Community is the Missing Piece

In July 2010, I began a local “Sustainability Circle” in my Jewish community in Silver Spring, MD. Unlike any other local initiative I’ve organized, the purpose of this circle was to gather Jews who already care about the environment and give them tools for personal and communal environmental actions.

Most of my previous activities were about community education for Jews who weren’t yet convinced about the environment, but after years of this kind of programming in Silver Spring, the light bulb went on. There are already people who have learned and become interested. What can I do to provide for them?

The members of the Kayamut Sustainability Circle are Jews in the Silver Spring area, principally Orthodox Jews in my neighborhood, but also others – Jews from others communities who are interested in learning with us. Over the last year and a half, we’ve had more than a dozen meetings, with an average attendance of about 15 people per session – both regulars and others who come occasionally. Our email list has grown to about fifty.

With so many other activities and so many commitments in our community, we all wondered whether this group could have any staying power. After all, social capital is at an all-time low in America and people are not joining groups the way they used to. But with the help of Susan Lubeck, who led Canfei Nesharim’s Bay Area Leadership Training and leadership webinars in 2009-2010, we crafted this group to provide not just information but community. In a neighborhood where not everyone agrees that the environment is important, we’ve created a safe and encouraging space for people who do. And that gives them the courage to increase their actions, to take the environment into consideration in their choices, and to share their commitments with others.

Erin Johnson presents to Kayamut Sustainability Circle.

On January 9th, the Kayamut Sustainability Circle held a session on “Food for Thought.” Erin Johnson, the coordinator of Sandy Spring CSA (a local farm share) presented on opportunities for joining a CSA that delivers right in our neighborhood. (See photo, right.) We had prepared a “buddy form” to enable people to find others in the community with whom to split a share. Already several new people have indicated their interest in joining the CSA as a result of this event.

With events like this, we tend to focus on individual results, without realizing the long-term benefit of community building. For me, at this meeting the feeling of community in the room was almost more important.

As a group, we explored possibilities for our community Tu b’Shevat Seder next month. We reviewed recent developments on the Wind Power for Maryland campaign which we had learned about earlier this fall, and many members took lawn signs in support of the campaign. We listened to a dvar Torah and enjoyed a slide show from regular member Ron Sheinson, who had visited Neot Kedumim in Israel weeks before. A local teacher invited the community to come to a science fair at her school. At the end of the meeting, one member volunteered to research ideas for upcoming events.

These days, so much of environmental activity seems to be about asking for personal actions which will never be seen or recognized. Many people connect to the environment through the fundraising checks they sent to Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund (or Canfei Nesharim?). But when you build community along with environmental concern, something very special happens. The relationships reinforce the environmental action. People feel proud of what they are doing. They have a place to share their commitments; they don’t have to be frustrated, angry or resigned about the environment. Or, if they are, at least there is a place where they don’t have to be alone!

If you are interested in forming a sustainability circle in your local community, I have lots of resources that can help. Please let me know!

Enjoy pictures from Ron Sheinson’s slideshow below.

2 Replies to "Community is the Missing Piece"

  • Isaac Hametz
    January 17, 2012 (6:39 pm)

    Evonne, I continue to be impressed with your ability to develop new and meaningful initiatives for your target audience. In your blog you mentioned that a light bulb went off when conceiving of the Sustainability Circle. Can you tell me more about that moment? As much as community is critical in sustaining inspired action, personal creativity and imagination often spark the necessary flames for a warm gathering.

  • Evonne Marzouk
    January 18, 2012 (8:06 pm)

    Hi Isaac! The light bulb came about in a conversation with the wonderful Susan Lubeck. The realization was that I had been stepping OVER the people who already care in an effort to inspire those who don’t yet, instead of finding ways to acknowledge and strengthen the commitment of those who didn’t need to be convinced, but instead needed to be encouraged and empowered. Earlier on, that was appropriate in my community, but at this stage the community had evolved. One of the most important things I’ve learned about community change is that the community evolves and you have to change your approach to meet the new needs. You need to be a shape-shifter! Or to find new leaders who can fill those gaps. It was a little risky for me to change my approach and try something new… which is why you always need a community of support around you. Anyway, just some thoughts about that moment, as you requested. 🙂

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