Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Can We Disrupt Religious School?

Part I: Religious school accomplishes "everything" - and also very little

Philip Roth's Operation Shylock tracks a main character (named Philip Roth) through a long search for self in Israel. At one point, the character is kidnapped and kept in a dingy basement classroom in Jerusalem. The classroom helps him recall his religious school days, his experiences in Newark in the 1930s, and he states that "it" - this journey of his through the holy land - it all began:
...back when I'd first taken my seat in that small, ill-ventilated classroom that was the Newark original of this makeshift Jerusalem replica, during those darkening hours when I could barely bring myself to pay attention after a full day in the school where my heart was somehow always light, the public school from which I understood clearly, every day in a thousand ways, my real future was to arise. But how could anything come of going to Hebrew school? The teachers were lonely foreigners, poorly paid refugees, and the students - the best among us along with the worst - were bored, restless American kids, ten, eleven, twelve years old, resentful of being cooped up like this year after year... Hebrew school wasn't school at all but part of the deal that our parents had cut with their parents, the sop to pacify the hold generation, who wanted the grandchildren to be Jews the way that they were Jews, bound as they were to the old millennial ways - and, at the same time... who had it in their heads to be Jews in a way that no one had ever dared to be a Jew in our three-thousand-year history... Our put upon-parents were simply middlemen in the classic American squeeze, negotiating between the shtetl-born and the Newark-born... rebuking the young ones, "You must, you have to, you cannot turn your back on everything!" What a compromise! What could possibly come of these three or four hundred hours of the worst possible teaching in the worst possible atmosphere for learning? Why everything - what came of it was everything! (1993, p 312)

What a perfect description of religious school! It made no sense - not the way his secular life did - and received no resources and seemed to be understandable only as part of the arrangement his parents made with their parents for living the goldene, good life in America. Public school mattered. Religious school was just something to survive. And yet, it worked. It worked! What came of it was everything (that's Roth's emphasis): It imprinted on Roth that he, fundamentally, at his core, is a Jew. And that, in and of itself, is everything.

Repeatedly, when I interview educators about their congregational education programs, I hear something like, "We just can't get that much done. All we can hope for is some fundamental identity stuff. There isn't rigor. This isn't day school." Sometimes, their goals for their schools include fun - that is, that students should find Judaism fun. Sometimes, their goals include relevance and family engagement and practice. One congregation well captures this in their school's mission statement: "Our goal is to foster a love for Judaism: A Judaism that is relevant to daily life and a source of ethics and spiritual fulfillment." There are other goals in this statement - relevance and meaning and integration into daily life. But, the mission statement says, love is first.

These goals (love, relevance) aren't unimportant. To Roth, they're "everything." But they're also, literally, the basics. Without a sense of self-definition as a Jew (a.k.a. identity), without love, and without fun, nothing else can get done. These things are everything and what we want for our children. But what if that's all that gets done? What happens when school stops at these basics?

Part 2: Disrupting the religious school - resetting goals and expectations
Helpful work has been done recently documenting and advocating new models of congregational education. As synagogues have completed projects like Reimagine (the renewed Experiment in Congregational Education) and local Bureau of Jewish Education processes, and as the after-school/Hebrew school model proliferates and influences Jewish educational culture, schools have been redesigned. At this point in this process of educational change, we can see the religious school of the future, and it sometimes, even often, looks only a little like school. Significant change has been made.

Some of this change seems like Silicon Valley's coveted disruption. Going from meeting from 4-6 pm on Tuesdays to meeting in the summer for "camp"? Or from children meeting in classrooms to families meeting in living rooms? In a sense, this is, indeed, disruption. The shape of the program is radically different.

But two things are relevant here. The first is that only, or primarily (to be fair), the shape of the school is different. What's the same? What we teach. The profile of the teachers and facilitators. How we train and meet with the teachers.

The second is that a new market has not necessarily developed for these programs, their sponsoring synagogues not necessarily attracting new members and families through these programs, the schools not necessarily creating a new paradigm of teaching and learning. This - the creation of a new market - is the original definition of disruption, that a project identifies and serves a market that previously couldn't be served. Otherwise, it's just plain old change - and it's not necessarily as sticky, or meaningful, as disruption. Disruption changes the game. Change just repackages it.

This change that has occurred in religious school programs across North America has not been easy. It takes real courage to shift these programs that occupy so much congregational energy and that are so attached to the financial bottom line of congregations. And, I'm underestimating the value of some of the change that has happened in congregational education. In the Bay Area, for example, the communal change project in which some synagogue schools engaged (with Jewish Learning Works) resulted in many of them developing deeply Judaic, rabbinic, visions for their schools. In some cases, more students seem to be having more fun and to know more.

Perhaps some know more, but now, students are (finally) meeting our expectations, which weren't that high to begin with. We can still do better than this. Much better. Judaism itself demands that we do better, that we not just repackage religious school but fundamentally reshape it, raising our expectations of students and of ourselves.

Mordechai Kaplan, in Judaism as a Civilization, makes this call: "The only raison d'etre for Jewish education is the assumption that without it the Jew cannot possibly know what to make of his status as a Jew."

This is both a straightforward statement and an incredibly intense one. What do we make of our status as Jews? What does it mean to be human and Jewish, living in a non-Jewish state, living among non-Jews (even in the Jewish state)? This question is unresolvable and also the focus of a life, the content of an eternal curriculum, the heart of the rabbis' Talmudic debates. 

