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A mourner, a comforter, a lesson re-learned

The best hope for Diaspora Jewish life lies in the communal interdependence of helping and being helped

It was a Shabbat morning filled with simple blessings. The sun drenched the sanctuary of our synagogue with warmth and light, as people from throughout our community joined us for prayer and Torah study with Dr. Ron Wolfson.

Ron is a renowned Jewish educator and researcher who is at the forefront of efforts to rethink Diaspora Judaism and Jewish communal life as Jewish identity and commitments shift radically.  He joined us, our sister Conservative synagogue, and our local federation to open dialogue about what he calls relational Judaism, the old/new emphasis on Jewish community and spirituality as a complex network of individual, communal and spiritual relationships. In his writings and his teachings he reminds us that people connect and stay committed to Jewish life when they and their families feel valued and cared for, and when they are expected to help others within the web of kehilah kedoshah, sacred community.

These things, more than programmatic gimmicks and flashy marketing, are effective alternatives to the extreme individualism, materialism and profound loneliness that characterize contemporary secular society. Ron believes strongly that Jewish institutions of the 21st century need to recast our age-old Jewish wisdom about meaningful relationships if we are to stem the precipitous decline in organized Jewish life and make a real difference in the lives of Jews and Judaism.  As a long-time student of his, I was thrilled to host him and to hear him talk about what the Jewish community can do to welcome all Jews into our community meaningfully. 

Every teacher knows that the most important lessons are often not the ones learned formally from the lesson plan. After Ron spoke and we came to the end of davvening (worship), my co-rabbi announced our condolences to a family in the community who had just lost their mother, a long-time member who had been ill for some time. One of the woman’s daughters was standing near her kids in our young families’ play area. As I watched the woman cry and recite Mourners’ Kaddish, I thought, “I must go over to her and comfort her…now.” Just as I began to approach her, another young mother in the play area, without missing a beat, put her arm around her shoulders, as the woman’s head dropped onto her shoulder and remained there for the next ten minutes. I know both of these women well, but as far as I know they do not know one another well. Yet this did not matter. One person in the community was struggling with loss and grief, and another person reached out to her to comfort her with simple hesed (kindness) borne of loving empathy and moral obligation. At that moment, my efforts to be a caring rabbi were unnecessary. Without my help, the comforter and the mourner still found each other that Shabbat morning in that sacred space.

My desire to be a menachem avel (one who comforts a mourner) was inspired partly by a noble but often exhausting impulse common to rabbis: we truly want to help people through modeling mitzvah observance, which is why we entered the rabbinate. Yet we and others become convinced that we and only we can perform sacred obligations such as hesed in which every Jew must engage.  My two friends re-taught me in action what Ron Wolfson was teaching us in words that morning. Real community – and real Jewish continuity – take place in the tight matrix of caring, interdependent relationships at every level of life experience.  These relationships are not the exclusive domain of rabbis, other Jewish communal professionals, or lay boards, even though we are responsible for facilitating them. They are all our obligation and privilege, and they are what revitalizing and sustaining Jewish community are all about.

Naysayers who have already signed the death warrant of Diaspora Judaism argue that it is not worth reinvigorating because far better opportunities exist. Orthodox Judaism continues to grow as a powerhouse of unabashedly religious commitment, and Israel is thriving as a majority Jewish society. As a religious, non-Orthodox, Diaspora Jew, I struggle with these critiques because I know that they are in great part correct. The tight social bonds created by Orthodox shuls and the societal interdependence inherent in Israeli life have much to teach us. However, both of these expressions of Judaism have their limitations and they are not for everyone. My two friends and their families joined us, not the local Orthodox shul, and they are not making aliyah anytime soon. They sense, as do I, that our community’s approach to Judaism possesses great wisdom for living meaningfully and with deep holiness in an increasingly complex world. I want to help them, their families and all people who join us to live this great wisdom.

In the months ahead, my synagogue and community will be talking about how to better apply Ron Wolfson’s vision in our lives. We will seek to learn from his writings, from research, and from successful Jewish communal models throughout the world. Most important, we will learn from each Jew who inspires us with those small acts of holy living that make a difference in the world day by day.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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