The Power of Community

To everyone here with us tonight, in person, via Zoom or via the Livestream, welcome.  We are so glad that you are here with us tonight forming our sacred community. No matter how we are connected, each one of you is counted in our minyan.

I know the importance of being counted. As a young rabbinical student, I spent a summer volunteering on a goat farm in northern Israel. On Shabbat morning I set off in search of a synagogue. My 30 minute journey took me past ancient ruins on a hillside overlooking the Jezreal valley, and beautiful vistas until I reached the paved roads of Yodfat. I entered the lone synagogue in the village to find nine men huddled around the ark reading the Torah. “Why didn’t they take the Torah out of the ark,” I wondered. Soon someone saw me, turned to the others and yelled “Minyan!” with great joy. They then welcomed me with open arms. They dressed the Torah removed it from the ark, and began a full Torah service now that they had a complete minyan of ten Jews.

In order to read the Torah out loud, Jewish tradition requires a minyan. A minyan is a group of ten adult Jews necessary to engage in certain prayers and rituals. The men at the synagogue were so excited because only nine men regularly attended services and when I arrived I was number ten – I completed the minyan. It felt really good to be seen, to be counted, and to be included in their community. Knowing that I was essential to the minyan I now had an obligation to help form the minyan for as long as I was staying on that farm.

Traditionally only men are counted in a minyan, but today both Reform and Conservative Judaism count all adult Jews over the age 13. Regardless of whether someone has celebrated becoming a bmitzvah, they are counted in the minyan.

The concept of minyan as ten people originates in the Torah[1]. Abraham argues with God to save Sodom and Gemorrah, and together God and Abraham agree that if there are ten righteous people, God will not destroy the cities[2]. Later, in the book of Numbers, Moses sends 12 spies to scout the land of Canaan. Ten spies return with negative reports, and two return with positive reports. The Torah refers to the ten spies who brought negative reports using the word “eidah”, a congregation. Based upon these passages, the Mishnah, our earliest rabbinic text concludes that reciting certain prayers, including the Barchu, Aleinu, mourners kaddish, and reading the Torah out loud are only permissible with ten people present[3]. 2000 years later we still follow those rules.

18 months ago, on March 13, 2020 we canceled our in-person minyan, upholding the value of pikuach nefesh, to preserve life. We told our community not to come to our sacred home. That shabbat only Cantor Giglio, Jonathan and Seth Zabin and I were physically present when we recited these prayers out loud. We decided to count those who joined via the Livestream (there was no Zoom option yet) in our service. Our community formed a minyan online. Was this permissible, we wondered?

Quickly the halachic authorities, those who determine Jewish standards for the various movements of Judaism, began studying to answer this very question, to decide if a gathering of people online count toward a minyan.

Only a few years earlier, the Reform Movement had explored and rejected this very idea. They chose to reexamine this ruling because, as we know, everything during COVID is “unprecedented.”

In late March of 2020 they delivered their verdict. The response began, “Although we have a recent decision that rejects the virtual minyan, we are now in an emergency situation.  In an emergency situation a bet din [rabbinical court] is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling to… [preserved the community].[4]” Additionally, they concluded that during the pandemic 10 adult Jews could be counted as a minyan so long as they were using a bi-directional technology in which everyone could see and hear each other, such as Zoom. We have spent a lot of time on Zoom ever since and we are grateful for this technology that allows us to connect panim-el-panim, face to face.

The decision to permit an online minyan was based not on the halachic imperative to simply be in proximity to one another, but because of the interactions that happen when we gather together. The standards committee concluded that “The essence of the minyan is the reciprocity of the social contract – the shared obligation that binds all ten individuals to one another, transforming them from a number of individuals into a community.”

Even though the ten spies form the basis for the number of people in a minyan, the Torah refers to them as an Eidah, a congregation, because they didn’t share a common future purpose. They were focused only on what they witnessed together. When ten people gather and participate in an activity and witness something together, good or bad, they become an eidah, a congregation.

Our modern minyan causes us to create more than a congregation, it helps us to form community.

According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, only a community, a kehillah, describes a group of people “orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. The beauty of a kehillah,” he writes, “is that when it is driven by constructive purpose, it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of many individuals, so that each can say, ‘I helped to make this.’[5]“ Congregation Mishkan Israel is a community because every person brings their own gifts to create much more than the sum of our parts. As we have said for a decade, we are more than a place, we are even more than a congregation, an eidah we are a kehillah, a community.

