The Spirituality of Community

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Lots of people tell me that they are spiritually and culturally Jewish, but not connected to synagogues. It makes me wonder what this is about. As a Jew, it is so important to me to be a part of a community, and the synagogues are mostly the only shows in town. I ponder about spirituality separate from community. I’m not convinced a person can live a Jewish life separate from community.

I’ve written quite a bit about spirituality lately without really putting forward a definition. So here is my current working definition of spirituality. It is my sense of oneness and belonging with all that exists. According to the Hasidic master Dov Baer of Mezritch, we are all individual waves in the ocean of existence (thanks to my mentor Rabbi Ted Falcon for teaching me this). We often feel as if we are separate entities racing pell-mell toward shore; yet, when we turn around, we see that we are connected to the vastness of the waters. In addition, spirituality is my feeling of awe at beholding the grandeur of the natural world. It is also my feeling of wonder when beholding great works of art, both visual and auditory, and the miracles of modern medicine and technology. But Jewishly, these feelings are rather flat without others with whom to share them.

In the biblical book of Genesis (2:18), we learn that it isn’t good for a person to be alone; each person needs a fitting helper who reflects back the individual’s truth, standing opposite yet lovingly with his/her partner. This Jewish value is deeply a part of me. While other religious and spiritual traditions value extended periods of time that a person should spend alone to gain new spiritual understandings (such as taking a hermitage retreat), this hasn’t been an active aspect of Judaism. Life is with people, including all the messy emotions, thoughts, and physical connections. I learn from the wisdom literature to share good food and good conversation around a table, to love one another, and to do work that makes the world a better place. All activities experienced in the company of others.

Personally, I am most spiritually satisfied when I share important moments with others. Holidays, Sabbath, weddings, funerals, baby welcome ceremonies, study, are all more fun and meaningful to me in community. For me, spirituality, community, and Judaism are all interconnected. In the same way that you can’t pluck a wave from the ocean, you can’t really separate these three from each other. Celebrations and difficulties are shared, so the joys are greater and the challenges are less burdensome. What is your experience?

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a long-time community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at
#spirituality #community #Judaism #rabbi #interfaith


9 thoughts on “The Spirituality of Community

  1. “Lots of people tell me that they are spiritually and culturally Jewish, but not connected to synagogues. It makes me wonder what this is about. As a Jew, it is so important to me to be a part of a community, and the synagogues are mostly the only shows in town. I ponder about spirituality separate from community. I’m not convinced a person can live a Jewish life separate from community”

    For me, the essence of that s how one defines ‘community’…..

    My experience …I live a Jewish life, as best I can, separate from ‘real life’ community, but closely connected with online community. There are a lot of reasons….where I live, there are no nearby synagogues; I have agoraphobia, and a lot of other health problems, including a stroke, and M.E. I was born (but not raised)Jewish, only began my own path three years ago(Im now 59), and it’s very much a matter of doing the best I can. Little things, building a foundation of things I can keep up. I read a lot, have lovely online friends( some Jewish, some not) and would be interested to hear your thoughts on community in this way….it’s a wonderful lifeline for me. I would not be able to connect and feel the help and experience of others if I didnt have this.

    I was widowed in May…34 years married to my soulmate: I was his carer for a long time, then he spent the last two years in a nursing home. He wasnt Jewish but he was my bashert. Im also approaching my Mums 3rd yahrzeit, on November 19th. She was burned to death in a house fire, along with her wee rescue cat, Sonny Boy.

    my online friends ( and Rabbi) are a huge source of support; my cats keep me going. It’s indescribably painful to lose my bashert, and to have lost my mother in such a manner.

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts on online communication: it’s truly a lifeline for me.

    (Apologies if posting this on Shabbat are inappropriate…I try to consider other folks levels of observance, but sometimes I miss the mark)

    Shalom from Scotland

    • Alex, I am so sad to hear of the death of your husband. I pray that you are comforted in the loving embrace of extended family and friends. I agree that for folks who are homebound like yourself, online communities are a lifeline. Of course, you do the best you can with limited resources. I hope, too, that you have supportive in-person community who can help you with meals and errands, and give you a hug now and then. I imagine that if you had been an active Jewish community member prior to your husband’s death, there would have been an outpouring of support for you. Again, please accept my condolences.

