My previous article discussed the importance of discovering your values and why knowing them is essential for being an effective community member. After you know your values, it is your actions which bridge you to a community. There is a space to act which ties who we are to a bigger picture. We all know that Jews love thinking and talking, but at the end of the day isn’t it our actions which really matter? How we show up every day to the communities we call home reflects our values. By participating in Jewish community life, we join a movement larger than ourselves and are better for it.
One of the simplest actions we can take is to show up. Are there Jews who do not belong to a congregation in Vermont? Of course! Of the already small population, only a minority of Vermont Jews belong to a synagogue. Even so, here at the Jewish Communities of Vermont we say that “a Jew is a Jew”. There are no Jews who are any less Jewish than others. What differs is the degree of observance, which comes down to the individual’s own values. Someone is still Jewish even without necessarily belonging to a Jewish community. However, I think there’s a solid case to be made that the individual would be missing something both crucial and incredible about what it means to be Jewish. There are Jewish people around the world who unfortunately do not have access to a community due to their circumstances, while here in Vermont we’re fortunate to have spirited and strong Jewish communities. These enclaves of Judaism scattered throughout the Green Mountains are gathering places for like-minded people to come together and create something they couldn’t form alone. These communities become more than just the sum of their parts; emergent qualities appear in congregations and synagogues that don’t exist at the individual level. These qualities can include the crucial conversations we can have over Friday night dinner, performing acts of Tikkun Olam, and a deep sense of belonging which we cannot find elsewhere. Practicing Judaism and belonging to a Jewish community are inseparable qualities of what it means to being Jewish. Practicing alone, not just Judaism but any spiritual practice, cannot match the same effect of belonging and understanding that congregants of communities have. A community is a safe place for us to push our boundaries and test ourselves – to take risks which we couldn’t otherwise do alone. Our actions and our spirituality are directly linked, so by acting and participating in a Jewish community we are creating opportunities for ourselves and others to learn and develop. Here in Vermont, there is a place for everyone and all expressions of Jewish values.
In his work as a founder of sociology, Émile Durkheim coined the concept of collective effervescence. Collective effervescence can be thought of as a strong excitement or feeling of harmony which can only be brought about when participating in a communal ritual or activity. It occurs when “everyone is on the same page”, doing the same thing together and representing the same idea together, in which feelings of high-energy and excitement occur spontaneously amongst those in the group. Such feelings can be immensely cathartic and inspiring for individuals, and more importantly they are feelings which create a sense of unity within the group. Collective effervescence is one of the emergent properties of a congregation; such feelings can only be felt by individuals when the group is gathered together and unified around a single activity such as prayer or dancing.
“What’s the importance of this esoteric religion theory?”, you may be asking now. The importance of collective effervescence is why it’s importance to participatie in a Jewish community in Vermont and why such participation creates a completely different conception of Judaism and life in contrast to a solitary spiritual practice. Judaism can take on a completely different meaning when practiced with others compared to practicing alone. This is why congregations and synagogues exist in the first place, its why people gather together for Shabbat dinners, and why holidays are communal events. So much of practicing Judaism is rooted in communal life because it is in our gatherings and congregations that one’s sense of self may be diffused to make way for higher inspiration. To put simply, our sense of individuality is lost in these settings as a we steep in a deeper sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is something that I believe we not only can crave, but something we need to live a healthy and good life. Have you ever felt oddly excited by the news of a coming blizzard? Even though they can be a hassle to deal with, such events can evoke feelings of collective unity and connection between us and our neighbors that aren’t otherwise present. Winter storms can be strangely exciting and somewhat counter-intuitive (other than fresh snow for skiing) in how they make us feel but are a good example of how that feeling of unity and connection to others we get can almost make blizzards worth the hassle. They’re also a great example of how increasingly rare it is to catch feelings of collective effervescence today in our society and the heightened importance which is now placed upon rituals and religion to fill the void. While the importance is placed upon religion, the responsibility is placed upon each one of us to participate. The feelings of connection, the forging of relationships, and the sense of belonging we have when we put in the effort to participate and build community gives meaning to our lives.
What’s amazing about Vermont, is that despite the small Jewish population we have a plethora of Jewish Communities nestled through the hills and valleys which we can call home. Each week congregants gather in creation of collective effervescence to share in the common understanding of what it means not just to be Jewish in Vermont, but also what it means to be a caring and committed community member. Each community’s experience is unique but shares commonalities throughout the state; what the congregants of Temple Sinai in South Burlington may experience may be quite different than what those attending Congregation Shir Shalom of Woodstock or those at Beth Jacob in Montpelier, but the roots of each branch of Judaism are one and the same. At the root of all Jewish congregations is the community aspect, that which is inseparable from Judaism itself. There is more in common between Jewish communities than differences. These congregations provide Vermonters with opportunities every week to find themselves in a crowd. By putting themselves out there with others, congregants expose themselves to a variety of ideas and journeys which challenge them to develop their own values. The act of simply belonging to a congregation demonstrates the congregant’s values; they care about sustaining community and recognize that they’re better off from it, because it is also the community which sustains the congregant. It may not always be noticeable, but each week as congregations fill with community members, there is an unspoken recognition that we’re stronger together. Simply put, we need one another. We may live in a society which can be too focused on the individual’s achievements, the individual’s story and personal freedoms, that we can lose sight of what truly gives vibrancy and meaning to our lives. Someone who understands their own core values knows how much they need their family, friends, and community to support them in living true to those values. Nobody achieves great things alone and no one is an island. As the saying goes, “it takes a village”, and we remain with an obligation to ourselves and others to build genuine, honest, and open communities together to sustain ourselves and generations to come. With that obligation comes a call to action. While anyone can repair the world, no one can do it alone. Only when we’re together do we become stronger individuals, and only together do we serve a purpose larger than ourselves. The time to answer the call is now; by showing up to share yourself with your community, your take the first step to improve yourself and your society. And the first step is always the hardest…