Building Community Inside and Out

Posted on November 5, 2017 by Jay Lavroff, President, 2017-2019

One of the things I enjoy most about being part of the leadership of Temple Beth-El is the opportunity to speak to our young people on the morning of their bar or bat mitzvah. On each such occasion, I make sure to emphasize that as young Jewish adults, they will have a different and increased role in the community. Not just the TBE community or the New Jersey community, but the community of the entire world. It’s an important message, and it applies to all of us.

Community is not just membership. It’s a sense of belonging and recognition of responsibility. Where the idea of community first came from, no one can say. But it is clear that Jewish religious and cultural life is closely tied to community. The importance of community is at the core of many of our teachings, laws and ritual practices. The Torah itself is replete with references to being part of a community. The reading of Torah and the offering of many of our prayers, including the Barechu and the Mourner’s Kaddish, requires the presence of a minyan, which is a community of 10 adults. One of the best known passages in Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of our Ancestors, is Hillel’s admonition, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” And we all live by the Talmudic pronouncement Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another.

A strong sense of community has enabled Jews in the diaspora to survive through difficult times in every age. In 18th century Europe, when most countries denied citizenship to Jews and precluded us from working in certain professions and occupations, reliance on our communities was the key to survival. Kibbutz living has been an integral part of sustaining life in the state of Israel since its founding. And here in the United States, the established community of Jews who came earlier from Western Europe helped settle those who were part of the great Eastern European Jewish immigration wave of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the fact that they had nothing in common other than their religion.

It seems that a sense of community is in our Jewish DNA. Some of the resulting benefits are the high value we place on education, a strong social conscience, treating others with kindness and respect, and recognition of our responsibility to serve.

Ironically, anti-Semites have, over the years, perverted our sense of community into an accusation that Jews are “clannish,” which in turn makes us worthy of suspicion. If only our detractors took the time to examine the extent to which the Jewish community reaches out to aid and support other communities, perhaps they’d realize how wrong-headed that thinking is.

At Temple Beth-El, our sense of community goes well beyond what happens at 67 Route 206. We are always at the forefront of efforts to help repair the world. For example, each year we make the single largest donation to the Somerset County Food Bank. Last April, we helped organize and hosted the Hate Has No Home Here Interfaith Vigil for Peace, which brought together religious and civic leaders from diverse backgrounds to stand up to the unfortunate increase in intolerance. In October, we were honored by the Interfaith Hospitality Network, better known as IHN, for our work in assisting homeless people of all backgrounds. And just recently, we participated in an interfaith program on environmentalism called Many Traditions, One Home: Caring for our Earth. It is very clear that when it comes to community, we cast a wide net.

Ours is a holy community. It provides strength and security for today, and helps us meet the challenges of tomorrow. We feel God’s presence throughout. May it always be so.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu,

Jay Lavroff

Originally published in the November-December 2017 issue of the Shofar. For more, visit the Shofar archives.