This week we read the Parsha of Hakhel, which means “gather the people”: “Gather the people—men, women, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere God your God” (Deuteronomy 31:12). What is the power of community, and why do we need new ones as the 21st century unfolds?
A Hasidic tale tells of a Rebbe who used to dip in the river every morning. One day, the new local policeman saw him diving into the frozen river. He ran to the strange old man, shouting, “Who are you? Where do you come from? And where are you going to?” The old Rebbe smiled gently and asked the policeman: “How much do they pay you?” “Ten Kufeykas a day”, answered the baffled young man. “I’ll tell you what”, said the Rebbe, “I’ll pay you twenty if you come every morning and ask me who I am, where do I come from and where I am going to”.
Human beings are dynamic and ever-evolving creatures, and just like our muscle system becomes atrophied if it is not stimulated enough, so does our moral and intellectual systems. Hence, it is crucial we get asked those questions constantly. We could create a mobile app to do that, but I argue that communities are the optimal environment for challenging our character and preserving our identity, i.e. becoming the better version of ourselves.
This sentence may ring a bell as a common catch phrase among “Millennials”, meaning people born after 1982. Many see us as a challenge to be addressed, especially in the Jewish context which is worried of diminishing affiliation. It may even serve as an explanation: “See? All Millennials care about is themselves”.
As one of the oldest Millennials alive (born December 1982) I would like to offer a different approach. Millennials are no different. Human physiology and psyche do not change over a short period of time (eons). What does change is the environment. Like everybody who preceded us we have the need for food and shelter, and the Millennial challenge begins where this problem ends. Indeed, making a living can still be tough, but relatively Jewish Millennials are expected to possess more resources than previous generations.
After satisfying their basic needs, people are craving a sense of belonging, identity and meaning. The aspiration to become a better version of one’s self is rooted in this, and not in egocentrism. In fact, data shows that almost half of Millennials will move to less paying jobs if they offer a better sense of meaning and purpose.
However, the unprecedented economic-technological leapfrog has its side-effects. We all know of the environmental crisis, but there’s another one: loneliness. According to a 2018 Harvard study, loneliness is an epidemic, riskier to health than physical inactivity, and almost as risky as smoking. The UK government even established in 2018 a new Ministry to deal with loneliness. And no, social media doesn’t solve it. Research shows it increases it. Just like we still don’t have a better solution to hunger than food, we don’t have a better solution to loneliness than communities. What we do have is new technologies to produce those.
So, one would ask, why is Millennial affiliation with established Jewish communities on the decline? First, Millennials are looking for intimate and horizontal structures, rather than mega-communities. In addition, Jewish Millennials see themselves as privileged, hence responsible for everybody (how do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew?), and do not find themselves in communities designed originally to protect a weak minority. On top of all that, sociology plays a role. The Jewish ecosystem was geared to support Jewish identity until college, assuming the youngsters will get married soon after and circle back to the community, which is designed to accommodate young families. However, circumstances have changed: the gap between college and settling down is no longer 2-3 years, not even 10, sometimes not even 15.
One idea that has been tested successfully in Israel, and other countries, is Intentional Communities (Kehilot Mesimatiyot). An Intentional Community is a small and non-hierarchal group of people who have consciously decided to live together spatially and temporally around a shared purpose. In this sense, an intentional community can serve as a framework for both individual growth and moral behavior, as well as give people the opportunity to work collaboratively to make the world a better place.
However, one community is not enough, and one could justly argue that a group of 50-60 households cannot be considered the cure to contemporary Jewish peoplehood predicament. And he or she will be right. We need scale, but we also don’t want to give up the benefits of an intimate community. The solution would be a network of communities. Since 2013, an organization called Hakhel (a partnership between Hazon and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs), named after this week’s Parsha’s main theme, has been working on building such a global network, together with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs which joined in 2017. Today Hakhel reports that its network comprises over 130 communities in 30 different countries and all continents (well, except Antarctica).
These communities respond in a relevant way to Millennials’ need for a sense of belonging and meaning. If you want to attract Millennials you need to offer them – no, sorry – create with them the appropriate complex response. All of these communities all have different themes, but they share a common goal in that they are creating the Judaism of the future, the one where Millennials and their families become the better version of themselves.