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October 2, 2019

Healing Loneliness: Making a Big Shul Feel Small (Rosh HaShanah 5780/2019)

Angela W. Buchdahl

Rosh Hashana 5780/2019

I was living alone in a Jerusalem apartment last summer, far from my family.
It was the first week of my month-long rabbinic study program.
And…it was my birthday.
When my husband Jacob called in the morning, he asked what I was doing to celebrate.
“Nothing.” I said. “You know I don’t like a fuss.” 
But honestly, I felt embarrassed to ask for anything.
I didn’t want these rabbis to feel obligated to do something.  
To feel put out.
So I sat in class that day, not saying a word to anyone.
I texted Jacob, “Worst b-day ever.” Sad face emoji.
But eventually someone must have figured it out.
And by dinner time, the other rabbis had brought me a cake. And sang. 
I can not tell you how much that simple gesture meant to me.  
That one moment of connection, of feeling known,
not only turned around my terrible day, 
it changed my relationship with these rabbis for the rest of my summer.

We are so foolish sometimes! 
We crave human connection but we ignore our own instincts to ask for it.
Because we feel exposed when we think about reaching out.  
And vulnerable when we admit to ourselves that we want to be seen.  
And celebrated.  And loved.
So we don’t ask.
And that can make us feel powerfully lonely.
And God knows—that’s not a good thing.

This Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate another birthday: 
Today is the birthday of the world!  HaYom Harat Olam. 
With every new act of creation—God declared it TOV!
Tov is a Hebrew word you probably recognize, from mazal tov or yom tov. 
It means “Good.”
You all know the Genesis litany: 
God created Light!  And it was ...(Gesture to audience) TOV!
God created the Trees and Grasses!  And it was…TOV!
God created Humans! And it was…TOV!  
The Torah says that God declared Human beings TOV M’OD. 
Very good.

But the first thing in the Torah that God called LO TOV, “NOT GOOD”
was loneliness.
Lo tov heyot ha-Adam l’vado.  
“It’s not good for a person to be alone.”

What does it mean to be alone?  
A solo walk in the woods or reading a book for hours, uninterrupted—that’s heaven.
Loneliness is a different animal, and we don’t have to be by ourselves to feel it.
We can be in a room full of people, like this hall and feel isolated.
Or with our spouse or a loved one and feel invisible.  
Loneliness is not a physical fact, it is an emotional state.
Essentially, if you feel lonely, you are lonely. 
And today, believe it or not, one of every two Americans feels lonely — 
half of us in this room. 

Medical professionals call it a health epidemic. 
Long-term loneliness reduces our immunity to illness, 
increases our body’s inflammatory response and even affects our brain wiring.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General, says that loneliness 
is as hazardous to our lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  
Science agrees with God: Loneliness is lo tov: 
It can even be deadly.

But God doesn’t want us to die from loneliness! 
God created us to seek out connection. 

We are actually biologically wired to fight loneliness:  
Just as when we’re hungry, and our body releases a hormone that triggers us to eat, 
so too when we are feeling sad or lonely, our brains release oxytocin, 
which triggers us to reach out and connect with someone else. 
It’s even stronger for adolescents, 
who actually feel isolation in their physical pain receptors. 
That look of agony that your teenager gives you when you take away her cell phone—
it’s real.  
And yes, sometimes, you still have to take that phone away. 

Just remember, every fiber of our bodies wants to connect. 
Yet we let our fear and vulnerability, our paralyzing pain, 
override that fundamental need.  
And we forget that when we do reach out, it’s not just for us.  
Every time we extend ourselves to another human being 
we create an opportunity for someone to feel connected back.

We have a longtime congregant, sitting on 38th street, 
who is watching this service right now at her computer. 
Barbara is 83 and homebound, and lives by herself. 
But she is not lonely: she is as connected to Central as any of us.
Can everybody say hi to Barbara?
“Hi, Barbara!” (all wave)
A donor bought Barbara a laptop 
so she could livestream Shabbat and holidays.
Our social worker, Jackie, checks in with her regularly.
But her greatest connection is with someone she met 18 months ago.
Barbara was matched with Jill Seigerman
in our Congregant to Congregant Visiting Program.  
They get together for lunch and talk about books which they wished were longer,
and sermons…that they wished were shorter. 
They share their lives.  
Barbara said, “Jill’s visits are a highlight in my life. 
And when she leaves, it has changed my entire day.”
Jill told me, 
“Originally when Rabbi Salth piloted this program, 
he suggested volunteers try visiting for an hour a month. 
I thought, ‘I hope I can make that work.’  
Now I see Barbara every other week for two hours. 
It has turned into a relationship that I could not have imagined.”

