Judaism Through Community
by Eli Kahn-Woods
Excerpt from Siyyum (“Completion”) paper 2009
In my eighteen years I’ve felt deeply connected to two distinctly Jewish communities: Camp Modin and Beth El. One or both of these groups have been present throughout my life, and with their twists, and turns I have garnered some of my closest friendships. Likewise, both have inspired me to deepen my relationship with the other. Without one, I would not have the other; and without either, I would not be the Jew or young adult that I am today.
Beth El has always been my Jewish foundation. I was born into Beth El and spent almost every Friday night of my first few years falling asleep in services, actually on the sanctuary’s floor, while Lorel and the congregation lulled me to sleep with the Shabbos (Sabbath) prayers. I’ve attended Beth El’s Hebrew School since kindergarten and the majority of my formal Jewish education has thus taken place within its walls.
But it is not the services or the school that connects Beth El and Judaism in my mind. Instead, it is the people and the community that have supported me and helped me grow, which defines Beth El for me. Interacting with Jews of various ages and backgrounds at Beth El has truly been one of the clearest ways for me to discover my Judaism and what it means to be Jewish. Therefore, not coincidently, Judaism for me has simply become spending time with passionate Jews and getting to know and understand them, no matter how devout they are. Memories such as dancing in a circle on Saturday morning services, Purim carnivals, playing music with Shir El (Choral group) on high holidays, and being constantly told to stop playing “spud” in the halls on Shabbat strike me as particularly religiously charged. Indeed, wedgies never seemed so inherently Jewish until David List sent me howling around the sanctuary in pain at one Woodstock Shul-in.
One Beth El moment that leaps from my memory is that of Neilah (Closing service on Yom Kippur). Every year, for as long as I can remember, my family has spent the final hour of Yom Kippur in the same spot on the bimah (platform in front of the ark). Strategically, we save four seats at the beginning of the day, and come evening, when the congregation’s focus turns from the podium to the ark, our patience is rewarded. We get a front row seat as the cantor and rabbi chant out the final prayers. Beth El’s spirit correlates proportionately with its cumulative hunger, and by the end of the evening, with the anticipation of break fast heightening, the ru’ach (spirit) overflows in passion-filled singing. Banging on prayer books and stamping the ground, I always turn around and face the congregation as it sways collectively. From our little niche I get a full view of everyone seated in the loft and social hall alike. Although they can’t necessarily see each other, they move on the same pulse and harmonize with the same notes. It is here in this moment every year that I truly feel the Jewish soul of Beth El. It is not the ancient prayers or the High Holiday’s power that connect me to Judaism but Beth El’s community that enables me to identify with my own personal Judaism.
Eli’s Siyyum class was the largest class to graduate from Beth El’s Hebrew High School since it’s founding over 30 years ago.