Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Jewish Engagement, L'Dor Va'Dor?

This piece is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

Conversations about Jewish engagement (for better or worse, often centered around engagement of the “next generation”) frequently involve a certain degree of hand-wringing about the state of “the Jewish establishment.” In these pages, David Bryfman recently wrote on the characteristics of the Old Guard which fail to speak to the would-be incumbents of the Jewish People: its hierarchical leadership structure; its failure to grasp the young Jew’s “complex personal identity.”

One basic question about Jewish engagement efforts that comes to mind is: What, actually, does it mean to “engage” in the first place? A dictionary definition will include such phrases as: “occupy the attention or efforts of”; “to attract and hold fast”; or “to bind, as by pledge, promise, contract, or oath.” By definition, engagement requires there to be something around which one is engaged. So, when we talk about Jewish engagement, what exactly are we proposing should occupy, attract, and bind? In other words, why and towards what ends are we engaging in Jewish engagement to begin with?

To me, the answer is clear: We should engage the next generation around our powerful Jewish values and texts which form the very foundation of the Jewish people. We should engage them around our raison d’être of being a unique and extraordinary people with a storied heritage and purpose in the world.

I was therefore puzzled by Bryfman’s characterization of two more ways in which the older generation is losing touch with next: our “foundational basis in Jewish texts and values” and “raison d’être” [taken to be a focus on particularism over universalism].

I believe the Jewish people’s compelling value proposition comes through embodying, teaching, creating community around, and yes, engaging, in the texts and values which are our birthright and heritage. It is vital that we start from this position of strength, of having something concrete and in fact precious to offer the next generation and all generations to come. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming no more than the crumbling institutions referenced – and it will be no wonder when young Jews walk away.

On the other hand, Bryfman is right that the next generation is different from those before. He poses the interesting question of how a generation that is so “me” can simultaneously be so committed to making the world a better place. I think the answer goes even deeper than “complex personal identity.” Those of this generation take as second nature that what is personal can be global: they share about themselves to wide audiences on social media, and what were once private activities, from playing games to tracking one’s location or exercise, are now conducted via social apps. That individuals can connect with others world-wide at the touch of a screen is an assumption in their lives. Once the line between personal and global is blurred, what is global joins the same frame of reference as the personal as well.

The opportunity here is clear: galvanizing new action around Jewish causes can be a huge asset to the Jewish people’s work across all generations and world-wide. The global power of the nextgen individual is exciting, indeed game-changing. But with so many causes, missions, and activities at iPhone’s reach, how does one choose where to spend one’s free time: on a microvolunteering platform, or Minecraft?

Should those of the next generation decide to unleash their energies toward Jewish causes, their motivation and inspiration needs to stem from an interest in Jewish values, commitments, and peoplehood. Otherwise, if such efforts are not grounded in Jewish values and texts, I ask: What makes them uniquely Jewish? Or, speaking of a raison d’être: Why does the Jewish people need to continue to exist in order to perpetuate them?

Here’s what I envision when I think about what is needed in Jewish engagement of the next generation. It’s about more than the younger generation having an equal seat at the table, or even equal decision-making power. First, there needs to be a sense of why they are sitting there making decisions in the first place. This understanding must be rooted in knowledge, in the form of 1) an appreciation for and familiarity with the Jewish texts and values which are the basis for work in the Jewish community, and 2) the generations’ appreciation for and familiarity with one another.

What if we could create a multi-generational dialogue around what it means to be Jewish today, and why be Jewish in today’s world? This conversation would need to be a give-and-take with both sides learning from one another. On one side: What exactly does a “complex personal identity” entail, and how could it serve to enact the Jewish mission in the world? On the other: How and why were today’s Jewish establishments created, and what Jewish mission do they seek to achieve? What if we could learn about Jewish texts and values together? Through doing so, we would each gain a better understanding both of what we are learning, and also of the others’ perspective on Judaism – and on life.

