Jonathan Muskat

Staying together, even as the community grows

One of the challenges of a growing community is the challenge of cliques.  When a community is smaller, everyone is invited to every social event and the bonds between all members of the community are tight.  Once a community gets larger, then social groups form, which is natural.  But how can social groups form without creating social cliques?  Of course, we need to define terms.  What is the difference between social groups which seem to be acceptable, as opposed to social cliques which seem to be unacceptable?

Why, indeed, do people form social groups?  In 1979, Henri Tajfel, a British psychologist, developed a theory called the “Social Identity Theory,” which is based on the idea that people try to place themselves into groups as an important source of pride and self-esteem.  Social groups give us a sense of belonging in the social world.  At certain points in our life, finding these groups is necessary to help us deal with anxiety.  For example, high school is a time when students are anxious about finding meaningful relationships, so they respond to that anxiety by seeking out familiar peers who offer security, support and protection.

We should not assume that all groups of friends are cliques.  It’s normal for people to want to spend time with other people with whom they have things in common and it’s also natural that occasionally someone will be left out.  However, in a healthy social circle, this is never done intentionally.  In a healthy social circle, members of the group are supportive of another person’s differences and do not dictate that individuals conform to certain standards to be part of the group.

When does a social group become a social clique?  I think that the key to a clique is exclusivity and control.  A clique is a tightly controlled circle of friends that’s exclusive or wants others to believe that they are exclusive, and that intentionally excludes others.  Additionally, members of a clique control those who are part of their group by explicitly or implicitly insisting that they behave or not behave a certain way or associate not associate with certain people.  Members of a clique make those on the outside feel like they are less important than those inside the clique and they often bully those outside the clique.

The lines between social groups and cliques are often blurred.  Whether social groups are formed based on age, religious level or schools that their children attend, inevitably some people will feel excluded at times.   A growing community has at least two options.  First, the community can allow multiple cliques to form with minimal meaningful interaction between the different groups.  As an example, I’ve heard of a number of synagogue communities that have a main minyan and a young couples minyan with almost no interaction between the two different groups.  They daven under the same roof, but that is basically the extent of the interaction.  While those two groups may not bully or demean each other, the lack of any interaction between them gives them an air of exclusivity that “others” anyone who is not a part of each group.  Alternatively, the community can try to ensure that the social groups do not become social cliques.  How does a community go about trying to achieve this?

Daniel McFarland, a lead author on a paper on high school cliques, explained why social cliques form in some schools and not in other schools.   He explained that the natural instinct for teenagers to separate themselves into clusters and hierarchies is weakened when schools force kids to partner with peers they wouldn’t otherwise want to be around to see first-hand the benefits of unlikely friendships.  The way high schools are designed can either drive students to segregate based on things like household income and race, or force them to build relationships that are more about their high school life than their socioeconomic backgrounds.

The same is true for synagogue communities. It is natural for people to form friendships to separate themselves into clusters.  Synagogues must make a concerted effort to create minyanim, volunteer opportunities and activities, each of which cater to all segments of the community, and then successfully encourage all segments of the community to participate in these minyanim, opportunities and activities.  Obviously, certain programs like youth activities may not appeal to families without young children, but a community that is interested in creating social groups but not social cliques must make a concerted effort to maximize synagogue opportunities that attract a diverse array of participants, representing the broad range of community members.

Members of these communities also need to do their part.  First, they must do their part in action.  They must try to create these opportunities and participate in them, and not just say, “I’m not interested in this social event so I won’t go.”  Rather, someone who is interested in this value of inclusion will say, “Since I value being part of a community without social cliques then I will do my best to participate in events and committees specifically with people who are not from my social group.  I realize that it may be uncomfortable for me to do this, but I feel that the values of inclusion and unity are important to me.”  Additionally, these members will invite people from outside their social group to Shabbat meals and they certainly will make sure that on Shabbat they will extend Shabbat greetings to everyone that they meet.

Members of these communities must also do their part in attitude.  In Parshat Matot, the Torah states, “Ve’hiyitem nekiyim mai’Hashem u’mi’Yisrael,” that we should be clean before God and Israel.  We have a halachic responsibility to try as best as we can to be above reproach.  What that means is that sometimes we may not realize that we are acting in an exclusive manner when, in fact, we are.  As an example, by innocently saying, “Shabbat Shalom” to some people and not others who are standing nearby, we could create an impression that other people who are not in our social group simply don’t matter because they are older or younger or their kids don’t attend the same school as our kids.  It is natural to say “Shabbat Shalom” to our circle of friends, but not greeting others in the immediate vicinity could be viewed as exclusionary.

At the same time, we have a halachic responsibility to judge others favorably.   We should not judge every perceived act of exclusion as being intentional.  I think that often there is a natural tendency of people to feel victimized and join others and empathize with each other how they are being victimized by someone else or by another group.  I witnessed this a lot in many communities during the COVID pandemic.  I would talk to groups of people who perhaps were a little more lenient regarding the pandemic restrictions and they would gather with friends and talk about how they are being victimized by others who advocate for greater restrictions.  At the same time, other groups of people told me that they were feeling victimized because they were being judged for being overly strict in their response to the COVID pandemic.  Instead of being “dan l’kaf zechut” and judging others favorably and trying to understand that other people were simply scared or they needed to have some kind of outlet during COVID, both groups would gather together for “lashon hara” sessions asserting that there were “us” and “them” groups, claiming that the “us” group was being victimized by the “them” group.  Being open to giving others the benefit of the doubt for certain behaviors has the ability to create so much achdut and prevent needless lashon hara.

I have outlined above what I think needs to be done for a growing community to ensure that social groups do not turn into social cliques.  And here’s the key to success for everyone who has read to the end of this article.   You can read this article and say, “Yes, this is what he needs to do,” or “this is what she needs to do” or “this is what they need to do.”  If this is the response to the article, then nothing will be accomplished.  However, it is my hope that you read this article and say, “You know what.  Maybe I can be a little better and maybe I can do a little more.  Maybe I can create and participate in opportunities for achdut in my community.  Maybe I can be a little more sensitive to those who may feel excluded.  Maybe I can try much harder to judge others more favorably.”

I am proud of my own community for taking the issues of inclusion and unity seriously.  I am proud to be amongst community members who understand that while there is value in individual expression, there are also times to put “we” before “me.”  If each one of us who reads this article does so in a reflective manner, then together we can all shape our communities for the better.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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