Last summer, Las Vegas saw extreme weather when the Strip turned into a river as torrential flash floods threatened lives and property. “Check on your friends and neighbors,” the news anchors urged us. “Make sure they’re safe.”
But what about those who don’t have friends or neighbors?
As it turns out, a lack of social structure can literally be deadly. A 2015 study by the National Library of Medicine found that social isolation made it more likely for people to suffer illness or even death when extreme weather sets in. Simply put, humans are designed to be social, and we don’t do well when we’re alone.
During the pandemic, we saw ample evidence of the effects that prolonged enforced isolation can have. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Twenty percent contemplated suicide and 9 percent attempted it. When the fabric of social life is torn, our very lives can be at stake.
We need to make a concerted effort to rebuild and repair that social fabric — and now is the perfect time to do it.
This year, the Jewish community is observing the Year of Hakhel, or Gathering. Once every seven years in ancient Israel, the entire Jewish nation — adults and children — gather in Jerusalem at the Holy Temple. There, they are addressed by their leader, who reads from the Torah. Among other subjects, they hear about their social responsibility, their responsibility to one another.
“You shall give (the tithes of your crops) to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow so that they can eat to satiety in your cities,” they hear. Only if the nation cared for the destitute and the disadvantaged would God’s blessings be showered upon them.
The past few years have shown more than ever how important unity and societal responsibility truly are. The pandemic left behind millions of widows and orphans, and impoverished many more. War has created millions of strangers — refugees in foreign lands, torn from their homes and communities.
Hakhel — uniting — is more important this year than ever.
Ever since my wife Leah and I moved to North Las Vegas, we have seen firsthand the tremendous importance of building community. While there weren’t any synagogues when we moved here, there is a thirst for belonging, for camaraderie. Jewish people have been gathering in homes or rented spaces to pray together even without a formal congregation.
Those who haven’t yet found each other are eager to do so. Time and time again, we visited a Jewish family and would hear, “I thought we were the only Jews in Aliante” — or in Tule Springs, or in Northridge. People have been moved to tears by the gift of challah bread for Shabbat or a menorah for Hanukkah.
Community is more necessary now than ever. It’s crucial that we create a space to re-energize our social network and to strengthen the bonds of community that are so crucial.
Long weeks, months and years of isolation have gotten us out of the habit of maintaining the interpersonal relationships that are so central to the human experience. Hakhel reminds us that we are stronger when we are united, when we look out for one another.
So this Hanukkah, let’s focus on gathering together to celebrate as a community — and on making sure no one is left behind.
Rabbi Sholom Wilansky directs Chabad of Aliante/North Las Vegas — a local Jewish organization — with his wife, Leah. They’ll host Chabad of Aliante’s first public menorah lighting on Dec. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at 5710 Simmons St. Visit ChabadNLV.org for details.