Such an enriching conversation could open new doors to a common understanding both of the Jewish values and commitments that animate Jewish communal work, and a joint exploration of the pathways that could be pioneered to bring them to an ever wider audience, to achieve action around causes, and to inspire Jewish creativity and passion around the world. Without the substance, and its roots in the core texts of our people, I fear that the form of simply adopting the next generation’s mindset and mechanism will yield an empty vessel.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Community is Dead. Long Live Community.

We all know the story. It used to be that the social norm was that you had to belong to a community: a country club, dare I say a synagogue. That was all well and good. But today, everyone has multiple identities, and that means that the idea of "belonging" to one place exclusively (yes, even any one online place) has fallen a bit out of style.

Here's the funny thing, though: we still yearn for community. We rebel against being labeled; against being committed to one place or the next. Yet we can't quell that part inside that wants to feel connected, to be part of something larger than ourselves with shared values and purpose.

At a recent event, I heard someone talk about how, as a teenager, he thought he was going to be connected to the Jewish community as an adult. Now, in his thirties, he looks back and sees that his life has taken different turns. He isn't attracted to the organized Jewish life in his locale. Nor has he really found community of another sort. He seems wistful about this. Clearly, he isn't actively trying to pursue such an elusive concept; indeed, he doesn't know what he could even do, if he wanted to. But, on some level, it seems to bother him.

I feel like a lot of us in my demographic are in this boat. Then again, as I shared at the same event, I happen to be obsessed by the concept of community, and therefore happen to have extremely high, not to mention idealized, standards for what it is supposed to be (which may explain the vicissitudes in my personal attempts to try to find it). I have continued to insist that community is simply a function of humanity - that it is the obvious answer to some of our most basic needs as human beings. How could something like that simply go out of fashion?

But the truth is that lately I have begun to believe that we are just setting ourselves up for failure. Yes, there are those who live in communities that have certain standards in practices, beliefs and patterns of behavior that are universally accepted and observed. For those of us outside such communities, I'd like to argue that it's not just that there are recognized patterns and routines of community which are not observed. It's that they don't even exist anymore to begin with.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When a Scarf Should Be a Scarf: Organizations and Network-Weaving

Cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Blog.

Increasing buzz around networks and their power to influence people, draw out passion and excitement, and spread ideas has left numerous Jewish organizations wondering: What bearing do these concepts have for us? And if this is relevant – what should we do?

In the recently concluded network-weaver training pilot HaReshet, I worked with Jewish organizations to explore exactly that. My experiences emphasized the unique nature of established organizations– even those which easily converse with those outside of their walls and are tech- and social media-savvy – when compared with grassroots networks.

Networks surround us, and there are many kinds. Some exist for social and “networking” purposes. Organizations can and do help foster these kinds of networks. However, there is a role for network-weaving as a means to help organizations better achieve their missions. While grassroots efforts can profoundly impact cause-based issues, non-profit organizations play an important and unique role in the Jewish sphere, as well as generally in society. Non-profits are often the most effective way to provide critical social and educational services. They can serve as vital hubs in the community, particularly for the storing and transmittal of information, data, and communal memory. Network-weaving is one strategy that can help organizations not only survive in the networked age, but also actually better serve in these critical roles for our community. But to execute network-weaving effectively, it will have to be approached as is appropriate in an organizational context.

Let’s look at this through a metaphor. Just like the physical act of weaving, network-weaving is made up of lots of different threads (or people), linked together through the purposeful act of weaving (or through forming meaningful relationships) to make a beautiful piece of craftsmanship (or a community). Now let’s say that you are a skilled craftsman embarking on the creation of a new item. What is it going to be? If you are an independent entrepreneur, or if you are weaving for fun, you may start weaving just because you love the thread, without a particular product in mind, and see what emerges as it goes (grassroots weaving). Or, you may head toward a scarf, only to find that the weaving starts speaking to you in a different way and it ends up as a hat. If you are a weaver for a company (or organization) which produces scarves – you probably know all along that the resulting object better be a scarf.

In short, the root of the uniqueness of network-building for organizations is that they are a) mission-driven; and b) go about achieving this mission within an organizational context.

