Why Every Jew Needs To Be Part Of A Community

So, you don’t fit in.  You’re a weirdo.  Or maybe you’re normal and everyone else is a weirdo!  Either way, you don’t fit.

And you’re a religious fellow (or gal).  You believe in G-d.  You care about what’s True above all else.  Good on you.

And so you decide, “Who needs a community?!”

There are so many good reasons to not live in a community.  So many good reasons to separate ourselves from the world of Jews.  People who profess to share our religion and yet clearly don’t.

From corruption to lack of true emunah to basic dysfunction, there is a good argument that we shouldn’t live in a community.

There is an even better argument: all we need is G-d.

I’ve felt like this for a while, and have even written about it.  At the end of the day, all G-d wants from us is to be the best we can be and to connect with him in as deep of a level as possible.  So, what’s this deal with Jewish communities?  What’s the point, especially if we feel like we will be so better off without a community?  If all we need is G-d, then why bother with all these people, especially if they don’t live up to the beliefs they claim to have?

Believe it or not, this was the response I got from many people after I wrote my post, “How to Not Keep Jews Orthodox”.  A good amount of people messaged me to tell me they thought I just should give up on the whole idea of a community.  All that matters is G-d, they said.

And since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea.  Whether we need a community or not.

And as much as I love the people who messaged me, I think they are wrong.  I think, if anything, the people who feel like they don’t need a community are the people who need a community most of all.

Why?  Let’s start with the most basic reasons:

1. It’s built into who we are

At the beginning of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers” he describes the community of Roseto, Pennsylvania, founded by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century.  Roseto was hidden away, and because of its inhabitants’ sense of internal community, it wasn’t so well-known.

By divine providence, a medical researcher visited the nearby area and a doctor for the community mentioned that he rarely knew of anyone under the age of 65 in Roseto with heart disease.

As Gladwell explained, “This was the 1950s, years before the advent of cholesterol-lowering drugs and aggressive measures to prevent heart disease. Heart attacks were an epidemic in the United States. They were the leading cause of death in men under the age of sixty-five. It was impossible to be a doctor, common sense said, and not see heart disease.”

But that was just the beginning.  As the researcher described, ““There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.”

He decided to investigate even deeper.  But all the answers he was looking for didn’t pan out: they had the same crappy diet as most Americans.  They smoked heavily.  They struggled with obesity.  He tracked down people from Roseto living in other parts of America, wondering if they had something genetic that helped them live longer: nope, the ones outside of the city were just as unhealthy as the rest of us.  He looked at nearby towns to see if they had similar patterns: nope.

Finally they figured it out.  And no one explains it better than Gladwell:

“What Wolf began to realize was that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location. It had to be Roseto itself. As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they figured out why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.

“In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.”

In other words: it was the community that made them healthy.

Community is something G-d has built into our blood and made absolutely necessary for our existence.  Community exists just as much for us as we do for it.

The research done above was conducted in the 1950’s, before this sort of thinking was more common.  But today, we have more and more evidence of the power of community and the destructive power of loneliness.

For example, there has been quite a bit of research done on the effects of social isolation (ie loneliness) on our health since the research on Roseto came out.  Disconnecting from a community of people who share our values hurts our immune system and boosts inflammation.  It increases our chances of premature death.  Its detrimental effects on our mortality are comparable to smoking and twice as dangerous as obesity.

Try as you might, this idea that G-d is all we need may sound tempting but the very nature of our bodies contradicts it.  And since G-d wants us to be healthy, it stands to reason that he wants us to live in a community.  He has built it into who we are, and so there is no denying that not only is leaving a community unhealthy for us, being a part of one can be one of the healthiest decisions we make.

You cannot be alone, and G-d does not want you to be alone.  And if G-d himself is telling you through nature that you shouldn’t be alone, I imagine we don’t really have a choice but to listen.

2. G-d reveals Himself in the space between people

I’ve always been fascinated by the amount of mitzvahs that involve community.  It’s even been established as half our mission as Jews: there are the mitzvahs between man and G-d and then there are the mitzvahs between man and man.

Men aren’t praying to their full potential if they aren’t praying with nine other dudes.  The best sort of studying is done when two people sit together and yell at each other.  When someone is in pain, we read Tehillim for the person as a community.

