Kehilah is a term the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue began using a couple of years ago to describe congregations. The sense of the word is ‘sacred community,’ going back to the Torah’s use of the word as meaning a ‘gathering-together’ for religious celebration. But the idea of a sacred community is more than that. Sacred communities support their members, sometimes during difficult times, sometimes during moments of joy. In sacred communities people show up for one another. Being part of a sacred community means that your phone might ring if you haven’t been in shul. It means that you feel safe in a class environment to ask questions or make comments. It means that you feel respected, valued, and cared for. It means that you have a home away from home, and it also means that you feel part of something that is greater than you.
Over the last months I have been privileged to witness the ideal of kehilah at work over and over again. I’ve also discovered that when I see sacred community in action I feel enormously proud of the congregation I serve. During those moments Judaism becomes a living entity, a binding force between people with a common goal and vision – to bring God’s presence into their lives, their synagogue, and their world. Let me give you just a few examples.
A beloved member of our Shabbat morning minyan lost his wife and life partner at a young age. They lived some distance away, a drive of 30 minutes or so, much of it over back roads. It was important to the family to complete a traditional seven days of shiva, but they knew it would be difficult to make the minyan because of where they lived. But members of the kehilah – the congregation, the sacred community – showed up each night, making sure that the requisite ten were there for the bereaved husband to recite kaddish for his wife.
Here is another example of kehilah at work. I received a note from a woman who had lost her husband. She was not initially a member of our congregation, but after her loss began coming to our morning minyan. The note she sent expressed how touched she was at the welcome she received. People greeted her each day, sat with her, helped her follow the service, made a spot for her at the breakfast. Many shared with her their own experiences of loss, and talked with her about how helpful the minyan had been in terms of navigating that terribly difficult moment of their lives. She knew each morning she had a community with which to share her burden. She knew she would be greeted by a smile (really multiple smiles!) every day, and that people would ask how she was and if she needed anything. She knew she was not alone in her grief, and that she could honor her husband’s memory through the structure of our tradition.
There are countless other examples. Dozens of congregants ‘schlepping’ to Washington to honor our Associate Rabbi, who was receiving a significant national award. The pride our Friday night regulars feel each week when the bar or bat mitzvah of that Shabbat chants the kiddush. The work our members to do give back to the community in meaningful ways, whether through in-house blood drives or participating in food delivery for a local food band on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Congregants who help to lead shiva minyanim, or host congregational events, or come in to affix labels to prayer books. In each case there is a sense of mitzvah, of the performance of a sacred deed, and in each case there is connection to kehilah, to sacred community, and through the kehilah to tradition, to history, to faith, and to God.