Here in Israel, apartments in buildings are individually owned. As such, those living in the building appoint one of the those living in the building to be responsible for tending to the upkeep and repairs, and everyone pays a monthly sum towards the communal expenses.
In my building, the person doing this job was burnt out. She called a meeting and told everyone someone better take over but no one was able to (this was four days before Yirmiyahu was born). There was a big leak somewhere in the building and repeated attempts to find a solution didn’t work. And this woman has a way of communicating with a lot of excessive emotion so you have a tendency to want to distance yourself from the hyperbole. So everyone was wary of getting involved and no one wanted to take the responsibility on themselves; a big part of that is there’s a culture of blaming and lack of participation so you won’t get any appreciation for your efforts and are likely to be attacked for trying to help.
A few months after having a meeting and no one volunteering to take over, she decided to stop doing whatever she was doing to force someone else to step in. Prior to this decision I told her that I would be willing to take over but she insisted it was too much for me because I have a big family. She often told me how no one cares and she’s sick of it, and each time I reminded her that I was willing to take over. Each time she said no.
Finally at the end of July we had a meeting and everyone agreed that I should take over (they said there had to be three people, though, so I volunteered someone who wasn’t there and convinced someone else to put her name down so e could proceed but she’s there as a token person and doesn’t need to do anything). I had a lot of apprehensions about this because of the emotional climate in the building – no trust, very little cooperation, and each person looking out for himself. I’m not native to the culture of this country and I felt worried about trying to work within a framework like this, but chose to believe that change was possible, had a positive attitude towards everyone, and got busy trying to find solutions.
At that time, the person who was previously in charge dragged her feet about transferring the necessary files to me and made things as difficult as she could, despite supposedly being desperate for months for someone to step in. Instead of thanking me for taking over, when I once again asked for the files she yelled at me that I should have volunteered sooner, and when I reminded her I had told her repeatedly for eight months that I was willing and she was the one who kept turning me down, she told me that I didn’t come to her house to get the files from her months before and that showed I didn’t really mean it (right, the same files that she was withholding when I was officially in charge). But when I had knocked on her door to try to talk to her about taking over in those months, she had gone on and one about how horrible everyone in the building was and she’s not dealing with it and she won’t talk about it, that I have to talk to her husband. When a week later I knocked at their door to speak to her husband, she said he has nothing to do with it. You can kind of see how this goes, right?
Fast forward to tonight. We had a meeting at my house so I could notify everyone about the many workmen that have come to check out the problem, fix leaks, give quotes for other work. This was a very difficult meeting. I’ve led and participated in meetings before but nothing like this. At the beginning I requested that each person be given a chance to be heard without interrupting but this lasted about four seconds. They just don’t communicate like that. Raised voices and talking over other people seems to be the norm.
Two strong voices were raised in dissent seemingly against everything I said – for example, when I showed the report of where the leaks in the building were and said that we had them repaired and checked afterward to be sure there were no continuing problems, one insisted there’s a leak right in the entrance to the building and it doesn’t matter how many professionals came to check it out and said there’s no problem there (and all gave the same opinion), these two men know better than the workmen and they know better than me what the workmen told me (though of course they weren’t present for any of those conversations). They complained that the quotes we got for different work that needs to be done are all outrageous and they could get someone better. Etc. I hardly said one sentence in two hours that I was able to complete before being interrupted.
Another man came in about thirty minutes into the meeting and though we were all discussing one point, stood to one side at the end and started telling me that the tiles I bought to repair the entrance don’t match and aren’t suitable because they’re meant to be used in bathrooms – and he never saw them since they’re locked in a storage room that only I and the other person doing this with me have keys for it! I told him I didn’t want to have a personal discussion about this with him while everyone was in the middle of discussing a different point and I was going to bring up this point next so that everyone could discuss it at once. He yelled that I’m disrespecting him and I think I can put him down and he’s not going to pay anything towards the joint repairs in the building and then stormed out. Yeah, that kind of meeting.
Before the meeting, I took some time to clear my mind and focus on my goal – I’m here to serve the people of this building and to try to rebuild trust and a sense of cooperation. I can’t do that by insisting on my agenda. I really tried to listen to and reflect the concerns that were being expressed, which wasn’t easy because of the communication style of those involved. Without this clarity about my goal, I think I would have given up very soon. My husband was there for about five or ten minutes and afterward he told me how well I did, that it was so horrific (yes, that was his exact word choice) that he couldn’t stay any longer than that.
After two hours of this, we finally hammered out an agreement of how to proceed from this point on. It wasn’t what I would have chosen, but I’m satisfied with the outcome. I think I better understand the personalities involved and why they seem to oppose everything, and have some insights into how to work with them so that they don’t keep opposing me on everything (except the one who stormed out, who will probably tomorrow yell at me that he doesn’t agree with what everyone else agreed and who do I think I am).
I’ve done a lot in the last few months in this position and I’ve sometimes felt I’m doing it with my hands tied behind my back. I keep reminding myself I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. And I think that out of all the people in this building, I have the best chance of making a shift in the social climate, because I’m relatively new and not stuck in all the negative history that they all get involved in rehashing at every meeting. Also, I really believe that the people in this building are good and want things to be good, they just don’t know how to work together.
Though it hasn’t been easy, there are points of light. I’ve had a chance to get to know all my neighbors, as I’ve gone around to every apartment and spoken to each of them at length and I’ve enjoyed that. A couple of months ago, one of them told me (who everyone assumes is a very negative person), ”It’s so nice to finally have someone in charge who has nice things to say about other people; we’re so sick and tired of the negativity and hearing how bad everyone is.” Last week, a different woman said to me, “The day you moved into this building was a blessing for everyone here.”
These are comments I have to focus on, because there are times when I feel no matter what I do, someone isn’t happy – like tonight when someone complained that I’ve been having the building cleaned on a regular basis and that I haven’t abided by the decision at the last meeting not to get a cleaner until the broken tiles in the entrance are repaired. (The building hadn’t been cleaned for seven months until I took care of it, and part of the fighting at this meeting is that I took care of the leaks and now want to have the tiling repaired as everyone said was a priority at the last meeting and this man wants to leave them unrepaired – and no cleaning done – until the summer. Even though he said he appreciates that the building is clean. Confusing, hmm?) His wife has complained the building is dirty because I don’t have it cleaned often enough. You see what I mean about not getting much appreciation?
So…it’s a learning experience. And a cultural experience. :)