Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community
When a standing-room-only crowd shows up for a township meeting in a quiet, relatively affluent suburban community, you know something important is happening. Not only did neighbors fill the township hall seats and spaces along the walls and doorways, but they also filled the room next door that had been equipped with closed-circuit TV for the overflow crowd to be able to be full participants. It was quite a lesson in democracy and politics.
My town is embroiled in a zoning battle, prompted by a request of a major international corporation whose headquarters are locally based. The company has a large open-space campus with offices and research facilities in the center. It claims that the changing business environment has rendered its usage of the facility increasingly obsolete and rather than rebuilding or redesigning the corporate space, it wants to commercially develop the open space. The plan would give developers a chance to build townhouses and a sprawling continuing care senior facility.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea if it weren’t for the fact that the local roads have already become maddeningly congested at peak hours, with no solution in sight. And there are potentially serious environmental issues with the property that have not yet been resolved. And the property is the one last tract of open space in the area. And the proposed new master plan would be locked in for 20 years – without legal means to change course if the community so desired. Most significantly, the dense population of this area would dramatically change our neighborhoods.
So our community organized and hired a lawyer and a planner and rallied to attend meetings. It was important to be there.
The town planner presented a theoretical framework that justified a new plan. But from the citizens’ perspective, many real-life concerns were not taken into account. The public listened respectfully, awaiting our turn. It was such a polite expression of democracy in action.
The lawyer and planner for the citizen’s group took up the floor. The stark distinctions between the citizens’ concerns and the theories of the town planner were laid bare.
The democratic process is a blessing even though it isn’t always pretty. The property owner has a right to ask for these changes. And we have a right to voice our opposition. And I’m proud of the unifying community spirit that this cause has engendered in our town.
The great rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) This wisdom is remarkably powerful for moments such as this. To the corporation, who has made this town its home for 70 years, I would say, “Do not separate yourself from the community!” Your responsibility to your community should guide your hearts. We ask you to honor a basic value of neighborliness: Do No Harm.
And to our community, we must then say, “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death,” meaning: have humility. The greatest breakdown a community can have is in its inability to recognize the “right” in each other. I was exasperated when we got home very late from the planning board meeting and I exclaimed to my husband, “This is our community and they can’t be allowed to ruin it!” He was more level-headed than I was at that hour, and he simply said, “they have rights too.”
Do not separate yourself from the community. Both Hillel and American democracy got it right.