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Smith: The miracle of community

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A 'ring of peace' is formed around Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto on Nov. 3. (Alex Rose photo)

I am on the other side of the world when news of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting breaks. I wake up in my jet-lag haze in Tokyo and look at my phone to check the time. There, in front of me, is the breaking news headline. I sit up and hug my knees. I can feel my heart racing. I feel so alone.

Tuesday morning, over breakfast with a dear friend in Kyoto, I watch the vigil. Despite the distance, despite the time difference, I feel the embrace of my community as I watch thousands of people gathered in Toronto’s Mel Lastman Square, huddled close for warmth. Twitter and Facebook tell me of the call for Jews everywhere to #ShowUpForShabbat, and I know what I need to do.

The Shabbat after Pittsburgh, I board a high-speed train to travel the 300 kilometres from Hiroshima to Kobe, home to one of the three synagogues in Japan, and the only one outside of Tokyo. I had exchanged emails with the rabbi at the Kansai Jewish Centre earlier in the week.

I need to find myself amidst the familiar sounds of davening – of Jewish prayer – to feel grounded after such tragedy.

The synagogue is in a historic international area at the base of the tallest mountain in the Kansai region, high above the Kobe harbour. At the Shabbat meal following a perfunctory Kabbalat Shabbat service, the conversation is a patchwork of Hebrew, French, Japanese and English. I spot an Australian couple who looked friendly, and we begin to chat.

“Where are you from?” They ask.

“I’m visiting from Toronto,” I answer.

They light up. “Toronto!? We lived there for a year a few years ago! Near Bathurst and Eglinton.”

Now it’s my turn to get excited. “That’s my neighbourhood! I work at Holy Blossom.”

“Holy Blossom? That’s where we used to go for Shabbat!”

And like that, there, in Kobe, 10,600 kilometres from home, a new friendship is made. As I rush out to catch my train back to Hiroshima, we exchange coordinates to add each other on Facebook, and make offers of hospitality should they find themselves in Toronto, or should I wind up in Melbourne.

As I sit on the train, I am lost in thought. Here I am, the farthest away from home that I have ever been at a time where I crave connection and familiarity, and I meet a couple who had made my community their home while they were far from their own. This, I muse, is nothing short of miraculous.

I find myself back in Kyoto, once the capital city of Japan. Kyoto is dotted with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that number in the thousands. My friend reminds me: this was the seat of power in Japan for centuries, and so every sect worth their salt built something here. Kyoto is full of tourists, and at each shrine or temple, you can find people making offerings to the gods, to the Buddha, or to the Boddhisatva. The sound of bells and the smell of incense is entrancing.

As I wander the winding alleys leading away from the temples in the Higashiyama area, I remember that Hanukkah is around the corner. I think of the part of the story that we often choose to focus on as its central theme. The Maccabees, a small but mighty and dedicated army, defy the odds to beat the Syrian army and return to liberate Jerusalem and rededicate the Temple. They find the Temple sacked. They fashion a new menorah and find just enough oil to light it for one day. Miraculously, of course, it burns for eight days, giving them enough time to procure more oil.

It is no accident that the story tells of eight days — eight is a significant number in Judaism, symbolizing completion.

READ: TRUMP PLEDGES SUPPORT FOR JEWISH VICTIMS OF HATE IN HANUKKAH MESSAGE

I think of another Jewish moment that involves eight days: the brit milah ceremony, where a baby boy is brought into the covenant and receives his Hebrew name.

That this happen on the eighth day is so important that it even outweighs observance of the Sabbath. Welcoming this new baby into the Jewish community is one of the highest priorities of Jewish life.

I think of all of the ways that Judaism elevates the idea of community — the minyan, the 10 people needed to recite certain prayers of our liturgy; the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, where a young adult is called to the Torah for the first time in the presence of his or her community; the sheva brachot, where the community celebrates the newly married couple through the week following their wedding; the shivah, where the community gathers for a week to console the recently bereaved immediately following the burial of their loved one. At all of life’s moments, Judaism prescribes a communal response.

The French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida tells of the most basic kind of faith — faith in each other. Any address of another person, any conversation, he writes, “amounts to saying ‘Believe what I say as one believes in a miracle.’” When we speak to each other, when we cohabit the same spaces, we are making a leap of faith at each and every moment. This, for Derrida, is a basic of the human condition. An everyday miracle, as it were.

I return to the Maccabees. What did they achieve by rededicating the Temple? Nothing short of re-establishing a central focal point of Jewish life. We know that the oil burned for eight nights, and we celebrate the miracle. But in telling only of this example of divine intervention, we gloss over the other miracle of this story. The Maccabees restored the central hub of Jewish life — the place where people gathered. Perhaps they knew that it was in a hub like the Temple, lit by holy light, that another miracle would happen — the miracle of community and connection.

And here, on the other side of the world, I at once understand. After Pittsburgh, it is community that buoys me. This is the real miracle — the miracle of community. A miracle at once extraordinary and totally ordinary.