“Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado—It is not good for man to be alone” (Bereishit 2:18).
If you stop a religious person on the street and ask him to list the components of his religious life, he is likely to name two: faith and practice. Douglas Marshall, however, in his 2002 article “Behavior, Belonging, and Belief: A Theory of Ritual Practice,” not only introduces an alliterative model that outlines our engagement with religion, but adds a third component that is not always considered: belonging and community.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, “[much] of Judaism is about the shape and structure of our togetherness. . . . Ours is a religion of community.” Rabbi Sacks notes that tefillah, prayer, ideally manifests with a minyan: “When we pray, we do so as a community.” He notes that while Martin Buber framed our relationship with G-d as I and Thou, “Judaism is less about the I-and-Thou than about the we-and-Thou.”
In Bowling Alone (2000), Harvard Professor Robert Putnam described an America losing its “social capital” amid a growing individualism. His research found that a growing number of people were spending time by themselves, even in a potentially social milieu like a bowling alley—where more people were going bowling, but less were joining clubs and leagues. Just ten years later, however, and based on comprehensive surveys on religion in America, he and co-author David Campbell noted that social capital still existed in houses of worship, like synagogues and churches.
Does it surprise us that regular shul-goers are more likely to give tzedakah, volunteer for chesed opportunities, help another person in emotional distress or find him a job and even donate blood? Putnam and Campbell even demonstrated that an atheist who is part of a religious community is more likely to do any of these activities than a believer who prays by himself. As Rabbi Sacks notes, regular attendance at a house of worship is the most accurate predictor of altruism, more so than any other factor, including gender, education, income, race, region, marital status, ideology and age.
As has been discussed and demonstrated on many occasions, one of the major costs of the recent pandemic was the loss of community. A sense of community is perhaps one of the major benefits of the work we do at the OU and the culture we stress both within and without our walls: that of communication, coordination and collaboration. This sense of community is palpable at Minchah in our beit midrash with seventy-five of our professionals; at the employee appreciation Cookie Day with hundreds of takers (and even more cookies!); at meetings with local and Israeli politicians; on IT’s professional development days; when hosting the United Synagogue delegation from the UK and much more. And that’s just at our headquarters.
Out in “the field,” we see OU-JLIC creating community for hundreds, even thousands, of students on twenty-seven campuses throughout North America and Israel; NCSY and its innovative events, such as a JSU club, Latte & Learning, or a 4G Shabbaton; and Yachad’s consistent messaging about inclusion of those with developmental disabilities and more “because everyone belongs.” Our messages, both internal and external, underline this understanding: we accomplish religious and personal engagement when we engender a sense of belonging.
Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado. It is not good for us to be alone; rather, we should seek each other out and connect with community—so that we connect with the Divine. It is not enough just to have faith and practice; ultimately, to best engage with life, we need belonging. Rabbi Sacks concludes: “This may well be one of the most important functions of religion in a secular age, namely, keeping community alive.” May Hashem help us to continue our efforts to do just that.
Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph is OU Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer.