Small Groups and Community

I have now lived in states across the country, from California, New Jersey, and Michigan to Ohio, Iowa, and Texas, and now back here. How many of you have lived outside of California? One of the things that separates these places is the disasters that can befall them. Midwestern and eastern cities are prone to blizzards and floods. The East Coast is also prone to hurricanes. In Dallas, you can’t tie your horse to a hitching post without a tornado or two whipping by. And we know what we here in California are prone to: The Big One can hit at any moment, an 8.0 earthquake or a fire that can barrel through a community like a freight train.

Something differentiates some disasters from others. With modern science, we usually have a few days’ warning before a blizzard or hurricane hits. We may have a few hours’ warning before floods and fires; if we’re lucky, we learn about an earthquake a few seconds before it hits. However long we have, when disasters strike, something changes inside of most of us. Sure, there are people who triple the price of an umbrella in a rainstorm, but for many, disaster transforms them from self-focused to selfless.

It’s winter in New Jersey, and we’ve just gotten socked with two feet of snow in a few hours. In my apartment complex, we don’t have garages or even covered parking, so at 10:00 p.m., when the storm dies down, all of the residents break out our shovels and start digging out. The problem is where do we put the snow? First, we dig a path from the doorway to the car, throwing each shovelful of the two feet of snow onto the already snow-covered lawns. Then we dig around the car and we throw some of the snow on our growing piles of snow on the lawns and some haphazardly in the street. Next, we remove the snow from on top of the car, and we end up filling in the path around the car that we just dug. This isn’t a great plan. As I’m shoveling, several neighbors start shoveling their cars, too. The neighbor immediately to my left tells me that in the apartment complex, we are supposed to throw all the snow into the street in front of our cars, so a plow can push it into an unused corner of the parking lot. I smile and thank him, but I don’t really know him until we catch our breaths and start talking. Nathan and his wife, Kaiko, married a few years ago and recently moved to Mahwah. I learn about his job working as a chemist for PepsiCo—sorry no Coke in their house—and I learn about Kaiko’s hour and a half commute to Manhattan each day. We don our gloves again and finish our cars. By all rights, we can return to our apartments, having completed our work, but instead we share a glance and look at the pile of snow on Stephanie’s car. She is a school psychologist who lives alone and has a cotton ball of a dog. As the moisture from our breath condenses on the scarves tied around our necks, we look at the pile on Fred’s car as well. Nathan thinks that someone in Fred’s family may have died few months ago, but I’m not aware. Nonetheless, we begin cleaning off this fourth car as well. A surprised and grateful Fred joins us a few minutes later. It’s 11:15 p.m., and our arms and backs are tired, when Fred and I take our first opportunity in a year and a half to really talk to one another. I discover that not only is Fred Jewish, he actually attended services at my congregation months before, shortly after his wife died. I remember seeing someone I recognized, but out of context, I didn’t make the connection that he was my neighbor. And he left before I could greet him at the oneg. As we speak, I feel an empty pit in my stomach, like there was something that I should have done for him. I wish I had known that my own neighbor had lost someone precious to him. Being so close to him and yet so removed from his life haunts me. The next time I see him, we talk about his work, his life, and his loss. Our apartments didn’t move, but somehow, he and I moved from people living near each other to people who are a little closer to one another.

While two feet of snow is hardly a disaster—more of a common inconvenience—too often, it seems to require the sharing of a serious challenge before we connect with the people around us. My friends in Mahwah tell me it happened to them on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It happened in Dallas after Hurricane Katrina, when the city opened its doors to weather refugees. In the aftermath of the Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in Houston, the Reform Movement’s Greene Family Camp, a three hours’ drive from Houston, opened itself up, first as a shelter and later as a day-care facility for families devastated by the flood.

In our own congregation, when Israel was dealing with a rash of suicide bombings and was in desperate need of additional ambulances, we asked you to buy an ambulance to send to Israel. Adat Elohim, you doubled that and purchased two. It’s remarkable how shared disasters can bring out the best in us. But why does that have to be? Must we wait for disasters to come together?
Over the past two months, I have been meeting with groups of congregants in different parts of town and at different stages in their lives. What became clear is that we all have different challenges to face. Some of us are wondering how to care for our aging parents. Some of us are aging and wondering how to do so gracefully and with dignity while maintaining as much control over our lives as possible. I learned about a crushing loneliness that can occur when we lose the ability to walk and drive. Many people with children wonder how to raise them with a sense of confidence and a good character so they can grow into decent adults. Many of us wonder how we can improve our own character, so we can live a life of integrity, aiming at our highest understanding of truth. We have lawyers and doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs who wonder how to connect their work to something greater and sacred while maintaining a life-balance. We all have a still, small voice that whispers worries in our ears when we are alone and quiet. Take a moment, right now, to think about what concerns you enough to explore paths of improvement.

But our lives are not only filled with worries. We also have dreams and aspirations—for ourselves, for our families, and for the world. For some of us, we want to continue exploring our relationship with God and Jewish tradition. I hope that would be a widespread desire. Some want to enjoy the beauty of nature through camping or bike riding. Other want to actively protect nature or explore aspects of Jewish or secular culture. And most people want to connect with people who care about one another.

