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In Or Out? What Does Community Mean?

This blog post is written by Jack, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living in the Ramat Eliyahu Neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.

In the criminally underappreciated sitcom comedy “Community,” viewers are introduced to a ragtag study group at a community college. Through trials, tribulations, and a fair bit of antics, this 8-person group transcends scholastic pursuits and becomes a community unto themselves - with outsiders vying for a seat at their literal and metaphorical table. Important, too, is the community formed around them at the university they attend. Just as their insular group comes to reckon with the hardships and benefits of forming close bonds internally, so too must they navigate the larger community surrounding them.

In this premise, we have a lot to unpack. Firstly, what is a community? Is it a physical designation like a college campus or a relational one like a study group? Is it defined by those on the inside or those on the outside? Who is eligible to be a part of communities? Who gets to make decisions on behalf of communities? And lastly, why do communities matter?

To presume we’ll crack the answers by the time I’ve finished writing and you’ve finished reading would be an exercise in delusion, so I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned thus far during my fellowship, and hopefully it will help to color your dealings with communities around you moving forward.

Who defines a community?

Between the individual and the theoretical ‘world community’ there exist many layers of governance and bureaucracy that could, in theory, fit the definition of a community. National governments, state governments, regional and county boards, school systems, HOAs, etc. all exist to group together individuals with seemingly similar interests, geographies, or ideologies.

Why then do we recoil at the idea of being lumped in with, say, our entire country when it comes to outsiders defining us? I’ve on multiple occasions had to correct people when they presume something about me because I’m American. “No, no, no,” I’ll reassure, “I’m not one of those Americans.”

Is it too broad a brush? Does community need to be personal?

To that I look to my Judaism. A devout Jew I am not, but I feel an earnest connection to mostly anyone within the Jewish faith. When I see movie credits rolling and notice a ‘Cohen’ or a ‘Rosenberg,’ I have a wholly unearned sense of pride in my community’s success.

So then, is it ideology or shared culture and heritage that defines a community?

Perhaps. But trying to define how individuals place themselves within communities is trying to hit a moving target. Each day we learn new things that help to inform what communities we see ourselves, or want to see ourselves, as part of. Instead, it’s maybe more interesting to ponder the differences in how communities are defined internally and externally.

Recently, we were lucky enough to meet with various different communities in Israel. We spoke with the leaders of a uniquely egalitarian Kibbutz, one that welcomes a variety of Jewish denominations to pray at the same Synagogue. We met a Druze youth group that taught us about their community and culture. We were introduced to an urban, socialist kibbutz and to a member of a religious Zionist organization who had some interesting views on democracy.

All of these communities had a message to share about their beliefs, practices, and ideologies. All the things that together help to build an idea of community. However, their own personal sense of community does not change the fact that I have my own beliefs and ideologies that incline me towards defining their communities though my own biases. In other words, they might claim their community is X, but if I, and to an extrapolated extent, the rest of the world, see it as Y, does their definition matter?

Who gets to be a part of a community

If an individual’s perspective is so vital to defining communities, then it’s important to look at who gets to be a part of one. Sure, socialist or singularly-focused communities might claim that it's the community and not individuals that make decisions, but it's those individual members that ultimately make up the community and dictate its outward appearance.

So how is it that one becomes part of a community?

I’m a Jew, but if I knock on the doors of a Haredi Synagogue and ask to immediately join, I’ll be turned away. I don’t quite fit the mold. I don’t share in the community's beliefs or practices. There is a built in filter to ensure their community stays insular and singularly focused.

If I went to the local gym and signed up for the basketball league, I’d find very few barriers to become a part of that community. A mutual interest, and a bit of cash, and that’s all she wrote.

What about if I wanted to become a Japanese citizen? There’s a few interesting concepts here. Firstly, a geographical one. I’d need to live in Japan for at least 5 years before consideration. Okay, simple. Then there’s a legal hurdle, I’d need to hire a lawyer to help petition my case and ensure my documentation, taxes, etc. are in order. A little more challenging. Penultimately, there’s a question of moral integrity - is this person good enough to become part of our community? The potential barriers here keep growing, and becoming increasingly subjective. Lastly, and most interestingly, I’d need to renounce my U.S. citizenship. In this scenario, being part of one community dictates that I cannot be part of another.

A lot of hoops to jump through, and a lot of barriers to entry. But maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps what makes a community is the walls surrounding it. Afterall, a country without borders fails quite basically to be a country at all.

For the last two months I’ve been living in the neighborhood of Ramat Eliyahu in Rishon Lezion. I am continually struggling to find my place within this community - or reckoning with the realization that perhaps I don’t have one. Whereas I could visit the government of Japan’s website and find clear-cut requirements to become a part of their community, more so than not we find ourselves within situations and communities where these rules are unspoken.

Sure, geographically I’m in the right spot, but ethically? Morally? Ideologically? It’s harder to determine. Add in different ethnic backgrounds, languages, and reasons for being here and you’ve got yourself a recipe for community confusion. Where do I belong here?

Who gets to make decisions about a community?

A community can only be as strong as it is willing and able to fight for itself. Sure, a community of online video game players might have a strong bond, but they have little power over outside forces affecting their community unless they work together to fight on their behalf. So what happens when two communities butt heads? Who wins?

Here in Ramat Eliyahu we’re watching this play out slowly and in real time. This neighborhood is economically disadvantaged and the buildings were built decades ago to codes that are no longer up to ‘standards.’ This neighborhood also happens to be centrally located and within the larger community of Rishon Lezion and the Tel Aviv Metro Area. Those of you who’ve heard the word gentrification might understand where this is going.

A year’s long project is slowly unfolding to displace tenants and build newer, ‘safer,’ apartments and storefronts here. While there is pushback, just today I watched as a new sign was posted detailing the construction to begin next to my apartment. This community will be displaced because they are up against a community far larger, richer, and more powerful. Will they remain a community after that? Time will tell.

Humans have a tendency to define themselves by ingroups and outgroups. I’m a fan of the Dallas Cowboys so no matter how geographically, ideologically, or culturally similar you and I might be, if you’re a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, come Sunday Night we hate each other. For better or for worse we sequester ourselves within our community’s walls and deride others for doing the same. There is great value in shared goals and understanding but more and more I’m starting to ask myself: do we define the communities we become a part of, or do the communities we find ourselves in begin to define us?


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