People Who Need People - Jewish Ledger, October 17, 2014

Barbara Streisand did it again!  Yet another #1 album for Babs. Her new album, Partners, features duets with male singers and includes her signature song from Funny Girl, “People”.  It is always a haunting melody for me but more so this year, after a summer where we as a people experienced unity during Operation Protective Edge and during these High Holidays  with its core theme of achriyut, responsibility for one another.

While in Israel, I always visit the Museum of the Diaspora and a space called the "Minyan Corner," conceived by Abba Kovner, one of the founders of the Museum. Nine wax figures stand together, representing the in-gathering of Jews from all over the world. Nine Jews, waiting for the tenth to constitute the holy community through which we reach out to God by embracing other Jews. Each viewer and visitor becomes the essential tenth person, without whom the community is incomplete.

During his first week in Israel, Abba Kovner, a poet, and commander of the Vilna Ghetto, recounted his visit to the Western Wall: "I felt distant, like I did not belong. I felt connected to another experience and hesitated to take another step. But someone tugged my coat sleeve and asked me to join a minyan. I accepted and recited the mincha service and came to the prayer 'Bless us our Father, all of us as one.' That was unique, the most unique in Judaism, to be one of a minyan."

It always takes a group to foster the institutions vital to Jewish continuity, whether or not you are an actual part of a praying minyan. With the arrival of the 23 hapless Jews who settled in New Amsterdam in September of 1654 and asked asylum from Peter Stuyvesant, the refugees from Dutch Brazil set about acquiring a cemetery and eventually a synagogue, the religious aquifer of an organized Jewish community. To live Jewishly, one needs other Jews. Not for us the life of the hermit. We need sacred spaces, sacred books, sacred ritual objects, and a sacred cipher, the number 10. In a culture awash with secularism, materialism, and rampant individualism, we affirm that we are indeed part of a people, a community that promotes the axiomatic value of our responsibility for one another, of the shared and mutual responsibility of each and every member of the house of Israel. We are people who need people.

Since the Exodus from Egypt when we became a people, since we stood at Sinai and received the Torah as "one people with one heart," we forged a commu­nity which has at its core the principles on which the entire enterprise of the Jewish people rests. Our reciprocal responsibility is not a slogan developed by some marketing Madison Avenue genius for the Federation, it is not a technique to raise money. It is who we are and what we are about.

The forging of a community, with its essential services, was as vital as the founding of a house of study and a house of prayer. If the later two sustained the inner life and the intellectual life, the former attended to the material and social needs. We need our synagogues, our schools, our JCCs. These are the religious acquifers from which we draw sustenance. And we need the agencies which carry out the very values which the Torah instills in us: caring for the elderly, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, cele­brating the bride and groom, comforting the mourner. The power of the Jewish community made Jews a model of self-reliance throughout the ages. Conversely, the settling of a solitary Jew in a land untrodden by other Jews leaves no footprint.

Abba Kovner ended his reflection on the minyan with this conclusion: "My prayer is to always be one of the many... I ask for nothing else." We need each other to complete our holy work. The work we do is not about us in the singular; but in the plural. Not I, but 'we’. As members of a community, we in New Haven need to be mindful that our limitations as individuals are expanded when we work together to create limitless possibilities for the future. We are like the nine figures at the Museum of the Diaspora. We await the tenth person to make us whole. We are part of something greater than ourselves. 


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