Idea #10: Focus on people, not institutions

November 24, 2016 22:54

During the month of March, I will be publishing a daily proposal to transform the British Jewish community. Email your own idea (up to 350 words) to

Today's idea comes from Matt Plen: Focus on people, not institutions 

A real community should act as an alternative, almost an antithesis, to contemporary consumer society: a place where people are valued for who they are and not what they have, where they stop being customers and start being participants, and where the most valuable things are the ones which can’t be measured, bought or sold: values, people and relationships.

To fulfil this function, I believe – together with my colleague Dr Maurice Glasman of the Stoke Newington Masorti community – that Jewish communities must ground themselves in four key values from our tradition.

First, minyan, coming together, showing up and being counted. Community cannot exist online; it demands real, face to face presence and participation.

Second, hevruta, the tradition of one on one learning and discussion; the idea that real communities are based on deep, intimate connections and dialogue between individuals.

Third, mitzvah, normative shared practices and rituals (not necessarily traditional halachic ones) which bind people together and give them a sense of shared values.

And finally, mahloket, a spirit of conflict and debate which, when well managed, injects energy and a healthy pluralism into communal life.

While our best communities strive to live out these values, sometimes we fall into anti-relational patterns. All too often our synagogues are unwelcoming, anonymous and alienating. But it only takes a few key modifications to change this.

One example comes from the new Masorti community in Stoke Newington. There, the members decided that building relationships and welcoming newcomers was the number one priority. As such they made the decision that every single community activity would feature one-to-one learning: on Shabbat mornings rather than chanting the haftara, they break down into pairs, encouraging people to work with someone they’ve never met before, to read, discuss and get to know each other.

The results have been dramatic – participants report that often for the first time in their lives, a Jewish institution has drawn them in, connected them with others, and guaranteed them a meaningful experience each time they show up. And the community has grown at a tremendous rate.

Traditional British reserve, combined with many Jews’ ingrained insular tendencies, militates against a spontaneous friendliness and communal spirit. But this is not rocket science: with a bit of thought, any leadership group can find opportunities within their community’s existing activities for encouraging people to meet, get to know each other, and talk about what’s important to them. This is the first step towards building truly relational Jewish communities.

Matt Plen is the movement director of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues and co-author of Jewish Community Organising, a new leadership training programme

Check out our previous ideas:

9 - Create an online platform for Jewish students, 8 - Appoint anti-antisemitism champions, 7 - Share our synagogues and community centres with other religions6 - Establish a Succah in Trafalgar Square, 5 - Create a 'community service' programme for young Jews, 4 - Recruit older people to volunteer for the community, 3 - Establish a fund for the Jewish arts, 2 - Pay membership fees to your community, not your shul, 1 - Make 2010/11 the year of synagogue renewal

November 24, 2016 22:54

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