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Kol hatchalot kashot/All beginnings are difficult.

This classic Hebrew saying has come into my mind many times during my first year with Mishkon. The pandemic has hammered much of what is normal about synagogue and Jewish life: gathering in large numbers in enclosed spaces, sharing food on a buffet, and visiting one another in our homes—all of this feels a little like a fairy tale these days. Although I am certain we are making tremendous progress in dealing with the virus, thanks to sharper science and ubiquitous vaccines and testing, the toll this has taken on all of us is still accruing.

Much is being written these days about how people are becoming meaner. I have experienced it plenty myself. People are noticeably less tolerant, driving more recklessly and having tantrums in public. After so many years of perceived chaos and then the pandemic, our society seems to be fraying at the seams. We need a way to ground, take a breath, and recalibrate. A big part of being able to do this is the gift of religion.

Religion is a portable culture in that it holds together shared principles, traditions, history, practices, and even languages, and this gives adherents a sense of identity and, I hope, a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning. This is a profound strength and the reason religious institutions have existed throughout human existence. More than this, studies show over and over that religious people and communities tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer with greater satisfaction in life. But this doesn’t happen because of any belief system. It happens because religious people show up for one another.

A basic ingredient of human happiness is feeling a part of something larger than ourselves. This may mean grand movements or causes like social justice or environmentalism, but it is also experienced in smaller, more immediate ways, such as feeling a sense of obligation to show up for others—at a house of mourning, for example, or in a celebration at shul. Each one of us remembers the person who thought to call or write us when we were ill, in distress, or even just to check in on us when we hadn’t shown up. The idea that “someone thought of me” makes us feel intrinsically valued. It means we matter, and this is redeeming, especially during periods of isolation.

Coming together, as we do at Mishkon to participate in a service, is not just an abstract or cultural spiritual experience. Coming into a holy space where we take a break from the tyranny of news, TV, our phones, our work, and our worries gives us a chance to breathe, to be seen, to see others, and to commune. We sing ancient liturgical poetry, we listen to the Torah being read, we get intellectually engaged in a sermon, and we have a chance to respond to the rabbi. We also get to schmooze, to connect, and, over time, to feel we are part of an extended tribe with these people—many of whom we may get to see only once a week. It may be subtle, but it is profoundly healing to our psychology and our emotional soul.

Our synagogue community is also a place where we organize and plan hands-on projects that give us a chance to do something about the otherwise-overwhelming reality that the problems in the world are too much for us to manage alone. Even small projects deliver in big ways.

It may not be surprising that our numbers are down, but I am troubled by it. Understandably, during a pandemic, some people have concern and anxiety about physical engagement in groups. But I am troubled because isolation leads to the deterioration of individuals and the bonds we have as a group—the very health that our religion is good at providing is undermined. The more we remain isolated or don’t show up for shul and services, the less we are nourished in fundamental human ways, and the worse off we become.

I am concerned that people are growing used to remaining apart. I know it’s too soon to abandon the hard lessons learned and the impact of these past two years on us, but I also know more of us would be better off if we found ways to connect and show up.

As you know, for public safety we require everyone to be vaccinated and boosted and to wear a mask, and there is plenty of room to sit at safe distances. Our sanctuary has cross-ventilation in four directions and has a very high ceiling, and the nosh we offer after services is individually wrapped items. Soon, I will be offering to lead people down to the beach for an afternoon of “schmoozing on the sands” so we can take advantage of God’s gift of the Southern California coast while we chat and connect.

It is critical that we not let ourselves languish for too long, isolating from our community. As I quoted our Sages during Rosh Hashanah, we are taught Al tifrosh min ha’tzibur/Do not separate yourself from the community. If you think you can reasonably and responsibly make an effort to show up—even for a little while—I believe it will have a profoundly healing effect, not only for the community but also for you.

We have found ways to be in the world, so let us find ways to be together at Mishkon. I pray that, little by little, the burdens and traumas of the past two years will start to lift and alleviate and that we will be energized by a renewed sense of joy in sharing and being together, meeting new people, and creating new meaningful bonds.

Mon, June 5 2023 16 Sivan 5783