of the deepest joys and satisfactions life has to offer.
That is particularly true of Conservative communities that take maximum advantage of the rich variety of backgrounds, interests, talents, and perspectives represented in their membership. Community is enriched when women share positions of leadership with men and when all are encouraged to bring their diverse skills and voices to the learning and practice of Torah. The web of relationships centered on Torah thrives most when the group and all its members strive—in keeping with the essence of Conservative Judaism—to combine the fruits of their full participation in the larger society and culture with full and authentic engagement with the observances, texts, and norms of Jewish tradition.
Synagogues work better when they are “houses of study and assembly” as well as houses of worship; prayer on Sabbaths or holidays has a different quality when members of the congregation have come together for other activities during the week. Schools work better when parents and teachers share and exhibit the core values and activities being taught to the students. Communities of every sort are enriched by the presence of old and young, gay and straight, Jews by choice and by birth, fighters for social justice and fervent daveners “who come early to the house of study morning and evening.” Significant differences of this sort can sometimes strain communities to the breaking point—which makes it all the more important that the bonds of connection linking them are reinforced in activities and commitments that all share. When Conservative communities find a way to elicit and integrate the varied talent in their midst, those communities grow stronger as a result. The diversity helps everyone to grow.
I remember—and hope you have had similar experiences—the Shabbat mornings when my children became b’nai mitzvah in our Conservative shul. In particular I recall clearly, and feel the emotion of, the moments when the Torah was taken out of the Ark, my children held it proudly while reciting the Shema’, and then led the procession around the sanctuary as my wife and I remained at our assigned places in the front row. Our kids, we realized, had joined the community of the synagogue and the generations at that moment, even before saying the ritual blessings and receiving the ceremonial kiddush cup. We had presented and given them over to that community; its joys and responsibilities were already familiar to them.
Other memories too are vivid: how the community supported me when my parents passed away; the heated discussions over Jewish belief and practice that ended without lasting damage to communal or personal bonds because relationships that had been built up over years were strong enough to weather argument; joyous dancing with abandon at Simhat Torah and at community simhahs; the regular satisfaction of learning, praying, or working beside people whose kids I have watched grow up, whose illnesses I have helped see them through, whose opinions are at times happily predictable and, still more happily, have not lost the capacity to surprise me.
Successful Conservative institutions are true communities of mutual responsibility and shared commitment; places where people not only know your name but need and value your gifts. Such institutions provide palpable assurance to everyone who walks through the door that they are never alone in the world. Large synagogues accomplish this through warm greeting of both regulars and strangers, invitations to share Shabbat meals or home study groups, and the formation of havurot that gather regularly for celebration, study, or worship. Camps have perhaps the easiest job of fostering tight community. Their impact often lasts—as do the friendships they facilitate—for a lifetime. Men’s clubs and sisterhoods, Schechter schools and congregational schools, social action groups and hevra kadisha societies, all build on the instant gratification of Jewish geography and shorthand conversation and, over time, take these connections to a far deeper level. Conservative lay and professional leaders have the responsibility of making sure that tried-and-true techniques for building community and providing the sense of community are deployed, improved, and updated.
But the most important source of community among Jews is the covenant to which we are summoned. A Conservative Jew has a front-row seat at Sinai, so to speak—and a seat at the tables of Jewish learning and action where we do our best to figure out how Torah should be lived and taught here and now, in ways that have never before been imagined. Every one of us is needed for that work, and the experience of undertaking it as part of a community enables us to understand why Torah has long been a “tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Held fast by community, we chant those words with special fervor and hope that our dance around the Torah will never end.