Religious school cannot just be fun. Fun is simply not that compelling - it's fine for a year or two, but cannot combat the call of the soccer field, day after day, year after year. Moreover, there is a difference, one Bay Area educator pointed out, between simcha - a deeply Jewish value - and kef - something we have on Saturday night, and the first is lasting and meaningful. And that's just one aspect of the work we could be doing.

Education scholar Ted Sizer offered "habits of mind and heart" as a framework for establishing relevant and moving learning goals for schools. Such habits are dispositions, orientations, ways of approaching the world. In Jewish language, habits of heart are middot, characteristics, the enactment of values. We have habits of mind in Jewish language as well, though they might seem less obvious. We read texts in certain ways, inventing midrash or following pardes, and we understanding history through memory, and we view the individual within the context of the collective. These are ways of thinking and they help us know not just what but how to think Jewishly.

Religious school has changed dramatically in the recent past. Perhaps it has become more effective. But it could be a game changer in Jewish life if it were disrupted, truly changed so that new markets found it relevant and so that it created a new way of teaching and learning in Jewish life. It could be disrupted if it led students through genuine human growth, through a process steeped in Jewish narrative and Jewish language and in Jewish ways of being and that facilitates the student's becoming who they will be. This calls for making choices - we cannot teach everything in habits schools - and it calls for sophisticated ideas about pedagogy and for talented educators. Can we do it? What does it look like? I'm not sure. But for religious school to mean, genuinely, everything, we need to try. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Social Network as an Educating Space

In Israel with the Riverway Project, on one of the many bus rides that often constitute a guided Israel experience, one participant and another began talking about their Jewish pasts. Having been raised by parents with deep Jewish connections but little interest in organized religion, Dena was fascinated by Carin’s seeming comfort with liturgy and Jewish tradition. In turn, Carin was interested in Dena’s experience outside of synagogues and in her grandparents’ leftist/ intellectual orientation that Dena associated strongly with her Jewish roots. Their conversation began with Dena’s simple question of Carin, “How do you know so much?” As each continually asked questions, their varied Jewish experiences - Carin's day school education and her family’s involvements in different synagogues, Dena's family seders and Lower East Side roots - provided resources for each other and an opportunity to consider different kinds of Jewish lives. 

It's been demonstrated that "who you knew affects how you Jew," that social networks encourage Jewish engagement. The more Jewish communities in one's background, the more Jewish choices one makes as an adult. We mimic our Jewish friends, who make their own Jewish choices. Our very knowledge of Jewish choices comes from Jewish friends. Out of Jewish communities, we create long-term relationships with Jews, which facilitate our Jewish education, Jewish life partners, Jewish involvement.

Social networks also, themselves, are classrooms. Walking into a peer's home for Shabbat lunch, that home becomes the text that explains Jewish living, makes it come alive. The experience of Shabbat lunch affirms, explains, and models. We can have a mezuzzah on our doors, and ritual objects on our bookshelves. We can display that book that we bought in Israel; we can open Shabbat lunch with blessings. In this secular life, this is how our peers do it. We learn as we live in these cases of true situated learning, the life experiences of the members and then of the network itself becoming texts that we, network members, study and explore.

This kind of experimentation within the context of community is most important for newcomers. Newbies engage from the sidelines. In prayer, for example, we follow the words to the songs with our eyes but don't sing. We take a glass of kiddush wine but don't help pass it out, or tap our feet to the tune but don't clap. This is how we learn Jewish community, by watching and, when we're comfortable, jumping in, one ritual at a time. We practice "legitimate peripheral participation," the description that community of practice scholars Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger give to this phenomenon. We, legitimately, dip toes in the water, interested and engaged, not yet learned, confident, or at home, but slowly absorbing the practice of Judaism.

This is how we learn the details of Jewish living and it's good stuff, for sure. But ultimately, the most intense power of the network is not actually in all of this ritual learning. The confidence to live Jewishly, the resolutions of our struggles with Judaism, the validation and motivation that some of us need to engage, these come more from the safety, stimulation, and support of the group, from the experiences that members create together. Strong social networks become supportive learning communities. They talk through the network's living - in this case, of their Jewish lives. We have a meal after Shabbat services at synagogue and work on the issues that the rabbi raised in the sermon. We talk through events in Israel. We look for a Jewish spiritual community that's right for us, thinking out loud with peers about what that means. We work on volunteer boards together, critiquing our organizations and mapping out what they need.

On the Riverway Project's Israel trip, the group became the mediator of participants' Jewish growth. As these twenty- and thirty-something liberal (Reform) Jews had complex experiences at the Kotel, and walked around Jewish history for the first time, and grappled with Israel's borders and boundaries, their once merely social interactions gave way to trust and even reliance as they thought out loud together. A genuine interest to learn from each other seemed to grow, as did an expectation among participants that they would help each other build their distinct and mutual ideas. They would help each other build their respective Jewishness. They debriefed formally, sitting in circles after visiting varied sites, and they chatted informally, as Dena and Carin did on the bus. They began to take on each other's language, relating in later conversations ideas from their peers that stuck with them. The group members became each other’s teachers, their relationships and the ways that the prompted and supported each other the most authentic part of their experience. One group member explained:
It was not the sights we saw, nor ... the Israelis conducting their daily lives in and around these sights, though both were fascinating, but rather how the group of people that I was traveling with experienced these same moments. In our evening sessions of study and reflection, I was struck continually by the thought that Israel was merely the backdrop to our own deepening connection with each other and our own sense of evolving Judaism.
In all of these ways, social networks offer an educating space, practice from which to learn to be Jewish, and validation and support, a group with whom to reflect on and process their Jewish choices.

