Yom Kippur Day 5767/2006
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Kehillat IsraelReconstructionist Congregation
A young woman named Sally was driving home from a business trip in Northern Arizona. She saw an elderly Navajo woman walking by the side of the road so she stopped the car and asked if she’d like a ride. With a silent nod of thanks, the woman got into the car.
Resuming the journey Sally tried in vain to make small talk with the Navajo woman but the old woman just sat silently, looking intently at everything she saw, studying every detail. Eventually the old woman noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Sally and finally spoke:
“What’s in the bag?” asked the old woman.
Sally looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a leather coat. I got it for my husband.”
The Navajo woman was silent for another long moment or two. Then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder she said, “Good trade.”
“Good trade.” Sometimes we find ourselves wishing we could trade the relationships we have for the ones we long for. Sometimes we find ourselves wishing that we could find any relationships at all.
For no one really wants to be alone. From the moment we are born and rudely thrust out of the warmth and safety of our mother’s womb into the cold, harsh light of the world, we long to return. No, not to the womb per se, but we long to recapture, re-experience that profound sense of belonging, of connection, of protection, that symbiotic relationship that literally enveloped our entire being so that we floated in a sea of nurturing love.
I believe that on the most primal of levels, every human being longs to re-experience that total sense of acceptance and belonging we once knew and that all relationships, experiences of love, meaningful friendships and embracing of others physically, emotionally and spiritually are reflections of that fundamental longing.
Of course the great paradox, the ironic cosmic joke of it all, is that we live in this remarkable electronic, digital age in which there are more methods of connecting to our fellow human beings than in any other time in history, and we are still lonely..
Walk down any street and virtually everyone you see appears to be literally connected to someone else in a remote location somewhere on the planet. Everyone is walking around with some form of digital umbilical cord – a cell phone, a blue tooth device, a lap top, a Blackberry, a Treo, or a Razor in their ear. Everyone.
Our modern technological miracles dangle the potential of unlimited contact tantalizingly before us everywhere we look, and we long to feel connected, to belong to something larger and more meaningful than merely our own isolation.
And yet with all of this innovation, are we actually any less lonely, any closer to our neighbors, and more connected to a meaningful sense of community?
A couple of years ago, Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam published a disturbing and powerful book entitled Bowling Alone. Based on an examination of over 500,000 interviews, Putnam uncovers the disturbing reality that over the past three decades the sense of community, belonging and multiple sources of connection to other human beings that once characterized American society has practically self-destructed and disappeared altogether.
What once was, is simply there no more and we have increasingly distanced and disconnected ourselves from one another at every turn whether family, friends, neighbors, or community.
Just as there is financial capital and human capital, Putnam argues that we have social capital, and it is this social capital that is the very fabric of our connections with each other and provides the fundamental quality and meaning of our lives.
In Bowling Alone, Putnam concludes that our “ social capital” has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and our communities. What these 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century have shown is that as a society we belong to fewer and fewer organizations that actually meet, we know our neighbors less, we meet with friends less frequently, and we even socialize with our families less often than only a generation or two ago.
Why the title of the book? Well, it turns out that more Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues anymore – they are bowling by themselves. Bowling alone! We spend more time at work, more time on the internet, more time in front of the television. We vote less, go to fewer meetings, devote less time to social activism, and spend less time in our churches and synagogues.
He writes: “ Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values–these and other factors in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live.”
And, since Bowling Alone appeared, the newer statistics have just proved Putnam’s point. For example, people today entertain in their homes 50% less than did the previous generation. People join organizations, including religious ones, far less than a generation ago. And, tellingly, the percentage of their income that people give to charity in the United Stateshas dropped in half from just one generation ago. We have become, in Putnam’s words, “ a culture of isolation.”
And when people do affiliate with organizations including synagogues today, it is now in a very different manner from the past. Instead of joining and feeling committed to the organization, people today affiliate the same way they join a health club, a country club, or sign up for a cell phone plan. There is no loyalty or sense of real belonging at all – it is simply a relationship of convenience, a “fee-for-services” arrangement that is nurturing an entire culture of entitlement in its wake.
Fewer and fewer people are willing to make lasting commitments. They want to keep their options open, maintain their anonymity; they don’t want to get involved; as if they are satisfied to bowl alone.
But are they? A couple of weeks ago a young woman in our congregation in her mid 30s was in my office pouring out her heart in tears over her loneliness, lack of connection, and inability to find a loving, caring relationship that really matters. A month ago it ws a woman in her late 40s with the same story, and I’ve even had this exact conversation with people in their mid-20s.
It isn’t about age – there is a pervasive isolation, disconnection and loneliness that I am seeing in our society today at every age. And it isn’t about gender – it’s not that women are more lonely than men – probably the opposite – it’s just that women are more willing to talk about it than men.
But there is a difference between this generation and the generation of my parents for sure. Last month for the first time in her life, at age 83 my mother suddenly ended up in the hospital twice – first with some broken ribs and then with a blood clot in her lungs. Since my mother is very much like me – your basic high energy, high achieving, constant in motion person, having her life and routine suddenly forced to stop because of physical illness was profoundly traumatic not only for her but for all of us in our family.
But what I soon realized was that it wasn’t just our family that was affected, and it wasn’t just our family that was traumatized and it wasn’t just our family that reacted. My mother is thoroughly connected to the community that she has created in her town in Sacramento. So when she went into the hospital, she was suddenly missing from lots of people’s lives, and so they all showed up.
Her bridge group, her Havurah, her book group, the other volunteers who work with her each month bringing Shabbat meals to homebound AIDs patients, the people from her synagogue where she has been deeply active for 40 years – they all knew she was suddenly missing. And she wasn’t alone.
