By Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
Now is the Jewish month of Elul. The leaves are turning brown and falling from the trees, and it is a good month for walking outside, enjoying the cooler air, and feeling the approach of our Jewish new year. While many see these days and weeks as a time to turn inward and be more thoughtful about the year behind us and the new year approaching, we may also want to turn toward one another and explore our relationships with each other and with our Jewish community.
This will now be the third year in a row in which we welcome a Jewish New Year during the time of Covid. Two years ago, people stayed home. Maybe we stayed alone, or maybe we plugged into a virtual community of some sort, listening to the prayers and songs of a community coming out of our laptops as we sat at our kitchen table. We explored the ways in which we needed to be separate to be healthy. And we got used to being at home.
And now, two years later into this pandemic, it is more challenging to enter our synagogue doors. We are more hesitant. For some of us, it has been so long that we no longer remember how to do it. We might even feel that entering the doors of our community is no longer necessary.
The Jewish new year reminds us just how much we need each other. There is a prayer in the High Holiday liturgy with the refrain "ki anu" ("for we are")… in which we describe in many ways that we, God, and each other are connected in our relationships. The prayer continues, "ki anu k'halecha" ("we are your community"). And yes, it is so true. We Jews are better when we are together in community. I have always loved the way we Jews come together, sitting shoulder to shoulder on Shabbat and holidays, singing our hearts out, and feeling a sense of unity among us. We indeed each bring our own individual worries, doubts, prayers, and gratitude. But together, shoulder to shoulder, singing our hearts out, we feel the relationships with each other. We feel less alone, more connected, and with perhaps a greater sense of meaning in our lives.
Last Chanukah, with masks on, we lit the candles every night at Hillel, just like we do every year. Each night, groups of students would come into our lobby and descend on the tables full of Chanukah menorahs. They would put in the candles, and together, as one large campus community, we would light them, singing our hearts out, and then enjoy coffee, tea, sufganiyot, and latkes. On the eighth night, when all the candles were lit, when light poured everywhere against the dark of night, I lingered with one last student, and we watched the candles as they continued to glimmer. She talked about growing up in a very Jewish town, and, as a younger person, not feeling any need to get together with Jews for holidays when Jews were all around her always. She spoke of how much she had grown to love coming together with other Jews now that she is a student here in Madison. How meaningful it had become to make plans to light the Chanukah candles together with friends, to eat a Rosh Hashanah dinner together with other Jewish students, how much she enjoyed celebrating Shabbat and other holidays with the Jewish community on campus. She admitted she was beginning to see how important it is to be in relationship with the Jewish community.
Ahad Ha'Am, an essayist born in 1856 in Kiev, and whom many refer to as the father of Cultural Zionism, praised the ways in which being a part of a community can enrich one's life. He said, "When the individual values the community as one's own life and strives after its happiness as though it were one's individual well-being, they find satisfaction and no longer feel so keenly the bitterness of their individual existence." That's right. Being a part of a community takes some of the bitterness of life away and adds meaning to our lives.
In these days of Elul, the month that precedes the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, I encourage each of us to take stock of our place in the Jewish community. With whom will we gather? Where will we gather? The Madison Jewish community is mighty, full of spirit, strength, and relationship in our joyful communities. We can each find our place in the Madison Jewish community and feel the richness and the joy that comes in sharing our Jewish life with others. May this be a year of getting out of the kitchen table and joining others, shoulder to shoulder, singing our hearts out, and exploring our relationships with each other.
May 5783 be a year of good health, of strength, and of joy for us all.
Shana Tova umetuka.
Andrea Steinberger is a rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, teaching, learning, questioning, and serving students as they create and expand their Jewish lives and practices during their college years.