An Ideal Community

Alissa Thomas
October 16, 2012
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What is your ideal spiritual community?

Take a moment to imagine it—who is a part of it, how you feel when you enter into it, what values and goals are shared there—what about it makes it ‘ideal’?

When I polled my friends, many of them expressed similar themes: an ideal spiritual community is a place that is accepting and supportive, it is a source of Jewish knowledge and practice, a place where community members are educated and engaged, and a place where they can have meaningful communal prayer experiences.

In Parshat Vayeilech Moses commands the Levites, “Assemble [hakheil] the people, the men, and the women, and the children, and the stranger that is within your gates in order that they will hear, and in order that they will learn, and have awe for Hashem your God, and that they will observe to do all of the words of this torah” (Devarim 31:12).

Within this verse, I believe the Torah gives us a mission statement for what constitutes an ideal spiritual kehilah, a community devoted to serving God. Through examining this verse, I hope to help us set our personal ‘ideal’ spiritual homes in dialogue with a biblical, communal ideal.

What: The verse begins ‘hakheil et haam’, ‘gather the people into a community’. The Torah values a community of Jews. The rabbis apply this lesson to prayer in Berachot 8a, where they learn that the optimal method of prayer is prayer b’tzibbur, prayer in community or a minyan. In our verse in Devarim, Moses tells us that we need to be in a community—for ourselves and for our relationship with God. We learn from this not only that God wants us to build a holy community, but that we have a human need for communal connection.

Who: As the verse indicates, this includes everyone, men, women, children, and the stranger in our midst. We are an ‘am’, a people, and every individual who helps to build our whole counts. We each have a role and a distinct value that must be embraced in our kehilah, our spiritual community.

Why: The verse then explains why we come together as a community. The answer comes in four parts: “in order that they will hear; and in order that they will learn; and have awe for Hashem your God; and that they will observe to do all of the words of this torah.” We learn from the verse that through the community we foster compassion (listening), meaning (learning), spiritual connection and humility (awe), and living torah (mitzvot).

We come together to listen to God, each other, and ourselves.

We come together to learn torah values and derive meaning in our lives.

We come together to build a sense of awe and wonder for God, so that we may be in relationship with Him and in dialogue with Him.

We come together to build a mitzvah community, a group of Jews with whom  to practice, live, grow, and bring God’s words to fruition.

When I read this verse, I cannot help but feel that this biblical ideal of a holy kehilah speaks directly to my ideal spiritual community today. I imagine elements of your ideal have resurfaced as well. God gave us these pillars, these tools in our Torah to build an ideal community together and to answer our personal longings and spiritual needs. Through creating a holy community we can better serve God and our world today.

Unfortunately, the truth is that many Jews today feel disconnected from synagogue life and view their ‘ideal spiritual community’ as less of a reality and more of a dream. The synagogue of the past, or what Rabbi Sid Schwarz has labeled ‘The Synagogue-Center’, has become a place that lacks passion and results in passivity.

Today we are looking for a spiritual community that is vibrant; we want to pray, meet, and learn in a space that shakes, awakes, and inspires us. As we sing each Kabbalat Shabbat, ‘Hitor’ri hitor’ri, ki va oreich kumi ori’, ‘Wake up! Wake up! Your light has come, rise and shine’. Jews today want personal and evocative—we want to wake up.

In short, we are longing for the nourishing kehilah God gives us in Devarim.

Many synagogues and breakaway minyanim have already responded to this need. The sheer rise and success of independent minyanim throughout the country illustrates that the question of what makes your ideal spiritual community ‘ideal’ is crucial to the future of synagogue life.

I believe this is a great need to recognize, because it challenges us to reinvigorate our Jewish communities around the world with the biblical values of listening, learning, yirat hashem, and observing divrei Elokim. Ideals give us goals and help us grow into the best versions of ourselves. May we merit to live in our ideal spiritual communities and to grow in our relationships with each other and with God.

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Alissa Thomas is currently a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies Archaeology and Ancient History. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital and is also the present Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek. She is originally from Los Angeles, California and currently lives in New York City.

1 Comment

  1. Amen! What an acute observation on the current condition of the modern Jewish community. This is exactly the spirit we need to revitalize kehilath yisrael. Keep insightful articles like this coming!
    Yasher Koach, Alissa Thomas.

    Posted by
    ortho11
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