Finding Your Community

Earlier this year, I had the honor of giving the commencement address at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, CA. My theme for my speech was “Find Your Community.” A number of people have asked that I share my speech so I’ve edited it and am publishing it here for them, and for you. If you’d prefer to watch it, you can follow this link. Enjoy.

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Good morning. Before I begin, I want to confess something to you: I have harbored a secret wish to give a commencement address for many years. In fact, I’ve been practicing for the past four years by giving the speech for the graduating preschoolers at the Leslie Family Preschool of the Oshman Family JCC, where I am the CEO.

Over the years, I learned that they didn’t quite get it when I referred to Winston Churchill or David Ben Gurion. However, I did much better when I began quoting Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Dora the Explorer. So today I am thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to a group that will get my more sophisticated references.

Speaking of which, I know you’re all familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s description of government as: “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Well, now I’d like to introduce a new formulation, which is: FIND the people. More specifically, Find YOUR people.

That’s what I would like to speak to you about today: Finding your people, your community.

Everyone is hard-wired to seek two things in life: meaning and belonging. We all need a purpose in life and we all want a connection to something bigger than ourselves. And these priorities are linked, so finding your community can actually give your life meaning.

This is one of your most important life tasks. Finding your community can have life-changing implications. It can influence your physical health – think about a cycling group, hiking club or sports team. It can impact your mental health – when you are depressed, suffering a loss, or dealing with loneliness, your community can pull you up from the depths. It can even raise up your spiritual well-being by adding deep connectedness in your life. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “Community is the human expression of Divine love.”

I’ve spent over 20 years as a community organizer, and I’ve learned quite a bit about building community. So, I’d like to share three specific lessons that come from three personal stories about finding community.

I.

I was raised in the suburbs of LA, in a little town called Claremont. I think I was one of maybe five Jews in my whole graduating class. And there was no synagogue in Claremont, so I had to schlep to the neighboring town to go to Hebrew school. And I have to tell you: Hebrew school and I didn’t really click. I was always getting into trouble and being sent to the principal’s office.

Finally, after four long years, I had my bar mitzvah, and then I had to choose between confirmation class or soccer. And of course, I chose soccer. Soccer defined my identity. And my soccer buddies were my people, my tribe … my community.

Charles Vogl, the author of The Art of Community, defines a community as “a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.”

On my soccer team, we had mutual concern for each other. I was the goalie, so don’t you think that if I was absent, they weren’t concerned? My soccer community helped define me and my purpose. I wore a little gold soccer ball on a necklace. I wore soccer clothes all the time. I even had my hair styled in the soccer haircut of the day: a mullet.

I was part of the community for my soccer teammates, as opposed to my Hebrew teachers who, if I was absent – even if I was only right down the hall in the principal’s office – it was probably a relief for them!

Then the summer before my senior year in high school I went to Israel for the first time. And wow! My mind was blown. I saw kids only a year older than I was, going into the army and I realized that, but for a twist of fate as to where my great-grandparents sought refuge, that would have been me. I realized those were my brothers and sisters, my people, standing up for something bigger than themselves, putting their lives on the line to defend something that mattered. And that was something I wanted to be a part of. That too was my tribe.

So I bought another necklace in Israel: a giant Jewish star. I mean Flavor Flave big. And I wore both of them. My soccer ball and my Jewish star. Yeah, I know … two necklaces, along with a mullet … but hey, it was the 80s, after all.

I came back from Israel and suddenly I had two communities. I saw my soccer pals all the time and we played together, competed together, won and lost together. I only saw the kids I went to Israel with every 6-8 weeks, but when we did see each other, we’d go deep because of the life-changing experience we’d shared.

So which one was my community? Each one gave me meaning and fulfillment. Each one had mutual concern for me. Each one helped define who I was. But which was my real community?

It turns out that BOTH were. And that’s when I learned my first lesson about community: you can be a part of multiple tribes. Embracing one doesn’t mean you are unfaithful to the other.

You’ve probably already figured this out. For instance, you can have your drama club buddies and your student council buddies. You can have your summer camp friends and your school friends. You can have your Women’s March friends and your pro-Israel activist friends.

What took me a little longer to discover is that when you are trying to accomplish something big, if you allow your different communities to cross-pollinate, you will be much more likely to be successful.

So number one is: IT’S GOOD TO BE A PART OF MULTIPLE COMMUNITIES.

II.

I took this lesson with me when I went off to college. I was on the soccer team, in a fraternity, and my closest friends lived in the same dorm with me. I had multiple tribes and found fulfillment in each one. There were friends I could have deep conversations with and friends I could party with. There were the buddies I went to football games with and friends I studied with. I loved my various communities.

