Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Issue of Community

This post originally published here on PunkTorah.org - thanks to PunkTorah for enabling me to share my thoughts!

My memories of Camp Ramah are vivid but fleeting: smiling children dove and swam all the way across the screen as the projector rolled in my after-school Hebrew School in suburban Connecticut.

I never did persuade my parents to send me to Camp Ramah. But it certainly was not for lack of trying. Throughout my childhood years working my way through public school, I craved what those smiling children represented to me: a sense of community, built off the commonality of a shared Jewish identity; a place with people like me.

I first found this Jewish community for myself in perhaps the most unlikely of places – Princeton University, to be exact. I found religion too, and my husband. But when anyone would ask on a deeper, more psychological level why I choose to be religious, or start a family, I would come back to this core, human concept of the search for community (or my equally innate and possibly related desire to cook and feed people – but that’s a story for another time).

Post-college until the present, my husband and I have found ourselves in non-transient, suburban Modern Orthodox communities as young married adults with less-than-school-age children. We’ve discovered that, for better or for worse, the world is not a college campus. The casual observer of Modern Orthodox life might ask: really? Communal meals, organized programming, living walking distance from one’s closest friends – surely this all exists for both populations.

The truth is that my demographic is a hard sell, in Modern Orthodox circles and beyond. It’s not that the communities we’ve lived in haven’t given us a warm welcome, because they have. And it’s definitely not my lack of a desire to participate in local, community-building activities.

The usual excuses for my demographic holding back include our preoccupations with our budding careers and attention-demanding babies. While this may have been true historically and may even still be true currently, I believe the root of the issue comes to the complexity of the concept of community in today’s world. Who is your community? Your 1,067 “friends” on Facebook? Your family and friends developed over your 20-something years including, yes, former college roommates, who, probability has it, are now spread around the country, if not the world? The people in your inbox, Google hangout, or Twitter stream, who you may or may not have met in person? These avenues and more all lead to an inevitable feeling of hyper-global-connectivity, and the Modern Orthodox just as well as anyone else of this generation face multi-faceted decisions about where, how, and why to invest their community-building efforts, and with whom.

The issue of community has become so murky that there are those who declare it irrelevant and pass√© entirely. I beg to differ, and not only because of the weekly thud back into the territory of the local and non-virtual known as Shabbat. I differ because of this longing I have felt from such a young age to feel connected, supported, and identified with on a basic and intimate level. Technology’s increase of the number and variety of means to connect aids but does not necessarily abet such natural desires.

Given all of this, perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that personally, and rather unconsciously, I ended up professionally fixating on the issue of community and how to build it in a Jewish world, transdenominationally. I want to help people connect on personal, Jewish levels, to answer these needs for each other, and to create more ways to expand and spread this supportive community. I want people to see all the advantages of having opportunities to connect, locally as well as globally, personally as well as professionally – because the lines between these categories seem to be blurring all the time.

Through the process of doing this, I have even found ways to fulfill needs of community for myself. Yet while I have developed plenty of processes for community-building, I do not know of a singular answer to the questions around community – especially when it comes to the simplest ones, like what it is or where to find it. Rather, I believe engaging in the exploratory process is part of the point. I believe that community-building is a life-long journey, and however much effort you invest in it, relationship by relationship, you will see a corresponding reward. That’s the fabric of life, and one I want to teach my children to weave – whether or not I send them to Camp Ramah.

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