D’Var Torah: Hillel the elder – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ 

 

I stepped up to the bimah at Congregation Sons of Abraham here in La Crosse exactly two years ago. My first year was engaged in getting to know the people, the families, the history and the seasonal rhythms of this warm and loving community.  My predecessor – the esteemed Rabbi Simcha Prombaum – had left the congregation in excellent shape, very engaged and motivated. 

I spent much of my first year motivating people to come to shul each week, to attend classes, to build our Sunday religious school, to bring in guest speakers and musicians, and to stage joyous and meaningful holiday celebrations.   

We are pleased to say that our members and the larger community came to all these events. Then, just after Purim last year, we shut it down. Just when we were getting all the attendance we wanted, our mantra became “Don’t come to shul!” and “Stay in quarantine!”   

Hillel the elder, who lived in Babylonia and Jerusalem during the first century BCE, writes in Pirkei Avot  – Ethics of Our Fathers (2:5), “Al tifrosh min hatzibur” – “Do not separate yourself from the community.” This was the hardest thing for our members who loved coming to daven each week, to share a nosh, and to see their friends. 

We had to deal with the challenges of migrating our entire schedule to Zoom and Facebook Live. We are pleased to say our members and students made that transition relatively smoothly, with some technological challenges. 

We were especially concerned about the religious school. Would we be able to transmit Jewish prayer, beliefs and values exclusively in classes on the internet? Could our teachers make it “fun” even though they weren’t in person? The unexpected result was that not only did the kids show up for two whole hours on Zoom each Sunday, but their parents also attended with them. A big bonus! 

We were very pleased with the result.  Some members who had moved away, or who live at a distance from the shul, were able to participate with us in our services and holiday events. One Zoom funeral brought over 150 participants online, from all over the country, who then spent hours sharing stories of their loved one. How many of these people would have been able to come to the funeral in person? 

We also learned that people want to daven together.  A recent article by Jeff Jacoby on Aish.com says that: 

“Peer-reviewed studies show that regular worshipers tend to live longer, to suffer lower levels of stress, to have fewer symptoms of depression, and to have better cardiovascular and immune function. Similarly, the data suggests that religious worshipers tend to be happier, to drink less, to have lower rates of drug abuse, and to give to charity and donate blood at above-average rates. Amid the uniquely difficult circumstances of the pandemic, a survey of self-reported health conditions found that Americans who attended religious services regularly were the only demographic group that appeared to avoid a decline in their mental health in 2020.” 

So, not only were we keeping the community together, but we were also providing major mental health benefits!  

Throughout the pandemic, I have gotten dozens of calls, from non-Jewish clergy, from the news media, from individuals: “Rabbi, how is the Jewish people weathering the pandemic? What can we do to help?” The love these fellow citizens have shown us is amazing. My usual response has been that Jews have survived so many tragedies and difficult times in history, which has served to make us resilient when  facing these challenges. No, we are not immune from the suffering, the pain, the loss. But we can come back from it to go on with our lives. 

Now, as we make the transition back to in-person services, we are applying the lessons we have learned. We will continue to stream our services on Facebook Live, to be observed by those who can’t or won’t come in person, for whatever reason.   

Of course, we must still be vigilant about our vaccinations, about the virus and its mutations. Although we are meeting in person again, many are wearing masks, and all are maintaining proper social distancing. Our “regulars” are fully vaccinated and are eager to have any additional boosters or vaccines to help us all stay healthy. Some of our (fully vaccinated) members are hugging each other at the Kiddush after services. A year ago, this would have been impossible. 

I am so grateful for the support and guidance our congregation has given our leadership over the past year and a half.  

As we approach 5782, may we see a year of communal healing, of personal growth and yes, of good health.  On behalf of my children, Allison, Jennifer, Jonathan, Berit and Asher, and my grandchildren Avi, Nechama, Yakov, Aviva, Aryeh, Shani and new baby Ariella, and my dear fiancée Renana Friedman, I wish you all a ktivah vechatimah tovah. ! כתיבה וחתימה טובה May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year in 5782.   

Rabbi Brian Serle leads Congregation Sons of Abraham in La Crosse.