The Power of Community and the Locus of Morality*
Hinneh mah tov umah na'im, shevet ahim gam yahad. How good and how pleasing it is for us to sit together!
After the year we’ve just survived, I am overjoyed to be with all of you, face to face. We’ll never forget the disruptions to our lives. Or the lives we’ve grieved. Or the redefinition of a fact of life we’d taken for granted: what it means to go to school.
Class of 2021, you did what no senior class has ever had to do. So did your parents, your teachers, our staff, and everyone who makes JDS function. You don’t need me to tell you how hard it has been. But I do want you to hear how profoundly grateful I am for your perseverance, your partnership, and your positivity. You have inspired me in ways you don’t know. You have lifted me up in times you didn’t know I need it. And I could not be prouder to celebrate you today.
As tragic and trying as this period has been, I also want to acknowledge that what we are celebrating today is not simply the survival of senior year. As lifechanging as it was, what we are celebrating is more than the sacrifices and stresses of a global pandemic. Because no one gets to this ceremony without achieving a thousand other successes along the way -- semester by semester, year by year. What got you here is every minute and hour you invested in yourself.
Every quiz, every test, every project and paper. Every game, every play, every concert. Every question, every answer, every creative idea. Today is the culmination of an educational journey that has consumed most of your lives. So, Class of 2021, from the bottom of our hearts: Mazel tov. Yishar Kohakhem.
Shevet ahim gam yahad. Yahad. Together.
A minyan, of course, means a quorum. For millennia, a Jew’s day has begun with a challenge: go find and be with others. Be together. What does it mean to be together? Sometimes we can understand a concept best by knowing its opposite. We know how nice it feels to be satisfied because we know what it feels like to be hungry. We know how nice it feels to be rested because we know what it feels like to be tired. And now we know how good and pleasing it is to be together – for the first time in a very long time – because we know, more than ever before, what it feels like to be isolated.
The halakha -- Jewish law -- about minyan says that you can pray on your own. That it is permitted. But there are certain prayers you cannot say, certain rituals you cannot observe, without the company of others. The Talmud is very clear: if it’s at all possible, try to be in k’hillah – in community. What’s true at the start of our day is true throughout all the days of our life: as individuals, we can get by. But we cannot replicate the richness of every experience without our k’hillah. We can learn virtually. We can work remotely. We can communicate through screens and satellites. But none of us will ever again take for granted the feeling of a shared space and what is uniquely possible within it.
That’s one of the most valuable lessons of your senior year. But it’s something our people have always known. And when I say our “people,” I mean it. We are “Am Yisrael” – the “people of Israel.” Not “Dat Yisrael.” Not “the religion of Israel.” Our sense of peoplehood has always been our defining characteristic. So much so, that the community is the primary organizing structure of Jewish life.
In the Talmud, the rabbis asked: where should a scholar live? Where does a leader live? They have to live in a community – a place with a synagogue, a school, a communal tzedakah fund. Jewish life is meant to be lived together. Many of your families – either this generation or the one before it or the one before that – benefited from this value. I have too.
When Caryn and our family moved here from Los Angeles eight years ago, the first thing we asked was: what is going to be our Jewish community? Which synagogue are we going to be a part of? What groups or organizations are we going to join?
Those questions – and their answers – helped center us. We knew that moving to a new place didn’t mean we would be alone. Quite the opposite: it meant we had the chance to join a k’hillah. Those questions – and their answers – will help center you, too.
Many of you will soon be moving to a new place. But you won’t be alone. Far from it. It’s no accident that k’hillah is a core value of JDS – and that your experience here has taught you how to find a community of your own. More importantly, it has taught you how to be a person who can lead one when you need to.
I recently spoke with the head of Hillel at a prestigious university. She said to me: You know, the students who always become leaders here are not just the observant students. They are my community Jewish day school graduates. They’re the ones who know what it means to be committed to community.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this kind of comment. Research on Jewish day schools going back many years has found that community engagement is what drives so many parents to choose a Jewish education for their children. And we hear all the time from JDS alumni that years after they graduate, they still feel connected to their JDS community – more connected, in fact, than how their peers feel about where they went to school. But still, hearing from that Hillel leader and living through this pandemic year made me wonder what it is about community that makes it so important and so enduring.
In Proverbs, it is said: “With justice, a king sustains the earth, but a fraudulent person destroys it.” What does this verse mean? The Midrash Tanhuma offers an answer. It says that if one sits alone in a corner of their house and asks, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me?” – that person destroys the world.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that our capacity to form bonds of belonging and care in the “world of We” — not the “world of Me” –– that is the essence of our morality. In this last year, we have realized more than ever before just how closely our morality is tied to our mortality. When a contagious disease circulates in the air between us, we have no choice but to rely on one another.
Your safety is my safety. Your health affects my health. Your decisions determine my decisions. And your sacrifices – the sacrifices of frontline workers, health workers, cleaning professionals who trouble themselves for the community – they are the kings and queens who sustain the earth.
Our sense of community is our sense of morality. And the core of our morality is our community. These two values rely on each other, just like you and I and all of us rely on each other. There’s something about the pandemic that has broken the status quo for us. It has shown us that we cannot live if we are divided. We cannot survive if we are not empathetic. There’s a tangible price to pay for turning our backs on one another. Even as we sat at a distance, we have all learned the same lesson.
We have learned a lot this year about morality and mortality. And in watching you, the Class of 2021, I have learned about morale. Because when the world conspired to keep you apart, you answered by coming together. What a meaningful achievement that is. It will be a part of you forever. It is an effort and experience that will strengthen you in ways you cannot possibly predict.
I’ve seen my fair share of classes come through JDS. Ask any faculty or staff member, and from our point of view we see each class’s unique character. Each class is different in its own way. If you’d asked me a year and a half ago about your class, I would say that you were a group of individuals who were really good at doing your own thing. Today, I see a completely different class before me: a cohesive, connected group. A whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. A k’hillah.
Those of you who went to Israel came back tighter than ever before. The seven of you who served as Lower School proctors, you formed a bond with each other, became your own unit – and in the process, helped us run the school. We could not have done it without you.
At the end of last year, you organized yourselves to get your jerseys. I will never forget seeing you in the parking lot, standing up through your sunroofs, talking and laughing and making sure you each had that jersey – a simple symbol that says you are all on the same team. And when you realized that senior year was going to be different, before the sun set on your JDS experience, you came together at sunrise so you could still enjoy each other’s company. Shevet ahim gam yahad.
When any student enters JDS, they immediately join a community. Then, years later, they put on their blue jerseys and then these blue robes and they walk out of here as a k’hillah. But it doesn’t just happen. And Class of 2021, you know that now. Our lives are meant to be lived together. Wherever you go from here – on your campuses and in your careers and yes, in your communities – that is your challenge:
How do you create k’hillah? How do you sustain it? How do you build it for yourself? There might be no more important skill that you learned at JDS. There may be no more important responsibility awaiting you down the road. And there has never been a group of people better prepared than you to do it right.
There is an entire world out there waiting to benefit from your leadership – from what you’ve learned – from the k’hillah you will build.
Class of 2021, go build it.
*Excerpted from Rabbi Malkus’ graduation address to the CESJDS Class of 2021