Not to mention all the laws about business, kindness, love, and basic decency.  And since day one, it seems that G-d cared more about us building communities than he did about Himself.  He built Adam and it became pretty clear pretty fast that a dude could not be alone for long.  Loneliness was unnatural even to the man who was built to be alone.

The books are replete with quotes that emphasize the power of community like this one in Pirkei Avot: “One who causes the community to be meritorious, no sin will come by his hand. One who causes the community to sin, is not given the opportunity to repent.”

I guess it’s pretty obvious, then, that G-d doesn’t want us to be alone and he doesn’t want us just to care about Him.  He wants us to build communities, to connect with each other, and thus reveal Him in a world that seems to so easily hide him.

Ironically,  I think it is this fact that makes it so hard for many people to commit to a community.  It pains them so very much to see their community not live up to G-d’s standards because they can feel deep in their souls how far G-d is being hidden.  They look at their communities and they don’t see G-d, and that hurts them more than anything.

Unfortunately, I think most of us are unconscious that this is painful because of the hiddenness of G-d and not because of any other reason.  And so it becomes easy to say, “Let’s only care about G-d.”

But there’s the rub.  To care about G-d means to care about the people around you, and in building a community of people with a similar vision.

So, what should we do?

Often, the people that end up cutting themselves off from their communities are the very ones that are so motivated to changing both the community they left and the world as a whole.

They leave because it is impossible for them to deal with the hypocrisy anymore.  They leave because, try as they may have to change these communities, they haven’t seen any true change happen.  Or perhaps it pains them that their particular point of view is not as accepted as another, just because it’s not as mainstream. 

They feel like outsiders, like they are on the fringe.

As we saw above, it would be a mistake to cut off our connection to the very idea of a community.  To be alone is to hurt ourselves.

But it also hurts the world.  The fact that we get sick from our lack of community, that we can die from it, indicates that there are other people who also feel that lack of community, who are also looking so hard for someone that they feel understands them and who they are.

In other words, your very pain is a sign of your mission in life.  You are not the only one feeling your pain.  And so, you are needed.

Knowing this, you have two choices:

1. Go find a community where you’ll be accepted

2. Build a community

These are both equally important missions, but they reflect a deeper core motivation: the desire to both enhance our own health and fulfillment as well as contribute to a community that needs our unique vision.

They also are an indication of just how much of a priority community should be for us.

Because, often, they mean doing very uncomfortable things.  They mean leaving your home.  Literally moving away from the people you know.  Or coming out of the closet as “different” within your home.  No longer hiding who you are, either way, and doing every single thing you can to find the people like you.

Because this is one of the single most important things we can do for ourselves.  Rather than running away from the idea of community, we need to be doubling down on it, doing every radical thing possible to find one that works for us to create one from scratch.

We have to be willing to do anything to achieve this goal.  Anything.  Sacrifice momentary happiness, the comfortability we’ve found in just accepting our place within the community we live in, or the enticing notion of just being alone.

Because this is about saving our lives and saving the lives of the people like us.  And that is no exaggeration.  To not do this means to die young, before or our time.  It means to succumb to all sorts of diseases, literal heart pain, and more.  Even worse: it means that there is someone else out there who is going through the same thing, and who needs us just as much as we need them.

What this ultimately means

People think that being alone, that being a rebel, and that doing what we think G-d wants from us is them “being true to who they are”.  They are wrong.

To be alone is to hurt yourself.  To be a rebel only because it is too painful to be near the people who hurt you is to only fulfill half of your true self.

To have the bravery to be yourself around the people who hurt you, that is the true beginning to being true to yourself.  To find the people like you, to connect with them and strengthen them as they strengthen you, is to truly accept and love yourself.

It is through others that our soul shines.

In other words, this whole community thing is ultimately about self-acceptance.  You cannot do any of the above if you don’t love yourself first.  Often, the reason people cut themselves off from their community or think they can be alone isn’t so much because they have accepted themselves but because they’ve rejected those who have pained them.

This sort of external focus is what stops us from making ourselves healthy and from giving the best part of ourselves to the people who most need it.

Rejecting negativity is fine, but only if it is coupled with the inner positive creativity within us all.  Fighting the “system” only works if we have an idea of the type of system we’re looking to create.  Being a rebel should only be a byproduct of our soul shining forth, reflecting the reality that many people find so uncomfortable to accept: that you matter, that they don’t know everything, and you have something valuable to contribute.

