Joshua ben Perachya said: Provide yourself with a teacher, and get yourself a [study-] companion -Mishnah, Tractate Avot 1:6
I recently was privileged to make a quick trip to the US to teach at the annual URJ Adult Study Retreat a remarkable gathering of over 100 adults from all over North America, at a small New England college campus at which the participants devoted five days to intensive study and worship, living uncomplainingly (almost) in dorm rooms and eating cafeteria food and doing without free time and television. Some of them have been attending these programs annually for nearly two decades. The camaraderie and the intellectual curiosity were on a high level, and the campus echoed with Hebrew song.
There were two recurring themes in coffee break conversation:
a) what a wonderful experience this was for the participants, intellectually, spiritually, socially;
b) how frustrating it is that there are not 200 or 500 participants if it is so wonderful, how can it be that more people are not attracted to it? Is it a problem of substance? Marketing? Location? Cost? Competition from programs operated by other institutions and movements?
In his 2000 study Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam synthesized a massive amount of research data to demonstrate what seems intuitively obvious that community has been in decline in America for the past few decades. From bowling leagues to sisterhoods to political volunteerism people seem less willing to invest time and effort in group activities. The reasons are unclear mobility, media, and materialsm may all be factors, but there does not seem to be a simple explanatory theory. And without question, the same social fragmentation, the rise of materialism and individualism, the breakdown of social solidarity have been noted by many observers of Israeli society. The kibbutz, for example, was seen by many as the New Jewish Community for the 20th century, combining a national Jewish identity with pure democracy, a vision of an egalitarian society, and a strong sense of mutual support within the community. Indeed, apparently it was the community for the 20th century but not for the 21st : the kibbutz in the Israeli popular imagination has gone from inspiring vision to gasping dinosaur.
Are such trends inexorable? Are they reversible? Or do we just have to wait patiently for forces beyond our control to start the pendulum swinging back?
When we encounter enthusiastic participants in temporary communities and micro communities like the URJ Adult Study Retreat, and similar gatherings elsewhere in North America and Israel, it is tempting to conclude that the pendulum has begun to swing it seems that there are, all around us, people who are looking for community with content, who are seeking frameworks in which to fulfill their spiritual search, intellectual thirst, and need for community. Yet in fact, the statistics are not encouraging. Both in Israel and in North America, the total numbers are small - and while some programs seem to be growing, others are shrinking. Those who get hooked often get deeply involved and committed but most people glance at the flyer and discard it.
Jewish survival throughout the generations depended on the framework of the community. Modernization dealt this framework a blow from which it is still reeling and it now appears that while a Jewish state is good and even vital still, it cannot replace the community as an anchor for identity. The new catchword in Jewish education seems to be Peoplehood (a new Hebrew word has had to be coined to say it: "amiyut.") But it seems to me that the real challenge today lies not in reinforcing the global Jewish people but in re-creating the intimate Jewish community.