Within the Jewish communal world, the word “network” is used primarily as a verb. As Jews, it’s ingrained within us from an early age (or so it seems) to schmooze, to kibitz, and to kvetch with one another. To make it sound more productive, we call this networking. Sometimes it advances our personal and organizational goals; more often, it doesn’t.
As a community, we talk a whole lot less about the word “network” as a noun. Yet networks have begun to take the place of traditional Jewish affiliations, particularly (but not exclusively) among young Jews. We’re more apt to identify ourselves by who we know and what networks we belong to than by the synagogue or JCC we are (or aren’t) members of. Our networks, rather than our affiliations, define us.
Instinctively, we are aware that networking (the verb) is far more effective when we have a better understanding of how we fit into our individual web of networks, and how best to curate these networks. Yuval Kalish, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has identified three different types of networks that we each bring to the table. The first is our personal network — close friends and family. He dubs the second type of network the “performance network,” the colleagues with whom we regularly interact to accomplish our professional goals. Third is our strategic network. These are our weak ties, our Facebook friends.
Surprisingly, the strategic network is perhaps the most powerful. For example, research has shown that it is the people we only see occasionally — our weak ties — who are most likely to help us find our next job.
When I first joined Facebook several years ago, I had what I dubbed “strict standards” — I would only accept the friends who were, in fact, my friends. In recent years, however, I’ve relaxed my approach. That’s because I’ve learned that Facebook posts written by people I don’t know very well (but would like to) are far more likely to introduce me to new ideas, articles, and approaches than the postings of close friends.
I’ve been ruminating about networks (the noun) a lot over the past few weeks, since participating in the NetWORKS conference that the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation convened in Boulder, Colo. The conference brought together a diverse group of Jewish communal professionals, lay leaders, funders, innovators, and academics to discuss the role that networks can play in galvanizing the Jewish community to collective action, whatever that may be.
Upon returning to New York, I began to “friend” (another new verb) fellow conference attendees on Facebook. Then, for good measure, I added them as contacts on LinkedIn. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nearly every attendee was already within my extended network. If they weren’t an existing connection, they were only two or three degrees away from me (and not merely because we both knew the conference organizers — I checked).
I probably could have met many of the participants on my own, through my existing networks. But how long would it have taken me to do so? And how many more people am I now just a connection away from, as a result of participating in this conference?
This isn’t just about growing one’s personal network. As Adene Sacks of the Jim Joseph Foundation put it, “It’s no longer about how many Facebook friends you have, but what you do with them.” In other words, a network’s value can be best measured not by its scope alone but by how well it can be activated for a shared goal — be it big (social change) or small (borrowing an iPhone charger).
Bigger picture, it’s important that we begin asking what role Jewish communal institutions and funders can play in networking various networks. Done deliberately, we can transform our disaggregated networks into shared communities to achieve collective goals. Together, we can weave a more vibrant and interconnected Jewish future. But to do so, it’s high time we begin using the word “network” as a noun, not a verb.
Tamar Snyder, a former Jewish Week staff writer, is a strategic consultant to Jewish nonprofits, including the Jewish Communal Fund.