This week, I've made a transition from crunching numbers and plotting graphs back to the historian's bread-and-butter, reading and analyzing archival documents. In doing so, I have been reunited with several historical actors that, throughout the years, I have grown an immense affection for. These are not the central players in the dissertation--they're not the ones calling the shots that I am lauding or criticizing, or at least not them alone. One was a social worker at a JCC who, by all accounts, was beloved in the community and undervalued by her supervisors. Another was a JCC Board member, a Judge, who was upstanding and decorous but also wrote whimsical poems and earnest eulogies.
I have learned a lot from the characters in my dissertation about how to live a meaningful life, which I did not expect. I'm a systems person. I like big questions and broadly-applicable arguments. My dissertation is supposed to explain why non-Jews use the Jewish Community Center with such regularity. And yet, I think the most precious lesson I have learned from writing on this topic is the value of investing your time and energy in building community. These characters were listeners and helpers and gave freely and widely of their time and resources. Perhaps I did not learn this from them, and it was a case of self-selection; I was drawn to them because I also value community, voluntarism, and investment in human capital. Even if this is so, they have deepened my belief in the importance of caring for and sustaining community.