Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were more than two decades ago, according to research funded in 2006 by the National Science Foundation. A quarter of Americans said they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.

The cost of living has been on a general rising trend for the last decade. While wages have remained stagnant and unemployment has risen, costs have gone up.

Add to this the recent Pew Survey of American Jews report that says younger Jews are not only less connected to, but also are less interested in Jewish life. In Baltimore, a 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study showed 46 percent of Jewish Baltimoreans (80 percent of nondenominational Jews) find our communal organizations “remote and not relevant.”

One can look at these facts with trepidation, or one can face them head on, tackling a growing isolation with a plan and a challenge to create a new model. And that is what one growing group of people is doing.

“There is a growing number of people across the country who want to deepen Jewish life and Jewish community and are interested in making a profound commitment to Jewish community and who are exploring what Jewish community can look like in the 21st century,” said Nigel Savage, founder and executive director of Hazon, an organization working to create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. “It is very exciting and very inspiring.”

Termed intentional communities (though that is still an insider term barely known to those living in intentional communities), the concept is a group of people living together and working cooperatively in a way that reflects their core values. Often, there is an environmental/sustainability aspect or minimally a social justice component. Intentional communities can be rural, urban or suburban, a single residence or a cluster of homes, spiritually or religiously focused or secular (see “Defining Intentionality”).

According to Laird Schaub, executive secretary of Fellowship for Intentional Community, an organization he founded in 1987, there are about 100,000 Americans living in some form of intentional community. In 1990, when his organization published its first directory of intentional communities, there were a little over 300. In 2010, that directory (now online at ic.org) contained a listing of 1,055. While he is certain there is some margin of error — computers have made it easier to reach out and get directory listings — the numbers imply that intentional communities in North America have at least doubled, maybe tripled, in the last 25 years.

“What’s the volume of interest?” asked Schaub. “We get about 27,000 to 28,000 unique visits to our website every day, and they request seven pages per visit. People are looking at a lot of [our] stuff, and that is growing by about 10 percent per year. The demand is high. Interest in cooperative living is increasing, and it has been with tenure.”

While spiritual or faith-based communities used to be more popular — and they maintain a strong and consistent presence — Schaub said secular intentional communities are the fastest-growing cohort.

From Kibbutz to Shtetl … to Pearlstone?
Intentional communities are not new to the Jewish community, they just used to have a different name: kibbutzim.

“The kibbutz movement is over 100 years old. Israelis have always had this strong sense of living communally,” said Reuven Greenvald, director of community initiatives for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The earliest kibbutzim were voluntary collective communities (mainly agricultural), in which there was no private wealth and in which the collective was responsible for all the needs of its members and their families. Over the last century, the kibbutz movement has shifted and shrunk — and many of them now allow for private income — but this core concept of taking care of one another remains a fundamental principle in Israel.

In an interview for a separate article, Professor Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute said those who contributed most to the Israeli narrative and self-image were those in the second aliyah who came from Russia and were heavily influenced by the various socialist parties and movements there. She said the idea that the state should be deeply involved with the well-being of the individual is something “ingrained in Israeli society.”

Israelis pay income tax of around 40 percent.

And, according to Jewish Virtual Library, there are still some 120,500 people living in 269 kibbutzim across the Jewish state.

But community is also an inherit part of the Jewish religion and culture; there is a reason we call ourselves am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] and not da’at Yisrael [the religion of Israel].

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b), a Torah scholar is not allowed to live in a city that does not have 10 things: a beit din (law court); a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add a butcher); and a teacher of children. In other words, a Jewish community must provide for all of its members’ spiritual and physical needs.

Ten men make a Jewish minyan or quorum. Observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, celebrating holidays, giving tzedakah and following ethical business practices all are only possible in the context of community.

Intentional communities “return us to our Jewish roots,” said Baltimore intentional community activist Devorah Vidal. “In Judaism we rely on each other for prayer and learning. It simply makes sense to rely on each other for more.”

From around 1200 until the 19th century, Jews in Central and Eastern Europe lived in shtetls or towns with large Jewish populations, communities glorified in modern day through art and theater, such as “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Art Miller, another intentional community activist from Baltimore, noted that when Jews from these areas came to the United States after World War II, they gravitated to areas close by to one another, where Jews could live among each other and understand and support one another. It was only as generations became more fluent in English and better assimilated that these communities started dispersing.

Noted Savage: “Jewish life is very multidimensional, and to some extent it has been flattened and privatized by the modern world. Only when you learn and live in a Jewish com-munity do you have a sense of Jewish time and space. If we can start to develop communities around the country those places can become profound experiences in living richly and Jewishly within the wider American society.”

Three of the more than 190 Jewish community activists greet one another at the start of the  recent Jewish Intentional Communities  Conference at the Pearlstone Center. (Levi G. Gershkowitz)

Three of the more than 190 Jewish community activists greet one another at the start of the recent Jewish Intentional Communities Conference at the Pearlstone Center.
(Levi G. Gershkowitz)

That was the aim of a conference that took place in November in Reisterstown at the Pearlstone Center. More than 190 Jewish community activists came together to start a formal dialogue on this subject. Coined the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference and co-sponsored by the Pearlstone Center, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hazon and the Isabella Freedman Center, the conference, Savage said, was the first concrete step in Pearlstone and Hazon’s launching the Jewish Intentional Communities Initiative with the goal of creating permanent intentional communities that reflect Jewish traditions, values and rituals.

“There was a remarkable energy” for this, said Savage. “People were very excited to be there.”

Pearlstone Executive Director Jakir Manela said this was the largest attendance Pearlstone has ever had at one of its programs. A second, 2014 conference is already in the works to be hosted by Isabella Freedman, and there is talk of a third in 2015 in Israel.

The seeds for such a community in Baltimore were planted — pun intended — more than a decade ago with the founding of the Pearlstone Center. In the last five to seven years, according to conference supporter Josh Fidler of Baltimore, 10 to 20 Pearlstone staff and apprentices per year formed a transient preliminary intentional community focused on growing spiritually and sustaining the farm.

“We looked at what we had and realized this was something worth nurturing,” Fidler said.

In the last several years, Fidler has been working closely with Manela and a handful of others to work toward a Baltimore moshav or intentional community, and he said there is already a core group of funders interested in moving this forward. The intentional community would be located on or near Pearlstone and Camp Milldale. The idea, Fidler said, is that the community would buy land, build houses and create the opportunity for people to live there, rent houses or put in some equity. Those who choose to live there would have to give back to Jewish Baltimore in some way.

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