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.