Networking the Unintentional Network: RAVSAK as a Case Study in Progress

Are there limitations to networked thinking? Can networked learning be taught and learned? Rabbi Hayim Herrings's blog post last month on eJewishphilanthropy, "How to Minimize the Risk of Network Un-Weaving," questions whether a relationship-based network approach to community building and shared learning might be too antithetical to the hierarchical systems embedded in much of our institutional structures. We believe the two are not mutually exclusive. Schools are certainly places where institutional hierarchy remains important in ensuring educational excellence and the fulfillment of mission and vision, yet in our work we have found that formal and informal networks as well as networked thinking provide tremendous opportunities for shared learning and growth.

RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network offers an opportune case study in the evolution of networks and networked thinking. Founded as a grassroots network of Jewish community day school leaders, at a time when the fax was the latest technology, we have nonetheless only recently begun to recognize the implications of the word network and its centrality to how we fulfill our mission. As each of us separately began to realize the power of cultivating networks to satisfy our personal and professional goals, we started to consider how this way of thinking could stimulate change in the field of Jewish education.

Today, RAVSAK understands the need to embrace strategies and tools to maximize the potential of our Jewish community day school network for the broad cross-section of our 130 member schools and their own internal networks of professionals, board members, students and stakeholders. Over the past year we have been working with Darim Online’s Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, a program generously funded by The Covenant Foundation, which has invested in the development of many networked approaches across the field.

When we started with Darim, we thought it was all about finding the right technology, but as we’ve worked with our internal team (made up of committed professional staff and lay people) and our terrific coach, Lisa Colton, we’ve realized that it’s actually about finding the right people and building the right relationships, and only then figuring out what the right technology might be to help these relationships thrive. As a network, RAVSAK is in many ways an unintentional one. Its members share certain affiliations, yet often have interacted primarily through the professionals in the RAVSAK office. In our attempts to change the culture of our network from a hub and spokes model of learning, we are promoting new ways to decentralize knowledge and increase peer-peer learning and interactions, through the creation of a variety of network sub-groups.

We understand that successful networks emanate from relationships that inspire trust and are considering new ways to engender this trust, by emphasizing common interests, pre-existing relationships and shared needs. We know that learning stems from listening and we are beginning to implement new ways to hear the conversations that are happening within our own network and those that intersect with ours, as well as finding opportunities to generate new conversations. Beyond just providing the technology for a network conversation, we are experimenting with various approaches to designing and facilitating the learning experience in the network. By engaging in an intentional process of trial and error, we can measure the effectiveness of different tools, platforms and facilitative strategies. By training and supporting a network facilitator, we can simultaneously design the network, deepen relationships and cultivate a network culture of reflection amongst the network’s members.

Critical to this culture shift’s success within our network is to shift attention from the network as a product, and focus on cultivating the individuals who build these relationships and think deeply about how networks work – the network weavers. That’s why RAVSAK recently brought Yechiel Hoffman on board to work with us on transforming our unintentional network into an intentional one. Together, we hope to elevate RAVSAK's network engagement by understanding the nature of the network's member's needs and positioning within the network.  We are working together and with our members to create a model that reflects RAVSAK's strategic plan, and embodies and inspires the values and learning goals of the network’s participants. We need to recruit, train and coach the network facilitators to support RAVSAK’s networks and become part of a new cohort of network weavers impacting our field.

Eventually, we may not need individual network weavers woven into our institutions and networks. Eventually, every Jewish educator, communal professional, board member and Rabbi will naturally gravitate to fostering, nurturing and facilitating those in their networks to connect, grow and collaborate. But as referenced in Rabbi Herring's blog post, until institutions embrace networks and systems thinking, we depend on those who gravitate personally and professionally to this mode of thinking and behaving.

At this moment when technology has created disruptive opportunities for decentralized systems and shared learning, questions like Rabbi Herring’s are important opportunities for interrogating what formal and informal networks offer to Jewish organizations, the field of Jewish education and our work as Jewish professionals. We have found the theoretical and historical frameworks underlying network theory as well as the demonstrated learning and growth that comes from utilizing and activating natural and designed networks to be valuable in our own work. Rabbi Herring may be accurate in determining that many organizations rely on vertical hierarchies operating under command and control, and are more activity driven than mission driven. We believe the horizontal platform model of networks, oriented around influence rather than power, is the very reason we need networks and network weavers in our system. We should not be afraid that new models demand a shift from old paradigms, but rather explore how these new models prepare us for the inevitable new paradigms. The question becomes less how we un-weave our networks, but how we cultivate a field in which learning through networks becomes commonplace and as essential to leadership as any other skill.

Dr. Idana Goldberg is the Associate Executive Director at RAVSAK. You can reach her at [email protected]

Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, is an Educator, Nonprofit Leader and Community Organizer, who is working as a consultant to RAVSAK on their network-weaving efforts.   He can be reached at [email protected]

RAVSAK participated in the Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, a year long program generously funded by The Covenant Foundation.  This series of blog posts this spring chart the learnings of the 10 teams in this year's cohort.




Network Mapping at jU Chicago

The Community Building Internship at jU Chicago is premised on the idea that small communities are, as sociologist Jonathan Woocher has written, “a consistent source of meaning, a focal point for relationships, and a powerful contributor to a sense of self-worth.” By empowering a cohort of students to create small communities organized around a theme, activity, or shared interest, we are able to create the kind of specialized Jewish opportunities that have the power to engage more Jewish students on a deeper, more meaningful level. To date, our nine interns have created small communities around everything from cooking elaborate Shabbat dinners once a month, to weekly student-run Jewish yoga and meditative practice, to reinvigorating the traditional idea of a tisch.

