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What’s the key to happiness? Is it winning a million bucks? Or maybe eating large amounts of chocolate and not gaining any weight? 

Of course not. The key, experts say, is connection. Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that perhaps the largest indicator of happiness is building strong relationships with other people, as author Gretchen Rubin tells us in her 2009 book, The Happiness Project. 

So with connection in mind, this month, JUF News is broadening the scope of its annual issue on love, traditionally focused on romantic relationships, to explore many kinds of strong bonds—those between friends, parents and their kids, and romantic partners as well.

And who is more blessed than we are, as members of the Jewish community, with the tools to build such strong connections? 

From the day I moved to Chicago more than 13 years ago, I joined an extensive network of Jews living in this great city, and each year, my circle grows wider and deeper. We connect at Shabbat dinners, synagogue, volunteer activities, Jewish parties, JUF trips to Israel, LEADS—YLD’s vibrant, young adult networking tool —and, of course, through good ole Jewish geography.

I’m comforted by the commonalities of connecting with fellow members of the tribe. We connect through our family members having survived the pogroms in Russia or the Holocaust. We connect through our love of Israel and our shared favorite haunts on Ben Yehuda Street. We connect through our ability to break into the same Jewish camp song in unison at any given moment. We connect because we know we’ve been taught that it’s how we treat one another that counts—and that all the rest is commentary. We connect, thank God, through our funny bone—our God-given abundant sense of humor. And we connect through growing up on brisket--only your mom prepared yours with ketchup and mine used tomato sauce.

Along the journey, my Jewish friends and I have had more good times than I could ever count or even recall—and that’s icing on a really delicious Manischewitz cake.

But connecting with one another isn’t only about the good times. It’s when things get dark that we really need to be there for each other.

Back in 2004, Gabrielle Birkner’s father and stepmother were murdered during a home invasion. Gabi, one of my dearest friends in the world, was just 24 at the time. A fellow Jewish journalist I met in undergrad at Northwestern, Gabi had been writing obituaries for a local newspaper, when her own family’s story became the subject of the beat she had once covered as a distant observer. A decade later, Gabi has transformed some of her grief into something positive and beautiful, by co-founding—along with Rebecca Soffer who also unexpectedly lost her parents—the new website Modern Loss. Their site presents resources and blogs on coping with the painful topic of loss--so often avoided or misunderstood—in a candid, relevant, and fresh way.

Over the years, I’ve seen too many friends, like Gabi, experience pain and loss. But, each time, I watch our network of friends mobilize to help our struggling friend find hope and inspiration that can transcend horror and loss, and forge new bonds.

As I get older, I see more and more great blessings, but I also witness more sadness too. In fact, I have yet to meet a person who is immune to hardship.

I wish you a life overflowing with simchas, but it’s comforting to know that when life gets turbulent, we’re part of a community that’s there to help vanquish the dark.

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