Social networks develop organically, but they also benefit from cultivation. That is, the same as a curriculum, social networks are a tool that practitioners can craft deliberately in order to facilitate education. So:
  • Facilitating a class? Don't spend your time only - or even primarily - on the "content." Lecture about Maimonides, or teach about Shabbat, but spend an equal amount of time facilitating reflection among students, asking them to share their opinions about the material with each other, helping them to learn from peers about who they are as Jews as well as from each other about Judaism.
  • And, build relationships. Make sure students know each other's names, and details about each other. When they speak in class and refer to each other's points, help them use each other's names and to speak to each other, not only to the teacher. Facilitate a get to know you conversation. Help students share personally.
  • Create opportunities for informal, organic conversation, outside of the classroom. Facilitate a museum trip, or a movie and meal afterward, or a Shabbat experience. Help students have serendipitous conversation.
  • Raise topics for conversation. Bring out the tensions in students' identities and experiences. Don't let conversation be easy; don't gloss over what you think is really going on for students.
Every class can become a network, the network strengthening what happens in class. Every network can be educational, with content and facilitation from a caretaker, with tight relationships that allow deep trust among members. Through conversation and reflection with each other, on the text that is their collective experience, students - network members - transition into new and more strongly Jewish identities for themselves.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Collective Impact in Jewish Life

I spoke with a great teen today, Jessie, for a BBYO project I get to evaluate. As she described what Judaism means to her, she emerged as uniquely articulate about her Jewishness. Her answers were precise, complex. She described programs that she had planned for BBYO. They were creative and educational, not unlike programs I had planned as a Jewish educator, but when I was a decade older. Jessie shared that she went to Jewish summer camp. Of course she did, I thought. Of course she did. I can't know that her camp experience elevated and prepared her for her BBYO experience, but I would not be surprised if it is the combination of these experiences, the synergy of each playing off the other, that helps Jessie's ideas to be so mature.

When I was in the planning department of a large-city Jewish Federation, I was involved in supporting a number of remarkable investments in Jewish education, working on congregational education, and overnight camping, and day school subsidies, and the engagement of Jewish teens, and more. Each project was creative, valued by stakeholders, and possibly even effective. Still, we approached each area discretely, as a disparate activity, even while one learner or one family could have been involved in many of them. It was up to the learner, the family, to negotiate the varied approaches that different organizations took, to find Jewish activities, to translate the ways that each organization considers Jewish life and living. But this might have been, might still be, too much for uninitiated (or even initiated) Jewish learners. To begin to build bridges among our projects, to make this easier for potential participants. we began an educational havurah, a community of practice where we traded ideas, discussed goals, and tried to create a common language. It wasn't easy to bring together the organizations' executives, and some sent others in their stead. Still, I knew we had something special when one Executive Director - one who sent her assistant director to the meetings - shared with me that she had been taking time to read the meeting summaries and that she appreciated them. Something sticky, something interesting, was happening when we got together. Something valuable. But when I left Federation, the project left with me. At the time, non-profit practitioners weren't rewarded for this kind of work. We were fitting it in, in between the effort we made toward the successes that counted in annual reports. It was easy to let this relationship-building and community-building exercise go.

Jewish education is quite the loosely coupled system. (I love this graphic of loosely coupled systems.) Jewish educational organizations are not connected immediately or directly, and we cannot facilitate change in the system by legislating it from a supervising organization. But educational organizations are still unified into a system: by common resources (Torah) and practices, by common clients who move from institution to institution, by common practitioners who also move among settings. Learners and practitioners bring expectations and ideas from one place to the next. They talk with each other, sharing ideas. Moreover, the same future awaits us all: If North American Jewish life grows, so does each of our programs. If it fails, so does each of our programs.

Still, the institutions themselves are not coordinated. It is perhaps not news to suggest that most of the time, actors in the Jewish educational space do not behave as though we have one fate or one body of work. Too often, instead, we are competitive for participants, funds, and mindshare, as though any of these things is limited, as though participants and learners win - gain something - by participating in only one of our organizations.

A midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6), a Biblical commentary, relates:
Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai taught: This may be compared to the case of men on a ship, one of whom took a drill and began boring a hole beneath his seat. His fellow travelers said to him, "What are you doing?" He replied to them, "What does that matter to you, am I not boring under my own place?" They said, "Because the water will come up and flood the ship for us all!"
We are, literally, in the same boat. We have an opportunity to rise together when we share participant lists, piggyback on each other's projects, or create a series of opportunities that are married together. I recently received my son's first PJ Library book, related to Tu B'Shevat. I sat reading it to my son (he chewed on it, but I'm pretty sure he was listening raptly) and realized that we should totally celebrate Tu B'Shevat as a family - we should go hiking, or create a family seder, and one day go on a tour of our local recycling plant. I got excited about the holiday. I wasn't before. What if there had been with the book an invitation to a JCC event, or a sample seder for doing at-home, or a reminder of our local minyan's Tu B'Shevat dinner? There are reasons that this idea is complicated - a book is less threatening than an invitation to an event, and we want to lower barriers for people, not raise them - but we have let excuses like this get in the way of real collaboration for too long.