The internship also draws heavily on network theory, as presented in the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Christakis and Fowler argue that there are fundamental rules that govern the formation and operation of social networks, and that social networks must be tended to by individuals and organizations in order to function optimally. There is even a social structure which, they argue, can yield the best results in terms of human achievement: a series of loosely connected small communities, the members of which are more closely connected in discrete cliques, hubs or pods. By adopting this “pod” model in the Community Building Internship, our hope was to create a dynamic campus Jewish community from which Jewish innovations and achievements can and will arise.

But how can we, and the student interns, know if the communities they are creating look anything like the structure recommended by Christakis and Fowler?

Enter a roll of butcher paper, post-its and some colored Sharpies: all the ingredients needed for a low-tech version of network mapping. First, the interns decided who they considered to be part of the core membership of their communities, and wrote those names on individual post-its.

Then, they arranged the post-its on the butcher paper so that their spatial placement was reflective of relationships between members–for example, if two people in the group were dating, or if they were close friends who came to meetings together, or roommates, then their post-its would be next to each other.

Once we had determined the shape of the interns’ discrete small communities, we went about identifying the connections between people in different communities, and figuring out how to represent different relationships between people/post-its with different colored sharpies.

By creating a physical representation of the network of Jewish students at UChicago, the student interns were able to identify the people at the center of the network, participating in multiple small communities, who were functioning as “hubs” of Jewish life and activity. They were also able to see the people who were less-connected to others within the network and who therefore had more potential for involvement and collaboration. We learned that our small community initiatives actually did resemble the structure recommended by Fowler and Christakis. Less practically but more important for purposes of morale and enthusiasm, the student interns were able to get a sense of how their smaller efforts were adding up to an impressive constellation of students involved in Jewish communities across social networks and different pockets of campus life.

Lastly, the process of creating our network map was collaborative, iterative and fun. We plan to do it several more times throughout the length of the internship. Our prediction: as the people in our small communities forge connections with others in the overall network, these connections will create a density that will attract more and more students to the meaning, pleasure and fun of Jewish life at the University of Chicago.



Rachel Cort is the Director of Community-Building programs at jU Chicago, an organization that works with Jewish students at the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her Master's in Jewish Professional Studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Your List is Not a Network

Part of the Connected Congregations series

Point of clarification: your list is not a network.

I sometimes hear organizations talking about the number of people they have involved with their work – their network – and then reference the people who have signed up to receive their email updates. That’s great! It’s wonderful that so many people are interested enough in your work and the difference that you’re making that they signed up to get your communications. That can be really important and powerful. It’s just not (necessarily) a network.

Below is a graphic outlining the qualities that make a list a list, and a network a network. Take a look, and think of it as a checklist. Where are you working with lists, and where with networks? What points could you focus on to make your efforts more networked?

Some definitions for the above chart:

Node: A node, or vertex, is any point in a network. It could be a person, place (like a city), or thing (like a computer).

Link: A link, or edge, is what connects two nodes. If the nodes are cities, the links may be something tangible like a highway system. If the nodes are people, the links may be more ethereal, like friendship, family, or professional relationships.

Prosume: This is a word that comes out of the software development world; it is a combination of “produce” and “consume.” For more on the Jewish prosumer, check out this post.

Baltimore Jewish Leaders Assembly, Powered by Teens

Allison Fine signs copies of her book, Momentum
Allison Fine signs copies of her book, Momentum

Allison Fine, author of Momentum was the keynote speaker at ACHARAI, the Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Development Institute’s “Technology: Threat or Promise” event on Thursday, November 20. After setting the stage to help participants see the landscape of the field, Allison pointed to the group of teens seated at the back tables. These people are the future employees, and consumers of what our Jewish organizations have to offer. Allison urged us to listen to them, carefully. How are they using these tools, how are they making decisions, what do they want? The bottom line: communities are no longer being built from the top down, they are powered from the bottom up. We must empower and engage these young people to bring them into our community and organizations.

These teens came to the program to both learn and teach. One of the several break out sessions, led by Darim’s Director of the Learning Network, Caren Levine, employed the teens to help participants get hands-on experience with social media tools, such as wikis and blogs. The teens were able to help lower barriers to entry, so participants could experiment with the technology in a safe and supportive place.

Teens debrief at the end of the day
Teens debrief at the end of the day

While the teens were instrumental in assisting the program, I think they walked away with more than they expected. Those who attended my session on social media theory and practice told me they had many “ah-ha moments” — that while they don’t think twice about the technology, they’d never paused to think about how it can be used strategically to help achieve a specific goal, and they were excited to see examples of really fun stuff happening online in the Jewish world.

Hats off to Debs Weinberg and her team for organizing such a thoughtful, educational and inspiring event. In my vision, the next stage of Jewish organizational life will fuse experienced strategic thinkers with younger “we’ve grown up on this stuff” staff to shift organizational practice into relevant 21st century modes. These young people may have walked in thinking they were contributing to the teaching, but they left with much more. Sitting in on the debrief after the conference, I was amazed to hear what they had learned. The skills they developed in this one day will position them to be incredibly valuable in the job market as they graduate in the coming years.