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The Avodah Blog

Mummy Dance Parties and Stranger Gift Exchanges: Making Meaningful Connections in Manhattan (and Beyond)

Robin Blanc is from Philadelphia, PA and attended Reed College. As a New York Corps member, she works as the College Access Fellow at The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a college-preparatory high school that engages students through issues of law and social justice.

Take a look at the picture.  Typical crowded rush hour on a Manhattan street, right? Look again. Everyone’s wearing headphones (and they’re young, mostly white, and clearly not business people). I guess we could see the headphones as a great example of the anonymity and isolation of the modern city, but actually it’s just the opposite. All of the people in this picture are participating in Improv Everywhere’s mp3 experiment, an annual project that takes over part of New York City for an hour as thousands of people play a digital track at the same time that instructs them in some sort of zaniness.

This year, me and a fellow Avodahnik participated, and our tasks included slow dancing with an object in a store, freezing in place on the street, and exchanging gifts with strangers in Bryant Park. The hour was for me and, I think, many of the other participants (and onlookers), one of my most thrilling experiences in New York. First, there was the feeling of being in on something secret—looking around to see who else had in headphones and was acting a little funny—while all of the shoppers in Midtown had no idea what was about to happen. Then, as things progressed, it was the thrill of being part of something larger—the huge crowd of people, all doing silly walks, and then, as a group, moving through the streets to get to one place as fast as possible.

It was more than just the mob mentality that was startling about the experience (I’ve been to lots of large events in NYC, from demonstrations to concerts to parades); I think a large part of it was the cognitive dissonance. Most of the time, Manhattan can seem like such a large, impersonal city, and for one hour, it became a community. Contrast the thousands of people wrapping each other in toilet paper and having a mummy dance party with the time, a few weeks earlier, when a different housemate was on a subway and missed an important announcement; she tried to ask the people around her what was said and no one answered. This was different—we were all doing something together, and we knew it, and for that one hour, I felt part of a community in Midtown Manhattan, one of the most crowded places in the biggest city in the USA.

I think one of the things that’s hardest for me about this year so far is figuring out how to make that sense of connection more permanent. It’s not a problem within our house—from day one of AVODAH, we’ve been doing things to build community within the bayit, whether it was playing silly games within hours of meeting each other, throwing a house party, or figuring out our norms for community Shabbats. Not all of what we’ve done has been explicitly designed to strengthen the structures that will hold us together for the next year, but almost everything we’ve done has in some way served that purpose. We’ve joked about it (and my friends from outside AVODAH always comment on it), but I think it’s not unintentional that our “community norms” butcher paper from the second day of orientation is still hanging next to the door in our living room. We know that it’s a lot of work to get 18 different people with 18 different perspectives to all live in one house, not just peaceably, but respectfully, lovingly, supportively, etc.

And then, every day, we go out into our neighborhood and into New York City.  Not only is NYC the biggest city, it is also the most densely populated and the most linguistically diverse. I am in constant proximity to hundreds of people who come from hundreds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and the most I’ll ever say to them is maybe a “sorry” if I step on their toes when the subway stops suddenly. I’ve seen someone yelling at the potted plants in Downtown Brooklyn, and no one batted an eyelash. I worry about the bayit—already a supportive environment after a long, difficult day of work—becoming what we think of as an isolated refuge from the craziness of the city.

So how do we make those meaningful connections in a context where icebreakers and long sharing sessions won’t work? It’s a question we’ve been trying to answer as a house, especially within the context of being a house of young, mostly white, Jews in a historically black middle class neighborhood. We baked deserts and opened our sukkah to our neighbors (to mixed success). We’ve befriended the cashier at the corner store across the street. People have popped into church services, explored local food, and pitched in to clean up after the Brooklyn tornado.

In some ways, I think, the answer is that it’s a process. Mummy dance parties can certainly go a long way to making you feel a part of something larger, but they don’t make lasting connections. What they do is remind you that those moments can exist, and, if you’re willing to put in effort—maybe even more than is required to build the community in the bayit—even the largest of cities can slowly become less anonymous and more of a home.

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