I chose to practice Judaism because I wanted to find out how the religion has managed to foster such a strong sense of identity and community.
I wanted to find out what they were doing right, because I get the sense that modern life values the ability to be transient. If there is a great job in another city, your ability to uproot your life and move is an asset. If you decide you want to travel the world for a year, we applaud that decision. It’s adventurous.
I’ve done both of those things. I picked up a teaching job in Egypt and moved there without a second thought. When I got tired of living with my parents at home I bought a ticket to DC, lived in a hostel for a summer, and eventually found my current job.
These big life changes are exciting, but they come at the expense of stable relationships and the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from a community. How can you be a member of a community if you’re always moving or think you will be moving?
I believed Judaism had the answer as Jews have been forced to move from their home many times for thousands of years and yet, there is still a strong Jewish identity and strong Jewish communities in all parts of the world.
I only spent thirty days practicing Judaism, but here is what I learned from Judaism about community.
The Importance of Powerful Ideas
The religion of Judaism contains hundreds if not thousands of powerful ideas. There is the idea that there is a single God and he is fundamentally benevolent. There are the hundreds of rules and laws that explain how people should live and treat each other. There are stories that teach people how they should understand and deal with suffering.
Compare this, say, to my running club, whose “ideology” is limited to the ideas that running is fun and good for you, and that it is more fun to run with a group.
I like my running club, and I’ve made some friends by participating in the club, but it’s hardly a group I can explore powerful ideas with.
These powerful ideas may foster disagreement within the community. There is debate about whether Jews should be allowed to marry non-Jews. Many Jews don’t keep kosher and believe that ancient dietary rules don’t make sense in the modern world.
However, these disagreements signal that the rules and ideas they are discussing are important and significant ones. It’s actually a symptom of a successful community. If a community were in agreement and/or apathetic about its core ideology, I’d suspect the community was superficial or a cult.
Judaism values the disagreement and debate so much that they have enshrined their debates in the Talmud, which is a collection of commentary by Rabbis on the oral Torah.
Strong communities have ideas worth debating.
The Importance of Rituals
By participating in the Minyan prayer service most mornings, I was able to develop friendships with others in the group and learn more about their experiences with their religion.
With Shabbat, I developed an appreciation for the importance and difficulty of taking time to truly relax and pay attention to the people closet to you. It takes effort to get all your friends over to your place for dinner. It takes willpower to turn your phone and laptop off for a whole day. Resting is, paradoxically, difficult.
Participating in Passover was an exercise in remembering an important part of Jewish history: the liberation of the Jews from the Egyptian Pharaohs. Though it’s likely that many parts of the story are myths, it is a powerful allegory for what it means to be Jewish and to be free.
These rituals are ways of translating the “powerful ideas” into concrete actions. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that it may be good to pray, it’s another to show up to a MInyan service every morning at 7:30. Everyone is on board with work-life balance, but very people follow a defined set of rules to achieve it. Most people know that we live in a time of unprecedented liberty and prosperity, but it’s rare to find people who will actually create or participate in a 4+ hour dinner to commemorate that fact.
Rituals are often strange and unattractive to rational minds, but they make more sense if you do them, rather than think about them. In addition, they are crucial to ensuring members of a community have shared experiences.
The Importance of Showing Up
Many people believe that spirituality is something you have or you don’t have; that it’s something that should just happen to you. This is wrong. Over the past few months, I learned that spirituality is like a muscle; you have to work to attain it.
In the same way, you can only achieve the benefits of a community if you take the time to participate in it.
For example, I live in Arlington, VA and I don’t really get the sense that there is an “Arlington community.” It’s not a small town and most people are probably from somewhere else. It would be easy for me to blame Arlington for its lack of community for various reasons (most people move around after a few years, it doesn’t do enough to engage youth, etc.).
However, I haven’t done anything to be a part of the Arlington community! I just live here. I haven’t volunteered to help support Arlington events or get involved with local government. I didn’t vote in any of the various Arlington elections. Basically, I haven’t done anything to contribute to the Arlington community.
So of course it makes sense that I don’t feel like a part of the community.
