Surely, you have experienced this. Most people, I think, have had the experience of a collaboration in which no one person can claim responsibility for a creation that is far greater than any one contribution.
That is the kind of experience that can make Jewish communal life truly joyful. It is the experience of being part of something larger than oneself and of seeing oneself deeply interconnected with others that can make a Jewish community feel like a holy place.
What are the specific examples of this experience that we can promote in our communities to make contemporary Judaism more joyful? I have three examples below and I'm curious to hear about your own.
1) Group Singing. It is no coincidence that almost every religious tradition in the world has some practice of group singing. There is something hard-wired in the human psyche that makes the experience of hearing ones own voice amid the voices of others feel deeply calming, joyful and fulfilling. It is as if, in the moment of singing together, we lose ourselves in the ocean of sound we make with a community. This has to be part of the reason why volunteer choirs often have such a passionate following. But group singing should not be limited to the people who rehearse and perform together. Anything that promotes more communal singing during services—for example, choosing musical settings that are easy to learn, using repetitive chants, taking time to teach a new melody, handing out rhythm instruments—all enhance the joy that people can experience in worship. Also, it is important to remind the congregation that the quality of their vocal skills is irrelevant; when everyone sings, there is no "audience" and every voice, no matter what it sounds like, adds to the joy.
2) Chavruta Study. Study partners working in pairs is an ancient Jewish practice. The partners share a text and argue its points to each other. The curious thing about studying in chavruta (or chavrusa) is that new insights about the text arise between the partners that, it often seems, would not have occurred if each of the students had studied alone. Traditional chavruta study can be expanded into groups of threes, fours or fives. Also, it need not be limited to the study of traditional texts, but can be expanded to the study of modern commentaries, poetry and other texts. When it works well, people find that part of what makes chavruta study rich and rewarding is learning about another person through a text, and learning a text through learning about another person. It is an experience of lifting yourself out of your own being and learning to see with the eyes of another.
3) Social Action Projects. We don't usually think about how we personally benefit from working on a social action project that is designed to help others. However, when we send relief to disaster victims, collect and distribute food for the hungry, or build homes for the homeless, we are fulfilling a basic need within ourselves, too. Human beings need to feel useful. There have been many studies that show that people prefer to work for nothing on a project that is useful than to receive pay for work that is useless. When we make ourselves useful to others in a project that we do in collaboration with others, the experience of connection and fulfillment is doubly fulfilling. In every social action project, include lots of opportunities for volunteers to get to know each other, to talk about the meaning of what they are doing, and to connect it to Jewish teaching and values.
What have been your best experiences of joyful community building? Please share your ideas about gathering people together to discover that they form a sacred whole that is greater than the sum of their individual contributions.