The requirement for Jews to gather regularly for prayer in a minyan reinforces our collective purpose. The most powerful part of communal prayer differs for each of us. For some the music, words, poems, or sound of the shofar drew you here. For others, the most powerful part of forming a minyan are the conversations before and after services when we catch up with friends. In these moments we learn how to support each other and celebrate their simchas. Countless times I have received a message from someone on Sunday telling me that they heard that so-and-so was ill or having surgery when they were talking on Shabbat. As a community, we are then able to help by visiting them, bringing them food and letting them know that they are not alone.    Praying, supporting and celebrating each other forms the basis of our collective purpose as a community.

The liturgical historian Rabbi Abraham Milgram reinforces this idea by suggesting that “praying with others brings a sense of connection and closeness and can strengthen the collective to focus on their prayers more deeply. By requiring a minyan for many fundamental rituals, Judaism encourages communal cohesion.[6]

Arriving at this conclusion, we might imagine that the need for ten Jews isn’t because it improves our prayers, but rather because it strengthens us all. Judaism encourages us to surround ourselves with others especially during our most significant moments, such weddings or after the death of someone we love.

Nothing can replicate putting an arm around someone when they are saying kaddish for their parents during a service, and this will be possible again, soon we hope. Still, we are grateful for the ability to connect in different ways during this “unprecedented” time. This is why we learned to quickly embrace the “breakout room” feature of Zoom, so that during a service people had dedicated time to connect with each other and to build relationships with friends old and new.

For those of you who are joining us online because of COVID, or simply because it’s more convenient, we include you in our minyan and we feel your presence. Thank you for joining.  For everyone who is here physically, whether you are returning home for the first time or have been worshiping with us since June, we count you too. Thank you for joining. No matter how we connect, in person, via Zoom or over the livestream, everyone at CMI is counted as an essential part of our community.

Harnessing our collective resources to make a difference outside of these walls is an equally-necessary part of our community’s purpose. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, prolific author and scholar teaches us that communal prayer helps prevent us from focusing only on our own needs. He writes that: “the rabbis apparently felt that public prayers are more apt to be offered for that which benefits the entire community, whereas individuals often pray for that which benefits only themselves.[7]” The idea that prayer should connect us with a greater purpose is reinforced in the Talmud when Rabbi Yochanan declares that one must only pray in a space with windows.[8] In fact our majestic sanctuary was built intentionally with so many windows because CMI has been connected to our larger community for generations.

We continued looking outward during the pandemic. During the past year we continued providing support to people in need in our larger Greater New Haven community. The Peah garden continued to provide hundreds of pounds of fresh food to local food pantries. When we couldn’t house our Abraham’s tent guests here at the synagogue we raised over $4,000 in just a few weeks to house them in safe housing where they could continue to protect themselves from COVID. Participants in Life is Delicious volunteered to pack meals for a local soup kitchen, Chevra Hands made hundreds of masks for the Fairhaven clinic, and we continued to care for our JCARR families while resettling a new family just last week! Additionally, our confronting racism program drew over 40 participants each month as we challenged ourselves to learn how we create a more equitable society. [point to windows] These windows, whether we see them or hold them in our minds, continually remind us of our obligation to help others.

On Yom Kippur we will read the words “Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem, lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, You stand this day, all of you before your God – you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger in your camp, from the woodchopper to the water drawer, from those in person to those online, – to enter into the covenant of God…in order to establish you as God’s people…both those who are standing here this day…and those who are not here this day.[9]Anachnu nitzavim hayom, we are all here today, all of us, to celebrate a new year, a year filled with hope, filled with fear of the unknown, and certainly filled with love and care for each other. We have entered into a covenant with each other at CMI, a covenant of support, celebration and tikkun olam. Whatever this year brings, new variants and new challenges, we will face it together.

Judaism teaches us that even when there are hundreds of people gathered for prayer as is the case tonight, we see ourselves as essential to the minyan. For generations, each member of CMI has stood and answered the call when needed, knowing that we each bring a unique gift to our community.

Tonight, we enter the year 5782. May our sacred community give us strength, courage and hope.

L’shanah tova u’metuka, may you have a sweet, healthy, and happy new year.

[1] Numbers 14:27

[2] cite

[3] Mishnah Megillah 4:3

[4] 5780.2: Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

[5] Three Types of Community.


[7] Jewish Literacy. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Pg. 643 (section 332)

[8] Talmud Bavli 34b:29

[9] Deut 29:9-14