Shared spaces, chance encounters & life-changing moments

I remember the electric thrill I felt the first time I met a “celebrity.” I was no more than eight or nine years old, yet I can still picture the scene perfectly. It happened in the well-appointed lobby of our suburban synagogue, just outside the wooden doors that led to the sanctuary. I remember the people, the smells, the look of the furniture, the color of the carpet. Most of all, I remember the goosebumps and the barely containable glee that I was face to face with the one and only Larry Kane. 

Of course, you probably haven’t heard of Larry Kane. A local news anchor, he really wasn’t much of a celebrity by today’s mega star standards. But in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Larry Kane was a household fixture. He was well loved, deeply trusted and – most notably to me at the time – he had travelled America with the Beatles. Larry Kane was on television in my house as a young child just about every night. His fame, so far as I was concerned, was no less than that of any political figure, rock star or actor. He had broken bread with the Beatles, and now here he was in person, smiling at me and shaking my young hand in the lobby of my synagogue. I was ecstatic.

It is hard to reconcile the unbridled youthful enthusiasm of that moment with the adult uneasiness I feel watching the nightly news so many decades later. The United States finds itself in a time of extraordinary political and ideological polarization. A pandemic has taken lives, strained our economy and drained our psyches. Racial tensions and class inequity seem to be outpacing sensible and sustainable policy solutions at home as the international geopolitical landscape becomes increasingly complex. Rays of hope exist too: medical breakthroughs, market optimism and isolated flashes of cooperation. But is it enough? Are we too corrupted, too entrenched, too selfish to sustain progress toward a robust version of western democracy and civility? 

Among the bright spots I have seen this past year is the joint television commercial produced by opposing candidates in the Utah gubernatorial election. They appeared together to tell the world that although they have strong differences, they respect each other as human beings. They modelled civility and humanity; disagreement without hatred. The ad was refreshing and restorative. I couldn’t help wondering if it was their shared Mormon faith that brought them together to remind us how badly we need one another.

Our own Jewish faith has much to offer in this regard as well, as does the network of Jewish organizations that make up the fabric of American Jewish life. For all our contentious divisions and strenuous internal disagreements, the Jewish people has a storied history of finding our way back to unity when push comes to shove. We have incredible role models for, as some have put it, “unity without uniformity.” The 12 Tribes each flew their own flag on their journey through the desert, but only once they received the Torah, which unified all the groups as a single people. The rabbis of the Talmud argued famously about one fine point of Biblical interpretation after another with great fervor. But vehement disagreement, even when the stakes were incredibly high, did not imply vitriol. Today’s Jews of varied political, religious and cultural stripes would do well to draw on Judaism’s historical example. By combining openness to diversity with commitment to unity, we can bring the traditions of our ancestors to bear on the health of the Jewish people and, I would argue, society as a whole.

The solution to America’s quagmire is not going to come from a major government initiative or a new set of leaders, but from the people themselves. Ultimately, the most powerful response to the current state of affairs is for each of us to strengthen and diversify our personal relationships. This can be most effectively accomplished in small group settings. Television news personality Larry Kane was in my childhood synagogue because he was a member there too, just like me and my family. People of good will need shared spaces in which chance encounters can turn into life changing moments. The founders of the United States of America understood this well when they enshrined our right to assemble peaceably in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Just as the lobby of my childhood synagogue gave me a place to connect to the whole world – politicians, current events, movie stars, even the Beatles! – the organizations and institutions in which we gather create the spaces where we can discover just how connected we all are. Connected to each other in our individual communities of practice, connected to our neighbors, our cultural and ethnic groups and connected to all of humanity. 

Sociologists describe two types of social capital that work together to form a strong society: bridging and bonding. Bridging builds connections between individuals in different groups, while bonding builds cohesion within groups. When both phenomena occur in healthy balance, societies flourish. Much of what keeps democracy and commercial enterprise strong is the trust that grows from this interplay in civil society. Far from a naïve notion formulated in an ivory tower, this concept is at the heart of the best aspects of the American philanthropic and nonprofit sector. Organizational life, and Jewish organizational life in particular, is worth prioritizing through these turbulent times because it gives us opportunities every day to be reminded that each of us is more than an individual. We are one people, connected, responsible for one another and for our national mission in every way.

Todd J. Sukol is a philanthropy professional who serves as executive director of the Mayberg Foundation, which strives to proliferate Jewish wisdom and values in the contemporary world. He writes regularly about the nonprofit and philanthropic sector on www.givingway.net. 

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