Communities can come from anywhere people have close contact and an opportunity to get to know — and care — about each other on a regular basis. School, work, neighborhoods, houses of worship, sports leagues, youth groups, volunteer organizations, even Facebook groups. When you have a sense of community, you look out for one another, you are concerned with each other’s well-being. And when you have that sense of belonging to something bigger than any single one of us, you don’t, for instance, look to get out of paying for schools via property taxes or begrudge others affordable healthcare options. Because you know you are all in the same boat and what raises up one raises up all.
My theory is that the absence of that sense of community is hurting America. The country is just too damned big. Too many people live solo lives, are disconnected, move far from family, lack social grounding. To have a group you care about beyond a small circle of friends or your immediate family isn’t as common as it once was. And if people haven’t cultivated that sense of connection to those on their street or in their neighborhood or school district, how can they ever do it at a county, state or national level?
In Judaism, we are taught “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” (“All of Israel, i.e., Jews, are responsible for one another”). It’s a different way of thinking, and one worth exploring…and embracing. But even Israelis struggle with it. Yes, people come together in times of war, Israeli mothers do not hesitate to give unsolicited parenting advice on the playground, and the pain of loss for the families of victims of terror is communal. These are but a few ways that the entire country is bound together as one community. At the same time, we know there are divides – Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, for instance, or secular, religious and haredi, and of course, Jewish and Palestinian (this last one made worse for several reasons which we can explore another time). Israelis are subject to the same human tendency as the rest of us – to label others as different and write them off.
And still, at the end of the day, they know they only have each other. Israel can only depend on Israel. The feeling of connection is strong. Even when Israelis move away, they find each other and find their connection to home. For instance, for three hours every Sunday night, since 1999, Elihu Ben-Onn has hosted a radio show, international in scope. The Israeli Connection (Kesher Yisraeli) is broadcast on radio (Kan Bet) and online, from midnight in Israel and 5pm Eastern. This virtual ingathering of yordim (those who moved away) and the topics they highlight, to me, strengthen the ties of its dispersed community.
Back in the late 1980s, I worked on two different kibbutzim. HaMa’apil was small, and Ramat Yohanan, a bit larger. At Ramat Yohanan, I also studied Hebrew in an Ulpan for a number of months, as the first part of a yearlong volunteer program, Sherut La’Am, during which I taught English to injured soldiers and to remedial elementary students. Both the collective settlements and the establishment of a variety of volunteer program, as well as Sherut Leumi, a two year program that Israeli religious girls volunteer for in lieu of serving in the army, all feed a larger concept of helping others. Not because of any concept of charity. But because of the idea that the sum of the whole – the community – is greater than any of its parts. Truly, on a larger scale, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.”
Here in America, it’s always been taken for granted that those who work hard and strive towards their goal can make it. But when you embrace capitalism without saving room for community, you get an “each man for himself” atmosphere, a belief that worrying about your own is all that matters. And from there, it is a hop, skip and a jump to simply not giving a damn about anyone else…
Even in the “goldineh medinah,” communities can be built. And should be. No man is an island nor ought to be. Instead of watching the craziness of this world, as I wrote last week, reach out. Do something…and then take the next step.
Beyond just building out our social circles, and consciously diversifying them, we need to internalize that the world is a better place when all have the same opportunities. Please, let’s not sit on the sidelines and deny ourselves the sense of satisfaction and completeness that comes from connecting with others and feeling responsible for their wellbeing. Let’s turn our audience (kahal) into a community (kehillah).