I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. Basically, I’ve been wondering how they work, in three basic dimensions.
1. How people conceive of their own relationships within / senses of belonging to a larger group of people.
2. How people behave in conversation with the feelings in #1
3. How organizations — as formalized hubs for interaction — operate as combinations or ossifications of #1 and #2
I think that #1 and #2, above are part of an ongoing conversation. I don’t believe that membership is either wholly on the shoulders (and feelings) of the individual, and neither do I believe that membership is wholly behavioral. There’s something in the middle, and, I think, organizations play a big role in that process. But they may be creating more problems than they’re solving.
I think that American Jews have a glut of community. A glut of community organizations and a glut of community language and focus. Here’s why I think this: Shirky points out that most groups map out along a power law graph — that means that a minority of people are highly active, but that most people are only marginally so.
And, I think the assumption in the Jewish world — mistakenly — is that the more people that are more involved, the better the Jewish world (whatever that is) will be. In other words, Jewish organizations are hoping to beef up the very top of the power law distribution curve. BUT, as Shirkey points out, communities don’t work like they.
It’s not whether they should or shouldn’t — but they don’t. And, perhaps, some of the bloat and stagnation that American Jewish organizations have been known to experience could (And this is my thinking, currently) be a result of too many interventions, organizations, efforts, money being leveraged against what seems to be a pretty compelling argument for a power law distribution of community involvement and engagement.
So, what if the “problem of engagement” wasn’t a “problem” at all, but something caused by much of the meddling intended to ameliorate said “problem?” What if the problem is not that there is too weak a sense of “Jewish community” but that the sense is too strong?