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).   

1 comment:

  1. Your sanction was imposed by a peer. I can easily pass this article to staff and lay leadership, but how do we get this culture to pervade among the general community? Especially when the Katies and the Denas don't usually feel comfortable sharing their stories with those (likely unknowingly) imposing sanctions.

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