Philanthropic advisors have developed a language that frames this idea of the communal whole being greater than the sum of its organizational parts. Collective impact work is happening in some places in Jewish educational life (namely, the Jim Joseph Foundation's funder collaborative supporting Jewish teens) but from my perspective, we can't talk about it enough. In the spaces in between organizations and practitioners lies the synergy that we need to help Jews be maximally engaged in Jewish life, moving seamlessly from one opportunity to another, the collective opportunities constituting a robust, not an episodic, Jewish life.

Through empirical research, conditions have been identified under which collective impact initiatives thrive. The infrastructure that's needed - a backbone organization, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities - might be a long-term agenda for Jewish education, requiring trust, relationships, and even infrastructure that cannot be legislated or built overnight. In the short-term, we can learn from the ideas that ground collective impact: that it will take an interconnected web of organizations to create real change, that the work of engaging Jews in Jewish life belongs not to one organization but to many.

We can also, in the short-term, start to talk about collective impact and its implications for Jewish organizational life, getting used to the idea of collaboration, breaking down barriers. Imagine a project, a conversation among community agency and program leaders, that explores any of the following:
  • What is your operating definition of Jewish education? How does that definition differ across community agencies and programs?
  • What is the total Jewish educational experience you hope individuals and families have in your community? How can that experience be seamless?
  • What are the potential connections among Jewish educational opportunities that could exist in your community?
  • How do learners move from opportunity to opportunity? Do they have enough knowledge to move fluidly? Does each opportunity launch them into new opportunities, into more?
  • Can the curricula of different organizations complement other curricula? How?
  • What kinds of guidance can you offer learners as they try to negotiate the Jewish educational landscape in your community? What might a concierge offer learners and families? (See this program in the Bay Area and this program in New Jersey.)
  • What would the process of building a collective impact project in your community look like? What would your goals be? What stakeholders would be involved?
  • What are your shared measures of success?
Collective impact can begin to be constructed. Organizational leaders can start talking, even generally and without seeming deliverables, in order to develop trust, a common language, and a sense of mutual purpose. We can create psychic rewards for such collaboration, even actual rewards, and even if the immediate results are not obvious.

We often bring institutional loyalties into our work and tend to see strategies as organizationally bound. The real potential of collective impact likely will come in the ways that we co-sponsor, and partner, and contribute our best resources toward joint projects. And it will come when we begin to ask different kinds of questions, when we see the unit of change, our focus or our project, as the learner and not the organization, and all players around the table as being present to serve the learner together. It will come as we together begin to take collective responsibility not for our programs but for a robust Jewish experience for all Jews.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What Do We Say No To?

New York Magazine has recently begun issuing its print magazine every other week, moving from 42 to 26 annual issues. Press coverage suggests that the magazine was losing ground by shrinking its product. A closer look reveals some complexity, that the magazine's digital platform has taken off and that resources once devoted to the print issue are now to be used to expand the magazine's on-line efforts. In other words, this seeming retrenchment is in order for potential expansion: the magazine's core mission - the delivery of a certain kind of content - will remain strong and even grow, and the format through which the magazine achieves its mission will change slightly. In this choice, the magazine is maximizing its resources in order to deliver its results. The magazine's leadership is saying no, focusing strategy, in order to accomplish more.

Years ago, at a non-profit organization for which I worked, a volunteer leader asked me to create a list of the organization's core activities. He was expecting one piece of paper. I needed four. We had six different approaches to creating social change. We offered as many types of service to our clients as we could, fulfilling a sense of mission to our clients, occasionally following funders' interests, sometimes pursuing Jewish values. We were practicing the "can't say no" syndrome, rarely saying no to funders and also not saying no to ourselves. This resulted in diffuse organizational strategy, resources spread thinly across many functions instead of concentrated in a few areas. We rarely worked deeply anywhere and, consequently, we rarely made real change anywhere.

Strategy should be tight, focused. The concept of strategy comes originally from the military (the Greek word strategos means "to think like a general") where if resources are not directly focused in a complementary way on a target, and that target is not addressed successfully, lives are lost. Sir Winston Churchill allegedly said, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." Strategy is more than how we do things; it suggests interlocking means of execution that yield maximum results. Strategy needs to move the needle. Pieces of the strategy that are distracting - even if they feel right and important - need to go.

That's hard. There are likely disappointed readers of New York Magazine who will miss the more frequent (non-virtual) read. But what if New York Magazine had decided instead to expand its on-line presence while maintaining its weekly edition? It might have stretched its resources, not able to maintain one while expanding the other. And then, it might have disappeared not partially but completely, and then it would have really disappointed its readers. The magazine's commitment to its ultimate goal was bigger than its leadership's desire to avoid some one-time difficult conversations with readers, some reader disappointment, and perhaps even some reader abandonment. Strategy is about the larger picture; sometimes, it is about saying no in the day-to-day. Our commitment to our vision has to be bigger than the emotions that arise when we feel we are not pursuing our every possible opportunity. To get more done we have to learn to say no, uncomfortable though that might feel.

To act more strategically, to say yes to the right things and no to others, we might ask ourselves:

  • What do we want to be doing in the world? What change are we pursuing?
  • What are the most promising activities that might get us to this change?
  • What activities don't fit into this puzzle? What activities seem attractive but are less productive?
  • And, finally, can we say no? What does it take?

Previously published by WexnerLEADS; cross-posted by the Wexner Foundation.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

More on Jewish Social Capital: Lessening Fear, Opening Doors

I published this, and it got some pretty good feedback. Mostly, I think, the pain of not knowing what to do in a Jewish setting - and yet feeling totally, completely, Jewish - resonated with people. Then, Marissa commented on the piece, "...But how do we get this culture to pervade among the general community?" It's one thing, she was saying, to talk about this with her organization's board and staff. It's another thing to create a culture of openness, of accessibility, that welcomes those even in between organizations.