When I heard this story, I was not only inspired, I thought:
This is the work.  
To visit with a stranger and become like family. 
To make the time and we really don’t have any.
I know that so many of you are doing this kind of work, in quiet ways, 
supporting loved ones, friends, and people in the wider community.
God knows it isn’t easy.  
Do you remember what Adam had to do in order to no longer be alone?
He had to give up a rib.
Well okay, it wasn’t an arm and a leg.
But real connection requires something of us.
Some sacrifice.
Some inconvenience.
Some accommodation.

But sacrificing for others is not what our world encourages.
We live in a bespoke culture—where we want things tailor-made just for us. 
Without compromises. 
We’ve embraced “technological advances” that steer us away from togetherness, 
towards more isolated experiences. 
Gone are the days when families watched “MASH” together. 
Now you’re watching Mrs. Maisel, 
your spouse is bingeing on MindHunter, 
and your kids are watching God-knows-what on YouTube.

We’ve created an architecture of autonomy:
we’ve replaced front porches, which used to welcome our neighbors, 
with a back patio that basically says Private.  Keep Out.
Sociologist Robert Putnam speaks of the loss of the “social glue”
that has come with the breakdown of churches and synagogues,
civic institutions, and volunteer groups.
He blames it on the ‘individualizing’ of people’s discretionary time. 
The title of his classic book sums it up in two words: 
Bowling Alone.
That’s just…sad. 
In a culture unwilling to sacrifice any individual desires, 
we have forgotten that what we are truly sacrificing 
is the connection we all desperately need.

I re-learned this lesson just a month ago.
We had an audacious idea at Central Synagogue 
to take our largest trip ever to Israel in order to celebrate our 180th Anniversary.
Leading up to the trip, I will admit—I was nervous.
We had 130 people signed up, ages 2 to 87.  
That’s a big spread.
And I don’t have to tell you —130 Jews, 500 opinions!
Nearly everyone had some suggestion that they 
And we made everyone get up early each day, 
and climb dusty stone steps in August heat.
Every individual and family on that trip could have decided to go to Israel
on their own schedule, with their own itinerary. 
But they were all willing to give up some of that freedom, 
some of those things they COULD NOT DO WITHOUT—
to experience Israel with their Central family. 
They did it to make memories.  
To witness a tear-filled service in Jerusalem 
with 20 beautiful children celebrating their b’nai mitzvah. 
To cook dinner together and feast in a vineyard in the Golan
with Israeli dancing as the sun went down. 
By the end of the ten days, people were asking when we were taking our next trip. 
And the best part is, the journey continues even after our return.
One congregant remarked that he now has a whole new set of friends
he sees on Friday nights and that it makes a big shul feel small.

A big shul feel small.  Music to my ears.

Nothing important is easy. 
Creating connection requires some sacrifice.
In Hebrew the word for “sacrifice” is KORBAN.
The root of that word literally means:  “to draw close.” 
Sacrifice brings us close. 
Synagogue life teaches us all how to do this by showing up for each other 
at shivas, sickbeds and simchas. 
And on Jewish time, not ours;
No matter how crazy your week—Shabbat arrives. Every Friday night.
The bris has to be on the eighth day.
And the funeral is never convenient.
But still—We. Show. Up. 
We make those sacrifices because we know this is how we draw close.
Synagogues are the antidote to our disconnected culture.

My model for a connected community is my hometown synagogue. 
There weren’t a lot of Jews in Tacoma, Washington, about 300 families, 
but we all knew each other. 
Only about 6 children became B’nei Mitzvah each year, 
and the whole community showed up for every one. 
In 1965, when my grandfather’s millwork business went bankrupt, 
8 families from the synagogue put up their own money 
to guarantee the loan that put my uncles back in business. 
When my grandmother Phreda died, the sanctuary was filled for her funeral 
and one of her oldest friends baked my grandmother’s Mandelbrot recipe 
and brought those cookies to her shiva.  
I always felt deeply comforted in that shul.  
I was part of a community that I knew would show up for me, 
as I would for them.