Being mission-driven means that organizations have specific and explicit goals from the get-go as to what their work in the community is seeking to accomplish. For instance, organizational missions represented in HaReshet include: supporting established day schools using online and blended learning (DigitalJLearning) and generating Jewish educational research that is properly funded, beneficial to, and well-used in the field (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education – CASJE). As with any strategy organizations may be considering, network-weaving should be undertaken only if and in a way that can help achieve their goals.

The necessity to focus on goals and results plays out in what needs to be done to build the network. We all know that relationship-building is time-consuming, and takes time to develop. In a mission-driven organization, time is a precious resource, to be deployed where it will have the maximum impact on generating results for that mission. Therefore, an organization must network-weave in a strategic way. This means focusing relationship-building efforts on those who are both passionate and can most effectively achieve the mission – such as Ramah alumni for Reshet Ramah, Hebrew language teachers for TaL AM, or heads of schools who have participated in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) for the DSLTI alumni network (to use more HaReshet examples).

The fact that the organization should expect and require these strategic efforts to actually lead to results necessitates mission-driven network-weavers to undertake a careful balancing act. They need to engage network members in a way that empowers, excites, and concretely benefits them. At the same time, they must remain focused on the intersection between possible engagement activities and those that will advance the organization’s agenda. If done properly, this kind of network-weaving has the potential to leverage the time, skills, and resources of those outside the organization to achieve more than those inside the organization can currently.

Network-weaving within an organizational context must also contend with a host of questions affecting its process which need to be addressed differently than they would in a grassroots context. For instance, personnel: amongst a staff infrastructure, whose role is it, exactly, to be the organizational network-weaver? In HaReshet, four out of six of the organizations found that multiple staff were implicated and therefore involved a team of two or more in this work. For instance, the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) benefited from the participation of Debbie Feinstein, who has a deep knowledge of the JNTP network from her longtime involvement leading programming, as well as Yael Bailey, who handles its communications and database work. Aside from supporting network-weaving strategies from multiple perspectives, the added benefit of this approach is the ability to apply the concepts of network-weaving to the organization internally: creating opportunities for learning together, information-sharing, and ultimately synergy amongst staff.

Another point of departure from the grassroots perspective is around the issue of trust and control. Organizations build themselves as credible institutions by having high standards and clear messages apparent throughout their work in the community. For network-weaving to help uphold and communicate these messages requires thought about: What will be the approval and oversight process for this work to make sure it stays on message and on mission? What should be the role of leadership? How will metrics be tracked and regularly reviewed in order to determine whether the network-weaving work is actually helping to accomplish the organization’s mission?

Network-weaving can be a highly valuable strategy for an organization to engage and activate people – and achieve concrete results. As with any other strategy, it begs careful consideration in all stages of its planning and implementation. In subsequent posts, HaReshet participants and chevruta partners will be sharing some of the lessons they have learned through this work. I look forward to hearing from others in the field as well as they experiment in this arena.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Network-Weaving: Why You Should Take That Risk

This piece is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

In Hayim Herring’s recent article on network-weaving, he suggests organizations take a close look at their mission and governance so as to mitigate the risk that network-weaving will not be successful. I certainly agree that a clear articulation of an organization’s cause can inspire a grassroots network to action. I also agree that the organization’s structure critically informs its work, and – particularly if it is hierarchical – has the potential to be a roadblock to a network’s decentralized, fast-paced efforts.

On the other hand, the fact remains that many large, long-established Jewish organizations serving our community currently do have widely encompassing mission statements, arguably due to their wide-ranging work. Many also do have hierarchies, some as a result of their long histories and the era in which they were founded, or else as a management philosophy. While it is important to be aware of these factors in an organization, this does not mean they cannot benefit from network-weaving.

In HaReshet, a network-weaving training program working with grantees of The AVI CHAI Foundation which I wrote about here, I have spoken of network-weaving as one strategy that can help organizations achieve goals. It need not be employed in all the aspects of their work which are covered in their mission statements. It is rather about unlocking the potential of relationships – of mobilizing volunteers or members – to increase involvement and enrich the results in certain areas of the work. While it is hard to get all constituents excited about everything all the time, it is possible to get constituents passionate about something achievable – and then to achieve it. For instance, HaReshet participant Gary Hartstein at DigitalJLearning – an initiative under the auspices of the Jewish Education Project – has the goal of helping Jewish day schools implement online/blended learning. This goal could be achieved solely through Gary working one-on-one with each school. But Gary is also using networked strategies such as cultivating leadership amongst schools who have useful experiences to share, particularly around a specific topic within online/blended learning.

