Creating community and accumulating social capital: Jews associating with other Jews in Manchester:
Author(s): Ernest Schlesinger
Published: Wednesday 31 Dec 2003
In today's world, there are literally thousands of formal and informal groups, clubs, societies and organizations that cater to the diverse specific interests of the population. Most people feel the need to belong to a mutually supportive network of relationships, some of which go beyond primary group ties or even neighbourhood organizations. We live in an 'associated society' (Davies and Herbert 1993:1). This is hardly new. Throughout history, people have belonged to groups, loosely called 'communities', in which associations of various types and intensities bind them together. Today, communities serve a variety of functions, offering safety from the apparently negative effects of unwanted change or counteracting some of the problems that stem from a society that promotes individualism.
People who identify themselves in similar ways form a nucleus around which a community can crystallize and it is in this context that we refer frequently to an entity called, for want of a better term, 'a Jewish community' or 'the Jewish community'. We often use this designation as if it is unequivocal and understood by all, even though 'Jewish community', like the word 'community' itself (but perhaps even more so), is problematic and fraught with potential for serious misunderstanding. However, 'community' is only a surrogate term, a translation for a concept deeply rooted in Jewish history and memory. The bonds that actually tie members of a community together derive from a variety of perceived characteristics, such as shared origins, similar activities or social structures, or similar attitudes and worldviews. This bonding simultaneously derives from and contributes to the individual and group identities of community members. But what does it mean to be Jewish and what does it mean to be part of a Jewish community? What do people mean when they--consciously or otherwise--use the word 'community' to describe the cultural, social and geographical environment in which Jews live? What makes a community? In reality, these apparently simple questions are both complex in structure and difficult to answer. They form the essence of Ernest Schlesinger's report Creating community and accumulating social capital: Jews associating with other Jews in Manchester.
Throughout the ages, community was the nucleus of local cohesion and leadership in towns and smaller settlements in the countries of the Jewish dispersion. Approaching the modern era, as Jews increasingly became urban dwellers throughout the diaspora, community became more developed and central to Jewish society. Several Hebrew terms roughly translate as 'community'. These are edah (), kahal () and kehilla (). Edah might more closely be thought of as an ethnie, a community in the sense of an ethnic community that coheres by virtue of a common identity. Kahal might better be translated as 'public' or 'crowd'; it is community in the sense of an almost ad hoc coming together. Kehilla is probably the word closest to current meanings of community, especially among diaspora Jews. It also translates as both 'congregation' and 'assembly', and invokes the idea of people coming together for a specific purpose, though that purpose may be as divergent as prayer, social activity or representation in the wider world. Community is thus often equated with congregation and, although congregating has traditionally been an essential part of community, the two words are not, strictly speaking, interchangeable.
Congregating has long been a means by which members of ethnic or religious communities have adapted to the urban environment, allowing them to feel secure by increasing the potential for contact with other group members. As Paul Ritterband puts it: 'Jews need other Jews in order to be Jews' (2000:227). Congregation seeks to strengthen the group by promoting interaction with others. And security does not mean just physical security, but is a cultural and social safety net that allows individuals to maintain a lifestyle that is theirs while still interacting with the general society of which they are part. Geographical proximity provides individual members of the group with an adhesive material, which is the major contributor to the cohesion of the group as a whole.1 Though the mutual proximity of group members usually enhances feelings of community, propinquity is neither sacrosanct nor a prerequisite for community. Nevertheless, voluntary associations work less efficiently in a diffuse, let alone a virtual, environment and some form of congregation usually facilitates the operation of community at all levels.
Congregating does not erect barriers to communication with the outside world, but innocuous congregation can inadvertently lead to a much more negative and divisive segregation, in which the group is physically, socially and culturally set off from the rest of society. Under complete segregation, there would be no contact whatsoever between people living on opposite sides of the boundary line; they would have no contact at workplaces or in leisure activities; they would pray in different places of worship, travel separately and so on. Such a state of affairs is alien to the United Kingdom in the twenty-first century although some mild ethnic segregation exists and social segregation by class is common. Nonetheless, overall rates of residential segregation in Britain are not high when compared to the United States.2
In his short but erudite book Zakhor (Remember), the American historian Yosef Yerushalmi discusses the Jewish ways of remembering.3 Remembering that one is Jewish precedes and is more important than proclaiming Jewish beliefs, for Jewish ethnicity or peoplehood is clearly prior to Jewish religion. Part of this form of remembering is concerned with having a sense of difference, a sense of Jewishness on a tribal level, if you will. This, too, is a condition for commitment to Jewish religion. Axiomatically, remembering and having a sense of difference are ways of stating that Jews comprise a distinct component within the population at large.
Being Jewish, then, is concerned with identity, or a person's or people's sense of who they are or rather who they think they are. Nevertheless, people possess multiple identities. In democratic societies, people can choose the identities they wish to project, in whatever order of precedence and in whatever combinations they desire or that circumstances demand. Jews in contemporary Britain are relatively free to construct identities to which they are most suited and according to circumstances. Indeed, these identities need not contain the descriptor 'Jewish'. The same person can identify--independently or simultaneously--as a Jew, a British citizen, a Mancunian, a resident of Salford, an academic, a supporter of Manchester City Football Club, a member of the local Fabian Society, recorder group or left-handers club. In contrast, the identities of most Jews in Nazi Germany were determined not by the people themselves but by the Nuremburg race laws that resolved the issue for them. But, in that situation as well, there was some choice. However, even today, identities can be shaped by the impact of external forces. It would be wrong to marginalize the formal and informal pressures in this process that are exerted by both 'the community' and British society, and that help mould the context within which choices are made. It is within this context, of course, that voluntary associations shape their aims.
In whichever way Jewish communities are organized in the modern world, an overriding characteristic is their voluntary nature. Although every society differs in the way that Jews structure the organizations through which they conduct the activities that make them 'tick', it is the organic and voluntary nature of the process that stands out. The bodies might include those that collect charitable donations and distribute them to the needy (Halfpenny and Reid 2000; Schlesinger 2000), organizations that govern or represent Jews in their relations with the external world (Commission on Representation of the Interests of the British Jewish Community 2000), or those that impart Jewish culture across the generations, such as synagogues and schools (Valins et al. 2001).
We tend to think of community organizations as formal institutions, as legal entities under the charity law. They might be established by dint of communal need (e.g. for representation), religious precept (e.g. synagogue, burial society) or charitable initiatives. People--individuals, families or households--pay membership dues or make donations, or elect representatives who, in turn, choose a management body that sets policy and makes decisions (Harris and Rochester 2001). However, many other community organizations are much more informal. Far from being 'practical' and having a clear-cut obligation, their utility is far from apparent. These informal institutions, such as drama and literary societies, rambling groups, golfing clubs and weekly chamber music soirées, may have no other ostensible purpose than to bring Jews with similar interests together--as Jews. Their vitality adds to the network of social connections among people within a community.
These informal organizations perform this function discreetly, often without much awareness that they are doing it. If the individuals, the friendship networks and the families represent the bricks of the community estate, and the formal organizations constitute the mortar holding them together, then these informal associations can be regarded as the foundational underpinning and reinforcing construction rods. Without them, the whole structure is in danger of collapse. They add insurance value to the property, making the social capital of Jewish communities more secure over the long term (see Saguaro Seminar 2000:1). These organizations are the voluntary associations through which social capital is accumulated. They add considerable value to the social capital of those Jewish communities within which they operate and of which they are an integral part.
Social capital is productive, making possible achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible. It is far less tangible than physical or human capital, but it exists in the relationships among people. It refers to the worth of the social networks symbolized in diverse groups of people (both geographical communities and communities of interest), and the trust and reciprocity that flows from those networks. It involves two components: objective associations between individuals and the reciprocal, trusting, emotional ties between individuals. In particular, the concept of social capital illustrates how the social structure of a group can function as a resource for the individuals of that group. Because of the reciprocal nature of the ties developed in creating social capital, use of social capital actually increases its value (Coleman 1988; Paxton 1999; Putnam 2000).
Where social capital has been amassed through trust and networking, there are:
. . . lower crime rates and more effective schools. Children in such communities are at lower risk of teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug use or juvenile delinquency. Citizens in high social-capital communities enjoy more responsive, honest and efficient government and are, in turn, more likely to pay taxes and fulfil other civic obligations.4
There is considerable evidence from around the world that social capital can be measured. However, although it has been suggested that in the United States, at least, there has been a decline in the value of social capital, this has been disputed by others (Putnam 2000; Paxton 1999). Obviously, measuring social capital is a more complex exercise than estimating the value of physical capital. Notwithstanding the ensuing debate, attention has recently been drawn to the decline in trust and the rise in suspicion within British society, presumably with a consequent decline in overall social capital (O'Neill 2002). Moreover, it has also been pointed out that not all social capital is necessarily positive (Mohan and Mohan 2002).
This report examines voluntary associations of Jewish people in the Manchester conurbation in north-west England. The recreational associations that Ernest Schlesinger discusses in this report provide a case study of the background elements of 'Jewish community'. They contribute to the well-being and continuance of a spirit of community, of being Jewish. They help increase the stock of Jewish social capital. In these associations, Jewish people come together informally or semi-formally to be with one another, to interact, to strengthen bonds. The bonding is oriented inward and is exclusive, its main purpose being to reinforce those identities that make people feel Jewish--and thus different to others. Perhaps in this way, by having more confidence in who they are, they can look outward and construct bridges to others from different social and ethnic backgrounds.5
A study by Riv-Ellen Prell of two Minneapolis Jewish congregations found that each synagogue represented a major way of creating community, namely by memory and by choice. Whereas memory could be nostalgic, remembering passively and contemplating the 'good old days', the community of choice turned to the past to find the courage and resources to build a future (Prell 2000). Therefore, we have to ask whether 'hanging out together' is sufficient for long-term continuity. That it still persists and, in the case of Manchester, can attract several thousand individuals, is worthy of note. After all, the power of relatively weak non-ideological and non-religious links, which confound logic, as well as social and historical theories, is remarkable. However, we still have to ask whether this is sufficient.
Some Jews might wish to play golf or football, or act or play cards, as part of normal recreational desires, and they might find that doing it with other Jews is easier. So it is obvious that coming together in voluntary associations fulfils certain personal social needs. That is a good start. Moreover, these associations should not be viewed in isolation, as separate from other, more formal, organizations. People have a layered involvement in society. For some, these informal associations are their only connection with other Jews outside the family; for others, they are just one of many. Changing circumstances, such as life-cycle changes or residential location decisions, may either increase or decrease active involvement in more formal institutions. These voluntary associations should be viewed as fitting into a nexus of familial, neighbourhood, friendship and more formal ties. These associations are good at building up trust and personal friendships among their members, and this is an important part of all successful voluntary organizations. They reinforce and extend Jewish networks and connectivity, creating and maintaining links between core and periphery within the Jewish community.
Ernest Schlesinger's report thus fits comfortably into the Institute for Jewish Policy Research's project, Long-term Planning for British Jewry (LTP), which is a five-year undertaking to record the current state of the Jewish voluntary sector in the United Kingdom. It aims to provide decision-makers with a current and accurate picture of this sector, allowing strategic planning decisions to be guided by accurate information that reflects the real world. The objective of LTP is to identify and build on the community's distinctive strengths, to help the Jewish voluntary sector develop a shared vision and sense of its own identity, and to develop a strong and cohesive sector as a prerequisite for planning for the future. The various projects that comprise LTP may be conceptualized as pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle that, when fitted together, will ultimately form a clear picture. Its ultimate goal is the production of a strategic planning document, whose preparation at the culmination of the research programme will enable the community to develop an agreed agenda for action in the areas of planning, policies and priorities in the twenty-first century.
This report should be read as a portal into Jewish Manchester. It contributes to the Long-term Planning for British Jewry project in the sense that it foresees that many British Jews over the next decade will continue to associate freely together in informal leisure activities and so congregate socially. Historically, one consequence of continuing involvement in informal associations might well be to encourage the participants to learn more about their Jewishness, and to become involved in other, more formal, aspects of Jewish communal life and in civil society. In the case of Manchester's Jewish voluntary associations reported here, what Jewish leaders have to ask is whether the social capital they generate is sufficient to ensure Jewish continuity. Certainly, maintaining the organic connection between the Jewish public and communal institutions will be a considerable challenge in the twenty-first century. Yet without the accumulation of social capital arising from Jews just associating with other Jews, the task would certainly be even harder.
Director of Research, JPR
1 As an example, take the case of a family that can afford a substantial house in the outer suburbs of a large metropolis. Though we may be unaware of it, the decision to change residence activates a process of 'like seeking like'. Because, for most, money (or, more precisely, the lack of it) limits choice, searches are usually conducted in areas where there are people of similar incomes and occupations. But money is never the only factor involved when we move home and, even for the wealthiest, it may not even be the principal issue. A household that moved to an economically compatible neighbourhood might find that there were other features distinguishing them from their neighbours. Skin colour might cause them to stand out in the neighbourhood, activating latent hostilities among their ostensible peers; they might be religious and find that there is no appropriate place of worship; they might not drive and thus find that getting around is impossible. All of these factors, and others, enter into the equation of finding the right place to live. Factors are differentially weighted, not only among the group as a whole, but from household to household and among individuals. Some people might look for an area near good schools or shopping facilities; others might look for close proximity to a transport facility that will shorten their journey to work. Others still might seek out a quiet neighbourhood or one in which they perceive there to be artists who might be tolerant of a musician who practises six to eight hours a day. Members of ethnic minorities who feel safety in numbers might reasonably choose to search out other members of the same group and live near them. [back]
2 There is little debate that physical separation is an effective way of promoting and enforcing strict separation among groups if that is what is desired. There is also little doubt that, in some cases, segregation can occur without having been intended. Over thirty years ago, the American economist Thomas Schelling argued compellingly that a desire to congregate (i.e. to live close to like people while explicitly expressing a desire not to be more than the smallest possible majority in a given area) would inevitably lead to segregation. Schelling's paramount inference was that individual actions more often than not lead to group results that are exactly the opposite of what is expressly desired (see Schelling 1971 and Schelling 1974). For a discussion of the British Jewish context, see Waterman and Kosmin 1988. [back]
3 The Jewish way of remembering bears little relationship to the historiographic chronological approach with which most of us are familiar. Jews remember cyclically; moreover, 'remembrance' of events can be transferred from one situation to another. This collective memory, in which Jews as a group persistently remind themselves of Jewish occurrences, events and myths, merely helps them remember that they are Jews (Yerushalmi 1996). [back]
4 Robert Putnam, Observer, 25 March 2001. [back]
5 This type of social capital, termed 'bonding social capital', is exclusive and inward-looking, its main purpose being to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. It is distinguished from 'bridging social capital', which is inclusive and outward-looking and which aims to encompass people across diverse social cleavages (Putnam 2000:184). [back]
« previous section| next section »