As some of you know, I went to see the Pirates play in PNC Park in August, on Jewish Heritage Night, my first time back to the stadium since 2019. (As some of you know, I threw out the first pitch as well, and didn’t embarrass myself…) And I remembered something extraordinarily important that evening, something which many of us might have lost touch with during the pandemic, an essential principle of human life: being there in person is much better than watching it on a screen.
And I must say that I am concerned about us, ladies and gentlemen. I am concerned that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated a phenomenon that was already taking shape beforehand: not being there. I am, of course, not referring to Pirates games, but not being physically or spiritually present in general.
What do I mean by “not being there”? It is very easy today for us to be in touch with many people, using all the platforms that we have, without actually being in their physical presence. It is all too easy today to attend a meeting, a class, a work appointment, even a synagogue service, while you are actually somewhere else, and maybe even doing something unrelated. How many of us have Zoomed into work meetings or committee meetings while driving, or reclining on the comfy sofa in your living room? Some of us are doing it right now! It’s OK – I’ve done it too.
Now, on the one hand, that can be good. It certainly allows those who are physically unable to participate – for medical, or physical, or locational reasons – to remain involved with others. On March 15, 2020, Zoom suddenly became my primary means of meeting with people for services, for pastoral conversations, for teaching, and so forth. At the time, our community was acting on the essential Jewish value of piqquaḥ nefesh, saving a life. We likely saved lives in doing so.
But our digital connectivity has also come with a number of downsides. We were already spending lots of time looking at screens prior to the pandemic, and then we were suddenly spending almost ALL of our time doing so. As a result, our ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time has been reduced even further, likely due to the infinite amount of amusing material available instantly at our fingertips from TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc., etc., and the constant interruption our mobile digital devices offer us: calls, text messages, alerts, notifications, and so forth.
Second, all of that constant digital interruption and amusement has made it difficult to discern what is important. Is the latest Internet-generated crisis more important than having a conversation with a good friend who is sitting in front of you? Is watching videos or sharing memes more valuable than spending time in reflection and meditation in the context of your synagogue community? Our affection for our screens has distorted the picture of our lives by pushing into our field of vision ideas and opinions which may not actually be as important as they may seem in cyberspace. The tech giants control our eyeballs; the most frequent posters and influencers tinker with our perception.
Third, while Zoom meetings have made it more efficient for many of us to gather or work or communicate without leaving the comfort of our living room, I hope that the experience of the past couple of years has left you wanting: Wanting human contact; wanting to catch up with a friend before or after the meeting; arguing a finer point in the parking lot; shaking hands or getting a hug when needed. At least as of right now, you cannot do that on any platform in a way that feels like being in another person’s physical presence.
I am dedicating my High Holiday sermon series this year to Being There. (Yes, I borrowed the name from the classic 1979 film starring Peter Sellers, about the naive gardener who, by being in the right place at the right time, accidentally convinces everybody around him that he is the world’s most brilliant and inspiring person.)
Judaism has some essential principles regarding Being There:
- Minyan – The principle that daily synagogue services and certain other rituals require a quorum of ten people physically present
- Beit Kenesset – The synagogue, as the primary Jewish building throughout history, is the central place of Jewish gathering. Every community needs a gathering space, and both the Greek term “synagogue” and the Hebrew “beit kenesset” reflect that this is a house of gathering.
- Qehillah Qedoshah – The Hebrew word for a Jewish congregation; the literal meaning is holy community. Qehillah* is derived from the Hebrew word “to gather,” and is today the preferred term that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism uses to refer to its member congregations.
- Ḥevruta – This Aramaic word meaning “partnership” refers both to a pair of learners who study Torah together, and also to that style of learning, which is native to the beit midrash, the Jewish study hall. “O Ḥevruta o mituta,” says the Talmud. “Partnership or death.” We need holy Jewish partnerships for us to learn and practice our tradition, so that we might squeeze the most value out of it.
Today, tomorrow, and on Yom Kippur, I will explore Being There – being connected to each other and our community in real time, in person, through these four essential perspectives, because we all can appreciate right now how much we need that personal, physical connection. And it is fundamental to Judaism and Jewish life, as well.
Today’s topic is minyan, the essential quorum of ten people. But I’m not going to take the angle that you might be expecting.