How, indeed. I don't know that I have the answer. But there is a lot to say about this.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to study the reasons that women choose to celebrate their bat mitzvah as adults. Diane Troderman was one of the women whom I interviewed. Diane is a leading community philanthropist and activist in Western Massachusetts. Her foundation supports Jewish education extensively. She has been the chair of countless committees and organizations, often focusing on Jewish education and Jewish living. And, raised in a secular environment, for most of her life she had little connection to Hebrew, to prayer, or to synagogues. As a result, she explained, “I consider myself a leader in the Jewish community but I considered myself illiterate … I’d always gone up to the bimah – [but] I’m the curtain puller," not the Torah reader. She shared a story from her childhood: "One holiday afternoon, my sister and I went for a walk and passed the home for the elderly. We wandered in and went into services. We picked up books and a leader came over and turned my book right side up, then closed it and gave us the right book. We had picked up something else and needed what I now know is a mahzor. I knew nada! Nothing!” Perhaps more significantly, in addition to how little she knew, Diane emphasized how her ignorance felt. Synagogue ritual was a "secret society," filled with what seemed like "mumbo jumbo." It was alienating, despite the contributions she made in her philanthropic and organizational roles.

Sasha was one of my participants on a Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Born to two secular Russian émigrés, she was raised in a Manhattan Soviet environment that disdained religion and celebrated high literature and science. She grew interested in religion in college when she lived with an ardent Palestinian who accused Sasha of being part of a community of oppressors. Sasha went to Israel to understand more about the background that had been denied her but with which she was now being associated.

And she fell in love with her culture and her community. She began to understand the complexity, richness, and sadness of Jewish history. She began to relate to this tradition and to see it as hers.

On the Saturday morning of our Israel experience, Sasha and I went synagogue hopping in Jerusalem. I was eager to show her – and she was interested in seeing – the beauty and intensity of the various religious traditions of a Jerusalem Shabbat.

At her request, as we went from synagogue to synagogue, I translated directly much of the Hebrew that we saw and heard. “Know before whom you stand,” we read on so many arcs, over and over again. I watched Sasha turning these words around in her head. What do these words mean, she asked repeatedly – why is this written there, why is it so important, what is being commanded with these words, she wondered. I explained the phrase as one of awareness, love, respect, awe, and humility. She saw it as one of power and fear. She began to see the phrase as representative of a lifestyle she did not understand. She became overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotions of those in the congregations we visited, almost afraid of a tradition and a relationship that she could not grasp. Perhaps our synagogue visits were too much, too soon. Perhaps I translated too directly, without enough mediation. Perhaps we should not have visited these communities whose members seemed so sure, so confident in their beliefs and their relationship to their concept of God. Just recently unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with the very idea of religion, Sasha was not ready to connect herself to a tradition that had the potential for such power. Rather than being empowered and excited by these synagogue visits, she became intimidated and estranged. Her lack of literacy was not a challenge. Her lack of the understanding that can come with literacy, of the ability to empathize - that was a challenge.

One Shavuot, I participated in a tikkun, a study session, with a small group of people, one of whom, Amy, is a Jew by choice. Amy had learned the tradition that a Jew does not remind a convert of his non-Jewish past. Yet, as we read the book of Ruth, we noticed that Boaz deliberately reaches out to Ruth because she chose a new God, because she was in a strange country, because she was a convert and needed some hand holding. Thank goodness, Amy cried! In Boaz’s actions, Amy saw him creating space for Ruth to ask questions, to understand her new tradition, to learn the customs of this strange land. She had never understood, she explained, the Jewish tradition of not reminding the convert of his past. How else can a convert learn, she asked, but through such assertive and careful explanation and openness? Can't we create a culture of questions, of curiosity, of information?

We put up walls in so many ways. Our tradition is built, almost, on walls, on boundaries between us and them, on behaviors that bind into community. Literally, Jewish tradition was constructed this way: The "holy of holies," the innermost priests and sanctuary, sat together with the ark at the heart of the Temple. The heart of the religion was forbidden, inaccessible. Perhaps all traditions are; perhaps religion, by its nature, has the devout at its core, and so the very essence of the tradition is such closed intensity. Regardless, the walls are doing their job too well in 2014. Too many people who want in are kept out. So Marissa asks, how do we create a culture of openness, of knowledge, where building Jewish social capital is not so darn hard?

She asks this of all of us, because we are all gatekeepers of Jewish social networks. We all participate in making Jewish social capital a precious commodity we need to fight for rather than a plentiful richness in which we can all share. This knowledge is mine! we seem to cry, not, This knowledge is beautiful - come, take part. We casually use Hebrew, we joke about moments in shul (synagogue) that only regulars would understand, we forget to announce page numbers of prayers, we forget to explain the reasoning behind the ritual, we forget the value of such an explanation – and our Shabbat dinner guests, new to Shabbat, at our tables because they are friends of friends, the Hebrew of the benscher (prayerbook, related to meals) swimming in front of their eyes, see the beauty of our community, but believe it not to be theirs. Hamevin, yavin, the saying goes - or "if you understand, you understand:" So embedded is this in Jewish culture that there's actually a Hebrew saying that captures this idea that those who are in the know remain so. And so Diane feels confused by Hebrew she does not intellectually understand, Sasha feels intimidated by an environment she does not emotionally understand, Amy feels her questions to be silenced.

