I’ve been writing a bit about community and our need for it, so it is no surprise that when I read two recent pieces (one by my Rabbi and another in the Atlanta Jewish Times) on deficits in local communities, I wanted to figure out how to connect them.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman’s “What does it mean to be a congregation?” was originally published in Congregation Beth Shalom’s newsletter, but truly, it speaks to everyone anywhere, not just our synagogue. He cites his colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein who explains how today’s America differs from past eras. In our consumer and hotel-guest culture, there are congregants who treat religious institutions as vendors, supplying needed services, while not recognizing that without setting down roots and investing one’s self, these very same members miss the larger sense of community that they really need. I agree, 100%, and see this applicable to society at large.
And in his in-depth article in the Atlanta Jewish Times, “Israelis Divided from the Rest of Jewish Atlanta,” writer Dave Schechter points out that despite the large number of Israelis in metro Atlanta, the connections they nurture tend to be more with other Israelis than with the rest of the Jewish community. This disconnect goes both ways. The active Jewish community frames itself in terms of synagogue-affiliation and -centered life – and not cultural identity – and so might not be as accessible to Israelis either. The article mentions a few ways that bridges are beginning to be built, with shlichim and Israel visits.
As I commented on the column itself, I actually think better use could be made of those of us who’ve lived in both worlds. I am an American Jew, fluent in Hebrew, who not only lived and worked in Jerusalem for over a decade, but was married to a mizrahi Israeli and saw American life from his perspective when we both lived in the U.S. for over a year and a half as well. So yes, while I schooled my children in mamlachti-dati (religious public) schools and experienced the way the Jewish calendar comes to life in Israel regardless of personal level of observance, I also saw how my ex-husband felt the need to incorporate more Jewishness into life in America to make up for its absence in the public sphere.
To better create that sense of community here in Atlanta, to draw the two halves together, I suggested utilizing those who understand both worlds and from both perspectives.
But regardless of how you connect groups to build a bigger sense of community, what’s important (and what stands out in “We’re all in this together” is that when you have the sense of being responsible for each other’s well-being, you create the bonds of communities that ultimately support you as well.
But what happens in its absence?
Back when civics was taught in school, we had a president whose very inaugural speech reinforced the idea of service. John F. Kennedy’s, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was meant to inspire Americans “to see the importance of civic action and public service [and] challenged every American to contribute in some way to the public good.” Unfortunately, what we’re seeing in America these days – and certainly not only in Atlanta or only in the Jewish community, but everywhere – is far from that.
I think it gets worse. When you take the capitalistic idea of individual opportunity too far and marry it with a lack of sense of civic duty (and the absence of empathy, critical thinking and knowledge of history), you dance precariously closely to not caring about anyone other than yourselves, as I pointed out a few weeks ago. That is not community; it is its antithesis.
One site I found which discusses the philosophical underpinnings of civic education makes a valid point: “…civic education in a democracy must prepare citizens to participate in and thereby perpetuate the system; at the same time, it must prepare them to challenge what they see as inequities and injustices within that system. Yet a civic education that encourages students to challenge the nature and scope of our democracies runs the risk of turning off our students and turning them away from participation. But if that civic education has offered more than simply critique, if its basis is critical thinking, which involves developing a tolerance of, if not an appreciation for, difference and divergence, as well as a willingness and even eagerness for political action, then galvanized citizens can make our systems more robust.”
This means it is not enough to argue, but one must be able to think critically, in order to appreciate differences. I cannot say I am seeing too much evidence of either these days.
Tonight, I went to hear Dan Rather speak at the MJCCA’s 26th Jewish Book Festival. In addition to fielding AJC writer Greg Bluestein’s questions, the 86-year-old icon of American journalism also heard from the audience. One member asked, given today’s climate, what can we do?
Mr. Rather’s answer was direct. “Every morning when you wake up,” he said, “ask yourselves three questions. 1. What can I do for someone else today?” He gave bonus points if it was for someone from another race, religion or background. “2. Ask what you can do for your community.” Ummm…perhaps serve as a bridge when you have a foot planted in two worlds? “3. Ask what you can do for your country.” Just like JFK.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about getting rid of the “then vs us” walls that separate us and instead meeting the individuals in other communities. Last week, when I hosted a Jewish-Muslim potluck, I heard firsthand from women whose path to the United States and to Atlanta was not easy, but whose connection to its community was strong. Like Mr. Rather, despite it all, they shared a sense of optimism.
We can do this. We can create the kind of community our country sorely needs.
And yes, Rabbi Zimmerman, Dave Schechter and Dan Rather’s messages are connected. If America (or Atlanta’s divided Jewish population or any individual congregation) is to take its place as the anchor of a community which embraces and nurtures its members, we need to stop being takers and begin pitching in. Now.
Today, ask yourself what you can do for another. And then go do it.