Let me begin with this: You need a minyan. Yes, of course you need a minyan for synagogue services, and we at Beth Shalom provide one every single day of the year, morning and evening. (I’m just going to throw out a quick Todah Rabbah / thank you very much for everybody who regularly supports our daily minyanim by attending, by leading services and reading Torah, by preparing and serving breakfast, by dropping everything to come to shul when we are in need of a ninth or tenth person, and of course by making it possible for all of you to come and daven and recite Qaddish and so forth. You all deserve so much credit, so many mitzvah points for being here frequently.)
But you need another kind of minyan as well. Remember that the word “minyan” does not mean “service,” even though you need a minyan for a service. What it means literally is “count,” “The count is 2 and 0.”
The count, for Jewish purposes, is ten. (You may also know, BTW, that some Jews have a superstition about not counting people, so some will “count” the people in the room, when checking for minyan status, by “not counting”: not 1, not 2, not 3, etc. My father, the mathematician, loves this; only mathematicians can imagine a world in which ten people is “not 10.”)
What you need – what we all need – is a quorum of people whom you can count as your mini-community within this community.
I have been here in Pittsburgh for seven years now; this is actually my eighth Rosh Hashanah on this pulpit. At this point, I feel like I have a sense of how this community works. And there is something that I have noticed for a while, and I have been struggling for several years to figure out how to address it.
You all know that Squirrel Hill is the most wonderful neighborhood in America, if not the world. OK, so we may not have the groovy vibes of Lawrenceville or the anything-can-happen, seductively dangerous appeal of East Carson Street on a Saturday night. But we have a center of Jewish life, stable and vibrant now for over a century, a neighborly place where everybody knows who lived in your house before you did. Some of you who grew up in Squirrel Hill have known each other your entire lives; there are days on which I am particularly grateful to the Allderdice Class of 1976 in particular for every way in which they help make this congregation run.
But something else has been happening for a while, something which some of the veteran members of this community may not have noticed: that while there are fifth-generation members of this congregation, and octogenarians who grew up here, there are also a whole lot of people, including yours truly, who are newcomers. We are people who grew up in New York and LA and Wisconsin and Florida and Western Massachusetts, and have relocated to Squirrel Hill. And we do not have the connections that you all do. We do not have cousins who belong to every shul in the neighborhood, and we do not bump into old friends who grew up on our street at the Giant Eagle. And the challenge here is that, as immigrants to Squirrel Hill, we do not feel as deeply rooted in the neighborhood as the people whose great-grandparents used to live in the Hill District.
So we have on the one hand, a stable population of people who have known each other all their lives and are often related to each other, and a newer, more transient population who are less connected. What can we do about that?
And just to add another complication. As Americans, we are more isolated than we have ever been, and it is not good for our health, mental or physical.
I was actually somewhat surprised recently to hear a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about how to make friends. It is fascinating, and a little depressing, that we have reached a point in which we need to be reminded that to make friends, you have to go do things with other people, but that is more or less what the NPR story said.
That is why you need a minyan.
One of the most powerful principles of minyan is that it brings together people who might not otherwise spend 45 minutes together in the same room. It is a source of social capital a la Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor of public policy who wrote the book on social capital, Bowling Alone.
(Very briefly, in case you haven’t heard me describe this before: Putnam demonstrates, using various measures, that social capital, that is, the connections we feel to the people around us, has declined steadily since the early 1960s, and that this lack of connection is not healthy for us as individuals or as a society.)
Social capital – being interconnected with others around you – makes you more resilient. It creates an environment where you are supported by the wisdom, the perspective, and the friendship of the people around you.
So we have a solution, something that will help us build a stronger community and a healthier, more resilient Beth Shalom, and that solution is ḥavurot.
What are ḥavurot? A ḥavurah is a group of people within the congregation who meet regularly to do things together. The Hebrew word חבורה means “group”; it is related to the word חבר / ḥaver, meaning friend, or לחבר / leḥabber, to connect. Those of us who know some modern Hebrew might also think of the term חבר’ה / ḥevreh, meaning “folks.”
We have a few informal ḥavurot which have formed over the years, but we at Beth Shalom have decided to step up our game and facilitate the creation of these groups. The idea is to bring more of us together in a smaller, more manageable environment, so that you can all be more strongly connected with a wider group of Beth Shalom members. We are a congregation of about 600 families, and I dare say that while many of us know each other, we need to boost our social capital, to be more interconnected.
