Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Finding Community — Again

The Cohen Women, together again

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר

Hillel said: do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)

During these years of the pandemic, we might well ask ourselves, “Who is my community?” or  “Where is my community?” Lost in our own houses, unable to see others smile at us in public because of masking, watching things stream before us instead of participating actively “in real life,” many of us have a deep sense of loneliness. Who knew that the chit-chat in the office kitchen gave us a sense of belonging? Who anticipated that not just our jobs, but our whole lives could suddenly be sent home – not just with no idea of when we would be back in person, but with a sense that we may never, in so many places, be physically together once more?

What has been lost, what most of us are struggling to regain, is a sense of belonging. Committee meetings on Zoom are not the same as in person. My own mental health committee at my shul has been meeting online for months, years. We get a lot done; it is faster, safer, more efficient. But we have lost the 15 minutes during which we used to check-in as people. There is no food to share, no time to catch up. The minutes of our meetings look the same, but the experience is radically different.

So too in classes I teach. Students, fellow learners, seem less likely to speak up (with questions, comments, arguments – all sorts of good stuff!) on Zoom then they were in the classroom.

Even my therapist and I notice the altered safe between us online. It seems harder – for both of us – to sit together in silence: if I do not rush in with words to fill the space, she often does. In person, there is more room for waiting, for holding the experience as it is, rather than trying to fix it.

And now, as mask advice waxes and wanes, many of us are venturing back out into the real world. People are eating out, going to the theatre, and flying to visit family and friends. Some of the loss of community, however, lingers for many of us.

My shul was on top of creating virtual worship spaces during the pandemic. Shabbat and holiday services streamed, with Torah study, worship, and songs. But I did not find the experience compelling, and I slowly dropped my virtual attendance. The pandemic corresponded closely in time to the arrival of our new rabbi and then our new music people (a hazzan and a musical director). So many new melodies and new minhagim to get used to, and now I was supposed to be doing so online! Some of the regulars found other synagogues that better fit their beliefs, and they left. Where was my community? Rather than adapt, I stopped “going”.

But community is made by those who show up. As I am working my way back towards regular, in-person attendance at Shabbat morning services, it occurs to me that, while my community has changed in song and people, it is still my community. And it is up to me to adapt.

If some of my friends have left, there are new people to connect with. If there are new melodies. . . well, by going regularly to services, I can learn them. There is no perfect community, no shul where everything will be a match. When shul-shopping, people decide based on some internal check-list. That makes sense: no place can be all things to all people. One should determine what matters most, and find the place that can fulfill that need. But the fact that a synagogue, that any community endeavor, religious or not, has parts that one dislikes or does not meet all of our needs in exactly the way we wish it did: this is not a good reason not to belong anywhere.

After all, we make compromises all the time. No partner is perfect. I am lucky to have a wonderful husband who has tolerated me these past almost 30 years. Does that mean it is a “perfect fit?” Of course not. But I love him, and he is, in the best sense, “good enough.” And I am grateful for the things about me he overlooks, just as I do for him. No friendship is an exact fit either. We disagree about matters large and small, but if we are lucky, we learn to accept the person as is; we love them without needing them to be perfect.

So, what does Hillel mean? What is a community and how do we be part of it, instead of separating from it?

Community is made by showing up. To use a shul as an example, if I show up to service most weeks, I will meet other regulars, though they may be at a different stage of life than me. We will smile at one another from across the room (and under our masks, if need be). We will chit-chat as we wait for the Torah’s hakafah, watching it circle the congregation. I’ll notice who is saying Kaddish, and ask about their loss at the Kiddush. I will sing with the voices around me. I’ll congratulate those who lead the davening, and I will leyn/read Torah on regular basis. Others will wish me well. And I will turn to the person next to me in line for the food at Kiddush and introduce myself (and I will let others know I am bad with names, so please forgive me if I ask more than once!).

Creating community is an active thing. It is about introducing yourself to unfamiliar faces. It is passing around the challah for blessing. It is going beyond my comfort zone of those I know, and discovering friendships with new people. It is being open to new faces and new tunes, new ideas and new foods. It is volunteering time to teach or being a part of committee. There are so many options:  the chesed/kindness committee that organizes meals and help for those who are ill or mourning, or celebrating a new baby. If I can’t head the committee, I can at least sign up on the “meal train” schedule.

Community means bringing your skills to the benefit of the community. As a rabbi in the congregation, I try to contribute with things I know how to do: daven, leyn Torah or Haftarah, teach adult education, create and head up the Mental Health Committee. Others contribute what they know: social action, working with kids, welcoming newcomers to the community.

And then the community is there for me in turn. When my husband’s mother died, people not only showed up for shiva and the services therein, but people organized food for us. They came early to shiva and stayed late, to set up and clean up. All my family had to do was sit; we mourned. We told stories about Doreen, and showed pictures to those who came to visit. And every single action mattered. I was touched by those who paid a shiva call, who wrote a note, who went out of their way to be with us in mourning.

And because it meant so much to me that others cared for us, I am more likely to show up for other people. I have been knitting baby blankets for my synagogue’s “new baby baskets.” I love the idea that my hobby can make others feel wrapped in my embrace.

Do not separate yourself, Hillel says. Sure, you could do it alone, but why? Why not invite others into my life, and show up for them as well? When we notice each other’s gifts, and overlook their shortcomings, we create that community. And, in turn, when others embrace us, we know that we belong. It is a privilege. It is a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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