My Christian friends are intrigued when they visit my Orthodox Jewish neighborhood just outside Washington, D.C. It is alive with a social vitality born from thick relationships and place-based community. Not only do we have more friendships, social support, and places to congregate than most other neighborhoods in America—we are also motivated to do more for others and to contribute to our synagogues and social institutions. This nurtures steady growth; our neighborhood borders are expanding, our schools are growing, and new synagogues and institutions are being formed.
Even successful Christian churches have a different social dynamic. One friend, who attends a thriving Catholic church a few doors down from my house, laments the lack of interaction outside of the building. Few members live nearby. Play dates between children must be intentionally organized because they require transportation across a wide area. There are few if any overlapping organizations or activities that bring the same group of people together in different ways and at different times, meaning that he rarely has the kind of joyful spontaneous encounters that my neighbors and I regularly enjoy in our common supermarket, restaurants, parks, schools, and streets.
Why isn’t there more overlap and spontaneity? Because nothing is place-based. For many American Christians, religious networks operate more as “functional assists” for a particular need or given phase of life. In my friend’s case, his Christian networks operate around his kids and their immediate needs—making them more like other Americans than like those in my devout neighborhood. What my friend is lamenting is a thin vision for what faith looks like in daily life, in person.
This way of practicing faith may be insufficient to pass beliefs on to the next generation. A good weekly sermon may drive a Christian to church, but it may not sustain him or her within the Christian faith from Monday through Saturday. On the other hand, a place-based Christian community, in which one regularly encounters one’s like-minded neighbors, would foster faithfulness.
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor outlines why it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society,” reflecting on the influence of the natural, enchanted, and social worlds. The importance of community in former times was clear: “God was also implicated in the very existence of society . . . the life of the various associations which made up society, parishes, boroughs, guilds, and so on, were interwoven with ritual and worship. . . . One could not but encounter God everywhere.”
It is much easier to maintain your beliefs in the natural and enchanted worlds if you live in a community where everyone else does too. For example, in my religious community, we regularly bless new moons, new babies, and natural phenomena such as rainbows. Given that many Christians today are divorced from all three of these worlds (natural, enchanted, and social), perhaps it is not surprising that “many of us find this [disbelief] not only easy, but even inescapable.”
America has moved from a “townshipped” society, in which neighbors regularly communicated and collaborated with each other, to a “networked” one where we communicate with each other impersonally and often transactionally. Churches have not been immune to this move from “townships” to “networks.” Indeed, many newer Christian denominations prefer to use terms like “network” to describe their collaborative endeavors. Other Christians rely on national networks and internet resources for spiritual growth instead of commitments to a particular, limited group of people in their zip code.
These tendencies are rooted in the wider Western social context. Hyper-individualism has weakened the place-based institutions that used to play such an important role in structuring and shaping lives. Ray Oldenburg writes in The Great Good Place:
Whereas once there were places, we now find nonplaces. In real places the human being is a person. He or she is an individual, unique and possessing a character. In nonplaces, individuality disappears. In nonplaces, character is irrelevant and one is only the customer or shopper, client or patient, a body to be seated, an address to be billed, a car to be parked. In nonplaces one cannot be an individual or become one, for one’s individuality is not only irrelevant, it also gets in the way.
Hyper-individualism encourages the formation of personal identities that are performative and fueled by consumption. And some people of faith fall into consumptive ways of thinking about their religious commitments—seeking the latest podcast or concert series as an expression of their faith. American society’s normative lifestyle has shifted, and people of faith must grapple with how that shift has affected their own values. Changes in values and lifestyles cannot be sequenced; belief and practice complement each other in a mutually supportive feedback loop.
Religious communities—such as Orthodox Jewish communities—that retain embodied and embedded practices and institutions will increasingly stand out. They will not only preserve the faith tradition; individuals will flourish because they are bound up in something larger. Observant Jews understand that our story is not our own, and our families and community make us who we are.
Judaism makes place-based community the main organizing structure of life by marking both time and space in distinct ways. The rules of Shabbat ground us in our neighborhood, distancing us from the larger society while bringing us closer to one another.
Streets become full of people walking—to a neighbor’s house, a park, a prayer service, a celebration. Whenever we walk somewhere (or just sit outside), we encounter many familiar faces and get caught up in conversations. Families invite each other over for meals. As a pastor friend remarked when visiting on one Shabbat, the scene resembles a time from the 1950s before automobiles, television, and apps came to dominate daily life.
Meanwhile, a thick web of institutions organize life on a daily basis, yielding a uniquely broad set of communal institutions, including synagogues, mikveot (bathhouses), schools, batei din (courts to adjudicate disputes), kosher markets and restaurants, gemach loan societies, and charity funds for those in need.
This way of life is clearly attractive to many. While many religious groups are in decline, including other Jewish denominations, Orthodox Judaism is rapidly growing in the United States. With little intermarriage, low attrition rates, large families, and the addition of Ba’al Teshuvah (the newly devout—one survey concluded that 30 percent of Orthodox Jews were not raised as such), the Orthodox community has essentially become the most dynamic part of American Jewry. Whereas it once was a tiny minority, today one of eight American Jews are Orthodox, with the number expected to increase to almost one-third by the 2060s. The result is obvious in places such as New York, New Jersey, and Florida, where Orthodox neighborhoods are both expanding and multiplying.
Jews believe that being embedded in place-based relationships, institutions, and communities are part of God’s master plan. It is written into our core teachings and the daily requirements of our faith. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes in the journal Tradition: “The community in Judaism is not a functional-utilitarian, but an ontological one. The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality: I might say, a living whole.” This strong communal identity doesn’t take away from an individual’s uniqueness but in fact gives it a place to come to its full potential. “Hence, when lonely man joins the community, he adds a new dimension to the community awareness. . . . He enriches the community existentially; he is irreplaceable.”
Christianity also has a long tradition of embedding individuals in geographic communities, and the parish model still exists in American cities, especially for Roman Catholics. But over the last few generations, these bonding mechanisms have thinned out extensively due to secularization, the advance of technology, and greater mobility—weakening the communal nature of Christianity significantly.
Building and embedding congregants in a series of overlapping, place-based institutions and activities—both spontaneous and organized—can sustain and grow the faithful, as the Jewish experience shows. In the words of the Ahad Ha'am: “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” And T. S. Eliot penned: “What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community, And no community not lived in praise of GOD.” Embedded community is not only important to the future of our faiths, but also to the future of our country. Our growing social breakdown highlights this now more than ever.
Seth D. Kaplan is the author, most recently, of Fragile Neighborhoods.
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