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Re-evaluating Community

‘I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch that I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.’ (George Bernard Shaw)

The quote from the famed playwright is inspiring, but in our rapidly changing world I wonder how much sense of duty towards community is still built into the value set that we live by in the information age.   Many people are discovering that community is still needed in a very non-virtual sense.

In searching for a Jewish perspective within Bernard Shaw’s quote, it is hard to move past the analogy of the light.  Were I to apply this quote towards a Jewish ideal I would think of the Shammus, a guiding beacon of light that serves the candles that surround it on the menorah candelabra.  A shammus shining on its own serves no purpose.  A shammus whose light blends with the light of the surrounding candles, has a special place and purpose.   The user of that light cannot distinguish which light is generated by which candle.  The community has complete unity of purpose, and the humility of the shammus is preserved.

It is a reflective and poetic time of year for Jewish people – a nine day period of mourning over Jewish historical tragedies, amongst them the destruction of the two Temples of the first and second Jewish Commonwealth.  Our recompense comes through recognition of “Sinat Chinam”, commonly translated as baseless hatred, or frivolous interpersonal conflict. 

On the day of Tisha B’Av itself we read liturgical Kinnot, recounting the anti-Semitism of generations and comprehending the true extent of human depravity.  Lament as we must, we also rise on this day with several symbolic gestures to restore hope.  Judaism always carries with it a vision of a prosperous future, of repair and decency, of faith and longevity.

Jewish community life flourishes the world over.  The more it does, the more frustrating it becomes when scandal and machloket, sectarianism and infighting, and very avoidable disputes of a very public nature boil over into the Jewish community and beyond.  It may be complimentary, in a backhanded sense, for the general media to run headlines relating to the unfortunate antics of Jewish community leaders, whether quoted in context or not, as it implies they hold the conduct of the Jewish community leadership to a higher standard.  Yet it remains a chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-ds name, to promulgate halachic and interpretive dispute into the medium of the media.

Take for example obscure quotes written by Rabbis hundreds of years ago that are embedded into works such as the Talmud.  When extracted and quoted as stand alone value statements in the context of our generation’s lifestyle they can seem abhorrant, racist, and primevil.  Anti-Semites like Brendan O’Connell quote them in court as a factual basis of Jewish dictum.  Yet strangely enough, if the Talmud uses a metaphorical example to demonstrate a principle, such as prescribing a death penalty for a sin, then I don’t wake up every morning with the idea in my head that the death penalty should apply to all transgressors of that sin.   I learn out the principal in the same metaphorical construct it was tendered, as being akin to a life not worth living when its values are removed.

Locally the Perth Jewish community has its share of mishuggas and is sufficiently gripped by lashon hara in unfortunate circumstances.  Like many communities around the world, one of the biggest areas of weakness sits within the use of voluntary governance to oversee professional administration.  No example is more pronounced than the employment relationship between a Rabbi and a Kehilla when it comes to understanding at what time and situation respect for the role of the Rabbi  requires subservience and Kavod from the administration, and at what time the Rabbi must acquiesce to policy and direction as matters of an employment relationship.  Everybody loses when this balance is misunderstood.

The fabric of the community breaks down and the focus of what community life is all about gets wrecked by controversy, and sometimes recovery can be long and slow.  We are quick to castigate young members of the community for not aspiring towards future leadership roles, yet we set no example by providing opportunities for accomplishment, achievement, satisfaction, and even succession, within the leadership roles that do exist.  Who wants to be a part of a committee that assumes responsibility for an organisation, its members and its facilities, when all you sense you are doing is buying into other peoples condescension?   

To overcome this we need to re-evaluate the virtue of community involvement itself.  Leadership must be a positive and rewarding experience complete with opportunity and challenge.  People will give of their time if they feel they are contributing to something of benefit and acheiving growth and development.  People will not give of their time to pander to the ego’s of others, to clean up other peoples mess, to be drafted into political dispute, or to take on a no-win scenario responsibility.  

Jewish continuity is linked to many factors – Jewish observance, Jewish pride, Jewish knowledge, and Jewish community involvement.  More and more from within the Perth Jewish community I see that the the former three ingredients are the focus of much growth and satisfaction for many.  However the latter attribute of community involvement and unity continues to dissipate, primarily due to lack of incentive.  Imploding scandals and dispute exacerbate the problem.     

This Tisha B’Av, more than ever, we need to refocus on how to manage conflict and dissent within our ranks.  We need to know how to identify the propitious moment and circumstance to reprove those amongst us who do not think with sufficient care about the impact of their words or the consequences of their actions.  We need to sideline the distractions and continue with the business of positive and proactive community development.  We need to give better reasons, through personal example, for our next generation to develop the desire to step up and step in to the future leadership of our community.

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