Consider and Converse: Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community

Consider and Converse: A Guide to “Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community”


Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of “Al tifrosh min hatzibur— Do not separate yourself from the community.” The perspectives shared in these pages are meant to be expansive — to inspire reflections on Judaism and possibility in ways you may not have considered before. They aim to hold discord. We hope that the richness and diversity of these essays will show you new perspectives that are personally meaningful and edifying.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and conversation prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at You can also print out a PDF of the entire issue at

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you to take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questions can focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Aaron Potek shares several notions of community that Hillel the elder made famous: Al tifrosh min hatzibur. “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Potek outlines three ways of understanding this verse: as an individual, interpersonally, and as part of the whole of Israel, klal Yisrael — sometimes referred to as Jewish peoplehood. Are we, as Jews, defined by our religion — or through a lens of nationhood, or by a common ethical foundation? What do we hold in common with other Jews — that makes for a sense of abiding community?
  • Stosh Cotler explores three interpretations of the word “community” in Hebrew: “edah,” “tzibur,” and “kehillah.” Against this backdrop, she considers the foundation of American democracy: “While some political philosophers believe American culture’s focus on individual rights has the effect of eroding a collective sense of community, others believe that it is those very notions of and commitments to individual rights that give such a diverse nation a collective sense of identity.” What, then, does it mean to be part of a community that elects its leaders? And what does it mean to be faithful to a community — one that is greater and larger than one’s own imaginings — during an election season?
  • Matthew Boxer looks at whether the idea of a cohesive Jewish community is a myth. How do Jews, with the breadth of experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs, cohere as a people? Is it only in times of crisis that we come together, putting aside our differences? How do you — as an American Jew — respond to the acclamations of others speaking on your behalf? Can you imagine any conditions that would make it a good thing to separate yourself from the community? What would those conditions be?

Reflective Questions can help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Lex Rofes writes about feeling estranged from Jewish community — especially in conversations about Israel/Palestine. He has experienced moments, both as an individual and as a teacher, when his opinions were not welcomed in Jewish discourse. Have you felt pushed away from community? If so, when, and what happened? Did you seek out alternate communities where you would feel more welcomed? What helped you to re-engage with community?
  • Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston explore the dynamics of community through the eyes of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1997). They write that young people “long for a sense of communal belonging” and that they are finding “centers of community springing up across the country” in unlikely places. The authors identify six themes that consistently resonate with Millennials: “personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, accountability, and community.” How might Jewish leaders today creatively invite young people into communities based on these six engaging principles? What is the relationship between “making change” and “making connection”?
  • In NiSh’ma, three writers explore the verse from Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “Al tifrosh min hatzibur” “Do not separate yourself from community.” To illustrate the importance of living in community, one of the commentators, Rabbi Yoshi Fenton, draws upon a talmudic verse with a core — and notable — teaching: “Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Shammai and Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Hillel.” (BT Yevamot 14a) How do you understand this teaching? What do we draw from it in terms of how we are to resolve — or put aside — fundamental differences?

Consider and Converse: Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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