September 30th, 2011


Rosh Hashana Thoughts: On Community

We went to services today.  We don't have a regular synagogue we go to, partly because we don't live a regular life, partly because we hate to commit, partly because the places where Ellen feels socially comfortable are a little too high-octane for my Hebrew-less, unconverted state.  Come the High Holidays, if we (for "we" in this context, read "Ellen") think about it in time to get tickets, we go somewhere we have friends, somewhere close.  If we don't, then we creep around in the backs of places after the service has started, or cadge a ticket to the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), the Reconstructionist schul Ellen's Uncle Ron belongs to.

Which is what we did this year. 

It's a lovely space, on 86th Street a block from Central Park.  I've been there fairly often.  It was where Ron stood up with me during the Mourner's Kaddish after my father died.  One of his friends always asks us to his break-fast, even though we're not members.  The music is good, the cantor celestial, the rabbi a good man, if not the world's most inspiring speaker.  The demographic is varied:  retirees and young families and middle-aged couples--not a lot of young singles, at least not at the services we've been to.  Smart people.  Good people, who clearly care about their community.  Today, three of them stood up in front of the congregation, at the rabbi's request, to talk about community.  They were all eloquent and thoughtful and moving, but my favorite was a social psychologist, the fourth generation of her family to belong to SAJ.  She was an excellent (if rather academic) speaker, and I can't begin to do her argument justice, but this is what I remember and wanted to share with you.

She talked about community in terms of social psychology, which is (and I quote from a website I found because I want to get it right) "the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others."  Those of us sitting in schul, listening to her, were an actual community.  Imagined community, she said, was the thing that bound the members of the congregation together when they weren't in schul. Implied community was what let any Jew who wanted to pray feel at home in any Jewish community they went to.

I can imagine many things, but I can't imagine what that must feel like.  I am not, by temperament, a joiner.  My identity is more what I do than what I am.  Actual community--physical gatherings inspired by a common interest--is something I can leave or take (except Wiscon and WFC).  What I do need, and have, is lots of imagined community--people living and dead whose influence on my life is active and ongoing even in their absence.  Many of them are online, on LJ and Facebook.  Many of them have never heard of LJ.  Many of them do not know each other, which means that this loose conglomeration of people I know and trust is not an implied community:  while I would (and have) put any of them up when they come to New York, or cook them a meal if they needed one, and know they'd do the same for me should occasion arise, it's not a given that they would do those things for each other. 

And where am I going with this?  Blessed if I know, although I thought I did when I started writing.  I guess I can understand better, given the pattern of my friendships, why it's hard for me to feel comfortable in a congregation.  Perhaps it even sheds light on why I haven't converted.  I like my far-flung, loosely-knit, idiosyncratic imagined community.  It allows me to be on the outside and the inside at the same time, to engage when I can and observe when I want to, to be responsible for and to individuals I like and not to a social construct.  But it does leave me feeling a little alienated when we go to services, no matter where.