by Paula Jacobs (Framingham MA)
When the world appears bleak – school shootings, human rights violations, and even day-to-day aggravations that seem magnified in challenging times – I have sometimes opted to bury myself in distractions rather than genuinely connect with others. But then I hear the words of Hillel the Elder in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4), Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur, “Do not withdraw from the community.”
So what do I do? On Shabbat I come to synagogue. No cellphones or texting allowed. As the hazzan leads us in spirited prayer, I join in the animated communal davening where, whether in harmony or off-pitch, everyone feels welcome. It’s here that the anxiety that envelops me and the outside world temporarily disappears. And it’s here that I feel closely connected.
My soul comes alive as I chant from the Torah. As I vocalize the words of our ancient tradition, I connect to the past, reflecting how my ancestors clung to the teachings of the Torah for the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships and struggles.
These days I attend Shabbat services regularly, and find it uplifting to be in the company of familiar faces. I kvell with the bar/bat mitzvah family, and am grateful for the privilege of sharing the joy of a simcha such as a special birthday, anniversary, baby naming, or upcoming trip to Israel. And, of course, I love socializing with friends young and old.
It is here at shul during kiddush lunch where I am able to engage in the genuine and intimate human conversations that create and strengthen connections. Importantly, in this safe space we each can be our authentic self, instead of an idealized screen image projected by social media on our mobile devices.
I listen empathetically when friends regale me with their tales of joy or woe, sometimes sharing my own stories or kvetches. As I look at smiling faces, listen to voices in pain, or hear opinions that conflict with my own, I reflect how we truly learn to develop empathy and understanding: It is by observing a facial expression, hearing an emotional tone of voice, and learning to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – and not by clicking on an emoji or Facebook “like.”
It is here – unplugged from mobile devices – that genuine human communication has been reclaimed. And it is here that I am reminded that when our only connection is superficially via text or email or social media, we miss the opportunity for meaningful human interaction, the sort that occurs via face-to-face conversation and one-on-one personal dialogue.
In today’s uncertain world, real human connection feels more important to me than ever, and why I so appreciate my spiritual Jewish community where I have found genuine connection, comfort, and family. It’s in this sacred space that I have learned what connection is really all about. That’s why it’s the place I am so proud to call my haven, my harbor, my home.
Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.