Kol Nidre 5773 – The Power of Real Community

(By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker)

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker

I want to take a poll.  How many Facebook friends do you have?

Raise your hand if you have more than 100 friends.  More than 200? More than 600? More than 1,000?

Now, of those friends, how many do you see, face to face, on a regular basis? All of them (show of hands)?  Half of them?  Less than 100?  Less than 50?

There is a car commercial on television right now that is striking in its truth.  It features a young woman, sitting alone in her room in front of a laptop, complaining about how her parents have no friends; she’s an “expert” on friendship because she has “687 Facebook friends.”  As she is espousing how sad and lonely her parents’ lives are, we cut to them driving in a car full of friends, all meeting up to go mountain biking.  Cut back to her touting, “I have 687 friends…this is living.”

The irony here is that we are so socially connected through our virtual communities that we don’t actually know anyone anymore.  As we surround ourselves with virtual community, we start to fool ourselves into thinking that the bigger our virtual community, the more popular, the more accepted, the more social we are, when, in fact, we find ourselves sitting in our rooms, alone.

Let me be clear, this sermon is not meant to criticize or discount the power or the value of social media.  In fact, I intend to share it on Facebook later, so that my entire virtual community can read it.  Social media is an AMAZING, POWERFUL tool that does create community and bring people together.  Consider movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, regardless of how you feel about their politics, they could never have happened without social media.  These groups understood the power that social media has to transform virtual communities into REAL communities of action.  Virtual community can also be a great way to start conversations or share ideas with LOTS of people.

But what it lacks is the opportunity for people to come together, face to face.  And not face to face through video chat, like Facetime or Skype, which allows me to see my parents back in California, even when I’m in Israel or New Jersey.  It’s great that they can see my son as he’s growing up and learning new things and saying new words.  But I know that for them, that pales in comparison to being able to scoop him up in their arms, give him a big hug, and spin around while he laughs his infectious laugh.  And for me, I don’t get to breathe in the smells of home or feel the warmth of the California sunshine or give them a big hug.  No, these things can ONLY happen when we are face to face with each other.

I recently had a number of conversations with students from all different backgrounds – some juniors, some sophomores; some Reform, some Orthodox, but they all had one thing in common—they all said the same thing: “I was pretty involved with my temple youth group when I was in high school and when I got to Rutgers, I wasn’t really part of the Jewish community here, and now I feel like something is missing in my life.”

What is that “something” that’s missing?

What’s missing is the opportunity to come together, face to face, as part of a real and meaningful community.  As humans, we have a deep internal need for face to face communication.  We are not built to be alone in the world.  As God observes in Genesis, “It is not good for Adam, for human beings, to be alone.”  The result? God “makes a fitting help-mate”[1] for Adam.  God provides Adam with someone to keep him company.

Last year, I had a long conversation with a student, let’s call him Phil, on a train ride back from a program with the Reform Community in the City.  Sitting next to Phil, I learned all about his difficult four years at Rutgers.  He described feeling all alone for four years (even though Phil had around 200 Facebook friends) – he talked about long walks through campus by himself, about a series of bad luck with roommates, and about not feeling connected to anyone.  But then his tone changed as he started to talk about finding the Reform Community.  The first time Phil came to Shabbat services, he found a group of people that were warm and welcoming, who asked him who he was and how he was doing.  Who engaged him in conversation even though he was shy.  People who, over time, started inviting him to hang out and took a genuine interest in him.  All of a sudden, for the first time in his college career, Phil found himself with a group of friends.  For Phil, being Jewish was the common thread that became an instant link to his new community.  In coming together for prayer on a Friday night, in a space that was just a little different than other places on campus, in a community that came together with intention and purpose, something special happened.  Phil discovered the power of encountering his peers face to face as part of a real community; a community that understood, even if on a sub-conscious level, that deep human longing to NOT be alone.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, an influential Orthodox rabbi and philosopher of the last century, writes in great depth on the power of what he calls “holy community,” that is bound together by the common thread of prayer. Soloveitchik, teaches that prayer provides a means for people to enter into a “covenantal community,” that simultaneously binds one person to another and in connecting as a community, brings God into its midst.  “There,” he writes, “not only hands are joined, but experiences as well; …there, one lonely soul finds another soul tormented by loneliness and solitude yet [completely] committed to the other.”[2] We, here tonight, though we may be carrying different burdens, have come together for a sacred purpose.

Before Bryce so beautifully sang Kol Nidre, we began our service by asking God for permission to pray together with those who have transgressed.  In Jewish tradition, the power of community is so profound that it trumps the possibility that some of us may have made mistakes in the past year.  We recognize that none of us is perfect and that there is great value in being together.  On Yom Kippur, there is an understanding that ALL Jews should join together to pray and repent.  In fact, the Vidui, the confessional prayer, is said in the communal voice – al cheit shechataNU lefanecha, “for the sins WE committed against You, God…”   There is an expectation that we recite this prayer as part of a community.

What do we get from sitting in the same room as someone that we don’t get from being Facebook friends?  We get to look into the face of the other person.  Emanuel Levinas, the great modern Jewish philosopher, suggests that we access God when we really look into the face of the “other.”  When we sit with someone as they tell their story – of struggle or success or loss or joy – we are present in their humanity.  Tonight, we are present to support each other as we enter prayer feeling broken or in need of healing.  And we are present to celebrate when we emerge at the end of these twenty six hours of Yom Kippur – a time of refraining from food and drink, a time of soul searching and soul cleansing – as we enter a new year feeling refreshed and renewed.

As our lives unfold more and more online, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to come together face to face, to join real communities, to get to really know each other.  But we need real community.  We need a space where we can encounter Levinas’ “other,” and in doing so, access the Divine.  A space where we can grapple with our understanding of ourselves by looking into the face of those who are different – or even similar – to us.   Where we can learn something new or think about things we already know in different ways.  A place where we can argue, where we can actually engage with those we might disagree with in an emotional and physical way.  Where we can see someone’s tears if we’ve said something hurtful.  Where we can offer a hug or a shoulder to cry on.  Where we can dance or sing or pray or scream together.  Or where we can sit in silence knowing we’re not alone.

The rabbis of the Mishnah understood the importance of real community.  Writing nearly two millennia ago, they warned us, al tifrosh min hatzibur, “Do not separate yourself from the community”[3].  Yes, Facebook and Twitter help connect us, but they also make it all too easy for us to separate ourselves from our communities. Here at Rutgers Hillel, and in synagogues and Jewish communities throughout the world, we are here for you.  We are here, ready to scoop you up in our arms and give you a big hug.  Ready to listen to your story over a cup of coffee.   Ready to take your hand and introduce you to other people who share your passions – for music or literature or science or activism or Judaism.

So when you’re ready, I’ll take you out for a cup of coffee and we can sit for a while, face to face, and get to know each other. Together, we’ll explore the community you didn’t know you were looking for.  I’m easy to find – just look me up on Facebook.

[1] Gen. 2:18

[2] Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith, 40.

[3] Pirkei Avot 2:4