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Crowd vs. Kehilah

by Liz Paige, Director of Ethics and Community Initiatives


I used to love a crowd. Riding a packed New York subway, walking down a bustling Chicago sidewalk, even finding that small spot on a dance floor where complete strangers inevitably bump into each other. Crowds are unpredictable and that unpredictability was exhilarating for me.


But for the past six months, I’ve avoided crowds at all costs. Like many of you, the largest group that I’ve been with is my family. I wanted to protest for racial justice but the unpredictability of a crowd, even one that shares a goal that is core to my soul, was just too scary. 


However, returning to McGillis for the school year was very different. We are not a crowd, we are a community. “Community” is often defined as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” The McGillis community is much more than this. This is a community, best captured by the Hebrew word “Kehilah,” where we want each person to know and feel that they are safe, belong, and matter. We are a Kehilah that studies and shares values, seeks the fulfillment of similar goals, and intentionally works to support each person while always keeping an eye to what will strengthen the whole community. 


The differences between a crowd and a community, to me, are simple on the surface but profound when we slow down and go deeper. I can walk away from a crowd without feeling that I am shirking on a responsibility to others or truly losing something of lasting value. In contrast, our McGillis Kehilah is something that I run towards (though I must now abruptly stop once I am within six feet of any of you!). I share in and understand our collective confidence, because of our commitment to our values, in our ability to negotiate with flexibility and patience this school year. We truly care for one another and therefore we will each do our best and what is necessary to keep ourselves and one another safe. We will work tirelessly to ensure that our students learn and, more importantly, know and feel that they are cared for and matter to all of us. 


To support us in this work, we will embark on a Kehilah-wide (students, parents, and teachers) year-long study of our six core values: Kehilah/Community, Gemilut Hasadim/Acts of Kindness, Tzedakah/Giving to Others, Tikkun Olam/Repairing the World, Derech Eretz/Respect for All, and Limud L’shma/Learning for the Sake of Learning. We will focus on each value for five to six weeks. In the Magpie Messenger, we will share family discussion topics and questions and suggested activities to do at home. In classrooms and online, teachers will weave the value into lessons formally and informally. 


It is often said that Judaism is a tradition of action more so than beliefs. With this teaching in mind, we have thought carefully about how we can put all of our school’s values into action this year to make the world a better place. Traditionally, our students learn about different community issues and needs and then work to meet those needs through service or in-person advocacy. Historically, our students have worked with non-profit partners to assist refugees, the elderly, the environment, those experiencing food insecurity, and been advocates at the Utah legislature. While some of this work can happen remotely or safely with physical distancing, we recognize that we want to make an even bigger impact. 


This year, our students will be asked to collect tzedakah. As kindergarten students, our students have made tzedakah boxes (coin boxes) in Ethics and Cultures class for the past six years that they took home to begin the habit of earning and giving tzedakah. This year’s Kindergartners will continue this tradition. Students who are new to the school or who did not make a tzedakah box in Kindergarten may pick one up from me to decorate and use at home. This year, all students will be encouraged to earn through chores at home or their neighborhoods so that they may give a portion of their earnings as tzedakah.


Our eighth-grade students in their Ethics in Action class will serve as our student philanthropy board by studying different needs and organizations working on issues related to the value on which we are all focused. They will educate students across the school to encourage their participation in giving tzedakah and be responsible for collecting, reporting on, and distributing our Kehilah’s contribution. Through their individual efforts and our combined gift, students will learn first hand the importance and impact of collective action and the true difference between a crowd and a Kehilah.