We are in the midst of significant changes in American life — and I see it every day as the leader of one of Washington’s premier, community-focused, non-profit organizations.
Today, our ability to come together to address critical issues seems to be challenged as fewer and fewer people share a sense of a common destiny. This is true for every part of our community — not just the Jewish community.
At times, it feels that partisan politics defines everything about us. One recent report noted that people are willing to marry across any historical boundary except political party.
People are no longer joining organizations. Instead, they are sampling experiences or retreating into social-media interactions.
While social media can bring us together in new ways, it can also leave us feeling isolated and unconnected to people immediately around us.
Partisanship and isolation tear at the bonds of community, and make it harder for us define our common story and purpose.
This is the world that we live in and the world that is shaping our own community, not just in Washington, but beyond. None of us is immune to the changes around us.
The end result is that at times, it can feel as though the ties that have bound us together for so many years are getting weaker and weaker. Against these trends, we in the Jewish community share a hope with other American groups and faith-based communities; we strive to stand for something different. In a sense, we want to be countercultural.
At a time when virtual connection threatens to replace actual community, we hope to inspire people to come together for a Sabbath (or some other communal) meal. That’s true even when making an age-old tradition accessible for every member of our community through things like a pop-up vegetarian Shabbat dinner for interfaith families.
At a time when our culture suggests that we should always celebrate the latest innovations and upgrade to the newest model, we study ancient texts and discuss their meaning for the modern challenges we face, just as other traditions do.
At a time when the challenges in our society tempt us to look out only for ourselves, we commit to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable amongst us — whatever their faith. We focus on inclusion and making every member of our own community feel welcome and cared for in times of crisis and every day.
And at a time when discourse is limited by partisanship and name calling, we uphold the Jewish tradition and history of debate for the sake of strengthening the world in which we live, not tearing it apart. For the same reason, we seek out opportunities to engage in respectful and meaningful conversations with other communities, because we believe that the more we talk with one another, the more we learn and the more we connect.
We’re not alone in any of these things, and we hope to expand the number of people in our community who find meaning in these goals. For the Jewish community, standing against the tide isn’t unusual, beginning with our ancestor Abraham, who was named “the ivri,” alternatively “the Hebrew” or “the one who lives on the other side.”
Our goal is not to stand apart from community, but rather, we always want to stand with it. We know that the gifts of community come not only in what we receive, but in the sense of connection and in the transformative power of giving.
So how do we build this community together, all of us?
In my community, we seek to understand what moves people to connect and where they find meaning. For some it is social justice or community-based study. For others, it’s in sharing in new and emerging forms of the arts, or in taking care of the vulnerable. A great community starts by recognizing the diversity of talents and perspectives within it, and reflecting those talents back to the world.
Every person needs to feel a sense of belonging in real and tangible ways. Every community has unique ties that bind the group together. But what our institutions share is the ability to help people connect to something larger.
And so community organizations — the Jewish Federation, and also our houses of worship, our civic and volunteer groups and our political organizations — should always stress that we are all responsible to help others in a time of need, and we must all trust that others will be there for us when we need help.
That doesn’t come by retreating to our familiar corners or by allowing virtual conversations to replace real ones.
It comes through the doing, the participation and the connection.
Gil Preuss is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.