March 3, 2024 -
In the 1990’s there was a television program called, “Gilmore Girls.” It’s the story of a mother and daughter who live in a very small, Norman Rockwell-esque town in the northeastern United States. The folksy fictional town in which they live is called Stars Hollow, a town where everyone not only knows everyone else, but knows everyone else’s business. The residents of Stars Hollow drive each other crazy with their opinions about one another’s lives. Yet they feel bound to one other, connected to each other, responsible for each other. They SEE other. They may get annoyed by the constant tumult of town life, but they are not lonely.
I appreciate Gilmore Girls, in part, because the town of Stars Hollow is a community. Its residents are vibrant and interesting and yes, overbearing – but ultimately they are a community. Back when Gilmore Girls was made, there was no Amazon Prime to deliver your toiletries; you had to go to Doose’s grocery store to purchase them. There was no drive-thru to pick up your coffee; you had to step inside Luke’s Diner and order your coffee from someone who knew you. In Stars Hollow, you had no choice but to interact with the people living in that town. You had to SEE them.
Today, the town of Villagrande on the Italian island of Sardinia, is an actual modern-day version of Stars Hollow. Villagrande is the only place in the world where men live as long as women. It’s one of five “Blue Zones” (locations around the globe known for longevity and good health), where residents routinely live past 90 years old. Is the longevity in Villagrande due to better health habits? Not necessarily. In fact, the town’s rich homemade cheeses, the local wines and oil, and the delicious breads are not at the top of the list of heart-healthy foods!
No, the secret of Villagrande is social integration, aided by tightly spaced houses, and interwoven alleys and streets. It’s equally interwoven residents not only know each other, but they take care of each other and depend upon each other, generation after generation. Centenarians are cherished in Villagrande, where each one is made honorary mayor on their 100th birthday. As people age, they are always surrounded by family and community. Most importantly, they see each other and they are seen. This small Italian town teaches us that face to face encounters are crucial to longevity.
One researcher at Brigham Young University confirmed what the residents of Villagrande could have told her. She studied the longevity of tens of thousands of middle-aged people. She looked at every aspect of their lifestyle, including whether they were lean or overweight, whether they had cardiac issues, whether they drank or smoked, whether they had satisfying social relationships, even whether or not they got the flu vaccine. Seven years later she checked back in with her subjects. You know what she found? The absolute most important factor that reduced their chances of dying was social integration. The second most important factor was the presence of close relationships. Seeing people face to face is good for your health!
Do you have someone in your life who truly sees you and values you? Someone whom you trust to be there for you? Doesn’t looking at them—face to face—make you feel connected, like a worthy human being?
It’s no easy task to know someone deeply, but when we do find such relationships it may feel like we have been visited by the divine. Long before researchers were doing studies, our Torah lifted up examples of the importance of face-to-face encounters. After great estrangement – and more than 20 years of physical distance – Jacob and Esav, our biblical ancestors in the Torah, reunite in a tear-filled encounter. Jacob says to Esav, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God”. Indeed, if we are each made in the image of God, then we all have the potential to draw closer to one another, to know one another, to SEE the other – as a fellow creation of God.
Moses and God find an equally exhilarating moment in the Book of Exodus:
And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face (Panim-El-Panim),
as a man speaks to his friend.
This intimate moment between God and Moses is the model upon which we can create our own relationships. Martin Buber once said, “All real living is meeting”. And if we cannot find positive encounter, if we cannot see our neighbor, face to face, then what is the meaning of living?
All signs point to the importance of social integration and connectivity – building our own Stars Hollow or Villagrande. Yet, more than ever, people in our society are experiencing uncommon levels of social isolation. Instead of getting to know our neighbors Panim-El-Panim, face-to-face, our neighbors are hidden away in their homes, stationed behind computer screens. Even when people are out, their eyes are glued to their smart phones instead of to the people around them. The insidious thing about those screens is that they give us the impression that we are in relationship with those who comment on or “like” our posts. In reality, busy keyboard activity is no substitute for in-person conversation, and “liking” a post on Facebook is a poor alternative to the deep relationships that can form only when in the actual presence of others. Sadly, another recent study found that more than one in four Americans have no one—no one!—with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs.
We are living at a time when so much is at our fingertips, but we are lacking the one thing that money can’t buy: companionship and social connectedness. In the year 2000, author Robert Putnam wrote in his book, “Bowling Alone”:
“For the past 25 years American society has experienced a steady decline of what sociologists call ‘social capital’, a sense of connectedness and community. The danger in declining is that the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities”.
This truth is impacting all levels of our society.
By now, we are all aware of the national opioid epidemic that has hit our own state with out-sized impact. The numbers are staggering. We have discovered just how many people in our communities are using drugs as a way to numb the pain of loneliness and isolation. In “Chasing the Scream”, Johann Hari’s important book about our nation’s war on drugs, the author stresses that “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety –it’s connection”.
Unfortunately, by incarcerating large numbers of non-violent drug users due to their addictions, we are isolating them all over again, in a jail cell, far away from the caring neighbor, advocate, or friend who might be able to provide the connections that the addict needs to recover.
A recent New York Times article, highlighting the alarming spike in calls to suicide hotlines, notes what should not be a surprise to any of us…finding a sense of community and belonging is the way to finding greater meaning in one’s life.
