We Need to Come Together: A Holiday Message

By Rabbi Ariana Capptauber, Beth El Temple Harrisburg

Excerpted from Rabbi Capptauber’s Yom Kippur Sermon

Last month, I ran a 5k with the JCC. A few times a week, I do a two or three mile run on my own, but on those runs I often stop and walk at intervals. I’m in my own head, and whenever my concentration breaks, or I reach a block in the road, or I get tired, I stop running and walk.

But the JCC run was different. Surrounded by people I knew, my motivation spiked. I spotted adults jogging at a similar pace and tried to stay with them. I passed kids I knew dashing ahead or lagging behind and shouted words of encouragement. Toward the end I came upon community kid Joel Zilbering. Both of our motivation and speeds were lagging and to encourage him I taunted, “Come on, you’ve got to beat the rabbi!”

At that point the runner I had been following sped up, so I sped up too and raced her to the finish line. Running with community, surrounded by community, and for a communal cause motivated me to run faster, more consistently, and more joyfully than I ever do on my own.

This time of pandemic and quarantine, coupled with the accessibility of the internet, has us all more used to doing things alone. We work from home, learn from home, shop from home, worship from home, play games, and even attend social events from the comfort of our couches and kitchen tables. For a while this was a life-saving necessity and we were grateful for it. But as things began to open up this summer, many of us have been reticent to return to our old in-person ways of living.

According to a recent study by the Pew Institute, while only 20 percent of the workforce worked from home before the pandemic, 71 percent did during the pandemic, and 54 percent say they would want to work from home after the pandemic ends. Storefronts close as people continue to buy everything online. Restaurants are shifting their business models as people do takeout instead of dining publicly. At Beth El we have continued to hold many classes and meetings online due to popular demand.

All of this is very convenient, allowing us to forgo our commutes and the need to wear pants, yet something is lost, too. Something essential. That something is community.

Collin Hansen put it aptly in a New York Times article this year, defending his Church’s decision to meet in a parking lot rather than online. He said, “Christians need to hear the babies crying in church. They need to see the reddened eyes of a friend across the aisle. They need to chat with the recovering drug addict who shows up early but still sits in the back row. They need to taste the bread and wine. My daughter needs to know the church members, even if it means wearing masks and setting up lawn chairs in a parking deck.”

Hansen captures something intangible about worshipping together in person, namely, the way we feel one another’s presence when we’re physically together. We can’t do that when other humans are two-dimensional talking heads, or sometimes just boxes with a name. We can’t notice and connect around three-dimensional needs, and thus we cannot care. That is why I have encouraged Beth El to hold services and classes and gatherings in person as often as it is safe to do so. Because we need each other. In 5782, we need to return to community. We need to come together, right now.