I believe in community.
I grew up in a small college town in southern West Virginia. My newly-wed parents moved there from the Bronx in 1948 when my father accepted a teaching position at Concord College. The town residents weren’t quite sure which they distrusted most about these newcomers – that they were Jewish or that they were from New York. Little by little, though, my parents’ friendly, unassuming nature won them over, and as the young couple settled in the town, the town settled into their hearts.
Growing up in Athens taught me that all people matter equally, and that you only exist as part of a community. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, but they knew so they could help without being asked. There were little things, like the bags of tomatoes, corn, and beans that appeared on our porch all summer from neighbors who knew these city folks didn’t garden. There were bigger things, too. When my paternal grandmother was dying in New York, friends showed up with sandwiches, cookies, and thermoses of coffee for the trip. Colleagues offered to cover my father’s classes for as long as he needed. And many prayers were said in Baptist and Methodist churches for a Jewish woman on her deathbed in the Bronx.
When the people in my hometown want to reach out to each other, they need only walk or drive a short distance. Sometimes, though, a community will extend itself across the globe. The Masai tribe in Kenya was so touched by the events in New York City on September 11, 2001 that they made a gift of 14 prized cows to the people of the United States. In their community, a gift of cows shows respect, caring and selflessness. As an elder of the tribe said, “The handkerchief we give to people to wipe their tears with is a cow.”
In their own way, this Kenyan village exhibited what is possible when people recognize that a community can expand to embrace those it may not immediately recognize. They felt the suffering of a people very far away, and they extended themselves to assist a people whose faces and culture looked so different from their own. The Americans became their next-door neighbors.
The people of Athens, WV share what they have. Casserole dishes and cake pans pass from one house to another, the village raises the children, neighbors visit the sick and grieving, and a bunch of Protestants helped a young couple from New York figure out how to be Jewish in their new home while learning a thing or two themselves.
I believe in the power of community to solve the world’s biggest problems. If we think of others’ problems as our own, we might choose to put our intellect and resources to use to take care of the big stuff – hunger, disease, health crises, genocide.
Because members of a community help each other without being asked.
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