      • Rabbi Wendy, thank you; I don’t have a synagogue close by, and due to that and the other circumstances in my personal life, Im not a member of one. I was my husbands carer for eight years prior to his going into the nursing home, and all my support and companionship is online, which really is such a blessing for me. I have a lovely Rabbi, and several Jewish friends with whom I communicate. It may not sound ideal, but it works for me….Im not able to do much of anything, physically, or mentally or emotionally, and find it difficult to interact socially…I also have Aspergers. Thank you for your condolences….very much appreciated. Alex

  2. Rabbi Spears — As you note, community is and always has been an integral part of the Jewish spiritual experience, and I have little doubt that our forefathers (and mothers) designed our religion with that focus because the awe, wonder, and grandeur that any individual can feel in sacred moments takes on a special quality when shared with others.
    Nevertheless, I am saddened that you think “without synagogue” necessarily equates to “without community.”
    In my experience, smaller celebrations with extended family, a few close friends, or a Chavurah consistently can create an intimate atmosphere more conducive of shared experiences of awe and wonder at the mystery and majesty of G-d’s grandeur than services conducted in the contrived community of large synagogues which, when push comes to shove, are just businesses trying to keep their doors open by coddling the egos of rich donors and selling “requirements” to families with kids under age thirteen.
    That synagogues aren’t, never have been, and never will be “the only shows in town” is what, in my opinion, will save Judaism when the current synagogue system becomes a relic of the past like the Temple.
    Shavua tov, jen

      • You are very welcome, Alex. May your Journey be a path to peace, and may each step bring you more strength to deal both with the losses you have already suffered and with whatever rough patches may appear in the road ahead . . . jen

    • Jen, I find it distressing that you believe synagogues are contrived, or ego-driven, or are only interested in ‘business.’ It sounds like you have had a negative experience with synagogues. I am saddened to know that. There is no perfect place, whether it’s a synagogue or other institution. I believe that ‘perfect’ is the enemy of the ‘good.’ Having visited many synagogues, I know that they are about people and people just aren’t perfect. There are certainly alternatives like Jewish community centers and independent fellowship groups, but synagogues have historically been the longest lasting places for Jews to gather together and reach goals like making the world a better place.

      • Rabbi Spears — With all due respect, I think extended family and neighborhoods are the longest lasting places where Jews have gathered to make the world a better place — after all, those existed from the time of the Exodus, when both family and neighborhood were defined by Tribe (a structure that was maintained even after the Israelites settled into the land of Israel).
        When synagogues came into existence, they would have served as places to study and pray primarily for those families in the close-knit Jewish neighborhood or Jewish town that had built them. Synagogues would have grown out of the community structure that already existed.
        Only in the last fifty years, as Jews really have been able to assimilate into the general population without experiencing much prejudice and to move out of predominantly Jewish neighborhoods — and as the economy created jobs that caused people to more frequently move away from families of origin — have synagogues become gathering places for people who are not neighbors and whose extended family members do not know one another.
        This change in our nation’s culture means that synagogues are now gathering places for people who may well have very little in common in their daily lives and who would remain strangers but for the fact that they arrived at a synagogue for Shabbat.
        This is what I mean by ‘contrived’ — there is not much “organic community” left in the gathering. And the inevitable awkwardness that occurs in any gathering of strangers can make it hard to create spaces (both physically and in time) in which people feel comfortable allowing sacred moments to occur.
        The change in our nation’s culture also means the synagogue is no longer a place where people stop morning and evening (as the Hebrew text of Eilu D’varim suggests), but is a place people visit on Friday and (if you have kids) on Sunday for religious school. Developing community amongst people who see one another only three or four times a month is a difficult task!!
        But the even more difficult task facing synagogues than building community is convincing Jews that we should bother coming to a place that isn’t already part of our daily lives because:
        (1) We have extended family, and we have friends, and life is busy, so … why should we try to connect to strangers on a Friday night?
        (2) We don’t believe in that “big guy in the sky” who gives rewards and punishments, so why bother praying anyway?
        OR alternately:
        We can, as Hannah Senesh wrote, “pray equally well at home,” so why come to a synagogue on a Friday night?
        (3) We know that our children become bar or bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen — regardless whether they have a ceremony — and we’ve been told the mitzvot are optional anyway — so why fight to drag our kids to religious school classes with other kids they don’t already know from school or extended family?
        OR, alternately:
        We want our kids to know that they are Jews every minute of every day and to look to their tradition for answers in difficult moments – and when we can better teach them to live that version of Jewish life in the context of home and gatherings with close friends, why be part of a Friday/Sunday community?
        (4) Families don’t have the excess expendable cash that they had before 2008, so why should we give our money to an organization that we aren’t motivated to attend anyway, that isn’t part of our neighborhood?
        These are the kinds of questions I heard friends with young children asking one another at synagogue while their children were in religious school. These are not questions raised to clergy or synagogue staff, mind you, they are questions the parents ask one another. And in response, some parents admit the only reason they bring their kids is because it is what their parents did.
        I can’t imagine another generation of Jewish parents will force their kids to attend religious school when their connection to synagogue is so tangential to the rest of their lives. And I can’t imagine synagogues will last when so many people donate money elsewhere and synagogues are struggling to maintain the funding needed to function. This lack of connection and lack of funding are why I believe the current synagogue system will disappear.
        The exciting question, I think, is “What comes next?” Something will come next, as Judaism has too much value to disappear completely as a philosophy and theology!!
        In conclusion, thank you for your concern about whether I had a negative synagogue experience, but you need not be sad for me. I have wonderful family and friends with whom I celebrate and study, and I have been blessed in my life to have had incredible teachers who provided me with sufficient education to raise my sons to be thoughtful, compassionate Jews who love Israel, Torah, and Tradition. I could join any number of synagogues in my town, if I wished to do so, but I simply don’t believe it would benefit my family at this time. Instead, I spend my spare time studying, teaching my kids, loving my friends and family, and envisioning the warm, vibrant, sustainable, organic-community-based Judaism that I want to build for my children and grandchildren.
        Shabbat shalom, jen