In fact, one of my sisters had to set up a hospital check point just to keep all those potential visitors out of the room so my mom could get some rest and be able to heal. So many people came she was exhausted trying to take care of them!
She is connected. She isn’t bowling alone. And it has made me think long and hard. Who would miss me? Who would miss you? We need each other now, more than ever.
Remember Tom Hanks’s character who was ship wreaked in the movie “Cast Away?” The only way he could keep any semblance of sanity at all, was by turning the volleyball that washed up on to the Islandinto his companion, his friend, his confidant, his counselor, his emotional life-support, whom he named appropriately, “Wilson.”
We need each other, now, then and always in life. Last year during the High Holy Days I told the story of our elderly congregant who challenged me with her own loneliness and disconnection. I’m sure you remember – “I was sick,” she said, “I haven’t been coming, and no one ever called me.”
I told that story and I challenged us as a congregation and a community that prides itself on caring to do something about that woman’s life. And you did. You took my challenge and today, one year later, mostly because of the amazing Miriam Rutiz Braveman and the people she has gathered around her to make this happen, we have a thriving Seniors group with 30-50 seniors that meet at least once a month and have become a caring, supportive, connected community of concern for each other. That’s what is supposed to happen in a synagogue.
But it’s not enough. So today I challenge us again. What about the 35 year old? What about the 45 year old? What about the 55 year old? Yes, we are starting a monthly Shabbat Salon experience the second Friday of the month with outstanding speakers after services aimed at the 55+ crowd (and anyone else who wants to come), beginning on Nov. 10th with Michael Sitrick as our guest speaker. And we are starting a “First Wednesdays” series from 2-4 in the afternoon with Marlene Canter as our first speaker on November 1 st as another place for the empty nestors to connect – But it’s not enough. It’s not enough.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the greatest theologians of the 20 th century pointed out that the first observable condition of humanity in the Torah is loneliness. He wrote, “The moment that God uttered “It is not good for Adam to be alone,” a solitary individual became a lonely individual and it was only the promise of a companion that could ease this condition.”
Loneliness, Soloveitchik explains, is the central motif not just of the Garden of Eden, not just of the Hebrew Bible, but of all of humanity, and it is the overcoming of loneliness which is the underlying and pressing drive of every human being from time immemorial.
That is what we all long for. That is what a synagogue should be for as well. In fact, my favorite description of the ideal synagogue was something that the remarkable Rabbi/musician Shlomo Carlebach once said. He said his ideal community would be “a place where when you walk in somebody loves you, and when you walk out somebody misses you.” – When you walk in somebody loves you and when you walk out somebody misses you. That’s what I want Kehillat Israelto be and we are not that way enough.
But it can’t happen if it’s just me. Or the Cantor. Or the staff. Or even the Board of Trustees. You have to step up as well if this is going to work. If we are going to transform our lives together and touch each other’s souls even deeper, and really know what it means to be a community.
You have to show up to something – it won’t come to you. So make a commitment to show up to something once a month. That’s all – just once a month. That’s all I’m asking, and that’s what I’m asking. Once a month. Come to a Friday night service – once a month. Most of you know that at KI the 1 st, 2 nd, 3 rd and 4 th Friday night of each month has it’s own style, feel, and music that is unique – pick just one, and come once a month.
Or take a class – once a month. Torah study happens every Shabbat morning (no prior knowledge of anything is required), but you can come, once a month. Or take a class through our Jewish Learning Institute – just once a month.
Start with any of those and see what happens. Make “once a month” your new mantra, because I know that “once a month” can change your life.
I want to end by sharing with you one of the most profound experiences of my life which I’ve never told anyone before. It happened a few years ago when we used to have a group of volunteers who went once a month to an old age home in Santa Monica. We would visit on Friday afternoon and lead a small Shabbat service with a little singing, a few Shabbat prayers, lighting candles and ending with a Kiddush with little cups of wine and a motzee with Hallah for everyone.
One Friday afternoon an elderly man in a wheel chair rolled over to where I was standing and just took hold of my hand and held it during the service. From then on for a number of months, each time I would visit that same man would slowly roll over next to me and take hold of my hand while I sang the prayers and led the service.
One day I came and the man and his wheelchair weren’t there. When I asked the nurse in charge where he was she told me he was gravely ill and was down the hall in his room. “You are welcome to go visit him,” she said, “but he probably won’t know because he is unconscious.”
So I walked down to his room and there he was, eyes closed, not moving, connected to monitors that were quietly beeping, clearly near the end of his life. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just held his hand and whispered a prayer of healing and peace for his spirit. And when I said, “Amen,” he squeezed my hand. It was so gentle, and so moving to me that I just stood there crying for several minutes. When I finally turned to walk out of the room I realized there was a woman, who turned out to be his daughter, sitting in the corner shaking her head.
“Oh my God, he’s been waiting for you,” she said. “He told me a few weeks ago that when it was time to die God would come and take his hand, and I said Dad I am sure that when you die you’ll see mom again and God will undoubtedly be there to take your hand as well.”
And he said, “No, honey, once a month God comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold the hand of God one more time.” So I guess he was waiting for you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed and blown away, and so I never told anyone (except Didi) that story. But I’ve thought of it often, and one day I realized that every one of us has the hand of God at the end of our arms. And it’s up to us to use God’s hands to hold on tight to each other. To pick each other up when we fall. To guide each other along life’s path when we lose our way. To hold each other when we face the trials and tribulations and fears of life that are inevitably part and parcel of the human condition we all share.
For when we can do that for each other. When we can do that with each other. Then perhaps we will have truly discovered what being part of a kehillat kodesh, a “sacred community” is really all about.
And perhaps together we can make that dream of community a reality this year – that “ When you walk in somebody loves you, and when you walk out somebody misses you.”