Over the past few weeks, my shul administration and I have conducted focus group meetings with some of our members. The purpose of these meetings is to reconnect with members, many of whom we do not see on a regular basis during this pandemic. These meetings provide opportunities to reflect on how we are feeling and to brainstorm for more ideas to help keep our community united while we are physically apart.
One member expressed that it was difficult to be back in shul when she first returned since the start of COVID. Despite being glad to be back in shul davening as she had been coming every week before COVID, now it felt that something was missing. Even when we come to shul and we daven, hear the Torah reading, and hear the drasha, there is something that we so desperately miss. Perhaps we miss what Yosef was missing.
I think about what Yosef Hatzaddik so desperately wanted a few Parshiyot ago, and whether he achieved it in this week’s Parsha. In Parshat Vayeishev, Yosef meets a man as he is traveling to see his brothers in Shechem and the Torah apparently feels that it’s necessary to tell us that Yosef had this chance visit with this stranger. The stranger asks Yosef, “mah tevakesh,” or “what are you seeking,” and Yosef responds, “et achai anochi mevakesh,” or “I seek my brothers.” Yosef wants to be connected to his brothers. He wants to feel the kinship with his brothers. And it’s not so clear that he gets what he wants. Yes, the brothers pass the test the second time around and refuse to leave their brother Binyamin in Egypt, thereby demonstrating to themselves and to Yosef that they had repented for selling Yosef into slavery. Yes, Yosef tries to connect with them when he discloses his identity to them in this week’s Parsha by telling them not to feel sad for selling him because God had other plans. But we read the story in this week’s Parsha and next week’s Parsha and we wonder, is the reconciliation complete? Why are the brothers scared that Yosef will harm them after Yaakov dies? I wonder, does Yosef go to his deathbed with his simple request of “et achai anochi mevakesh” unfulfilled?
Baruch Hashem, there is no friction between our community members, but I think many of us simply are seeking what Yosef sought all his life. We seek our brothers and sisters. We simply want to feel that sense of connection that our synagogue communities breathed into our lives up until the pandemic. We have done all sorts of zoom programming, from zoom shiurim to zoom lectures, to zoom social events, to zoom shul dinners, to zoom youth programs, and yet we still feel, “et achai anochi mevakesh.”
One of the most successful community building programs that we did in recent months was a simple Kiddush-to-go that was prepared for Shabbat Chanukah. We already have had a number of Kiddush-to-go’s that we have handed out to members who came to shul on various Shabbatot in our community that have been sponsored by individual members. But the Shabbat Chanukah initiative was taken on by the community, for the community. So many of our members volunteered to donate a small sum to help finance the Kiddush without any arm twisting. One (or maybe two) emails, and the requests to sponsor came flying in. The reason was simple. People wanted to participate so that they could feel part of something shul-related. They wanted to help build connection. Maybe it’s just that Jews love food – I don’t know – but so many members sponsored and felt so good sponsoring.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in addition to the boxes prepared for shul goers to pick up on their way home from Shabbat davening, a number of volunteers drove around on Friday to deliver Kiddush-to-go’s to those who don’t come to shul on Shabbat because of the pandemic. The response from the community to this simple act of community building was overwhelming. The personal deliveries we made created much needed face time between the volunteers and those who aren’t yet able to come to shul. One person called me up to tell me that it was special for us to write in the card that was attached to the Kiddush-to-go package, “We miss you.” Our community has been searching for connection, and this beautiful initiative was a small but meaningful way to provide it.
The response to the Kiddush-to-go highlighted to me how lonely so many people feel and how easy it is to really make a difference and bring our communities closer together. And this is actually an idea that Yael, my wife, came up with at the focus group this past week. All it takes is some face time or even some phone calls on a regular basis. Imagine if every single person in our community – yes, every single person in our community – selected three people per week whom we haven’t talked to in the previous week and we called just to say hi. I think she called it “Calls for COVID.” This is not about chesed. This is not about calling people who are lonely and homebound for whom we feel bad. Of course, we need to reach out to those people. But this is about reconnecting community. I think so many members of our communities are crying out, “et achai anochi mevakesh.” We all crave connection. We know the vaccine is on its way so there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we can’t wait until then. We want to reconnect. And if we all commit ourselves to this simple but powerful act, I know that we can. Call three new people whom you haven’t spoken to in the past week. Then do it again next week, and the week after that. Then I think we can begin to achieve what Yosef Hatzaddik was yearning for, and what we all so desperately need now.