The cantor would shiver furiously with his eyes closed as he belted out the final notes of the prayer service. I stood waiting, watching, counting down the seconds until he would exit the gates of heaven, turn to me and say underneath his breath with a smile, “Shabbat Shalom” — good Sabbath — “and good luck.” I would proceed to use my 11-year-old tenor voice to sing a mediocre rendition of the closing prayers, always given to a member of the congregation under the bar mitzvah age of 13. Standing in front of the community singing those Sabbath tunes, I didn’t feel a part of what was around me. All I wanted to do was march back to where my father was sitting and play with the fringes on his prayer shawl until services ended. Sitting next to my dad and watching him close his eyes and pray made me feel more a part of the community than singing in front of the 450 people at synagogue.
Looking back at that Saturday morning routine from my childhood, I have learned that community is what you make of it. Sometimes, we can never fully belong to our communities until we build them ourselves. Even if I didn’t fully understand it back then, my dad was my community. I still love watching him pray, his lips moving rapidly, reciting the words from memory. At the end of the day, our communities aren’t capital-Y Yale or capital-A America — they’re made up of individuals, friends, family members, people with whom we interact on a daily basis.
Many of us have had a moment in our lives where we stepped back and said, is this my community? Do I really belong? Whether it was our church back home, our religious affiliation, our political party or so many more of the categories we use to identify ourselves, we felt on the outs, alone, maybe even silenced.
This thought process is even more pronounced for us college students, who find ourselves plunged into a world of people from all different backgrounds and persuasions. Yale can so often feel like a liminal space, an “in-between” stage in life in which everyone is “figuring it out” or “trying something new.” In all of that movement and change, it can be so easy to find yourself unsure of where your community lies, lost in all of the kinetic energy that carries us from one side of the political spectrum to another or through a cycle of four majors before we land on the one that’s just right.
I’m here to tell you that your community exists, whether you want to recognize it as such or not. Who do you text when you’ve had a rough day? Who are you comfortable sharing your secrets with? Who makes you smile from across the room? These are the people who make up your community.
I took a gap year in Israel before college, where I met people from across the political and religious spectrum. I was a participant in a pluralistic program at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which brought together people from a startling array of backgrounds. My friends on the program included a secular Israeli from central Tel Aviv who had no interest in religion, an Orthodox Israeli living deep in the West Bank and another Israeli student from a rural town of 80 families in the middle of nowhere. Sitting around a table with the three of them one Friday night,
I realized that my community was made up of individuals like those in front of me, each with their own stories and opinions. The big banners of community — secular, religious, Israeli, American — didn’t matter as we sat laughing over hot soup.
In all of our lives, there are social and cultural institutions that actively tell us we belong to them, that overtly inform us that we are a part of their “community.” I have American citizenship. I am a student enrolled at Yale. I am a member of the Jewish community. All of these groups have made me feel part of something larger and more important than I am. And that’s wonderful. But when it comes to my actual, personal, community — I give little thought to these massive concepts when I just need someone to lean on.
We all belong to communities, large or small. Humans are by our nature social beings. We need other people. We need to laugh. We need to cry. But even if your community doesn’t have an institution attached to it, a prayer book assigned to it or a capitalized title, I assure you that your community exists. Keep building it one person at a time.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first year in Branford College. His column runs every other Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .