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The Power of Community
Mom with a View

The Power of Community

Using social pressure to your advantage.


I really should apply for a grant. It seems there are studies commissioned to discover the most obvious truths, studies published in prestigious journals. I'm in the wrong line of work.

The latest of those is described in a recent New England Journal of Medicine. These clever researchers (clever because they thought to apply for a grant!) have learned that social networks have an even greater effect on the chance of becoming obese than genes do.

I'm not sure why this is news. AA and OA and all the other "Anonymous" groups have meetings and sponsors because they recognize the power of community. Many people make work-out commitments with a buddy in an effort to stick with it. Peer pressure is a well-documented phenomenon.

A friend of mine worked at a local university researching strategies for discouraging smoking among college kids (yet another lucky grant recipient). Her findings: It all depended on what they believed their friends were doing. If they thought their classmates were smoking, they were more likely to start. If they thought they weren't, that was the most effective deterrent.

These are important ideas when developing strategies for dealing with these widespread problems. They're just not new. The Jewish people have known the power of community since time immemorial. When the Jews went down to Egypt, they asked for the land of Goshen, a place where they could live as a unique and separate community.

This was and is one of the secrets to our survival. Community life reinforces community goals and standards and helps keep destructive values at bay.

One of the most painful punishments in the times of the Torah required separation from the community and conversely, anyone who voluntarily abandoned the Jewish people in times of trouble faced serious consequences.

We see clearly the power of peers for our children (particularly our teenagers). But we shouldn't diminish its power for ourselves. We need community.

While some American movies endorse the ideas of the noble, principled loner (think Clint Eastwood), this is not the Jewish ideal. We are meant to live together -- to help each other, support each other, and reinforce our values.

A community that shares our values allows us to grow and thrive.

While the New England Journal of Medicine piece was focused on eating, particularly obesity, there are even more serious issues at stake. A community that shares our values allows us to grow and thrive. We aspire to live up to the standards it sets. A community with values contrary to our own also has an impact. We are not immune (just read the studies!).

If we spend time with people who gossip, we will gossip. If we spend time with people whose focus is fashion and shopping, our focus will become fashion and shopping. If we spend time with people who mock learning and growing, we will find ‘more acceptable' pastimes.

On the other hand, if we spend time with people whose focus is spiritual, our focus will be directed in a loftier direction. If we spend time with people who shun malicious slander, we will probably keep our mouths shut. And if we spend time with people whose goal is to actualize their potential and be the best they can be, then we will be motivated to do the same.

It's all up to us. Choosing to live in a supportive community makes a big difference to our lives. We don't need a study to tell us that. And why do all the studies have to tell me to stop eating?!

October 13, 2007

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 4

(4) kathee, November 20, 2007 9:24 AM

Problem finding community

I loved your article. I, too, have been unable to find a community. God's will.

(3) Silky Pitterman, October 17, 2007 12:32 PM

You have to want to find the community

The first commentator said he couldn't find any welcoming communities in NYC. Perhaps he looked in the wronge places or didn't extend himself. The Agudah on Avenue M and Ocean Parkway is a lovely congregation with a hopitality committee The Young Israel of Flatbush on Coney Island Ave. and Ave. I also is a very warm and friendly. I think they have a kiddush every week. Cong. Aishel Avrahom on Roder Ave. corner E. 10 St. is also known as the Cheverah Shul because everyone there is welcomed as part of the Chavera. Rabbi Landou's shul is also a lovely place. It is on Ave. L corner E. 9 St. I'm sure there must be many more welcoming congragations. Keep looking and smile. Good luck.

(2) Anonymous, October 17, 2007 1:51 AM

when people are so busy there is no time to create a feeling of community

"Choosing to live in a supportive community makes a big difference to our lives." -- how true. The problem that I find is that, I do not find any active communal groups that are particularly welcoming, in the new york area. Maybe many people are just too busy with work and/or family. Or maybe they are content with their social circle and do not feel any need to extend any invitations to newcomers to join them.

(1) Anonymous, October 16, 2007 5:00 PM

A valid point but....

While the point made in this article is both true and valid, I couldn't help but think: a pity we are such a bunch of sheep! Why can't we think for ourselves and make decisions on the basis of what we choose as best for ourselves, why should what someone else is doing matter? However, if we conciously choose our company, we are indeed thinking for ourselves...and implementing out thoughts in our social lives.

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