How a Holy Community Connects Individuals and Institutions

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September 1, 2001
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Tsvi Blanchard

What can we say about working in the con-temporary Jewish community as either a professional or a volunteer? While we live in the interesting times of cultural and intergenerational change, we are today less trusting of institutions – governmental, educational, and religious – and prefer personal associations with family and friends. We want to “find meaning” that uniquely expresses ourselves. Our success, both educationally and financially, allows us many interesting alternatives to participation in Jewish community life.

Community life has come more and more to resemble a marketplace where customers buy “Jewish services.” Many dedicated rabbis, educators, and other Jewish professionals – our klei kodesh – admit that they often feel unsatisfied, unappreciated, and vulnerable. What can we do about this?

As a start, both volunteer and professional leadership must help our communities face the facts of contemporary cultural change. For many years, I have been helping Jewish communities and organizations respond effectively and Jewishly to the challenges they face. Sometimes, this means enhancing existing communal agencies; other times, it requires helping communities develop new institutions to productively manage the impact of the cultural, political, or demographic changes occurring around them. How are Jewish communities responding to cultural and intergenerational change?

In my experience, the unhelpful responses – blaming and denial – come first. I might hear from some of the community “insiders” that “people are so selfish now,” or that “the Jewish community does not recruit the best and the brightest.” Or, others will tell me with just a bit too much fervor, “If we could just explain it properly, people would come to see that our Jewish community life really is intensely satisfying.” In the end, we know that our communities are better off acknowledging the important cultural and generational changes and working with them.

Today, we want the same confluence of personal interest and social vision that my parents wanted. We simply need different institutions to make that confluence work. Our klei kodesh should take the lead in building those institutions. We all recognize that we cannot do without community institutions. We all know that the social solidarity and community spirit necessary for creating new kinds of institutions requires more than satisfying personal associations. A decentralized philanthropic world of friends and family still needs to find ways to participate in more “abstract” institutions that can get the big jobs done – making policy, providing social services, and educating community members. We must transcend the unhelpful dichotomy between “meaningful face-to-face personal Jewish life” and “institutional-organized Jewish life.”

Community leadership – the klei kodesh that are given voice in this issue of Sh’ma – can help us past this dichotomy. Their work takes them to and beyond the points of intersection between Jewish institutional life and the lives of Jewish families and friendship groups. Many klei kodesh share our most intimate moments – births, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, job loss, illness, death, and divorce. In these moments, when we instinctively reach out to others, our klei kodesh can help us feel concrete connections to an otherwise abstract community. By using personal relationships, community leaders – whether professional or the myriad volunteers that bless our communities – make the caring, supportive, and joyful community accessible to us.

How can community leadership ensure that someone is connected to a caring, supportive, and joyful community? In my experience, the single most effective way of initiating and sustaining meaningful community connections is open and mutually respectful community conversation. These conversations enhance communal life by reaching across the boundaries that separate us.

Community leaders can use their positions to convene this dialogue. They can organize well run, open, and respectful conversations across the boundaries that divide community members – including the boundary that separates leadership from other community members. We want to feel personally appreciated for who we are – not just for doing the things that leadership demands of us. Weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, or funerals, for example, mobilize the kind of personal passions that reach out beyond what benefits us individually. But, what happens when those personal passions are ignored or, worse, stifled by institutional regulations? To get what they need, people may grudgingly go along with institutional demands, but afterward, they walk.

At these moments, klei kodesh could move conversations past making non-negotiable institutional demands and blaming community members for being “uncommitted” to institutional standards. They could listen carefully, appreciate feelings that differ from their own, and serve as educational resources. I remember consulting to a “community visioning” conversation at which a geographical insider urged ignoring geographical outsiders because “if they really cared they wouldn’t live there.” “We care,” said one “outsider” with hurt feelings, “but that’s where the affordable housing is.” You can bet that I made sure that everyone heard the “insider’s” deeply moving apology. In a Jewish community, everybody counts. Some klei kodesh are worried that attending to individual viewpoints will lead to the breakdown of community cohesion. They believe that they should control their community. But that control is maintained only because Jews who do not want to be controlled exit the community. Most community members have animating life passions that are not fundamentally selfish or self-centered. In genuinely respectful dialogue, community-minded leadership can help others understand the need for the give-and-take that makes community work. Does it always work? Of course not. But a community leadership that convenes open, honest conversations is a community leadership that is working to bring the personal together with the communal.

As we struggle to develop the new institutional forms our community needs to successfully respond to cultural and intergenerational change, it can indeed feel like a tremendous challenge. But, once again, we are seeking new ways to live the brit, the covenant, of a kehilla kedosha, a “holy community.” For me, there is nothing more exciting and satisfying than the search for a holy community in which we cross the boundaries that separate us and encounter others as they really are – individual persons created in the image of God.

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Tsvi Blanchard is Director of Organizational Development at CLAL. He holds Ph.D. degrees in Philosophy and Psychology. He has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and as a regular guest on Fox TV's "Eye on Religion." His recent publications include How Stories Heal and Creating Jewish Learning Communities: A Note on Educating for Communal Responsibility.

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