Though seemingly so basic, a recent epiphany crystalized the significance of an ageless phenomenon, and suggested that it may very well provide a much needed response to the multi-faceted challenges facing individuals world over, in a global, fast paced reality. Its’ relevance has the potential to transcend any perceived or real differences and apply to all those seeking an ameliorated existence and future. With its’ digestion, came the understanding that this phenomenon too, requires urgent definition and clarification, lest it be hijacked and abused in manipulative ways that threaten our very humanity.
For centuries, whether by choice or force, the individual member of society was expected to cast aside personal interests, aspirations and goals for the sake of the public good. That public good was traditionally represented by the State which expected the individual to accept and serve. The ‘piece’ that offered comfort, assistance and support to the individual over time was often loosely organized community that gathered around a shared place, sentiment, idea, aspiration or value.
Because for centuries Jews did not and could not have a physical place greater than the individual to consider their shared ‘public space’, they resorted to creating that loosely organized community in a more structured way. They created an infrastructure to care for the elderly, the sick, the young; in providing healthcare, education and support. The disadvantage of not having a physical or concrete entity became an advantage of this alternate system in the historical reality that forced Jews to flee their physical spaces. They were able to transport themselves as communities at times, or at the very least had the tools to rebuild the infrastructure. Their tools and knowledge were malleable and transportable and they knew that they could depend on this one institution – community – to be there in times of need.
Fast forward 2,000 years. We are living at a time where the individual in democratic and free societies has endless possibilities and protected rights to create, express, advance and achieve personal goals. We raise our children to dream big and celebrate individuals who realize their aspirations. We model these behaviors by pursuing successful careers around the clock, available at all hours of the day and night in pursuit of fulfilling our professional potential. Presumably we are living at the ‘best of times’, where individual fulfillment is legitimate, indeed expected, at nearly any and all cost.
Innately possessing the skills to create communities, apart from those who espouse community as a value, we elect to do so only in times of need. If we are alone in a country and do not have a proper support infrastructure – we find a community of individuals in the same ‘pinch’. If we have a vision or goal that we hope to advance, we make an effort to identify likeminded individuals in order to further our efforts together. Essentially, we espouse community as a means, rather than an end. In Israel, among others, that idea can take the form of Kibbutzim; neighborhoods (Haredi, North American, French, Israeli, Ethiopian); synagogue communities, small villages that gather around a common vision; schools that espouse to certain values. All of these constitute valiant efforts to act on a natural instinct we seem to have inherited from a long history of organized community and the reality that required it prior to the return to Zion. In the Diaspora, among others, that idea can take the form of federations, community centers, schools, neighborhoods, synagogues or learning communities that were created by first and second generation immigrants in response to a real need to care for fellow members of the community.
The challenge for many of those structures is to create and expand membership and a genuine sense of belonging amongst the third and fourth generation, many of whom do not necessarily value the notion of community in and of itself. The challenge is to engage those who may not sense an urgency or need and somehow share an age old understanding of the significance of community nonetheless. The challenge is to translate the deep appreciation for the framework provided by community to a relevant point of reference that will persuade younger generations to opt in and take ownership of. The challenge is to present it in a language, form and system that are relevant and attractive. The challenge is to create an understanding that despite changed times, or because of them, community is in fact the missing piece that can improve and enhance the lives of individuals.
Herein lays the opportunity. In a world of growing understanding of the loneliness of the individual that comes with social media, where friendship no longer necessarily reflects any genuine depth; in a world of crumbling nation states in which leaders turn on their own civilians, killing them and destroying entire cities; in a world where individual success comes at a cost of a generation of children that is being raised by secondary caregivers at best; in a world in which the best and brightest kids are driven by excellence rendering them anxious and stressed by 8th grade; in a global reality in which relocation of families for the pursuit of education or career is a daily occurrence; in a world where the elderly are being cared for by secondary caregivers at best; in that world it seems – community, the greatest shrinking phenomenon, could very well be the response.
If that is the case, if community is all the rage, if belonging to community empowers the individual and provides the support and sense of belonging that propels the individual to greater heights, young women and men of every color, race and religion will choose to enter and belong to a community.
The challenge then becomes to create a sense of community without discounting those who do not belong or cultivating hatred for those that belong to other such hubs of collective. The worst forms of organized communities are abusing this understanding and manipulatively exploiting the very social media that isolates the individual in the first place to enlist members to their communities. ISIS is recruiting young European and North Americans, preying on them by identifying their need to belong to something greater than themselves. The BDS movement is a community created to advance the de-legitimization of the State of Israel, having identified the very same potential in creating a community around a common idea. Facebook groups form daily in order to belittle or defame an individual, group or country different than themselves.
Centuries of experience dedicated to profound community building that aimed to advance the general well-being of its’ members, with the ultimate goal of advancing humankind in its entirety (the true meaning of Tikkun Olam) is perhaps the most significant differentiator. We must instill and impart tools for assessing the ‘community’ to which the individual is being offered membership. Roughly stated, if it is based on the definition of self through the negation of the other; on the dissemination of hate; on the brainwashing of children too young to have formed opinions to advance ‘communal’ goals; on the ultimate destruction of another person, community, country or region; you can be sure that it is not in fact ‘the missing piece’. There are simple and clear evaluative tools that can be utilized for this assessment, and they need to be imparted to larger audiences at much younger ages.
Once again, there is no place for moral ambiguity. Community is very possibly the missing piece that can address many of the challenges that ail our fragile world. However, not just any community will do. To fulfill its’ potential, this missing piece must be clearly defined and outlined, its boundaries and limitations demarcated and upheld.
On a personal note, I am grateful to the many communities to which I have belonged for providing a sense of comfort, allowing for the exploration of shared and differing values and creating a sense of identity. Whether as a child or an adult, in school, town, the military, work or synagogue, each of those communities have shaped and affected me on multiple levels. Though they have varied so significantly from one another, it turns out that they all share the most essential raison d’etre and objective of community, namely to ultimately make the world a better place for ALL.