Opinion // A Prescription for Group Therapy

By | Nov 03, 2016
2016 November-December, Opinion
Jewish women discussing politics and the election

To recover from the trauma of a long campaign season, gather a few friends and study.

I’m a groupie. Not the kind who stalks rock stars but the kind who, when intensely interested in an issue, feels compelled either to join a group or to start one. It strikes me, in the wake of this bruising political year, as a felicitous habit. A race for president, by its nature, elevates outsized individuals who promise to accomplish great things. However, leaders can’t always deliver. And lone-wolf activists may be inspiring change agents, but collective action is what gets stuff done. 

That’s the message of these lines from Marge Piercy’s stirring poem “The low road”:

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

Two people can keep each other
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization…
A dozen make a demonstration.*

Solidarity for the purposes of political protest is an obvious reason to organize a pod of like-minded people into a group with a specific agenda. I speak from experience. In 1972, I was among the small cadre of women who cofounded Ms. magazine, the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Free To Be Foundation—three institutions devoted to advancing gender equality and promoting feminist transformation. All three are still going strong. Indeed, their issues this year were more visible and relevant than ever.   

Sometimes it’s not protest that’s needed but personal contact. Groups are good at this, too. When the legendary black-Jewish coalition of the civil rights era began unraveling in the early 1980s, I became a founding member of a couple of black-Jewish dialogue groups that probed the complexities and navigated the flashpoints of that ever-evolving relationship. And seven years ago, a Palestinian acquaintance and I cofounded a small Palestinian-Jewish women’s dialogue group whose closed-door discussions have broadened our understanding of each side’s conflicting narratives and deepened our empathy for “the other.” While the official peace process has stalled, our little group has forged strong, meaningful friendships. 

Enlightened self-interest is another good reason to create a community from scratch.  Here, it’s the Judaism-centered groups in my life that make the point: They’ve offered years of social and intellectual rewards. When my husband Bert and I couldn’t find a Torah study group that suited us, we started one. We invited about a dozen friends—lawyers like Bert and writers like me—to come to our house for breakfast and Deuteronomy. That was 25 years ago. Over time, the group became more heterogeneous and doubled in size. We began studying under a revolving cast of rabbis and professors but eventually hired one as our permanent leader. We meet every month,  always with the same core menu—bagels and lox, lecture and discussion. This year, we “did” Maimonides.

One last example is perhaps the most telling.  Since 1991, I’ve participated in a Rosh Hodesh (new month) group—a dozen or so Jewish feminists who meet monthly to talk about Judaism, women, books, ideologies, our families and whatever issues may be roiling the public discourse. Each month, one of us volunteers to be the facilitator and presents a topic along with relevant texts. This format has helped us explore everything from a Jewish take on transgender politics, to the significance of women’s hair in religious cultures, to tensions between Israel and the diaspora, intermarriage, anti-Semitism, illness and loss.  We even had a session on why so many wives stand by the husbands who betray them.

Though ardent talkers, we’re also respectful listeners, which counts when you consider our differences. More than 35 years separate our youngest and oldest members. Our cadre includes two rabbis, a Modern Orthodox woman, a bevy of believers, one convert (who’s more grounded in Jewish tradition than 90 percent of the Jews I know) and a smattering of secularists. We hold widely divergent views on Israel/Palestine. We come from kosher homes and bacon-eating parents, immigrant families and rabbinic royalty.  Some of us are prosperous, others financially strapped. These differences make us interesting to one another.

Sharing a quarter-century of Rosh Hodesh colloquy with women like these gave me a postgraduate education with no tuition and no tests. It’s the reason I urge people to become groupies themselves.  Gather eight or ten friends and form a Jewish study group. Vote on whether to “do” Exodus, Psalms or Jonathan Safran Foer. Or ask a local priest, minister and imam to help you identify congregants of theirs who might want to join you in founding a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue group.   

Sixteen years ago, in his bestseller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam decried the deterioration of social networks and blamed TV for keeping Americans from interacting with one another for civic good or personal stimulation. Since then, smartphones, streaming coverage and video games have further isolated and alienated us from our neighbors and colleagues—with the results we see all around us. If your most intense relationships are with your electronic screens, it may be time for you to gather a group of people eager to rediscover the joys of talking, learning and taking action together.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.

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