I don’t mean to suggest that we do this maliciously. Part of being actively Jewish, of course, is building a community, and we build a community through common language and unspoken customs. I once wondered why every prayer service wasn't some kind of learners' service, with continual explanation of the barrage of customs and rituals that compose particularly a Torah service. And then I began to participate in a traditional community, with rich davening (prayer) and a high level of literacy, and I saw how fluid the service can be when all are singing heartedly, with few interruptions. I got the power of a community of those in the know, into which someone else in the know can enter, immediately feel at home, and truly live the tradition in its fullest potency.

But when a Jew does not speak ‘torah,’ as many do not? Diane, Sasha, and Amy are not alone; countless North American Jews enter a Jewish environment and immediately feel confused, lost, disempowered. Building Jewish social capital, then, has to be about how we interact, each of us with each other. It has to be about the space that we create through our interactions. It has to be about recognizing that someone who seems inside the community can still feel outside of the community, recognizing that we put up stumbling blocks all the time, recognizing that the best way to welcome someone into Jewishness is to hold out our hands and make ourselves available to help.

As we teach and create Jewish space for learning and growth, what values about learning do we want to teach, to convey in our actions and our relationships with our students? How can each of our actions build a positive learning culture? How do we convey to a student new to Jewish learning and active Jewish living a sense of honor and empowerment because of their motivation rather than shame and embarrassment at what they do not know? How do we encourage and reward curiosity, rather than ostracize the unlearned?

We have to find a way to translate, to open communities, to celebrate our tradition thickly while we invite everyone in. The fluidity of a richly traditional prayer service is striking, but so is the excitement on someone's face when they can access that fluidity, when the prayer service is not opaque but inspiring because it suddenly makes sense, literally and emotionally. Can we be equally excited about these moments of clarity for those newer to Jewish tradition, recognizing them as part of our mission as modern Jews with the gift of literacy in a Jewishly illiterate society?

Can we take all of our students’ hands into ours and say not just baruchim habaim but also welcome as we teach, explain, and include?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Key to Jewish Engagement: Developing Jewish Social Capital

When I was fourteen, I went to BBYO leadership camp for the first time. I had been raised in a committed Jewish home, but it was one that practiced non-religious Judaism, and while I was a regular at Jewish overnight summer camp, Shabbat services in BBYO still felt uncomfortable to me. A non-believer, I was also new to the language of prayer, and I was never sure what to do with myself.

At that BBYO leadership camp one Shabbat morning, I stood next to a friend from home (let's call him Jamie). He was a bit of a joker, and when at some point I dropped my prayerbook on the floor and he told me to kiss it, I thought he was making fun of me. Several times, he instructed me to kiss the book; several times, I laughed. As we went back and forth, Jamie got increasingly more frustrated and impatient until he grabbed the book out of my hands and kissed it, then handed it back to me. My cheeks turned red but the episode ended. We each turned back toward the front of the room, silent again.

When this exchange ended, Jamie's prayer experience probably picked up where it had been before I dropped the prayerbook. Mine was completely altered. I was ashamed, deeply ashamed, and confused. I did not feel comfortable in that service but until that moment, I still felt that I belonged. Perhaps particularly because of my camp experience and my BBYO experience, certainly also because of my upbringing, I felt deeply, strongly Jewish, part of many Jewish communities. Suddenly, as my lack of knowledge was called out, I felt like an outsider, not only to the service but to the entire project of Judaism and Jewish community. I can still feel the shame and confusion that washed over me as I realized how important this act was to him and how foreign it was to me.

When I interviewed adults in their twenties and thirties about their Jewish experiences, I heard often that they have felt or even feel this shame and confusion continually. Thirty-something Katie shared that her family – specifically, her mother – was a bit of a seeker, interested in various religious and spiritual rituals, including Christmas. For that reason, her mother's home during her childhood had a Christmas tree and related symbols. One Christmas, her sister wore Christmas bells on her shoes to school; she simply liked the way that the bells sounded and didn't see anything wrong with a Christmas symbol. She kept them on for Hebrew school, not really making the connection. “People yelled at her and made her take them off,” she explained, “and we felt really outside the mainstream.” Katie and her sister were unfamiliar with this idea that there should be a strong boundary between Judaism and Christmas. Another respondent, Dena, told of a more typical lack of knowledge, of going into Hillel in college and feeling that everyone “was more traditional” than she was, since they “knew the songs – they'd all been to Jewish summer camp.” Their innocent ignorance and subsequent confusion and embarrassment chased Katie and Dena and many of those whom I interviewed out of Jewish spaces.

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, brought the concept of social capital outside of economic discourse and offered a foundational concept that binds individuals into communities. Social capital, generally, can be considered to consist of three elements: a social network to which individuals belong or in which individuals participate, the norms, values, and expectations that those in the network follow, and sanctions put on members of the network when they do not follow the network’s norms, values, or expectations. Social capital - familiarity with norms, with a community's rules, even with those with influence in the community (the ability to engage in name-dropping) - allows individuals to participate in a given social network. The sanctions individuals receive when they lack social capital protects the network from outsiders, pushing them away.1

