The next time you attend a Jewish event, you may want to play a fun, tongue-in-cheek game. Try to keep track of how many times the phrase “Jewish community” is said, in any context. You probably already know that it might be hard to keep track. All religious groups and peoples have communities, yet in ours the phrasing of it is ubiquitous.
Judaism essentially demands community in that, within traditional Jewish practice, the obligatory prayer service mandates a minimum of ten Jews. Israeli poet Abba Kovner went so far as to write in his poem, “To Be One of a Minyan,” that “It is a Jewish phenomenon, unique to Judaism, to be one of a minyan. To know that the nine are in need of a tenth, and the one in need of nine.” Community is not just a central aspect of our religion but is demanded by it. But we deeply value community beyond this necessity in prayer. The idea’s high standing can also be gleaned from the fact that the Hebrew language even has three words for it, tsibbur, a random collection of people, edah, a group that has undergone the same event or experience, and kehillah, a collection of individuals and God—a holy community. Community encourages us to reach our potential and brings us forward as Jews, both individually and as a collective.
The Babylonian Talmud teaches in Sanhedrin 17b that a Torah scholar is not permitted to reside in a city that does not contain ten specific things, one of which is a synagogue, and another a teacher of young children. The fact that a synagogue is mentioned implies at least ten Jews, and the teacher of young children implies that there are children within the group. It is not enough to just have Jews, but ten; and it is not enough to just have ten Jews, but there must be a place to pray and educate children. We are taught that it is necessary to prioritize praying and learning, and that these things are best done within community.
We cannot reach our full potential without each other, both in terms of numbers and educational upbringing.
The wisdom of this talmudic teaching was demonstrated to me first hand by Mercaz Conservative Hebrew High School’s senior seminar course that I co-taught with Rabbi Daniel Bogard. The class of about ten students had progressed from kindergarten through religious school together. If we can be honest, to have a large group of seniors in any religious school can be surprising. Most students stop attending throughout their adolescence or after what they see as benchmarks in a Bat or Bar Mitzvah or confirmation. So for the class not only to be more than just a few students, but to meet the talmudic standard of a community was rare and impressive. Even more so, that this was a result of the students having kept each other in the program and holding each other accountable.
Co-teaching the class was a pleasure. The class primarily involved discussion based and tried to focus on topics that the students were either in the midst of encountering or would encounter as they entered college. Issues included a range of topics relating to Israel, philosophies of Jewish identity, consent, gender dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and what healthy relationships look like, all of which were seen through a Jewish lens. The classes were energetic and lively, as the students kept the conversation moving and brought out the best in each other.
Even with two dedicated teachers, thought-out lessons plans, and a great learning space, it would not have been a successful educational experience without the true dedicated Jewish community that these seniors had helped to create among themselves and with each other. Although it may have been written long ago in the Talmud, these seniors helped to teach me that Jewish life is at its best when shared with a community. It is no wonder why we say the phrase so often.
Will Hall is a second-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).