Rebuilding Jewish Communities

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November 1, 2000
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Arnold Eisen

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was surely correct when he complained, some forty years ago, that Jewish leaders had focused their attention on “the problem of the Jewish people, the group, the community, its institutions,” at the expense of concern for the individual Jew and his or her “intimate problems… the search for meaning.” Organized American Jewry has learned this lesson at long last, thank goodness. The current devotion to Renaissance should help individual Jews bring Jewish history and traditions, ethics and culture, ritual and faith, to bear on the vital personal question: “What shall I do with my mind, my money, my resources?” We now perhaps face the opposite challenge to the one Heschel posed: getting Jewish individuals reattached to their tradition and reanchored in its rituals, to defy the strongly personalist direction of American culture and society at this moment and look outwards as well as within. Can we motivate larger numbers of Jews to attach themselves to Jewish communities – groups of Jews bound to one another by ties of tangible obligation and engaged in serious dialogue with Jewish history and traditions?

A wealth of data about contemporary America, gathered and analyzed brilliantly by political scientist Robert Putnam in his recent study Bowling Alone, gives cause for some concern. It demonstrates that Americans have substantially disengaged in recent decades from participation in a wide range of activities that bind individuals to their society and to one another. Voting and political participation have significantly decreased. Membership and attendance at churches, PTAs, and fraternal organizations are down. Socializing with friends, joining a bowling league, and giving to any charitable cause have all declined. Americans are far less civically engaged now than they were forty years ago, far more wrapped up in themselves and those closest to them at the moment. Mobility, sprawl, economic insecurity, and a host of other factors have taken their toll on “social capital.” Robert Bellah’s conclusion fifteen years ago in Habits of the Heart – that individualism is the language Americans spoke most often and most eloquently, community a distant second – is even more true today.

Recent research on American Jews tells a similar story. When Steven M. Cohen and I interviewed “moderately active Jews” around the country for our new study The Jew Within, most of them baby boomers, we were reminded constantly, even by the most Jewishly committed among our sample, that they reserved the right to end their participation at any time. They would decide what to do Jewishly and how to do it. If they could not create or discover personal meaning in a proposed Jewish activity or involvement, they simply would not engage in it. Our study finds encouraging evidence of interest in family rituals performed in the home, in quality adult education, and in synagogues that offer a sense of authentic tradition and warm fellowship. The sense of obligation to other Jews, however, whether locally, nationally or overseas, is not what it used to be. Those of us who believe that Jewish living “happens” largely in community rather than inside the self, that covenant calls Jews to labors that require community for their completion, that our tradition demands repair of the world that must begin in one’s immediate neighborhoods (literal and figurative, Jewish and non-Jewish), and that Judaism offers many satisfactions available only when tasted along with other Jews, clearly have work to do if this message is to get across and be acted upon. Many contemporary American Jews are obviously not convinced.

The good news is that studies such as these also tell us where the work of rebuilding Jewish community needs to begin: namely, at ground level, in face-to-face communities where connection is palpable, belonging pays direct rewards, and obligation to others is homegrown. The sense of collective obligation is alive among many American Jews, research has found, its source neither Sinai nor the weight of inheritance but rather bonds formed with people one gets to know week by week, the individuals whom one can count on to help out in times of trouble and whose faces one wants to see sharing moments of rejoicing. When such communities are vibrant, their members are led to exchange a measure of autonomy for the satisfactions of belonging, to invest the resources of time, money, and self that are needed, and even to decline job offers elsewhere so as to remain in a group that is precious. One need not overly idealize community to describe its value to harried selves. It can of course be stifling and small-minded. But it can also purvey the mysterious Jewish sense of connection and obligation to people one has never met, to generations past and future, a sense that wells up from feelings of gratitude and obligation to those close at hand.

I don’t see how attempts at Renaissance can succeed outside the framework of such communities – or, frankly, why they should. We are here as Jews to build what Barry Shrage calls communities of caring, justice, and learning – in my terms, communities of Torah. How can we build and sustain such communites in a situation of utter voluntarism, a culture in which Jewish individuals will thankfully not identify themselves as Jews only or only as one sort of Jew, a society in which the forces making for “bowling alone” are powerful and the very notion of community is too often reduced to a sentimental anachronism? There seems no other way to elicit commitment to strong Jewish communities – nor, I believe, to the agenda of Jewish Renaissance as a whole – than by making available a variety of settings in which individual Jews are palpably connected to other Jews at the same time as they are engaged in the practices of caring, justice, and Jewish learning. The Jews thus bound to one another will become part of a larger Jewish community engaged in work to which they too feel called and of which they can be proud.

We know that we can build strong Jewish communities of this sort on the local level, because we already are doing so with much success in dozens of synagogues, schools, camps, JCCs, and organizations around the country. The dozens could be hundreds; the tools and know-how are there. So too, in many cases, are the resources. The case for that community remains compelling, in my view, strengthened anew by each personal experience of its power. Renaissance efforts, I trust, will point a conduit of that power to many who have not heretofore experienced it, enlisting them in collective efforts which are not only commanded but immensely satisfying.

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Arnold Eisen is Daniel E. Koshland Professor of Jewish Religion and Culture at Stanford University. His most recent book, co-authored with Steven M. Cohen, is The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America.

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