Congregation B'nai Israel

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Making Community Happen

by Ira Wise, April 2018/Nisan-Iyar 5778

As I write this, I am attending a conference at Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles. I have written about this amazing Jewish residential addiction recovery center before. Every morning, the 140 residents gather with one of the rabbis or spiritual counselors to learn Torah together. They focus on parshat hashavuah – the weekly Torah portion. This week is Parshat Vayakhel from the book of Exodus. This portion follows the story of the Golden Calf – that moment when the children of Israel were utterly divided and chaotic while Moses was on Mt. Sinai.

The name of the portion comes from the same Hebrew root that gives us the word Kehillah which means “community.” The portion begins “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community.” One of the teachers at Beit T’shuvah, Rabbi Matt Shapiro, suggested that this gathering was the moment where the people became re-unified after the trauma of the Golden Calf. He pointed out that in a true community, the individuals in it make a commitment to engage, to be involved with one another. They focus not only on the needs and goals of their own families, but on those of the others in the community.

Beit T’shuvah is such a community. The residents take on a variety of obligations. They commit to actively participating in their treatment including counseling, 12 Step groups and regular group Torah study. They also commit to supporting one another through their words and behavior. They encourage one another to stay focused on their sobriety. They follow the house rules to ensure the safety – physical, emotional and spiritual – of everyone who lives or works there.

One of the rabbis attending the program with me asked an interesting question: “We talk about our congregations as communities all the time. As I look at the community here, and how people engage with one another, I have to ask – are our congregations really communities in the same sense as the Torah describes? Are we engaging with one another? Do we have each other’s backs all the time?”

That question has stayed with me for days. Of course our congregation is a community. We are a community of learners. We gather every Shabbat as worship community. We celebrate holidays as a community… you get the idea. At the same time, we are a community of 700 families. (A home with one person is a family as much as one with five or six.) How often do each of those families – or even one adult member of each family – engage with the rest of us? This past month, did you attend a Shabbat service? Participate in the Mitzvah morning? Celebrate Purim at the carnival or the service? Were you one of the 150+ people who saw From Baghdad to Brooklyn?

Please do not think I am judging anyone. An essential facet of Reform Judaism means that we choose the ways we engage based on what we find to be meaningful. Please think of this as an invitation to become more connected – to one another, to God or your own sense of spirituality. I wonder if we all might get more out of being a part of this community if we engage more with one another. That doesn’t have to mean coming to a program. It might mean having coffee with a friend from temple. It might mean gathering with other families for a seder – or simply letting the rabbis or cantor know that you have room for one or more members of our community at your seder table and making them feel welcome.

Several weeks ago one member of our community, Sherry Portnoy, volunteered to write and deliver the d’var Torah at a Shabbat morning service. Like many before her, she spent time studying the Torah portion and thinking about what she wanted to say about it. She also did something few others have done. She reached out to everyone she knew and invited them to come to that service to hear her teach about the Torah portion. She told us how much it would mean to her to have her community there to support her. The room was pretty full. I am proud to say I counted 21 current and former teachers who have worked with Sherry in our Religious School.

Sherry and Rabbi Matt teach an important lesson. Our community is committed to you.  What do you need? And as a member of our community, how will you connect and engage with the rest of us? Let’s talk!