You cannot be truly fulfilled without a community, and you cannot build or find your community until you love who you are.  Love yourself fully, love yourself for all that you are, and not the parts that fit neatly into categories or preexisting communities.

This article seems like it’s about community, but it’s really about you: loving yourself, and doing what it takes to really live the life you were meant to.

To go off alone, that’s not to truly love yourself.

To stay where you are, unhappy and unfulfilled, that’s also not self-love and acceptance.

Your destiny is to accept you for you and then to find the others that need you.






19 responses to “Why Every Jew Needs To Be Part Of A Community”

  1. daniel.saunders Avatar

    Rabbi Sacks points out that the first time in the Torah something is described as “not good” it is, “It is not good for man to be alone.” G-d tells us that alone-ness is not part of His plan for mankind!

    I forget who said, “Don’t give up on the world. It’s not as bad as you think and you’re not as great as you think.”

    I was one of those people who wanted to be alone. I definitely feel an outsider in my
    community, for multiple reasons. Unfortunately it is not possible for me to move elsewhere right now and there aren’t enough Jews were I live to build a new community (not that I have the skills to do so). I’m not really sure what to do right now. I try to get more involved in my existing community, acting as shaliach tzibbur sometimes, giving divrei Torah once or twice, even though these can be difficult for me, as I’m quite shy, but I know I have talents and knowledge that many people in the community don’t have in these areas. In that sense, I feel I have a role, and one that benefits others, so that makes me feel somewhat better. I’m a part of the community even if sometimes I also feel apart from the community.

  2. Alex Avatar

    Oh, my goodness….where to begin….

    “What this ultimately means People think that being alone, that being a rebel, and that doing what we think G-d wants from us is them “being true to who they are”. They are wrong.”

    They are wrong? You know their circumstances, the area they live in, the things which have affected their lives?

    They are wrong…..in your opinion.

    You know nothing about me, or my circumstances. All I can say, is that *you* are wrong, in my opinion, to make such generalisations.

    And thank goodness I have people, strong Jewish people, from different strands of Judaism, who help, support and encourage me.

    Physically, I am alone. I am not a member of a synagogue. But I am not’alone’….I have friends and a wonderful Rabbi. I *am* a member if a community; online.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      I very much believe in online communities, which is why I have started and been a part of a few of them on my own.

      But the evidence is clear: being PHYSICALLY alone is unhealthy. It is simply not enough to have an online community. We need physical contact with people we care about and connect with.

      You’re right that I don’t know everyone’s situation. I’m sure there are some people out there who can’t leave their situation or feel that they are right to make their decision.

      I still think that it’s very clear we all need to be around a physical community that values us. Just because we don’t loneliness as something as dangerous as obesity or smoking doesn’t mean that it isn’t. My goal in this post is to make people aware of this.

      That said, if you truly don’t feel lonely, or you have found some sort of fulfillment in your world, I would never try and take that away from you. The point is that we need a community and we need to feel an urgent desire to be a part of one. If you feel like what you have is a community, then we’re not really disagreeing. We’re maybe disagreeing on what a community IS, but not that one needs one in order to be fulfilled and healthy. And to give to the world.

      1. Gryphontamer Avatar

        There’s also overwhelming evidence that human beings cannot go for long periods without physical contact. Witness the accounts of Anna and Isabelle, who were neglected and isolated, and who never developed mentally beyond six months old. People have died for lack of physical contact; it’s documented.

      2. Alex Avatar

        Briefly: my situation(sharing this in the hope that you might understand where I am coming from, and why your generalisation is, in my opinion, not helpful) I was born, but not raised, Jewish. My family background is complex and very dysfunctional( a word I dislike, but use here for the sake of brevity)and my own Jewish journey began three years ago, after a moment of clarity( which is too long to go into here, though Im happy to, if you want to know more)

        bear with me….the timeline is a little confusing….a month after that, my mother (from whom I had been estranged, for two years, my decision, based on saving what was left of my sanity)was burned to death in a house fire. It’s just coming up for her 3rd yahrzeit, on November 19th.