The same thing applies to the Jewish community. Why should I expect to feel like “part of the community” if I never do anything to participate in the community? If I never go to Minyan, should I expect to receive the benefits of friendship and camaraderie that arrive as a result of attending Minyan? If I never make the effort to invite people over to Shabbat dinner, how can I expect to develop meaningful relationships?
While the Jewish community certainly does what it can to “recruit” people, people who desire the benefits of being in a community need to show up, and show up consistently.
If you want the benefits, you can’t just wait until you “feel” like the community is ready for you to join, you just need to join and earn the benefits.
What this means for you
If you are seeking the benefits of a community, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to attend a synagogue like I did (unless you’re Jewish).
I don’t have much to say about selecting a community to join. I wrote that powerful communities have powerful and meaningful ideas, but that will be largely subjective. You can use this as a criteria to choose between groups. For example, a volunteer group dedicated to ending poverty or conserving the environment seems more “important” than a kickball league.
It’s probably best not to overthink this though. Just choose one that seems interesting or intriguing and try it out.
Finding a group with consistent rituals is more important. If the group you join is constantly inventing things to do on the fly, and doing so in an inconsistent manner, I think you will have a difficult time reaping the benefits of being a part of the group.
Let’s take a hypothetical charity group that meets one time in May, zero times time June, and then six times in July. Each event is different, and you have no idea when you’ll see the other members again.
I actually believe sports or exercise-oriented groups are superior in this respect. My running club for example uses a marathon-training schedule as the basis for its meetups, so we meet every Saturday for a long run. There is a pre-run stretching ritual, then we divide into pace groups and begin our run.
Other sports or exercise related groups will have a similar routine or schedule..
The most important thing you need to do if you want the benefits of a community is to consistently participate.
Once you select a group that is interesting and meets consistently, you need to do you part and show up.
This seems obvious, but it is critical. If you don’t show up, you can’t meet new people and develop meaningful relationships with them. You can’t perform the core work of the group. You won’t be able to take leadership positions.
It would be as if you didn’t attend at all.
The charity I’ve been volunteering with tries to weed people out who don’t show up consistently. First, they make everyone attend a mandatory orientation session at 7 AM during a weekday. This weeds out people who don’t think it’s important enough to wake up early to attend.
Then, at the first volunteer session, new volunteers aren’t allowed to work in the kitchen (the organization serves breakfast and meals). They have to work out front and help serve meals to the homeless. If they find volunteers are uncomfortable with the homeless, it’s a sign that the volunteer should find another organization to contribute to.
In addition, if anyone misses a session without notifying one of the staff members, he is banned from volunteering.
This all seems harsh, but it makes the organization more effective, and it increases the quality of the volunteer pool. This means that if you’re one of the people that show up consistently and on time, you can do meaningful work and meet other people who are as dedicated as you are. No flaky people to deal with.
Even if the group or community you join isn’t as stringent with their requirements, you should still show up consistently enough that people begin to recognize you.
I think you’ll find that the more you are involved with the group, the more you’ll begin to enjoy it.
I enjoyed my Judaism not because I’m particularly attracted to the religion of Judaism, but because I learned what a successful community looks like. It’s not perfect by any means, and Judaism is struggling to attract members, but they do a better job than most
I’ve never factored in “community” into any of the decisions I’ve made. I’ve inadvertently joined a few. NROTC and Navy was certainly a community with compelling ideas, rituals, and (mandatory) participation. My running club is not really a “community” but is a group with some of the same elements.
But I’m interested in learning if our lives would be richer if we made more of our decisions with “community” in mind. For example, if you have the desire to move to a new city, just for the sake of moving, would you be better off staying where you are and becoming more active in local affairs?
Or say you have made the decision to move; would your life be richer if you selected a place that had more opportunities to get involved in the community?
It’s not something modern American culture values, but perhaps it should. Perhaps we’d find that we can live richer lives if we make the effort to integrate ourselves into the places we live and form deeper relationships with the people around us. Instead of valuing freedom and independence from our surroundings, we should learn to value inter-dependence.
B’Shalom (With peace),