One would think that, in this time, when meaningful relationships seem to be harder to come by, faith communities—like ours here at Fairmount Temple—would be able to provide what is missing in so many other spheres. If a synagogue does it right, it should be a place where its members are known and feel valued. Yet even religion has lost its pull for many. The same New York Times article states:
As for religion, which has long provided the institutional and social scaffolding for a life of meaning, it, too, is in steep decline. Americans these days, especially young adults, are less likely to identify with a religious faith, attend church or engage in other religious practices. But…the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings…
And that is why so many of us turn back – again and again – to houses of worship; we wish to find meaning inside these walls. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed that the path to the divine was only possible through shared human connection, that community is the bridge to our idea of God. I believe he had it right. Fundamental to our study of Torah, our worship, and our work towards social justice must be the feeling that we belong to each other, value each other, truly see each other.
Judaism is replete with directives to connect. After creating the first human, Adam, God declares “it is not good for man to be alone”. The great rabbis famously said, “Do not separate yourselves from the community.” Our many Jewish communal institutions are based on the saying that “All Israel is responsible for one another.” Many of our prayers are meant to be recited only in a minyan, a community of ten. The purpose of the Jewish custom of sitting shiva is to combat social isolation for those who are grieving. Our prayers for these High Holy Days, like “Avinu Malkenu” suggest that we may be in praying as an individual, but we are addressing God as “Our God. Our Ruler.”
The inherent message of Judaism is that we are not alone.
As we immerse ourselves in these High Holy Days—particularly Yom Kippur—we are challenged to take a hard look at ourselves and our relationships. Are we truly connecting with the most important people in our lives? Are we physically surrounded by people – but terribly lonely at heart? Even if we feel nurtured by our own relationships, do we do everything we can to make sure that others have the emotional sustenance they need?
One of the most important factors that leads to feeling valued is feeling needed. Feeling that others depend upon you for the specific advice, experience, or caring that you have to offer. I cannot tell you how many times members of our community remark to me that they were once vital to the lifeblood of our congregation. As they have aged, however, the memories others have of all the time and energy they devoted to our vibrant community have faded. They are left wondering if they really made a lasting impact. “I have so much wisdom to offer,” they say. “But no one asks.”
We deprive ourselves of sage advice, profound insight, and loving connections when we don’t see others of all ages as cherished resources. We all know people who would love to be asked for the special wisdom that only they have to offer. If we are to be a true community, we must become more adept at seeing, asking for, and receiving, that which makes each of us a potential source of value and connection for each other.
As a longtime rabbi of this congregation, I understand just how many in our beloved community live lives of social isolation and loneliness. There are many who are afraid to admit that they feel set apart, that they don’t fit in, that they don’t match up with the “traditional” family constellation that is too often held up as a model for synagogue life. We have some who, for whatever reason, feel marginalized, isolated. They crave what everyone craves—face to face contact – Panim-El-Panim—and the assurance that they are needed and valued.
A dear member of our temple sent me an article about this very topic. In it, there was a beautiful sentiment:
With one invitation, we can take someone
from outsider to insider
from outcast to beloved member
from unknown neighbor to coffee companion
from wallflower to life-of-the-party
from shortened life expectancy to 80 years of joy.
Here at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, we take the idea of community very seriously. We reach out to those who might be feeling alone to make sure they know we are thinking of them. Our Community Kitchen volunteers cook meals and deliver them to our members who are ill or had a baby. They bake cookies and deliver them during shiva to our members who have suffered a loss. We offer bereavement support groups for members who are struggling with the loss of a loved one.
Still, there is more that we can do. And while we provide lots of supports and programming as a synagogue, Judaism also emphasizes building community in our homes. In this very space last year, I raised up the idea of creating a “Mikdash Me’at”, or a small sanctuary. Our homes are also meant to be sacred spaces, places where we experience the holiness that comes from people who care about each other listening, seeing, giving and receiving.
You may have heard the famous quote from Ahad Ha’am: More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. Indeed, Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to turn our homes into a small sanctuary. As we gather together around the table, breaking bread, intentionally confirming our commitment to Judaism and to each other, we create a sacred space.
Friends, Shabbat is so central to who we are as a people that a klatch of seniors in Palm Desert, California even get together every Friday at a local Wendy’s fast food restaurant to welcome in the Sabbath! The venue doesn’t matter—they gather to connect with each other and with our shared traditions.
In the coming year, we want to build on the power of Shabbat to further enhance our sense of community here at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. On February 22, we will kick off Shabbat Across Fairmount Temple, an opportunity to gather in each other’s homes for Shabbat dinners. Shabbat connects us to the generations that came before us, adding depth and texture to our lives.
When we light candles, we feel the glow of our ancestors and see the face of our neighbor. When we chant the Kiddush, we recall we were a forgotten people until we were freed with an outstretched arm. When we say the motzee over the braided challah, we remember that our lives are forever intertwined.
You will be hearing more about this community-building initiative in the coming months, but for now please fill out the signup sheet in your Yom Kippur handout or email Wendy Jacobson. And, indicate if you’d like to be a host, a guest – and, if you like, please join us to be on the planning committee!
As we contemplate the personal meaning of the High Holy Days for each of us, let us think about how we can build on this moment. Let’s think about those we know—and those we could get to know—by reaching out, seeing them for who they are and valuing them for what they can offer. With one invitation, we can make a difference in someone’s life, make someone feel less alone – and redeem our own searching souls.
Aren’t the High Holy Days about increasing the quantity and quality of our lives? Let us find one another for blessing, Panim-El-Panim, face to face.
 Genesis 33:10
 Exodus 33:11
 Martin Buber, “I and Thou”
 Robert Putman, “Bowling Alone”
 Genesis 2:18
 Pirkei Avot 2:4
 Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a
 High Holy Day Machzor