Simon Kelner: The very tangible benefits of a sense of belonging

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The Independent Online

It was the writer Bim Adewunmi who started the five-minute firestorm that ended up engulfing the Labour MP Diane Abbott recently. Ms Adewunmi has long been a critic of the media's use of the term "black community", believing it to be lazy and unhelpful, promoting the view that black people are one monolithic group, all with the same outlook on life, all with the same opinions.

Ms Abbott elbowed her way into the argument and, in the ensuing moral panic, the original point was lost. I have always been suspicious of the use of the word "community" when referring to a diverse group of people who are differentiated by their ethnicity or sexuality.

For instance, you are either gay or not, and, if you are, it doesn't automatically mean that you are a card-carrying member of the gay community. In the peerless sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm (a series in which I have a cameo role: but that's a story for another day), the irascible anti-hero Larry David refers in one episode to the "bald community" and, for me, that perfectly sums up how ludicrous it is to try and chain people together.

I say this also because I have never really felt part of any community, beyond the one that can be identified by support for Manchester City. And given what has gone on recently, I don't even recognise the concept of a journalistic community. Yesterday, however, I saw the benefit of having a sense of belonging. I was speaking at an event at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, a place where Jews (and non-Jews) can engage in all manner of cultural activities from lectures (for instance, "Judah Maccabee – was he revolting?") to bridge groups, from discussions ("Herod the Great – or was he?") to guided walks.

There was no doubting that the people in the centre felt part of a community, and the moment I walked in I had the sense that I had encountered a vision of the future me. There I'd be, complaining with all the other old Jews (actually, they weren't complaining at all – far from it – but I hope you get the idea).

Of course, up and down the country, there are hundreds of these centres, which act as focal points for all manner of communities, whether they be marked by age, ethnicity or geography. And is this not the Big Society in operation, rather than as a figment of political imagination?

The last time I'd been to the London Jewish Cultural Centre, I was booed off the stage for defending i's Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, a man who inspires strong feelings among many Jewish people.

Yesterday was a less excitable affair, a discussion about press ethics as part of the centre's Holocaust and anti-racism educational programme. The centre has 60 Holocaust survivors attached to the programme, and their personal testimonies have proven to be a very powerful tool in teaching young people about the dangers of prejudice. Afterwards, I stepped outside and, in the Holocaust Memorial Garden, stood and pondered a simple, but affecting, piece of art: a collection of old shoes, men's, women's and children's, an often-used motif to denote lives lost and humanity stripped away. The north London traffic roared by but failed to break a moment of contemplation: I have rarely felt more Jewish.