I’ve been pondering the significance of why we start each Jewish New Year with such an intense focus on community.
During the High Holy Days, synagogues reach full capacity as congregants come together for extended services. We collectively recite prayers in the plural form, emphasizing our shared responsibility and identity as the Jewish people and highlighting the interconnectedness of our Jewish community. We silently stand together as a community listening intently to the resonating blasts of the shofar, calling us to action. Our physical presence in large numbers — whether regular attendees or occasional visitors — underscores a sense of unity and shared purpose.
We celebrate these holy days with festive meals shared among family and friends. These meals provide opportunities for bonding, reflection, forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as the expression of gratitude and blessings. The act of coming together around a table filled with festive foods and traditional Jewish dishes reinforces the importance of community, the value of relationships, and our shared Jewish identity and history.
Moreover, being part of community and feeling a sense of belonging has tremendous healing benefits, as well.
In the midst of a global mental health crisis that touches all of us, the healing power of community cannot be overstated. This crisis, a growing concern worldwide even before the COVID-19 pandemic, only exacerbated mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health issues. Isolation, anxiety, economic hardship, and loneliness became even more pronounced during the lockdowns and social distancing measures, especially among youth, teens, and young adults. Remote work blurred the boundaries between professional and personal lives, adding further stress and burnout.
Many of us feel weary, anxious, and lonely. The rise of antisemitism, increased polarization, relentless news cycles, the intensity and immediacy of social media contribute to how we perceive ourselves and those around us. Some use this as a reason to remain at home, separated and removed from others.
We can draw inspiration from the strength of collective, communal experiences deeply ingrained in Jewish life, tradition, and culture.
However, staying isolated at home only intensifies our loneliness and possibly worsens our mental health. Instead, I advocate for just the opposite: Heeding the sound of the shofar by showing up and seeking community. We can draw inspiration from the strength of collective, communal experiences deeply ingrained in Jewish life, tradition, and culture.
In my work at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), I have witnessed first-hand how the Jewish summer camp experience serves as a model for nurturing caring and supportive communities that can significantly improve individuals’ mental health and well-being.
The camp experience is more necessary than ever before: A screen-free environment where children can be active physically and engaged socially. This past summer, campers and counselors alike thrived at over 300 Jewish day and overnight camps across North America. They fostered cultures of kindness and developed essential life skills — resilience, problem-solving, communication, and leadership — while at the same time cultivating a love of Jewish tradition and a deeper connection to Jewish life.
Research confirms that limiting or restricting screen time enables campers to be physically active and engaged, interacting with people around them which enhances their sense of presence and connection. Through activities that require teamwork and cooperation, campers experience shared accomplishments that build unity, trust, and empathy. Moreover, they develop improved self-confidence and self-esteem.
Jewish camps go even further by offering chanichim (campers) near-peer role models, madrichim (counselors) who exemplify joy-filled Judaism. They create a sense of belonging and acceptance, embodying a core strength of the Jewish communal experience.
The High Holy Days serve as a poignant reminder of the importance of community, collective responsibility, and shared values within the Jewish tradition. The sound of the shofar calls on Jews to unite, reflect on our actions, and strengthen our connections with one another and with our faith.
This profound sense of communal togetherness is a hallmark of Jewish camp and the High Holy Days, offering spiritual and emotional support for many within the Jewish community. As we embark on the journey of 5784, may we all be blessed to truly feel the warmth of connection across all of our communities, benefiting from healing power of togetherness in these challenging times.
This content originally appeared in JewishJournal.com