On Building a Community of Belonging

On Building a Community of Belonging

We just passed the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. These past twelve months have had a profound impact on us all and have highlighted just how much individual experiences can vary, even in the same situation. From the effects of COVID-19 to our perspective as members of an increasingly diverse Jewish community, it is clear that we can do more to stand in each other’s shoes and strengthen the bonds we share.

Therefore, it is with a renewed sense of urgency that we at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington ask: what does it mean to create a community of belonging?

In a previous era, Jewish communities were focused on how to be more welcoming—how to help more people feel invited to step inside the communal tent. Of course, these days, we know that welcoming is not a high enough standard. We cannot leave someone to simply stand in the presence of Jewish community; we need to engage them in ways that help them to both identify and feel valued as a key stakeholder in our shared future and an integral part of what we are building together.

As Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion expert Vernā Myers puts it, “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” I would add that belonging is being able to dance to music that is meaningful to you—it is about seeing yourself reflected in the community of which you are a part.

Indeed, our goal is to further a Jewish community in which everyone—inclusive of race, gender, sexual orientation, Jewish identity, political affiliation, family structure, zip code, life experience, and all other facets of being—sees themselves in the community, is able to express their true self as part of the community, and is inspired to help shape what comes next.

This is the vision, but it is clear that we still have a great deal of work to do before we achieve it. Does everyone have the opportunity to share their perspective and are their voices taken seriously and considered equitably? Do the hopes and dreams individual community members have for themselves and their families align with the hopes and dreams we have for our collective future? Do people of all backgrounds see themselves and their experiences reflected in the highest rungs of leadership? Are we honoring and elevating our distinct paths even as we articulate a common future? Are the ways people live and love celebrated or denigrated? These are the kinds of considerations for which we must hold each other accountable.

At Federation, we are working to do just that. In particular, we are evaluating our internal practices and the experiences we offer to ensure they reflect the true diversity of the Jewish community. We want to do a better job of ensuring that all members of the Jewish community feel they not only have a seat at the table, but that their voices are essential elements of Jewish communal discourse.

After all, our work is not fully realized until we can reflect and respond to the unique struggles, concerns, goals, and aspirations of everyone in our community. To shape the vibrant, inclusive future we have in mind, we need as many different people as possible to feel a sense of ownership in and responsibility for the work ahead. The more people who weigh in on where we go from here, the more vibrant our Jewish future will be.

Ultimately, however, a community of belonging is characterized not by the way a community feels about itself but by the way each individual is made to feel within the community. Belonging is not a feeling we can assign to someone, but by listening to one another and moving forward with respect and intention, it is something we can cultivate.

As the Jewish people continue to diversify in every way possible, I can think of no higher calling than welcoming everyone across the threshold and onto the center of the dance floor.

Shabbat Shalom,

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