Friday, May 29, 2009

How Important is a Sense of Belonging?

On Friday, May 8th, Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote an interesting op-ed piece quoting the findings of Robert Putnam. Putnam (with David Campbell) has written a book entitled "American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives,” which will be released next year. According to Gerson, the book is already making a splash. “…the book they haven't yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable,” Gerson writes.

He goes on to describe Putnam and Campbell’s recent appearance at a conference.
At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of "American Grace," based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.
I’ll take a break here, so we can all give ourselves a pat on the back.

And, then (are you ready) comes the part that I suspect will make many of us uncomfortable:
Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are "more powerful, supercharged friends."

Let’s look at that second sentence again: Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior, being part of a community is.


If it's not theology that makes the difference (and I'm including values and commandments - middot v'mitzvot - in the broad topic of "theology).....

And if "being part of the community" IS what makes a difference.....

Maybe as Jewish educators we should spend more time building connections among our community members rather than worrying about skills acquisition, how much content we can cram in during the (hopefully) seven years we have students enrolled prior to their bar/bat mitzvah, and how well the kids will perform on that day.

Maybe we should deliberately, intentionally, mindfully use some of the scarce hours that we have students with us to spend time fostering that sense of community -
  • helping kids get to know each other;
  • helping students to be involved with the adults in the congregation's business of bringing repair to the world
  • becoming a place where they can feel safe and secure as they explore what it means to them to BE Jewish and DO Jewish.
Maybe? Ya think?

One of my colleagues shared a document - and a philosophy - with a group of us gathered at the first RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) Conference in Naperville, Illinois in 2005.

Deborah's belief was that Parent-teachers need to pro-actively design Shabbat School experiences that will help students build relationships and a sense of community. A sense of community, group cohesiveness, friendships do not necessarily “happen” naturally, especially given the paucity of time we are spending together each year.

At her school, Havurah Shalom of Portland, Oregon, they decided that One way to do this is to be sure that there are activities that build community in every session.

Build. Community. In. Every. Session

Not once a year - at the beginning of the year; or once a semester; or whenever there was a new teacher.... but ... In. Every. Session

I can hear it already - There's not enough time as it is.... now you want us to "waste" time playing games?!?

And - if I'm being honest - there's a time when my voice would have been protesting louder than anyone else's.

But.... if I've learned anything these last six years, it's that if we don't focus on building a sense of community within our classes and our schools - the learners* aren't connected. If they're not connected, the learning is irrelevant. If the learning is irrelevant.... that's when time is actually wasted!


*applies to adult learners as well as kid-learners, I've found.

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