I would have never imagined that this intimate connection 
could also be possible in a massive Jewish community like Central.
But it happens every day in our mini-communities 
of Torah study or Melton class, the Breakfast or Mentors program, 
the nursery school and of course, small groups, which were created for this purpose.
And connection even happens in our virtual community 
with hundreds of thousands of livestreamers from around the world.
Last year, one new livestreamer wrote on our Facebook chat: 
“I am totally alone this Rosh Hashana.”
A livestream regular responded:
“I’ll be alone as well, but only in body. My virtual family at Central will be here. 
I will look forward to seeing you.”
“Thank you” she said. “I feel love.”

For all of you out there in our virtual family—
Thank you, for showing up for one another.
Thank you, for spreading the love.

Some of you tell me you’ve found your best friends here at Central.  
You sit together at services, you share meals, you even travel together.  
And that is wonderful.  
But you needn’t be the closest of friends to care for each other, 
or to create meaningful community. 
The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides 
teaches that there are three levels of friendship.  
And our congregation is built on all 3 of them:

The first is a Chaver To-elet.  A friendship of Dependence.  
These are the friends who will sit with you at services
Or bring over a meal when you’re not well. 
You might not socialize often, but you feel responsible to one another.  
I know I could not have survived my early years as a working mom 
without the carpools and a million other kindnesses from my friends of dependence.

The second level is a Chaver Nachat-
this is the Friendship of enjoyment and pleasure 
This is the friend who shares your interests and tastes.
Who will go with you to the Met Opera or the Mets game.
Our joys are sweeter and our challenges bearable
because of these friendships of pleasure. 

There is one more level, 
a Chaver Ma’alah.  
This is a friend with whom you work towards a higher purpose.
Whom you trust because you share the deepest values.
These aren’t necessarily your best friends, but we need these relationships 
to fully realize our potential and aspire to something greater than ourselves.

Look around you—because it is here in this congregation 
that you can forge these friendships of dependence, 
friendships of pleasure, and friendships of higher purpose.  
As a rabbi, I’m trying to build a Jewish community of meaning. 
That is my higher purpose, 
and I cannot do it without all of you.
We need each other in this project of Jewish life. 
And right now—
there is no more important thing we can do for each other
or model for our lonely world,
than build a community where no one feels alone.

When we did our High Holiday survey last year, we received a lot of positive feedback.  
We learned that over 70% of you feel a sense of community at High Holidays
and that over 10% of you can name more than 50 people 
you see at High Holiday services!
But we also learned that a quarter of you look around and
do not know the names of 5 people outside your immediate family.
And that nearly half of you want to know more people here.
This year we will begin a process 
to help every one of our congregants find their ‘little shul’ within our bigger one.
A small piece of Central, where everybody knows your name.  
Our goal is for each of you to identify 6 people who are “On your watch.”  
6 people you will show up for.  
Invite to a shabbat meal.  
Pay a shiva call.
And yes, take out for a birthday.
And we would like each one of you to have 13 people who are “In your tribe.”
That you will know 13 people by name as well as something that matters to them.
6 on your Watch.
And 13 in your Tribe.
6 and 13 are not random numbers.  
613 is the number of commandments in the Torah — 
a convenient way to remember this building block of community — 
and a reminder that our tradition mandates that we be there for one another, 
care for one another, and yes, even sacrifice for each other.  
Every Central member finding your 6-13 won’t happen overnight.
And it won’t happen without your help.
But let us commit to beginning this vision together in the new year.

Our Creation story ends with a cautionary tale, with the children of Adam and Eve. 
Cain is heartbroken when God accepts his brother’s offering and not his own.
Dejected and hurt, he lashes out and sets upon Abel, and kills him.  
When God asks “where is your brother, Abel?” 
Cain famously responds: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  
As punishment, God makes Cain a perpetual wanderer.
Cain becomes the loneliest man in the Torah.

Maybe the solution to our loneliness is embedded in this last story as well.
We MUST be each other’s keeper.
And when we can step out of our own sense of loss, anger, and pain 
just long enough to take care of someone else—we heal our own heartache as well.

How did God know it was not good for us to be alone?
God must have thought about it, felt it somehow.
I wonder if God ever sits in a Jerusalem apartment alone,
worrying that no one will show up to remember the birthday of creation.
But look how many of you are here!
You all showed up.  
Not just for God.
Whether you realize it or not—You came for each other.
Because we cannot do this alone.
We cannot unlock the gates of repentance alone.
We cannot sing with the harmony of angels alone.
We cannot celebrate this birthday alone.

I want you to know how powerful it is to see you all here—
to usher in—together—the creation of the world 
and maybe—just maybe—
to heal it.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.

Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)