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The Importance of Belonging

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by Rabbi Beth Nichols

— Rosh Hashanah Sermon given at Temple Israel of New Rochelle —

             In the fall of 4th grade, Mrs. Edelstein, Temple Isaiah’s Religious School Principal, called my house and asked for my mother.  For those of you who are now thinking, “Ooh…the principal called her mom.  What did Rabbi Nichols do?”  I am sorry to disappoint you.  Mrs. Edelstein was ordering prayer books to present to my class at the celebration marking the completion of our first Hebrew book.  On the front of each book they planned to print our names in both English and Hebrew.  “What,” Mrs. Edelstein asked, “is Beth’s Hebrew name?” 

            It turns out, I did not have a Hebrew name.   So later that evening, my mother and I called my great-grandmother in Chicago and asked for her help.  She told us of an older cousin she remembered meeting as a child in Poland.  This cousin had been a midwife in the Jewish community and was known for baking extra loaves of challah for those who could not afford one for Shabbat.  By the end of that phone call I added the name Channah to my Jewish identity, and felt a profound connection across time and geography to my family’s history.  

            Choosing my Hebrew name with Great-Grandma Etta affirmed and strengthened my sense of belonging in the Jewish community.  I would later learn that the name Channah also forever connected me to the Channah of the Bible, the Channah of our Haftarah portion this morning.  But while our shared name connected me to my family, our biblical Channah felt alienated from her own.

            When we meet Channah at the opening of the Haftarah portion, she has traveled with her husband, along with his second wife and her children, on their annual trip to worship and offer sacrifices at the Temple.  If we picture this ancient scene, we might imagine campfires and tents dotting the hills around the temple, relatives separated by long distances the rest of the year exchanging updates, children running off to explore with new found friends…  And then there is Channah, sitting off to the side, weeping, desperate to have a child of her own. Channah is surrounded by people, loved by her husband, but is completely alone.  Channah feels no sense of belonging, no meaningful connections to the people who surround her.   

At Yale’s Commencement this past Spring, graduate Marina Keegan captured in words what Channah was missing.  Keegan said in her speech, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.”  Keegan was describing a feeling she felt among her classmates: a sense of camaraderie and shared goals, a belief that she was accepted and understood. 

While Marina Keegan did not have a word for what she was describing, social scientists have termed it “belongingness.”  The “belongingness hypothesis,” asserts that “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships.” Human beings naturally desire connections with other people, and research shows that feeling socially connected is positively correlated with measures such as academic success, high work performance, and physical and mental well-being.  Bottom line, feeling that we belong somewhere, that we are connected to other people, is good for us.  It makes us healthier, happier and more successful.

Sociologists studying religious communities identify three B’s of religious identity: “Belief, Behavior, and Belonging.” Religious identity cannot rely on doctrine and religious practice alone.  Religious identity, especially Jewish identity, is inherently communal: part of an individual’s Jewish identity is the knowledge that he or she is tied to the Jewish people across time and space.  And in order to establish that tie to the Jewish people across time and space, a person needs to be a feel a sense of belonging in this time and in this space.

“Belonging,” as it relates to Jewish identity, is a word I first encountered through Temple Israel’s partnership with the Jewish Education Project of New York. As we worked to design and create educational innovation, I was introduced to Levi.  Levi is not actually a living, breathing human-being, but a concept and a diagram: He is technically only an outline of a person whose body parts are labeled with four words: Knowing, Doing, Believing, and Belonging.    


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Levi’s labels express a theory of whole-person learning which reminds us that meaningful learning, particularly Jewish learning, is not only about knowing information.  Jewish learning also involves doing – participating in Jewish life, believing – exploring beliefs about God, values, and the nature of the world, and belonging – creating caring, purposeful relationships with others in our community.  

Jewish learning experiences that only focus on one of these four areas will not prepare a person to be fully engaged in Jewish life.  For example, by itself, “knowing” is an academic study, leading to a person who can talk about Judaism, but does not act on his knowledge.  By itself, “doing” can be empty ritual, a person carrying out the mechanics of Jewish life without imbuing them with meaning and purpose.  Impactful Jewish education needs to weave together opportunities for knowing, doing, believing and belonging.  Over the past year I have to come believe that of the four areas of whole-person learning, “belonging” is an essential piece of strong Jewish identities in today’s society.

Nowhere do I see this more clearly than at camp.  As many of you know, the clergy often spends time during the summer serving as faculty at overnight camps run by the Reform Movement.  This summer, while serving on the faculty of Eisner Camp, I was particularly struck by the sense of belonging and acceptance that is cultivated by the camp leadership, and then embraced and implemented by the entire camp community.  I witnessed two campers who I imagine get teased at school during the year and have trouble making friends at home discover the power of belonging to their camp community: During the opening week of camp, I was leading a discussion on the Jewish Value, Deebook Chaverim, Cleaving or Caring for Friends with an entire bunk of girls. Sitting in a circle on their cabin porch, the campers were brainstorming qualities of a good friend, when one girl decided to share a personal story.  

She described a group of students in her school at home systematically excluding her at the lunch table and on the playground, calling her names and joking that she had “cooties.”  I will admit, I was a little nervous to see how the rest of the bunk would respond.  I had nothing to worry about.  The girls immediately supported their fellow bunkmate and one camper announced, “That’s horrible and it will never happen to you here.”  I could not have been more proud of their response.  Here was a girl who was bullied at home, and could easily have been picked on at camp.  But her bunk illustrated to her, “You belong.  You are one of us.”  

