In the Jewish community this is the month of lots of awards dinners and galas honoring people for their communal contributions. This got me thinking about the tension between personal spirituality and community.
I was once traveling with my friend Steve and we were nowhere near a Jewish community. It came time for morning prayers and he told me he only prays with a community and never on his own. He just doesn’t feel motivated to pray when it is just him and God. Rather, it is the community, or Kehillah, that is most important to him and he prays to be part of the community.
At the time this perspective felt so foreign to me. I became an observant Jew in my early 20s out of an inner yearning for connection to God. In the early days of my practice it was this one-to-one spiritual connection that was most important to me, which included lots of personal prayer. The Jewish community was a nice addition, but not the essential thing. Indeed, I had some fear that community would crush my individuality with its demands for conformity.
I came to realize later, and am still growing in my understanding of, how central community is to the overall Jewish experience. This past Sunday night the Boston Jewish community honored Barry Shrage for his 30 years of leadership as head of Boston’s Jewish federation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Barry is a phenomenal leader and the room was filled with lay leaders and Jewish professionals who dedicated lots of time and money to the needs of the community. I was filled with joy and appreciation to be part of the Boston Jewish community and for the idea of Kehillah itself.
There are some Jews for whom Kehillah is the primary value in their Jewish lives and they shy away from personal spirituality out of fear, discomfort with emotional expression, or other reasons. There are others, like my younger self, who are filled with personal spiritual passion, but shy away from community out of fear of needing to give up part of themselves to be in community. Neither path is correct. I believe Jewish life and tradition calls on us to balance individual spiritual growth with communal participation. How do we do this in a way that honors both the spirit of personal spirituality with the needs of community?
It is probably not a surprise to readers of this newsletter that I find an answer in applying Mussar practice to communal life. In this piece about the soul of the organization, I give examples of how applying what we know about the middot and inner-spiritual growth to communities can make communal participation into a spiritual practice. I believe that if we can apply this ancient Jewish wisdom across our organizations and communities the “communal” folks will get an accessible way into spirituality and the “spiritual” folks will find community a more nurturing place to be. I’d love to hear your thoughts.