Community is not a Spectator Sport: Why Hillels and Other Jewish Communities Must Divide Their Labor

We must empower those who consume to also produce, those who spectate to participate.

Photo: CC via Wikimedia
Photo: CC via Wikimedia

By Jake Campbell

In a shtetl in northern Russia lived 10 small Jewish families. In each of these families only the father had been Bar Mitzvah and was old enough to be counted in a minyan. The men of the village were not religious; on the contrary all were secular except for the rabbi and his family. For their sake all of the men in the village would come together to help the rabbi bring in Shabbat, while the women would together cook a kosher Shabbat dinner for the whole community to enjoy, despite only the rabbi’s family keeping the laws of kashrut. However, the village began to prosper and accordingly was flooded with Jewish migrants. Now that there were more than 10 families, the men saw that they were no longer needed to make a minyan, and consequently they stopped going to shul. After all, someone else could now do it. Why did it have to be them? The kosher communal dinners stopped, and the rabbi could no longer make a minyan. The community died.

This story, often told by my rabbi at Friday night services, teaches an important lesson for community organizers. The reason the community died was because the villagers lost their sense of accountability and stopped participating. Communities are not spectator sports; they are not made of members that purely consume. Communities are participative and the participants are producers of the community. For a community to be successful, all participants must be productive members. It is not only to each according to their need, it is also from each according to their ability.

Society works like this too. In his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith argues that the more productive each individual member of a society is, the wealthier that society becomes. Even for the most poor, the standard of living increases. This is dependent upon the division of labor. That is, everybody through the course of their life develops a specialized skill set that a community can benefit from. For a community to become successful, it must divide the required labor as much as possible to benefit from the specialized skills of as many members of the community as possible. The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, so it is just as important for the community to continually expand its market and divide the labor as it is for community members to become productive. As Smith declares, ‘Labour was the first price, the original purchase – money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.’

In their wisdom, the sages seem to have understood this in the construction of services, especially High Holiday services. Rabbi, chazzan, six torah portions, haftarah, hagbah, galilah, the torah carriers, several openers of the arc. The labor of a High Holiday service is divided so well that far more than what is required for a minyan can take an active, productive part of the service. The sages understood that a service is not a spectator sport. It is not something to be consumed like entertainment. A successful service, like all communities, is as participative as possible – as participative as allowed by the market.

We have seen the remarkable impact of dividing labor at the Hillel at Florida State University. 88% of students who had a leadership position in their freshman year in 2012 attended over 6 programs in their senior year – the epitome of connectedness as suggested by Hillel International’s Drive to Excellence Research where 20% of students reaching this level of participation is an aspirational target. 2012 was not simply a successful outlier. Indeed, overall 92% of students who had a leadership position at Hillel at Florida State University have continued to attend over six Jewish programs every year until graduation. As a result of this finding, we have endeavored to further divide our labor and continually increase the number of leadership positions from 8 in 2012, to 39 in 2016 with the intention of heavy increases in the coming year.

Jewish writer Leon Uris once said, “The only thing that is going to save mankind is if enough people live their lives for something or someone other than themselves.” Uris is of course correct, but he failed to see that community and individual is a relationship. His quote should have been written, “The only thing that is going to save mankind is if enough people live their lives for something other than themselves, and mankind allows them to do it.” As builders of communities, Hillels and indeed all Jewish communal organizations must endeavor to divide their labor and expand their leadership to the limit of their market. We must empower those who consume to also produce, those who spectate to participate. It is an indictment on any Jewish organization that provides leadership opportunities only for the elite few preventing members from being productive participants in their community. Those that do, as my rabbi would say, may become rabbis without a minyan.

Jake Campbell is Jewish Student Life Coordinator at Hillel at FSU (Florida State Univ.) Foundation and an Ezra Fellow.