[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 26a – “Building the Jewish People – One Community at a Time”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Aharon Ariel Lavi
An intentional community can serve as a framework for both individual growth and moral behavior, as well as give people the opportunity to work collaboratively to make the world a better place. To become the better version of themselves.
A Hasidic tale tells of a Rebbe in a Russian village who used to take a dip in the river every morning. One day, the new local policeman saw the Rebbe diving into the frozen river. He ran to the strange old man, shouting, “Who are you? Where do you come from? And where are you going?” The old Rebbe smiled gently and asked the policeman: “How much do they pay you?” “Ten Kufeykas a day,” answered the baffled young man. “I’ll tell you what,” said the Rebbe, “I’ll pay you twenty if you come every morning and ask me who I am, where do I come from and where I am going to.”
Human beings are dynamic and ever evolving creatures, and just like our muscle system becomes atrophied if it is not stimulated enough, so does our moral and intellectual system. Hence, it is crucial we get asked those questions constantly. Today we can get a mobile app to remind us, but here I would like to argue that communities, and more specifically intentional communities, are the optimal environment for becoming the better version of ourselves.
These last few words may ring a bell with many readers as a common catch phrase among what has been termed “Millennials,” meaning people born after 1982. Many see us as a challenge to be addressed, especially in the Jewish context which is worried – and rightly so – of diminishing affiliation. That catch phrase may even serve as an explanation: See? All millennials care about is themselves.
As one of the oldest Millennials alive (born in December 1982) I would like to offer another way of reading it. Millennials, like any other generation, are made of the exact same building blocks and have the exact same needs. Human physiology and psyche do not change over a short time (i. e. eons). What does change is the environment. Like everybody who preceded us we have the need for food and shelter, and the problem with Millennials begins where this problem ends. Indeed, poverty still exists and making a living always seems tough, but relatively, especially in the Jewish context, Millennials are expected to possess more resources than all previous generations.
So, what’s next on the list? After satisfying their basic needs, people are craving a sense of belonging, identity and meaning. The aspiration to become a better version of one’s self comes from there, not from egocentric selfishness. In fact, data shows that almost half Millennials would move to less paying jobs if they offer a better sense of meaning and serve a greater purpose than themselves. One can only wonder what would such a poll show in our parents’ generation? But again, it’s not people who changed but rather the circumstances, and today even a relatively low paying nonprofit job enables higher quality of life than corporate jobs of the past.
However, the unprecedented economic-technological leapfrog has its side-effects. We all know of the environmental and immigration crises, but there’s another one: loneliness. According to a recently published Harvard research, loneliness is already an epidemic, riskier to health than physical inactivity, and almost as risky as smoking. The UK government even established a new Ministry to deal with loneliness. And no, social media doesn’t alleviate loneliness. Research shows it actually increases it. Like we still don’t have a better solution to hunger than food, we still don’t have a better solution to loneliness than families and communities. What we do have is new technologies to produce those.
So, one would ask, why don’t Millennials just join one of the established Jewish communities out there and feed two birds with one grain? Less loneliness and more Jewish identity. The more nuanced answer is: (a) Millennials are looking for intimate and horizontal structures, rather than mega-communities that make you feel even more lonely; (b) Jewish Millennials see themselves as privileged, hence responsible for everybody (how do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew?), and do not find themselves in communities designed originally to protect a weak minority; and (c) the entire Jewish ecosystem was geared to support Jewish identity until people finish school, assuming they will get married soon after and circle back to the community. However, circumstances have changed: the gap between college and settling down is no longer 2-3 years, not even 10, sometimes not even 15. Communities are still the solution, we just need a new version more relevant more Millennials.
One idea that has been tested successfully in Israel and other countries, rather lately, is Intentional Communities. An Intentional Community is a small and non-hierarchal group of people who have consciously decided to live together spatially and temporally around a shared purpose. In this sense, an intentional community can serve as a framework for both individual growth and moral behavior, as well as give people the opportunity to work collaboratively to make the world a better place. To become the better version of themselves.
In an Intentional community, togetherness is not a mere byproduct of something else, nor is it simply a means to other ends, but it is an intention in and of itself, what sociologists call a “primary group.” At the very same time, the group gathers for a purpose larger than itself, what sociologists call a “secondary group.” It seems fuzzy, I know, but that is not because Millennials are fuzzier human being than their predecessors. We have the same genes and underneath our neocortex we have the same lizard brain. The world has become fuzzier and harder to make sense of, and those who will succeed in attracting Millennials, the leaders of the new world, are those who will offer – no, sorry – create with them the appropriate complex response.
Covid-19 will inevitably have unprecedented implications on human society, and more specifically on the Millennial generation. In my original piece, I referred to this generation, my generation, with quite a lot of hope as to the role it may play in shaping the future of Jewish communal living (like it has disrupted and reshaped many other fields of our lives). Despite Covid-19, I am still hopeful and optimistic, and since there is no one else better positioned to lead our emergence out of this crisis Millennials can and should still play a vital role.
However, Covid-19 has exposed some challenges we may not have been properly aware of, and I will focus here only on two of them briefly.
The first one is the financial fragility of Millennials, exposed by Covid-19. We already knew Millennials have relatively larger debts than their parents had at the same stage in life, but before Covid-19 the common prediction was they will emerge financially stronger because of the rapid growth they propel. The current economic meltdown, happening before many Millennials have had the chance to stabilize financially, will have significant consequences on their ability to invest in new communities, in Jewish life and even to become the future donors of Jewish institutions.
The other challenge relates to traditional Jewish institutions themselves. Most of them functioned well beyond measure during the crisis and proved once again the necessity of stable communal structures. The importance of connecting new emerging Millennial communities with legacy organizations is now even more important than before. In many communities, key figures from the previous generation have, sadly, passed away due to COVID-19. This poses a leadership challenge, in which Millennials can play their part.
There is a lot more to say, and obviously we know much less than we don’t know about the future, but now is the time to start planning how to use this crisis as a growth opportunity. Not as a slogan, but for real.
Rabbi Aharon Ariel Lavi is a social entrepreneur who believes that Judaism can inform all walks of life. He is Co-founder of MAKOM: the Israeli umbrella organization of intentional communities, and of Hazon’s Hakhel Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator.
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