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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Community III

March 7, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

“One who gives to tzedakah less than his capability – the court may force him to give by means of lashes, or may attach his property…” [Rambam, Mishneh Torah , Gifts to the Poor 7:10]
“Participation in a funeral may be forced in the same way as tzedakah may be forced…” [ ibid ., Mourning 14:3]

Our regional community center has been running a series of workshops titled: “culture builds community.” The idea is to create a “culture network” among the thirty communities in the county, so that local leaders and planners can share ideas and resources, combine forces, publicize programs efficiently, and thus build a stronger sense of community among all the residents of the county. I have attended several of the sessions, and have gone through a series of reactions and realizations:

It seems like a lot of time is spent complaining to each other about our frustration that no matter how hard we work, no matter how intense the publicity, and no matter how much we spend to bring in “big name” lecturers, musicians, etc., as often as not attendance is disappointing – from the region and even from the sponsoring local community itself. Everyone has had the experience of hearing from a neighbor, after a disappointing turnout to an event in which we had invested heavily of ourselves, “why don’t you publicize these events?” or worse, “it’s a shame there’s no cultural life around here…” So I am led to wonder, will a joint internet site solve the problem? Indeed, just what is the problem?

Maybe the problem is our consumerist model of culture: we are defining culture as “events” and measuring their success by ticket sales. We are offering a product, marketing it, and selling it to individual consumers who drive in, enjoy their purchase, and drive home. This is a pretty narrow definition of culture and hardly seems a very effective way to build community.

One community that does not seem to experience the same frustration is the orthodox settlement in our county. There, there are several daily minyanim; since there are a lot of children, there are frequent life cycle celebrations; a number of different study groups operate regularly; and community-wide events like a Tu Beshvat seder draw large crowds. Interestingly, here on Shorashim, there is a high degree of overlap between the “regulars” of the synagogue crowd and the people who attend holiday parties, lectures, and other general events.

My conclusion, tentatively, is that a key element that makes a community a community is obligation. Indeed, perhaps a community is fundamentally a network of obligations. In other words, we tend to do what we feel we have to do, not what we feel like doing. In an orthodox community, and among the synagogue regulars in ours, weekly or daily attendance at a minyan is driven primarily, I think, not by the spiritual “lift” felt by the attendees, but by the belief and/or feeling that this is something we are obligated – even commanded – to do. That obligation can be sensed as a divine commandment – or as the feeling that the other members of the community are depending on us to be sure there are ten, or to share in the burden of setting up the chairs, learning the Torah reading, etc. We go even when we don’t happen to feel like it, because we feel like we have to.

Moreover, I would suggest that the force of interpersonal obligation in a community is influenced by the frequency and intensity of the contact among the members. If I see my neighbor at minyan every morning, I am less likely to skip the music evening he organizes than I would be if my only interaction with him is through the flyer publicizing the event. Similarly, when Shorashim was still a commune and most of us worked together every day, attendance at social and cultural events was extremely high.

Obligation builds community. The challenge – for rural communities in Israel as, I suspect, for Reform synagogues in North America – is how to preserve and generate obligation.


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