    • I appreciate that you are trying to broaden the definition of what can constitute community – but it disturbs me that you feel you have to demean and invalidate the idea of synagogue community to do so. Why can’t there be different and equal ways of creating and participating in community? Why must your way be the right way?

      So synagogue doesn’t work for you, fine. Build community with your extended family and neighborhood. That’s great. I’m happy you have community, period, however you choose to find it or build it. But for some of us, synagogue community is highly valued. (And I talk to many parents at my shul who find value in it…so your anecdotal experience need not be generalized so broadly.)

      I’m a convert living in a largely Irish Catholic neighborhood with my family across the country. My wife is born of a largely non-observant Jew in an interfaith marriage, and didn’t delve into her religion and family history until well into adulthood (prompted by my desire to convert). The Jewish side of her family is limited to her mother and two surviving aunts – one of whom has no children, and the other who has one child who does not identify with his Judaism and moved across the country. My wife’s siblings are both with Catholic partners who are more firm in their faiths, and will likely raise their children in those faiths (her brother just got married in a church last month).

      O pray tell me where we are to find our community if not in our synagogue?

      I have made friendships there that now carry outside of shul. I have a rabbi who comes over to our house for barbecues because we so connected throughout and after my conversion process; someone who now has a deeply personal investment in and authentic excitement about our first child which we are expecting in the spring. I went from having no grandparents as of age 20 to having about 15 adopted grandparents who all dote on us and can’t wait to spoil our baby. I went from having very few extended family members, most of whom I haven’t even seen since my early teens, to a group of people, a FAMILY of people, who love us, care for us, have already offered to babysit and bring us meals, miss us when we aren’t there.

      My temple community filled a void that I wasn’t even aware I had. When I sit in temple Shavuot morning crying in gratitude and awe, thanking God for having brought me to Judaism and to this community, I’m with people who get that. I have that nowhere else in my life. My spirituality can be shared there in a way that it can’t be with my friends and family. If you walked into my synagogue on any Friday night, you would feel nothing contrived in the genuine love and happiness my community feels at seeing one another again after a hectic week, the hugs and smiles and happy chatter.

      I’m happy you have found community in a way that works for you. But please allow others the respect of finding community in their own ways and don’t generalize your distaste for synagogue life to all Jews. There’s no need to bash ways of living and communing that are different from your own.

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