On Saturday night, I attended a 10-year reunion dinner for my college’s ballet club, Balance. Little did you know, I am actually an aspiring ballerina. Before I wanted to be a Navy SEAL, I wanted to dance like no one has danced before.
My girlfriend was a member of the group while we were in school and I just tagged along for the free food.
She joined Balance because it met a few of her needs. It was a way to continue dancing as a hobby, it provided an opportunity to meet new friends who had similar interests, it was a creative outlet, etc.
These are all good reasons to join.
The fact that a student organization survived 10 years is quite remarkable. I suspect most new student organizations fail within the first few years, similar to the way most new businesses fail, which, in the broadest term, is usually due to the inability of a business to consistently and sustainably deliver value to customers.
Clearly, Balance did something right.
Naturally, this led me to compare Balance with my religion of the month, Judaism.
Judaism has survived over thousands of years and in a wide variety of (often terrible) circumstances. Jews as a group have been persecuted, exiled, and killed multiple times throughout their history. And yet, they’re still here.
I would find it quite remarkable if Balance survived through similar circumstances. For example, if my alma mater’s administration unfairly blamed Balance for the school’s students’ high post college unemployment level and then decided to disband the group and expel its members, would the group still survive?
Probably not, and it would be a bit absurd to expect Balance to do so. Though I have to say it would make for a pretty good movie.
So why would Judaism survive and Balance wouldn’t? What makes Judaism so robust in the face of oppression?
I have a few theories.
Judaism, seems to have rules for every situation. It gives you guidelines for when and how to pray. It tells you how to rest on the Sabbath. It even tells you how to decorate your doorway.
I’ve been attending Minyan service every morning and a Minyan requires 10 Jews for it to work. Getting 10 people to attend a 7:30 prayer service every morning may seem unrealistic, but the requirement has encouraged people to show up as often as possible. If you know a group is relying on you to do something, wouldn’t you feel more obligated to come?
This past week I noticed it’s generally the same people that attend every day. We didn’t always get 10, but we were never less than 8.
Balance certainly had rituals, but they weren’t sacred.
Meeting human needs
After Shabbat services on Saturday, a woman named Gail introduced herself to me and my girlfriend. I asked her how long she has been a member of the Synagogue and she told us she joined over 20 years ago.
At the time, her father was dying and she was going through a divorce. She was in dire need of emotional support, and was looking for a synagogue to provide this emotional support. She eventually found the Agudas Achim synagogue who helped her get through that difficult period of her life. She also met her second husband at this synagogue.
While Balance certainly filled some human needs of its members (friendship, creative outlet, etc.), its mission was limited. The group doesn’t aspire to care for the souls of its members; it simply provides a way for students to participate in ballet at school.
Judaism strives to meet all human needs. It gives guidelines on how to make meaningful contributions to the world, how to support others (and be supported), how to enrich your spiritual life, how to find work-life balance, and even how to eat.
For many, Judaism is not the whole package. It can’t offer them everything. But the point is not that it doesn’t always do so for everyone, but that it can and tries to.
Membership is forever
Balance is a student group. As a result, when you are no longer a student, you are no longer a (active) member of the group. When the students become graduates, they cease to participate in Balance activities.
Judaism, by contrast, offers life long opportunities to participate. At times, Jews may drift away from their faith. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to find self-declared Jewish atheists who still attend Yom Kippur services.
But there is always an opportunity to come back to it. Your association with Judaism doesn’t end simply because you move to a new city, or get a new job, or graduate college. There is always an opportunity to participate in Jewish life, to join and rejoin the community.
Any group that wants to survive a lifetime needs to offer lifelong membership.
There are certainly other factors I’m ignoring that have contributed to Judaism’s survival over thousands of years, but I think the ones I mentioned provide a good start to understanding what helps communities survive.