Isn’t that part of what we mean when we talk about community: people who feel connected with other people who care? In fact, if you look at the three key actions that describe what we do as a congregation, they are learn, grow, and connect. Creating caring relationships with one another is part of who we aspire to be.

There is a powerful secret about building community this congregation knows, but many congregations still haven’t learned: Connections and community are built in small groups, not in large sanctuaries or social halls. Think about the places where you’ve made friends. Almost always, it happens in small groups that meet together over an extended period of time. Six times, eight times, ten, twelve, or more. Small groups are the foundation of strong communities. It’s nice when the people share the same interests and aspirations. In our congregation, we have groups that gather together for study, like our adult b’nai mitzvah program and our mussar groups, which study texts to explore how to live a truly virtuous life. These groups share a common interest. But even the groups that gather to select new rabbis and often comprise members of all ages and pockets of the congregation—at the end of a year or more of work, they usually come out with a new rabbi and an abundance of friendships.

It is often within small groups that we can aspire together. Parents can join to explore how to raise children of character without the parents pulling their own hair out. People who love the arts may gather to see a movie and discuss it together. God forbid they might hear a sermon and want to discuss that as well. Some groups may want to study and expand their understanding of Judaism or the world in general.

But small groups can also be places to explore challenges together. I spoke with several active, vibrant widows who also feel lonely and vulnerable. They wonder: Whom do we call if we feel sick at night or to check in with when they return home to a dark house. They are creating an informal small group to be there for one another. Another group of women, whose focus had primarily been creating a warm, supportive home to raise their children, are wondering what they should do with their lives now that their children are moving out of the nest.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a group of other people who are navigating the same waters? They can combat the sense of loneliness that men and women can feel no matter what their age. Let’s not fool ourselves, though. Even if we are working at our jobs, or are sharing pictures of our lunch on social media, or are married with a family, we may still feel lonely. Small groups are a way to raise ourselves up with the support of a small community.
We want to build our community by building small groups where our members can gather and connect, build trust and affection, and do something important together. When we build relationships through small groups, it becomes easier to care for one another, to reach out if someone is ill, to celebrate with and for one another. I hope some groups will study, discussing some of the important issues of our tradition and of today. Strengthening small groups within this congregation will strengthen not only this entire congregation but every individual and family who chooses to participate.

The groups would be flexible. They would meet at the place that works for you and a time that works for you. They would be run by you, but behind you, we would create people to support the group leaders. We would develop pathways so people can find a group that is right for them. We would help train leaders so that the groups would be friendly and well run. And we would create materials that groups might use if they want to gather but are not sure what they want to do together.
An individual small group is not meant to meet forever. Maybe six or twelve weeks, six months . . . you decide. At the end, people would have a graceful way to exit the group; if some people want to continue on, that would be wonderful too. I imagine that some small groups will naturally transform into havurot, small groups of friends who act like an extended family for years and even decades.

We already make friendships in our lives: work, our child’s school or sports team. What will make these groups different? As all the research about human creativity and resilience is showing us, groups are stronger and more successful when different ideas and perspectives mix together to create something new and valuable. We all live and feel comfortable with our modern, American ethos of rugged individualism. Part of our resilience as a people is our ability to mix the culture of our country with the challenging ideas of our tradition. And it is here at TAE that all the threads of your life can come together. We are here when families are created and when families expand. We are here when families falter or our health falters. And we are here when life draws to a close and we need someone to sit with us in loving, silent support.

Perhaps most important, we are also a community that is not afraid to ask the biggest questions in life—about the very nature of existence, about how to develop a relationship with God. Your beliefs are not a litmus test. Believers and nonbelievers are embraced; people who currently have a prayer life are cherished, and people without a prayer life are invited to explore, if they so wish. Our mission is to help you strengthen your relationships with yourself, your family, your community, and our tradition, as well as to a sense of ultimate purpose that many of us find through philosophy, theology, and God.

When I’ve spoken to a number of gatherings, people are often very excited about this idea, and some want to know where the signup list is. I want to make sure that we have shared expectations. As I mentioned, there are already some groups that have developed on their own over the years. But for us to create the leadership groups and coaches and even some content for people who want to gather but don’t know what to explore, we will be doing this over the next year. We will be creating a few pilot groups along the way so we can experiment with what makes the best experience possible.
If you are interested, you can do something right now that would be helpful to us. Send a note to You can just say, “Please keep me informed.” Or “I’d like to explore prayer and meditation.” Or “I’d like to explore no-sweat parenting.” Or you can just tell us your gifts. So many of us have gifts that we don’t even recognize as such. If you are interested in learning about being trained to lead a group, let us know. Your interest is your gift. If you like to schmooze, that, too, is a gift. If you like to write computer code, that is a gift. If you like to make phone calls, do research, take pictures, knit, talk about movies, complain about local government—all of these are gifts. Knowing your gifts is exceedingly important. All we ask in return is your patience as we begin to build this from the very bottom up.

Let’s not wait for a disaster. Let’s not wait for snows to fall or bombs to blast or the earth to shake or fires to blaze. Let the cold of winter draw us together to warm each other, and may the only blast we feel be the blast of the shofar calling us toward one another.