On another afternoon, I was leading a program on Hebrew names for a group of the oldest campers and as part of an activity, distributed a tiny, cheap stuffed animal to each camper to name and keep.  The last camper to choose an animal was left with no choices that appealed to him, and to my surprise, he was visibly upset.  He became even more upset when he realized he could not control his feelings in front of the other campers.  But then, that moment of belonging happened.  A girl across the circle calmly held out her animal and offered to switch.  She did not tell him to calm down or make a joke, but merely told him, “I’m okay with anything, and this clearly means a lot to you.”  

A few seconds later it was hard to tell that anything out of the ordinary had happened.  Everyone was engaged in the activity and no one was whispering, commenting, or teasing.  This one simple exchange of dollar store stuffed animals had communicated to a young man, “We care about you. You belong.”  

These camp moments drove home to me two important components of belonging.  First, belonging does not require uniformity.  To feel a sense of belonging, you do not have to be the same as everyone else.  These two campers were a little different, but it did not prevent them from being accepted.  Belonging communicates that the group cares and values each person as a unique individual.  The second component these camp stories illustrate is that belonging is not automatic.  The moment those campers moved into their bunks in July, they were technically part of the bunk.  Every camper was assigned to a bunk.  But the feeling of belonging did not come until they felt accepted by their peers. Belonging requires time, openness, and communication.

Here at Temple Israel all of our educational programs, whether they are for infants, children, teens or adults, reflect the importance of belonging and the knowledge that Jewish learning is enhanced when conducted in the context of meaningful relationships.  In the Kehillah School, teachers consciously create opportunities for children to work together and develop friendships, while daily emails nurture the connections between home and school.  In the Religious School, pictures of families and teachers line the hallways, encouraging us to learn a new name and connect with another family.  Chavaya, the new educational model being rolled out in the Religious School, intentionally brings students of different grades together and focuses on learning as a community.  B’nei Mitvah students pile into our offices to prepare in small groups, cheering each other on while also getting to know the clergy.  The centerpiece of our new adult confirmation program is two small study groups that meet monthly in someone’s living room.  In all of these settings, students are learning concrete knowledge and at the same time cultivating belonging.   

Belonging, however, is not only important on the playground or in the classroom.  Belonging is something that each one of us looks for in our families, in our circle of friends, at our jobs, and in our communities.  Each one of us needs, and each one of us deserves, places and groups where we feel a sense of belonging; where we know we are loved and heard.

In the diagram of Levi, describing whole-person learning, knowing is connected to the head, doing to the hands, and believing to the heart.  These connections are logical.  But where is belonging?  Belonging, it turns out, is connected to the feet.  At first this gave me pause: if belonging is a feeling a person can have, why doesn’t the line point to Levi’s head or heart?  What can the line connected to the feet tell us?  If belonging is about identity and the feeling that we are part of a group, than it is our feet that express that feeling physically.  When we feel that sense of belonging, our feet bring us in and get us involved.  And when that sense of belonging is missing, our feet are tempted to carry us away from a group or out through a door.  

As a community, we must work together to make Temple Israel a place of belonging: a place where each person who walks through the doors feels welcomed, accepted, valued and included.  The temple should be a place where people can be their authentic selves without fear of judgment or exclusion.  If Temple Israel is already such a place for you, as I know it is for many, ask yourself, what about this community gives me a sense of belonging?  What is it that makes me feel safe and accepted?  Now ask yourself, how can I help others feel at home here too?  The theme song to the 1980s and 90s hit sitcom Cheers goes, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”  In our large and diverse community it may not always be possible for everyone to know our names.  But it is possible to hope that when people enter our doors they sense that everyone is open to learning their names and hearing their stories.  For those who are new to our community, or who are not new, but have yet to feel that sense of belonging, I hope you will keep walking through our doors.  That you will get involved in activities, share your story, and give others the opportunity to recognize and acknowledge the unique gifts that each person brings to our community.  

            Research has shown that having places and groups where we feel the comfort and security of belonging will help us live healthier, happier, and more productive lives. I believe, without the scientific data to back it up, that such places and groups will also help us be good people and live up to the high moral goals we set for ourselves during these High Holidays.  How can belonging shape our moral character?  By reminding us daily that we are not alone, and there are people who care.  

            Maimonides taught that a crucial step of repentance is being confronted with the opportunity to repeat a sin, and choosing not to.  Having a sense of belonging, and knowing that we do not stand alone in the world can help us achieve this final step of repentance.  Belonging gives us a place to turn when we are tempted to repeat a past mistake; a person to seek out for help when we cannot calm our anger or curb our jealousy; a group who will listen when we feel stuck or lost.  

Each one of us needs, and each one of us deserves, places and groups where we feel a sense of belonging; where we know we are loved and heard.  As we journey together through these ten days of reflection and repentance, take time to ask yourself, where do I find love and support?  Where can I give love and support to others?  Where and with whom do I feel a true sense of belonging?  And then, with the knowledge that we do not have to face life’s challenges alone, may we enter the New Year with hope, courage, and confidence.  


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