The other day I was driving in downtown D.C. In the span of one block, I passed several types of gyms, a fresh juice bar and a meditation studio. It seems that these days, everything we could possibly need on our quest for “self-actualization” is at our fingertips. We have apps that help us to quiet our minds and mantras that help us to clean our closets. We have books and life coaches that help us identify our passions and courses and programs that help us monetize our skills. The latest and greatest consumer advances are all about helping us to pursue a singular goal: to become the “best” version of ourselves.
There is nothing inherently wrong with striving to achieve our goals. But a growing body of research shows that no matter how fit or accomplished we feel, we need community to fully realize our potential as individuals. Indeed, we are learning that to find the meaning and purpose we seek, we need to connect human to human, neighbor to neighbor.
Of course, as Jews, we have always known this to be true. We pray in groups of 10 or more. We study with and debate one another. We mark life’s milestones, both joyful and sad, together. At its core, Jewish tradition is built on the idea that that which is most sacred is found in the presence of others — is found in community.
Community, however, can sometimes be a tricky concept. There was a time when Jewish institutions could ask for donations “for the sake of the community.” After a while, “community” became this amorphous entity, valued above the individual but with no clear meaning or purpose. As people grew more disconnected with Jewish life, the abstract concept didn’t help.
My job at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is to provide a middle way. I am convinced that in an age of individualism and growing isolation and anxiety, Jewish and other faith communities can help to rebuild crucial social structures. We can help people to feel welcome, included and part of something bigger than themselves. This has been true of a healthy Jewish community for millennia, though sometimes I worry that we forget it.
Jewish community cannot exist for the sake of the community, but rather for each person who is part of it. Our goal is not to supplant the individual but rather enable community members to reach their full potential as part of — and perhaps because of — the community around them.
Of course, if our community is to represent us, each of us must play a part in shaping it.
Much of this work can be accomplished by simply showing up. Accept the next invitation you receive. Be there for someone in need. Volunteer. Though it may require us to step outside our comfort zones, change starts when we put ourselves in the position to form new, meaningful connections. Lastly, as much as our community needs participants, we also need leaders. Be the person who raises an important issue. Be someone who helps define the path forward.
I promise you that the work we do together will help bring out the best in ourselves and each other.
Gil Preuss is CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.