Why Does the Personal Matter? Rebuilding Jewish Social Capital

The day after the General Assembly, about 140 people—Federation volunteer leaders and professionals, expert educators and philanthropists, and other educational leaders—got together to talk about relationship-based engagement and its implications for Federations.


We defined what we mean by engagement and began to articulate the opportunities and challenges in the engagement agenda for Federation. 

This series on our Jewish Education & Engagement blog has four parts and one side bar : I. The Problem; II. The Goal; Sidebar: Why Does the Personal Matter? Rebuilding Jewish Social Capital; III. Federations’ Role; and IV. Our Work as a Field. At two points, discussion questions accompany the text for use with volunteer leaders and other stakeholders.

And if you need a summary? (As they say these days: TL;DR) 
Q: What are Federations doing in the engagement business?
A: (Re)Designing a community for a new way of Jewish living, learning, and being.


For more information about any of the ideas here, contact Beth Cousens or Rachel Shtern.


Why Does the Personal Matter? Rebuilding Jewish Social Capital


“Social capital,” a concept brought into the mainstream by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, implies 1) a social network (a group of people) in which individuals engage; 2) the norms, values, and expectations that make that network a network (versus just a random group of people); and 3) sanctions put on members of the network when they do not follow the network’s norms, values, or expectations. Norms keep people inside of social networks; sanctions push people away. Social capital is why we can play Jewish geography (because many of us have overlapping Jewish experiences), and it’s why we know what’s happening when someone kisses a prayerbook (or we know to kiss the prayerbook when we drop it). Without this capital, without the understanding of what’s happening in our communities and tradition, we feel ignorant and out of place.


Most North American Jews are stuck in a loop. They don’t know how to participate in Jewish life and when they do participate, some too often are sanctioned or embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. Because they don’t participate, they can’t learn more, and therefore change their social capital. (Scholar of ethno-religious social capital Laurence Iannacconne argues, “Religious capital is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of most religious activity”; religious capital both enables participation and leads to participation. Without capital, one cannot participate and subsequently, through participation, develop more capital.


Engagement is a project of rebuilding Jewish social capital. We are helping individuals to deepen their understanding of and comfort in Jewish communities. In our very first conversation, by being friendly and welcoming as a member of the Jewish establishment, we are beginning to change understandings of what Jewish community is and can be. When we build micro-communities—groups of individuals from like backgrounds, from similar relationships with Judaism—we start to give engagees a Jewish support system and their own community that can champion them. Peer connectors managing the communities help to validate but also lead, anchor the community by providing support for participants. And community Jewish educators help others start to practice Judaism in a lower-barrier, high-explanation kind of a way, nonthreatening because they feel safe with us and safer with their new Jewish colleagues.  


Engagement demands peers, it demands senior Jewish educators in an intimate conversation, it demands one-on-one work (or two-on-one work) because it is primarily through that intimacy, and not mass programs, that we can help engagees feel supported, as though (despite the sanctions they previously experienced) there is a place for them in Jewish life. The one-on-one allows slow undoing of previously held assumptions and ideas, the connection of engagees to their own Jewish social network, their own Jewish friendships and relationships that work uniquely for them, which—in turn—help engagees build their Jewish social capital, allowing them to enter, eventually, other Jewish spaces in order to build their Jewish lives.