Likewise, network-weavers need to understand an organization’s overall structure – and to get buy-in for using a networked strategy in a particular area or aspect of the work. It is also critical to build in check-in points where organizations can assess the work and its alignment with the organization as a whole.

While organizational factors may pose risks to network-weaving, I actually find that a major danger to network-weaving is the failure to take the risk to try it to begin with. This idea is described best by Miriam Brosseau, HaReshet chevruta partner (coach) of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), and Lisa Colton, chevruta partner of TaL AM, who talk about the concept of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” translated as “We will do, and then we will listen/understand.” Just as the Jewish people accepted the Torah with these words, the best way to learn how to network-weave is probably to dive in and try it yourself. After obtaining the support of your organization, you can start with small, low risk steps at first and evaluate what works, and what does not. Then, you can build on that to understand: Where is your organization’s structure a sticking point for your network, and what can you do to work within that structure to achieve results? What is it about your mission that is most exciting and inspiring to your constituency? While such questions can be discussed in the abstract, the practical reality of engaging in network-weaving may give you the answers you seek. You just need to make sure you keep asking the questions as you engage in the work.

Last week TaL AM – a Hebrew language and Jewish studies curriculum – launched their Facebook group for their curricular users to connect with one another. In one day, they reached 250% of their goal in number of group members. It seems Hebrew teachers are hungry for this opportunity to meet online and share resources with each other – and they wouldn’t have known unless they tried.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Launching HaReshet at AVI CHAI: Pilot Program in Jewish Network-Weaving

This article is cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog and on eJewishPhilanthropy.

A year ago, I set out on a journey to understand how Jewish professionals are acting as network-weavers. I started by interviewing trailblazers who are activating their organizations’ constituencies towards common goals. I met community organizers advocating for causes from new educational models to environmental consciousness in the Jewish community. I encountered group facilitators sparking conversation on best practices in using technology in day schools and growing vibrant synagogues. I spoke with those engaging alumni, young Jews, and other target populations to become active, lifelong Jewish learners. Some of these interviews were featured here on eJewishPhilanthropy. These conversations led me to realize that Jewish professionals working with networks in a diversity of settings would benefit tremendously from resources on network-weaving within and beyond a Jewish context – including one another. I first wrote here about the idea of providing this through a training program for network-weavers.
In my role as Director of Communications for The AVI CHAI Foundation, I am creating a laboratory for experimentation around how network-weaving can be applied to improve the effectiveness of Jewish organizations in engaging their constituencies. From November 2012 to August 2013, in HaReshet (“The Network”), a pilot group of AVI CHAI grantees are learning together about network-weaving; developing and practicing skills in a guided and reflective way; and benefiting from sharing lessons with one another along the journey.
Grantees were selected for this pilot program based on two criteria. First, they see the value of their organizations as networks working toward a particular goal. Second, someone is currently on staff with time allocated to work with this network and help it achieve its potential. These criteria match the intention of HaReshet to help expedite the work of organizations who will regardless be exploring the frontier of building networks this year. I am truly excited to be working with the following participants:

HaReshet brings alive a vision of how network-weaving is not just new content to be learned. Rather, it is a mindset and approach, which the program itself embodies. Instead of top-down lectures, blended in-person and online webinars accommodating participants both within and beyond New York City enable the interactive discussion of network concepts. Instead of passive learning, participants are required to actively apply the material through exercises between the monthly webinars.
Also critical to network-weaving is the belief that learning is not unidirectional. As the Jewish chevruta model recognizes, there is tremendous value in learning – and in learning together. This concept is particularly relevant to the emerging field of network-weaving, where some may have more experience in working with networks, but we all stand to learn from one another. In HaReshet, each participant is paired with a chevruta partner experienced in network-weaving who will coach him or her to achieve specific personal and professional goals. Our esteemed chevruta partners are: Miriam Brosseau of The Jewish Education Project/ Darim Online (See3), Caren Levine of Etheoreal, Lisa Colton of Darim Online (See3), Liz Fisher of Birthright NEXT, Naava Frank of YU Institute for University-School Partnership, and Sara Shapiro-Plevan of Rimonim Consulting.
Ultimately, in a woven network, the discrete components add up to a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. The AVI CHAI Foundation in North America invests in a wide range of initiatives that further Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood/Israel at Jewish day schools and summer camps. While grantees are united around these three core values, they each represent a different path toward making them come to life. Given that AVI CHAI is sunsetting in 2020, it is especially important to the foundation to leave a legacy of strong organizations that can consciously articulate and promote the values to future generations. Part of this work may be to bring together grantees who perceive themselves as operating in very different contexts and helping them understand the ways in which they are working toward similar goals. HaReshet hopes to enable the individual participating networks to grow and each network-weaver to achieve greater confidence and mastery in acting in this role. It also may be one place where grantees can benefit not only from the value of the program, but also the value of access to one another. In doing so, they may begin to think about how they are a part of and can enhance a bigger picture.
At the same time, I have realized the deep importance not just of network-weaving as a concept, but of the individual network-weavers themselves. Their skills, personalities, and dedication greatly influence the ways their networks develop, and are in many cases what enables their networks to take off. I am privileged to work with and learn from so many passionate and talented network-weavers, and look forward to what we can achieve together.
Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Jewish Community: What Are We For?

Ownership. Denominations. Lay leadership. Shuls. These were just some of the “idols” the table I hosted at yesterday’s Jewish Futures conference shouted out in a visceral reaction to what concepts the Jewish community “worships” – should be smashed. (Esther Kustanowitz reports on the idol smashing, sparked by keynote speaker Rabbi Laura Baum of, here).

There is, of course, something liberating about smashing idols - or even just about voicing out loud (or on twitter) what is frustrating us or holding us back. Yet a different point stuck with me from another keynote speaker, Courtney Martin: “We’ve gotten really good at expressing what we are against on the internet, but we aren’t so good at articulating what we are for."

I believe this observation has important implications for "community and the cloud" (the theme of this year's conference) and the Jewish future. You can surely, for instance, rally people together, online and/or in person, around being against any of the proposed "idols," and there were indeed some popular ones. Doing so might create a network or even a community of those who develop relationships through discovering this commonality.

But what about the Jewish future? What are we "for" that is really worth not only preserving but also nurturing and growing for generations to come? Martin went on to say that what we need is more "imagining and utopian thinking," and I believe she's right. Here in the present, it's easier to say we should simply cast off whatever isn't working than it is to truly and honestly examine what is happening, what made it that way - and where there are tiny kernels of change that just may take off and lead us all forward. Are we prepared and do we have the courage to take those bold bets on which kernels, if nourished, will yield a better future?

Alongside the story of Abraham and the idols, I think we need to look at Abraham and his journey to Canaan. G-d tells Abraham not just to leave Haran, but to go to "the land I will show you" where he will be a great nation and a blessing.

Creating a vision of what the Jewish future could be takes perception to see trends; creativity, innovation, and imagination to dream up how those patterns could play out; and persistence to shape what is here now into what is coming next. This is not easy. It does not need to mean ignoring or condoning the "idols" of our community. But if you smash those idols without giving deep thought to what vision you want to rise up in their place, you miss out not only on opportunities to build from the values and lessons that informed the past, but also on the opportunity to really lead the Jewish community where our passion, creativity, and vision dream we should go.

Will you come along? What's your vision?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Shalom Berger

This interview is part of the Network-Weavers Series. More info & interviews here!

Shalom Berger is the Director of E-Communities at The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar-Ilan University. He founded and currently coordinates the Lookjed listserv, creating conversation amongst thousands of educators around the world about current issues in Jewish education.