Then my junior year, I went to Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study abroad. I lived in a basement apartment with five other guys, and we became friends with the six women who lived upstairs. We did everything together over those six months, and we became super close. In fact, one of those friends is now my wife and we have three kids together.

But, when I left Israel and came back for my senior year, my regular college friendships suddenly felt more shallow. We didn’t hug. We didn’t travel to Egypt, Greece and Turkey together. We didn’t experience 2,000 years of history together. I really missed my Hebrew U crew.

My college buddies didn’t understand the changes I’d gone through, and resented those changes and my new friends. I struggled, and felt terribly guilty. But eventually, I learned that it’s good to evolve, and your communities can evolve too. Who your people are can change over time, and your tribe today may not always be your tribe. It took me a long time to make peace with this realization.

So you may come home from college or your gap year next summer, and when you see your old Kehillah friends you may realize you’ve both changed. It may suddenly hit you that what you have in common are great memories from the past, but now your new friends are your new tribe.

So lesson number two is: YOU WILL EVOLVE, SO EVOLVE YOUR COMMUNITY TOO.

III.

Many years later, after I was married with two kids living in San Francisco, my wife and I knew we’d want a third kid and we realized we needed more space. So we decided to move down to Los Altos.

We thought the house we were renovating here would be done in time for the start of the new school year, so we enrolled our two kids in school near the new house. But when it was clear we were not going to be done with the house in time for school, we decided to stay in San Francisco, and schlep the kids back and forth every day.

For those of you who don’t know how to drive because of Uber and Lyft and self-driving cars are making that life-skill irrelevant, let me tell you: driving two small children an hour to school at seven in the morning every single weekday, only to then have to drive them home during rush hour, is really, really hard.

So, we had zero bandwidth to invest time in making new friends or building new community down here, and our community in San Francisco was fraying because we were no longer in the schools there, and we were doing everything we could just to stay above water. It was that year when we really could have most benefited from having a strong community. But we didn’t engage. We didn’t reach out. We didn’t make an effort. And everything seemed harder because of that.

Which leads me to my third insight: you must invest in your community. Communities are like relationships. They take effort. They take nurturing. They take time. Unless you return your friend’s calls and texts, and unless you actually initiate the contact from time to time, that relationship may not last. Communities are the same. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to come to you.

Next year, many of you will go to college, and some of you will join singing groups, and some will join sports teams, and some will join other affinity clubs on campus. Those of you not going to college will join other communities – on a gap year or while traveling or working. And all of you will have to make some effort to be a part of your communities. You need to initiate the night-out sometimes; or volunteer to plan the Shabbat dinner; or drag yourself to the late-night party, even though you could really use an extra hour to sleep or study.

There will be times when you are just trying to keep your head above water with schoolwork, family obligations, and job commitments, but it will all be much harder if you do it alone. In the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “You will get satisfaction out of doing something to give back to the community that you never get in any other way.”

So number three is INVEST IN YOUR COMMUNITY.

Friends, those are your three lessons for today:
1. Find your communities. And remember, it’s good to be part of more than one.
2. You will evolve, so evolve your communities too, and don’t feel guilty about it.
3. Invest in your community. When you do, that’s when it becomes most rewarding for you.

Actually, I want to add one more final lesson: LEAD YOUR COMMUNITY.

Sometimes you need take ownership, take responsibility for your people. Every once in a while, you need to step up and take the reins.

I want to bring us back full circle, to someone even the preschoolers will know. In the words of Olaf, from Frozen: “Some people are worth melting for.” You will know you’ve found your community when you realize you love them so much – and they love you so much – that they’re even worth sacrificing for.

I’d like to end with a little Torah. Our tradition recognizes that community is key to living a purposeful life. G-d says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The traditional Jewish way of learning is in a hevruta, a partnership with at least one other person. And to recite certain prayers, we need a community of at least 10 – a minyan – to bring forth the Divine Presence, to make the act holy.

There is so much wisdom in this idea that the founders of your school embraced this notion and named your school KEHILLAH, which means “community” in Hebrew.

So to you, the Kehillah class of 2019, go out from this place of rich community to a new place, where you will make a new community, where you will continue to build a life of meaning and belonging. I wish you a hearty mazel tov and good luck!

About the Author
Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, CA. Prior to joining the JCC, Zack served as the Pacific Northwest Director of AIPAC (based in San Francisco) for 14 years. He lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and three kids.
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