When I dropped my prayerbook decades ago, my lack of Jewish social capital – my ignorance about this fundamental Jewish prayer norm – allowed me to be sanctioned by a community member. Similarly, without Jewish social capital, Katie and Dena – with Christmas bells, without knowledge of the right songs to sing – became alienated from Jewish community, groundless, and also sanctioned, without an understanding of how to fit in. Both of these interview respondents – like many whom I interviewed, like many American Jews – had some Jewish education prior to these moments. They were not complete novices in Jewish life. They could follow a basic Passover seder and recite the four questions; they could recognize the key moments in the High Holiday liturgy. This knowledge, however, overshadowed by a variety of more influential experiences, or their lack of experiences. They never participated in Jewish youth group or summer camp, and so their Jewish circles were small, their awareness of Jewish or Hebrew songs meager. Moreover, their families chose when they were children to live outside of Jewish neighborhoods, again shrinking their Jewish communities. And, at the celebration of their bar or bat mitzvahs, their parents stopped mandating participation in Passover seders or in religious school. Their parents made choices away from Jewish life and, specifically, away from Jewish social networks and Jewish communities. As a result, their knowledge of Jews and Judaism stagnated and their confidence in themselves as Jews remained small, pediatric, or even shrunk as they aged.

The 20- and 30-somethings whom I have interviewed have walked out of Jewish spaces, feeling alienated, because they were never taught how to participate in such spaces and never helped to belong. 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. A lack of such capital – a lack of certain kinds of knowledge and a lack of feeling at home – prevents the building of more, as one begins with questionable feelings of comfort, and then a lack of knowledge leads to sanctions and to even greater feelings of exclusion. Without capital, one cannot participate and subsequently, through participation, develop more capital.2

And yet. The reverse, as Iannacconne points out, is also true: As individuals begin to build (Jewish) social capital, that capital helps them to increase their (Jewish) communal participation. The Riverway Project demonstrated this. By offering the right opportunities for engagement in Jewish community, those who previously felt sanctioned by community, by Jewish social networks, began to acquire Jewish social capital enough to begin to engage not only in the Riverway Project, but in other Jewish communities as well. When the Riverway Project amassed dozens of 20- and 30-somethings with similar (low) levels of comfort with and knowledge of Jewish life, everyone became equally uncomfortable and comfortable, everyone learning together. When on lighting the Shabbat candles Riverway Project leadership announced, after saying the blessing, “That's it. It's as simple as that,” a boundaries were lowered. When Riverway participants were helped to build community by sharing their names and where they lived – their exact street – each time they introduced themselves, participants went from Jewish isolation to Jewish community (literally, as they began to invite each other for Shabbat dinner or to events such as the local Jewish film festival). When prayer services included as many niggunim (wordless melodies) as prayers, participants could easily internalize liturgical tunes as part of their Jewish experience; when Riverway Project leadership said, “It's okay if you don't know the words. Just lai dai dai. This is simple,” participants were freed to participate even with little knowledge. As they engaged in a low-barrier space, where opportunities were designed deliberately for those brand new to Jewish life, where those in the community were helped to become assets to each other, sources of support and genuine community, where sanctions were almost non-existent because everyone was learning together, Riverway Project participants built Jewish social capital and became prepared to move into higher-barrier communities, to use their capital throughout their Jewish lives. For the first time, many developed a sense of belonging to a Jewish social network on which they could found their growing Jewish social capital, through which they could feel confident wandering into other Jewish spaces.

Carmel Chiswick recently created a book-length study applying economic theory to American Jewish families and choices, and she includes an exploration of Jewish social capital. A review of the book suggests that American Jews need to “choose to acquire” Jewish social capital. But it is not that easy, not necessarily a deliberate choice. Or, to be more precise, powerful sanctions fight such choices. It feels bad to be sanctioned, to wear Christmas bells unknowingly inappropriately, to sit quietly when it seems everyone else is singing, to drop a book and be scolded. Jewish social capital comprises a lack of knowledge of religious traditions but also of informal/unwritten norms and a lack of relationships with other Jews and Jewish communities. It includes knowledges even less concrete, more internal: comfort, confidence, feelings of internal validation, a sense of belonging. Developing all of these knowledges – this capital – is imperative to Jewish participation, and such development asks that Jewish educational spaces be created where sanctions are low, boundaries are low, and opportunities and freedom to screw up as deep and as prevalent and normal as can be.
1 David Halpern, Social Capital (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2003), 2-3.
2 “Religious Practice: A Human Capital Approach.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,, Vol. 29 No. 3. (Sept. 1990).   

Friday, October 17, 2014

Strategic Jewish Engagement a.k.a The Hedgehog Principle

20s/30s opportunities – adult Jewish opportunities – can and should focus on Jewish growth.

Before I studied the Riverway Project for my dissertation, I was a participant. Only once or twice, but I had the experience. I remember clearly why I felt comfortable participating in Riverway events and why I felt compelled to go in the first place. I was relatively new to Boston and I was single – but more than that, I wanted to pray, to turn Friday into Shabbat. At the time, I was experimenting with participation in varied religious communities, in minyanim and synagogues throughout Boston and Cambridge. Riverway seemed interesting. It was minyan-like, in that it was small and in a living room, but with a rabbi from whom I might learn, and also with people my age, who could become friends and a community. It did offer the potential for me to meet a romantic partner, but it was not blatant in that regard. Its first and most substantial offering was as a prayer experience, with all that such an experience brings (the spiritual, community, friends, a deep Jewish connection). Married people and single people would be there. With the potential of meeting someone, but without the pressure of this being a singles' event, participation felt infinitely more comfortable than it did in a singles' event. The purpose – not even the ostensible purpose, but the actual purpose – was for me to do something other than meet people. The pressure was off and the event filled a need in my life that could be immediately met. Whether or not I got a date from the night, I would have a good, fulfilling evening.

