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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov, October 26, 2010

A letter to my fellow progressives, whoever you are, and however defined. Do you feel there is a place for you in your local Jewish community? How do you try to effect change? We hear a lot about tensions between different ethnic, religious, or political communities. But lately, I’ve been seeing dynamics between subgroups within our local communities that threaten to be just as toxic in their effects on identity and belonging.

A community, of course, is a collection of people and institutions dedicated to a common goal and linked by a shared identity. Healthy communities, like healthy executive bodies, encourage diversity of opinion. Allowing for constructive criticism means that decisions are less likely to fall prey to groupthink, a pathology that can lead to dangerous outcomes.

Political philosopher Charles Taylor has written in this week’s Globe and Mail about the important challenge that democracies have in counting all subgroups as their own. Importantly, he also notes that each subgroup must embrace the country as central to its own mission and identity.

The Tea Party movement currently animating the American right engages in the kinds of tactics that Taylor, and many other thoughtful commentators warn against: casting stones at the “establishment” behind entrenchments, rather than building bridges towards common solutions. Are progressives here becoming like Tea Partiers?

Those who feel disenfranchised claim alienation from a homogeneous (perhaps a code word for “conservative”) mainstream. But just as often, those who feel on the margins unhelpfully perpetuate a bogey-man version of the so-called middle.

“The Jewish papers don’t represent me.” To which I ask whether these individuals and organizations actually advertise and send press releases about their activities and events? “The parent body at a given community school isn’t like me.” To which I ask whether these individuals have actually engaged these parents in conversation?

Another area is in discussions of affiliation. “Our organization serves the unaffiliated,” I have heard some say. Curious. I would think that any Jewish institution should consider that its clients are as Jewishly “affiliated” as those of any other.

In fact, perhaps we should consider doing away with the “affiliation” label altogether, instead talking in terms of service provision. How many clients are we educating, informing, or providing a spiritual home? And how many are donating or volunteering? Whether or not our donors are “members” of any particular institution, their contribution of time or money or simply availing themselves of a program should grant them the coveted label of the “affiliated.”

On the positive side, a recent example is a conversation I had with a friendly gym acquaintance. We are both fans of the novels of Philip Roth. But it seems we don’t agree on a certain issue about which I’ve been vocal. Last week he approached me to talk about it. As the conversation progressed, I realized that the difference was more one of perspective rather than merely attitude. This was an important insight that might provide traction in breaking the impasse.

Naturally I was disappointed that not everyone in my community sees things the way I do. But more than that, I was heartened that we were actually discussing these differences. By airing disparate views, we were affirming our joint partnership in building and maintaining community.

In dysfunctional systems, individuals with different perspectives ignore or vilify each other. In healthy communities, such individuals look each other in the eye. “Talk to the hand, because the face ain’t listening!” sings a character in The Jerry Springer Opera, the musical sendup of the polarized culture of discourse that defines contemporary society.

As I have written before, we progressives (as fraught and imperfect a label as that is) do not have a monopoly on tolerance and open-mindedness. The establishment -- what we might think of in an updated-sixties-Jewish version as “The Mensch” -- might just have something to offer.

But first, we each have to stake out our place in this community, rather than pre-emptively decide it’s not for us because we assume that others hold different views. There is a chair at the table waiting for each of us. Then we must thoughtfully and deliberately talk and listen, as we help to shape that Mensch in our own image.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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