        To go back a little more, for the past ten years I had been my husbands carer, through a series of increasingly debilitating strokes, after a brain haemmorhage, eight years at home, then the final two years in a nursing home. He died on May 29th, after another massive stroke. He was my soulmate, my bashert, we were married 34 years, and my heart is broken. My own health, physical and mental and emotional, is poor….had a stroke myself, have Aspergers, anxiety, depression, M.E., fibromyalgia, and agoraphobia, not counting some other things. So, that’s a window on my life.

        I live in Scotland, and when I read about people who go ‘shul-shopping’, I wonder if they realise how fortunate they are to *have* a choice, and to be able, physically and mentally and every other way, to do that…..

        my online community – and yes, I agree: the definition of community is relevant here – is a mixed bunch of wonderful, supportive people(‘real life’ friends, from way back, have vanished, despite my being supportive of them throughout various difficulties)…..for the last three years, since my moment of clarity, Jews of many varieties, from one end of the spectrum to the other, including my wonderful Rabbi who supports, helps and advises me, and an Orthodox Rabbi’s wife, who likewise helps me; and over the last ten years, a lot of people of many religions and none. All supportive, all kind, understanding, throughout the last ten years plus of my husbands illness, my birth family’s harassment and lack of understanding, and my own health decline.

        I think, without meaning to come across as trying to make myself sound ‘special’, which I am not, that my circumstances are extreme and unusual(and I would not wish them on anyone)….and that most people *can’t* understand, as it’s just beyond understanding unless you “have been there”….walk a mile in my shoes, as they say. That’s why I find generalisations so unhelpful….even when intended kindly. Good intentions are not always helpful, and can sometimes be hurtful.

        I said I was going to be brief….this is the short version. Apologies for the length.

  3. Rebecca K. Avatar
    Rebecca K.

    I’m sharing widely, because I think this is such a very relevant issue today, and you articulated your POV so well.

  4. Rivki Silver Avatar
    Rivki Silver

    In Avos 2:4, Hillel tells us not to separate ourselves from the community. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve felt comfortable in most communities I’ve lived in, and so this has always been something that I’ve had a hard time understanding, especially since I think I’m kind of a weirdo. But I guess I’m a socially functional weirdo? I don’t know. In any case, community is such a huge part of Jewish life.

    And, in my opinion, it’s easier to be part of the community when we also do mitzvos like giving people the benefit of the doubt, and looking for the good in people, and being positive in general. I don’t mean making oneself vulnerable to predators or people who will be a bad influence, but I mean looking for the good in the community instead of complaining about the inevitable annoyances and personality clashes that arise when being in contact with other people. Being part of a community and having to interact with people who are different than us is an excellent way to work on our middos. Which is how we become closer to Hashem. Which is the point of it all, right?

  5. Tuvia Avatar

    You say people don’t live up to your standards — but lament that they don’t accept you as you are?

    Something is not right about this premise.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Tuvia, are you writing to me(Alex) or PopChassid?

      1. Tuvia Avatar

        PopChassid…not Alex.

        Good luck on your journey Alex.

        Although I am resolutely against the painfully unjust and ugly realities of the Abrahamic faiths (the pieces everyone who loves them — from Muslim to Jew to Christian — successfully ignore in order to look themselves in the mirror every morning) I wish you only peace in your relationship with G-d.

        1. Alex Avatar

          Tuvia, thank you. I appreciate you saying that, very much. I feel a little uncomfortable saying as much as I did….sounds as though Im asking for sympathy, which – very emphatically – am not. It just felt as though I needed to give a bit of background.

  6. Mr_Cohen Avatar

    Total commitment to all aspects of Shmirat HaLashon
    is a prerequisite for building a solid Jewish community.
    Slander, rumors, gossip and tale-bearing can only make people
    feel estranged from the community, or drive them away completely.

    If you who do not understand what I am talking about,
    this means three things:

    [1] No Jews spreading rumors about each other.

    [2] No Jews listening to rumors about each other.

    [3] No Jews believing rumors about each other.

  7. Lawrence Kestenbaum Avatar

    I strongly agree with the blog posting, but I do also agree with Alex, above, that sometimes an online community can serve many of the same needs as a physical community.

    No, not every need, and not for everyone, and certainly not in a chaotic place like 4chan or reddit, which abound in faceless voices and expressions of rage.