What prompted you to start in the world of networks, and what did you do?

When I was a day school teacher in the US, one challenge was teachers’ difficulty in learning from one another. I found teachers were reluctant to share information, feeling either the person down the hall would take all their trade secrets, or that a limited number of people would appreciate their work.

Since 1999, the Lookjed list has been serving the needs of educators around the world. It currently has 3500 subscribers, 20% of which are active participants (posting at minimum one time per year). In addition to sharing brief ideas on the listserv, there is also the ability to upload materials on an associated website.

A network could be a lot of things, but in this particular setting, it allows people around the world to converse. It connects educators so that we’re no longer limited to asking the teacher down the hall, “Do you have ideas as to how to teach this?” What is especially fascinating is the way it allows Jews throughout the Diaspora to interact with each other. Someone in Australia can send a question, and they will get responses from throughout the world.

What are the benefits of being part of the Lookjed network?

In a time before everyone blogged and shared resources online, someone asked me, “Why would someone want to answer? What’s in it for them?” The beauty of the Internet is chesed shel emet: people do it without expecting a reward. One benefit is professional collegiality. Participants can find likeminded teachers, which is especially important for those sitting in Jewish communities that aren’t that large. It’s also an opportunity for teachers who consider themselves experts in particular areas to put their names up in lights.

What is your role in Lookjed as its network-weaver?

I’m not a network-weaver; I’m a party host, which came before anyone developed the term network-weaver. The role I play is one of weaving technology with content. It goes beyond tacking all these things onto a bulletin board; it’s also working to create online relationships. I act to introduce human experts to people looking for their expertise, as well as to allow people to more easily access online resources. Some of this happens due to the nature of the media. Once someone put ideas out there, people know them as someone with expertise in that area.

On a technical level, everything comes through my computer screen before goes out to subscribers. But I don’t only record the responses and put it into a format that makes it easy to read; I also play a behind-the-scenes role in making sure the questions are the kind that will be answered. For instance, I might tell someone that their question is too general, and that they need to dig down more specifically to get answers. I might also say: that’s a good question, and I know people who work in that area, so I will forward it to them directly.

In terms of the infrastructure, what functionality would you like to add in the future?

We try to distinguish between technologies that are just fads and don’t add value to work we’re doing and those that offer serious value added to share out the expertise, materials, and resources we have with people outside of Israel.

The power of social media tools is that if an individual finds something interesting, they have the opportunity to spread it to a large group of people. I would be interested in something that allows people to share interesting ideas with specific other individuals. I also would like faculty to work together and create material together. Technology makes this possible – the limit is only people’s time.

In running a listserv, how do you deal with today’s issue of information overload?

Information overload is a problem. But Lookjed offers something directed at a relatively specific population. So we’ve succeeded in cutting through some of that overload in the sense that when people in that population receive materials and suggestions from us, they know it’s more likely than not to be relevant to their classroom, more so than if they were to google Jewish education or chumash.

Did you have formal training as a network-weaver?

When I started doing this 13 years ago there was no training - it was a field that did not yet exist. Today, however, there are formal training programs. Together with my Lookstein Center colleague, Esther Feldman, I directed a two-year fellowship program funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation that trained 14 individuals in different areas of Jewish education (day school, camps, special needs, early childhood, etc.) to be network-weavers. The tools and methodologies that we offered were not limited to listservs, but also wikis, nings, and so forth that allowed the professionals to reach out to their peers and constituencies in a manner most appropriate for their venue. For instance, for special needs camping, they took counselors who usually only interacted during the summer, and on each Friday during the year they would have a call with their campers to say “Shabbat Shalom.” Ecstatic doesn’t cover the reaction of the participants. All the fellows have built communities that really impact the kind of Jewish education they are able to give their constituents and the kind of professional support they are able to offer people in their communities and one another.

It is a profession; it can be taught. Results such as these have reached the point that everyone recognizes its importance, even segments of the community that are reluctant to buy into online interaction. It’s not just the wave of the future; it’s here.

The Lookjed listserv archives appear here. To learn more or to subscribe, please contact Shalom at shalom -@-