The idea will be, for those members of Beth Shalom who choose to participate (and I strongly urge you to do so), that we will attempt to group you according to various affinities: demographics like stage-of-life and activity interests. So parents with young children might form one ḥavurah, and people who are interested in social action might form another. Our intent is that these ḥavurot will be no more than about 10 family units (a unit being a family, a couple, or a single person).
We will also provide some suggestions about how often to meet, and what to do with your ḥavurah. The events that groups will hold will not necessarily be at Beth Shalom, although you might occasionally meet here. All the more so, the idea is to have events that take place under the umbrella of Beth Shalom, but also in your homes, in the park, at a cafe, and so forth. And they do not need to be explicitly Jewish activities, although having a Shabbat dinner or coming together to dance with the Torah on Simḥat Torah could potentially be ḥavurah activities.
I am sure that some of us will welcome this idea, and immediately sign up. Some of us, I’m sure, are thinking, what do I need this for?
I am going to offer two reasons: the personal and the communal.
- The personal: We all need stronger interpersonal connections. We need more robust relationships with one another, with the people immediately around us. Part of the challenge that we are facing today with the polarization of American society is that we barely know each other any more. Yes, I know that Squirrel Hill is bucking the trend (I know many of my neighbors). But there is no question that having more, and stronger interpersonal bonds will have many good outcomes for all of us.
- The communal: If we want Beth Shalom to continue to be the center of non-Orthodox Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania, we need to be a more highly integrated community. Everybody here should have the sense that this building is like an extension of their living room, and that the other members of the congregation are like family. And furthermore, we want people on the outside to also think, “Wow! Members of Beth Shalom are really tight. I want to be a part of that.”
Some of you might also be thinking, I have plenty of friends already. Why should I sign up for this?
Here is something else I will suggest: you can create a ḥavurah with, let’s say, six other families, and then open it up to invite four more in, so that you expand your connections within the congregation.
We are going to be rolling this program out in the coming months, after the holidays, and I hope that you will participate. Watch for the materials that we send you – we will ask you for some information to get the process started. Although this will take months and years to build and grow, we hope that this will ultimately be a benefit of membership that is unique in our neighborhood.
We will build social capital; we will create a more-interconnected, more resilient, more healthy congregation. And, post-pandemic, we absolutely need it; we need that spiritual support which a ḥavurah can provide.
Back when I lived in Jerusalem, now more than two decades ago, I would occasionally be walking down the street, minding my own business, when I would be solicited to help make a minyan. I was always glad to help; I met interesting people, heard exotic synagogue melodies from places like Algeria and Syria and Iran, and of course helped out fellow Jews who really wanted to be able to complete their services. It gave me a certain amount of pleasure to do so, if I had time.
No matter how “cool” our devices are, no matter how “talented” artificial intelligence technology becomes, it will never replace the essential human need for personal contact, for being in the presence of others. Our tradition has both relied on and satisfied that need throughout Jewish history. And we need it all the more so today.
Let Mark Zuckerberg try to make Meta the place where everything is happening virtually; you will still need a minyan of actual people, not just to say qaddish, not just to call 13-year-olds to the Torah for a bar/bat mitzvah, not just for weddings.
Rather, you need a minyan to get that essential feeling of connection which comes only from being around others, and part of a tight-knit group.
As we enter 5783, we should be looking for ways to renew ourselves, our connections to others and to our community, our relationship with our faith and our people. This is the time to take on new challenges to help improve ourselves and our world, and here is an excellent opportunity to do so.
When the opportunity comes to sign up to join a ḥavurah, please take it. Your willingness to participate will ultimately help to build Beth Shalom in many ways.
Tomorrow we will talk about the continuum of Jewish life, as symbolized by the synagogue itself, the beit kenesset.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh HaShanah 5783, 9/26/2022.)
* Yes, I know that USCJ and many other folks spell this “kehillah,” with a k. However, this disguises the fact that the Hebrew word is spelled קהילה, with a qof, and the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew qof is a q. They actually are even written alike – just reflections of each other (ק – q). Some Jews (e.g. Iraqis, Yemenites, and Persians), in their historical pronunciation of Hebrew, actually pronounce the ק differently from the כ (kaf), whose English equivalent is a k.