When I think about a community, I think about a group of people who live in the same general region and who have something in common, who rely on each other, help each other out, and share friendships, social opportunities, and generally support each other. Community functions to give people a sense of belonging, to offer assistance during illness, when a new baby is born, to provide services for the dead. Community is often built around a religious institution or place of meeting, but it can also be based on other shared interests or simple geography.
In Judaism, community is essential. There are prayers that can only be said in the presence of 10 Jewish men, a minyan, prayers that are said daily. Weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage require the same presence of a minyan. Many laws can only be observed properly in the context of a community, since one needs a place to procure kosher meat, kosher baked goods, and the various types of clothing and religious items such as Torah scrolls, mezuzot, tefillin, and other ritual items commanded in the Torah.
Thus, Jews seek each other out.
We belong to a small community of Jews who are brought together under the roof and wings of our local Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin. It is Chabad’s singular purpose to bring Jews together, provide services to the Jewish community, and generally increase the holiness of the Jewish people wherever Jews may be found.
The past two days, we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot. Yesterday evening, our Chabad hosted an event at which we heard the reading of the Ten Commandments, as is traditional on Shavuot, and ate a dairy meal, also traditional on Shavuot. It was here that I witnessed something that strikes me as odd. We are not one community. We are three.
I say this is odd, because if we are “the Jewish community of Oceanside,” that implies that we have some familiarity with each other, that we have interacted on some level at some time. But there were people at the Chabad house last night whom I have never seen before, but who clearly were familiar with and to the rabbi and rebbetzin, and who knew other people there, also whom I had never seen before.
What happens is this: There are the cohort who attend services regularly or semi-regularly on Saturdays. There is the group made up of Hebrew school students and parents, who may either not attend services or who attend services at other area synagogues. And there are those who generally show up only for major events, such as this Shavuot dinner, the Passover seder, the High Holy Day services. That’s why I say we are three communities.
Last night was the first night where I felt like we three circles had a chance to interact and overlap. The rebbetzin went around encouraging us to introduce ourselves to people we don’t know, and our kids played together even though they’d never met. Certainly these people must have been at other events, but I felt like those other events were in more formal settings, which didn’t foster this kind of mingling. It was nice to see that “the Jewish community of Oceanside” didn’t consist solely of the 10 or so families I was most familiar with! Indeed, I would venture to say that last night was packed!
I feel that in a more traditional Jewish community, such as a more insular Orthodox neighborhood, this “three communities” phenomenon would not be so obvious. It seems like it reflects American society in general, where we have our school circles and our work circles and our social circles, and they mostly don’t overlap or interact. If we see someone we know in the supermarket, we might explain that, “Oh, that’s a friend from work,” or “Yeah, that’s the mother of my son’s friend,” and those two people may never have met and never will meet. They aren’t part of the same community, the same circles.
But if we are a Jewish community, shouldn’t we be a Jewish community? Shouldn’t we all be at least vaguely familiar to one another? We are all from the same circle. We all attend Chabad of Oceanside at least some of the time. I think as the community continues to grow and find cohesion, we’ll find the circles melding into one great group. As it should be.