Hillel Communications.


Building Community Over Coffee

by Emily Grant |Sep 22, 2014|Comments

“The Jewish Community at Berkeley” is a phrase that is thrown around quite a bit. The Berkeley Hillel staff sat down one Thursday during staff learning, and challenged the idea of community by studying Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ method of exploring three different Hebrew words for community: Edah, tzibbur, and kehillah. An edah stems from the word ed, or witness, and is characterized by a strong sense of identification and shared purpose. Tzibbur is quite the opposite of this, and most closely translates to public. Tzibbur is characterized as a mere chance of gathering as a community at one point in time, like a minyan, highlighted by a sense of diversity, of an eclectic arrangement of people with a range of experiences.

The most important and challenging definition of community for me was the kehillah. Kehillah differs from an edah and is closer to a tzibbur, in that it is comprised of a diverse group, “But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking—one that involves itself in making a distinctive contribution… it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of many individuals, so that each can say, ‘I helped to make this.’”

Now for a case study: Berkeley Hillel’s weekly Wednesday night BBQ. We have anywhere from 120-150 students show up weekly to eat (student cooked!) barbeque and hang out with friends. The first Wednesday, I stood and watched nervously as more than a hundred students filed in, and it felt like a tzibbur. To many of our new students, it definitely was a tzibbur. One Wednesday, there was one student in particular that illustrated what the Berkeley kehillah can look like. She walked in, a bit late, all on her own. She said hi to the staff (she had been treated to coffee by most of us), walked through the line for food by herself, then glanced around the room, stopped by a table to say hi, and then sat down at a table that had a friend or two and made conversation with old and new. And she was happy--this was her kehillah.

There was an article by Ron Wolfson in early September last year that changed my entire outlook on Jewish communal work and on my job. His article, “It’s about People, Not Programs” claims people might go to programs, but they stay for the people. He speaks of a woman who resigned from a congregation after 20 years. The woman’s reason for leaving? “I came to everything, and I never met anybody.”

Our BBQ transforms from a tzibbur to a kehillah because of relationships. The student I described had been to multiple coffee dates with staff, had been taken by fellow students, and had taken a few students herself. She had the confidence to come in on her own because of her sense of belonging, of shared purpose that she had articulated in a journey of individual engagement… a journey of mutual connection. I realized individual engagement directly translates into community, kehillah¸ building. During my individual coffee dates (in which I drank green tea after green tea), I learned about the ways that this amazingly diverse group of Jewish students was going to contribute to our tzibbur. I learned about the ways they wanted to find an edah, a close knit group of like-minded people and heard about the passions that led them there. And after each coffee, there was a different type of entrance and connection at BBQ. It became less and less like a mere aggregate of numbers, and slowly transformed into the elusive kehillah.

This idea of kehillah is mysterious. It might not be an event, a group of people, or a status. It seems to me to be a feeling, a method of engagement with a group of people. The challenge of the kehillah is our beautiful task as Hillel professionals. Because, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “To preserve the diversity of a tzibbur with the unity of purpose of an edah—that is the challenge of kehillah-formation, community-building, itself the greatest task of a great leader.”

Emily Grant is in her second year as Student Life Coordinator for Berkeley Hillel, a decision informed by her experiences at Hillel at her alma mater, University of Wisconsin, and working at Camp Ramah in California.  Emily is a fan of conversing over green tea, good restaurants, and is currently training for a half marathon.

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  • edah
  • Hillel professionals
  • tzibbur
  • community
  • coffee dates
  • kehillah
  • Emily Grant
  • Engagement
  • Berkeley Hillel

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