Later, when I became a participant observer of the Riverway Project, I tested these ideas about the attraction of the Riverway Project with my peers. Most felt the same way. A few were sorry that Riverway did not do more to help them meet a life partner. But most – married and single, gay and not, older and younger – appreciated that Riverway was straightforward about what it was doing, deeply and authentically what it was, and substantively Jewish. It was a prayer community, a study community, a holiday community. It was a Jewish community, organizing individuals around Judaism and not only around their social and romantic needs. In this way, Riverway stood out to many as unique among other synagogue offerings for this population. Personally, as I was thinking about participating, I compared it to minyanim, not to programs for “young adults” or “young professionals.” These seemed so often, Riverway Project participants themselves noted, to be mixers masquerading as wine tasting, or horseback riding, or skiing. Riverway was exactly what it seemed to be. Of course, “masquerading as wine tasting, or horseback riding, or skiing” is not really fair. These events – which I attended, also as part of my dissertation research, and about which I interviewed the event coordinators and some participants – are deliberate and also, often, perfectly authentic. Meaning, they are genuinely and intentionally social events, looking to attract those who want to taste wine, or ride horses, or ski, or who want to expand their social circles and and create a general Jewish connection. They offer exactly what they seem to: wine (or horses, or snow), as well as friends and Jewish community.

These social events seem often to be part of a larger calendar of varied events, tied together by their sponsoring organization. In general, the paradigm for 20s/30s Jewish life seems so often to comprise one organization hosting a range of events, trying to attract a diverse population to engage with the host. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Adam Freedman describe such a paradigm in their synagogue's new 20s/30s programming, for example. As Mikelberg and Freedman explain, this paradigm works – that is, specifically, it can be effective in connecting younger adults to Jewish life through the host organization and in populating the host organization with younger adults.

But, this paradigm is not for everyone. The connection to Jewish life, as my Riverway interviews revealed, can seem loose and, in fact, inauthentic, forced. Moreover, this paradigm organizes Jewish life around the sponsoring organization. That is, the reason to engage repeatedly will be ultimately because the participant develops a relationship with the sponsoring organization or with the community of people participating. When that organization changes its programming, or when the participant moves to another community, it's hard to take that experience elsewhere. It's also hard to tie these programs together into a satisfying, complete Jewish life; the programs themselves are by their nature dissimilar, disparate.

The Riverway Project turns this 20s/30s strategy around, maybe even upside-down. Riverway leadership certainly aim to build community, but they made specific programmatic choices, focusing deeply on certain pillars – not necessarily related to Riverway's sponsoring synagogue – around which to build community. These pillars include Torah exploration and prayer and ritual experiences, based either in Boston neighborhoods or out of the synagogue. To be “involved,” you participate in prayer services, or you study. Maybe you have a meal in a sukkah or go to a Purim performance. But mostly, you meet people in your neighborhood, for intellectual and spiritual conversation and exploration, and you explore what it means to you to be Jewish.

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't, Jim Collins draws out Isaiah Berlin's metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, applying it to company strategy. In Berlin's conception, hedgehogs understand the world through one big idea, while foxes recognize great diversity in the world around them. Similarly, the successful company is a hedgehog company, whose leadership figures out what the company is good at, focuses on this one thing, and pushes the rest away. Having too many priorities allows distraction, for both the company and for the clients, users, or participants. To get good at what it does and to get the point across, a company (or non-profit organization) needs to work deeply and sharply in a specific area.

By focusing on its pillars, the Riverway Project works in a hedgehog way, and it works effectively. Because of its focus, Riverway leadership can work deeply and with excellence in its specific areas. Its focus allows its messages to come through easily and clearly. I was comfortable – participants were comfortable – showing up at the Riverway Project because we understood its purpose: When I left my apartment to go to prayer services through Riverway, I found the opportunity not threatening but attractive because I knew what I was getting myself into. I and other participants were (are) compelled by its purpose, because it is about Judaism, not about loose community connections and not about the sponsoring organization. Because its purpose never changes – from event to event Riverway focuses on the same themes – participants who were attracted to Riverway in the first place keep coming back for more.

Because it focuses, Riverway lacks these opportunities that other 20s/30s projects offer. There is no wine tasting, or business education or networking, and some miss that. But because it organizes participants not around the synagogue but around Judaism, because it attracts participants for a few, deep purposes, the Riverway Project makes a different choice, one for the Jewish growth of its participants. Through their repeat engagement, the Riverway Project literally moves participants. Those showing up to the Riverway Project develop skills and capacities in the areas on which Riverway focuses. Engaging in the Riverway Project means engaging in Torah study and prayer again and again, with peers in one's neighborhood. Community gets built and prayer skills are developed and sharpened. Torah study becomes familiar, possible. Their 20- and 30-something opportunity takes them seriously as Jews, and participants grow Jewishly.

In its repetition, the Riverway Project model itself is educative for participants, suggesting:
  • Torah study and prayer matter.
  • You – you, young adult, in your twenties and thirties – can access these things.
  • Jewish life can happen in your neighborhood.
And, in its repetition, these messages are heard.
The Riverway Project strategy – that it has such a clear and focused strategy and that its strategy is deep – makes engagement in Judaism and Jewish life through the Riverway Project not about the individual, or the Riverway Project, or the sponsoring Temple, but Judaism. And as a result, it builds not only Jewish community, but also Jews.