    To be effective, an online community needs to be anchored in the physical world, in the sense that most or all members are genuine about who they are and where they live, and there is enough in-person meeting among them to establish an overarching sense of mutual trust among the members.

    Recall the kind of close relationship that could be established, generations ago, between people who knew each other primarily or even entirely through many years of written correspondence. The Internet has the potential to tremendously accelerate that process, and to make it more than one-on-one.

    Of course that kind of relationship can never be as fully satisfactory without the ongoing physical presence of that person. But consider also how weak our connections are to many of those who we DO see in our own communities.

    For example, there are many members of my own shul with whom I have never held a conversation of more than a few words. I do value them and care about them, and their very presence is comforting, but on an individual level, there is little direct connection.

    Even in Roseto, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s, there must have been what used to be called “invalids” and “shut-ins”, people who, in the era before handicapped accessibility, could rarely leave their homes, and remained there for years. They would be visited perhaps by their priest and extended family, but might never see 95% of their fellow townspeople. In the life of such a person, a remote friend who wrote frequent letters could be a larger presence than any occasional visitor.

    By the standards of a close physical community like Roseto, many millions of us today are just as isolated from our neighbors as those shut-ins. I have lived in my current home for fifteen years, in a not-far-from average neighborhood of single family homes and small apartment buildings. I am not proud to admit that, among the hundreds of people who live within a two-block radius, I can only recall ever speaking with five of them. I could not even recognize many more than that.

    Granted that the Internet is one of the forces that pulled people apart, but it can also be a vehicle for connection.

  8. Another Shpitzle Avatar

    It’s true what you’re saying. Even those who run away from their community run away to a community that hates communities!

  9. Another Shpitzle Avatar

    Just want to say I wish you updated here more often

  10. rob lebo Avatar
    rob lebo

    Very interesting subject and one I have thought about a lot. I have two responses.

    The first is that the prototype of the individual extremely pained by the corruption or lassitude in his community is in our tradition already. The Nevi’im–Jeremiah, Hosea, etc.– were examples of unique people who were able to lash out at the injustices in their community without amelioration or compromise. I am not advocating such a stance, as most everyone is unable to tolerate such a lonely life and such fierce and unflinching condemnation. But it is comforting that even within our tradition there are great examples of non-conformist who were not afraid to speak their minds about what was wrong in our society.

    The second is a question about those who say they only need G-d. It’s tempting, but you do well in demonstrating how that is a flawed and even dangerous approach. It is also true of those on the flipside who say they do not need G-d, only community. Many secular Jews who are members of big Jewish organizations feel this way. So my question is where is the middle road? How do you both participate in Jewish communal life while also having a personal relationship with G-d? Do they conflict and if not, how are they consonant?

    Would love to hear your thoughts. No matter what, I’m glad I discovered your blog!

  11. Shmuel Elbinger Avatar
    Shmuel Elbinger

    This article rings true. I’m doing the best I can. But being a charedi guy in Israel does not make this easy.

  12. Ibelieveinmysoul Avatar

    As the daughter of a Jewish father I had to convert. I was not brought up Jewish and did not know anything about living as a Jew. I converted a little over two years ago. I was so happy when I found I would be part of a Jewish community as I am single and wanted to be able to learn from my community and share in times of sorrow and joy. I attended Shabbat services faithfully every weekend for 3 years but I found this was not enough for me. I wanted to experience a Shabbat dinner with a family and celebrate holidays with other Jewish people. I spent every Shabbat alone and was only invited to Passover and that was it out of the holidays. I grew more and more depressed because of this and withdrew from my community for 3 months as I found attending services deepened my loneliness and depression. After three months of not attending services not one person cared to call me or check on me to see what was wrong and why I had not been attending services. I prayed with these people weekly for three years and it seemed no one cared if I was there or maybe they did notice I was not there and still did not care that I was not there. I was really upset because I thought this is what a community was for. I have completely withdrawn from my community because of this and I wrote a letter to my rabbi explaining how upset I was. The funny thing is that someone from my synagogue called me the other day to see if I was donating to the Purim fundraiser to send baskets out to community members as I had done the past two years. Someone can call me when they want donations but not to check to see if I am okay as not attending shul for three months was completely out of character for me. Needless to say this phone call for donations put the final nail in the coffin for me not to return to services ever again. My heart is broken over this. But lesson learned.

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