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A Jewish community is a community where both the spiritual and physical needs of its members are met.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Vayigash” (Genesis 44:18–47:27), and in it we read how Joseph reveals himself to his brothers as governor of Egypt. Also, Jacob their father comes down to Egypt which, by extension means, that the entire Jewish people moved to Egypt and settled there.

Lots of family politics and lots of communal dynamics that need setting up and getting used to. This is the first exile of the Jewish people. Every single Jew moved to Egypt and, as such, Jewish communal institutions had to be set up. Let’s take this opportunity to discuss the Jewish family and Jewish community.

For starters, notice how the Jewish people are known as “Am Yisrael“–“the people of Israel”— rather than something like “Dat Yisrael” (“the religion of Israel.”) This is because the countries from which we originate or our individual levels of observance, the Jewish people have always had a sense of unity, a sense of belonging to a very special nation.

In this spirit, the focus on community and communal institutions has always been the hallmark of Jewish life. Wherever Jews would live, they would immediately start working on building the necessary services and amenities that every Jewish community needs – far more than just a local synagogue.

The Talmud tells us that a Torah scholar (and I would add that this truly applies to any Jew) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a Jewish court, a charity fund, a synagogue; a ritual bath (mikva), a bathroom, a doctor, a mohel, a shochet, and a teacher of children.”

In other words, a Jewish community is a community where both the spiritual and physical needs of its members are met. Most of the things on this list are obvious, like a synagogue for the thrice daily prayers. In most communities, however, a synagogue is more than just a place of prayer, but also a community center of sorts. Besides being used for the entire gamut of lifecycle events that take place there, synagogues usually host extracurricular activities, youth groups, Torah classes, and the like.

The mikva, or ritual bath, is indispensable. Once a woman gets her period, she is forbidden to resume physical contact with her husband until she goes through a lengthy purification process, which culminates with immersion in a mikva. The lack of a mikva would make marital life very difficult. Many couples who indeed live in a city without a mikva are forced to drive many hours each month in order to reach a city that does have one. The presence of a mikva is so important that we are required to build it even before building a synagogue.

A school teacher may very well be the most important thing on this list, as without educating our children, there is no future, no next generation. This is, in fact, frighteningly true. Any Jewish community that does not have advanced Jewish education ultimately disappears, usually through intermarriage and assimilation. We are told that Jacob specifically instructed his sons before moving to Egypt to set up schools for Torah education before anything else.

Moving on to the family and the home, it goes without saying that they are vital to Jewish continuity, even more so than the communal institutions. Family life is seen as the foundation for ensuring a Jewish way of life. Children receive their first education in the home. Parents are to show their children how to live as Jews.

Children see Shabbat and holidays in the home. They see their parents going out to Torah study and Jewish lectures. They see how we prepare for holidays. It is the education in the home that can make the greatest impression on children. A child’s first prayer, the Shema, is taught in the home. It is in the home where children learn how to keep kosher, growing up with separation between milk and meat, something that often begins with separate high-chair tables for babies. It is not possible to overestimate the value of a Jewish home.

The Jewish home and Jewish community are the two primary ingredients that have ensured Jewish survival and continuity. Make sure these two ingredients are part of your life as well!

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