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Jewish Peoplehood: The Original Network

Seth CohenFilmed at Limmud Conference 2011

In an age of increased connectivity, expanding  opportunity to rapidly share information and the ability to create global collective impact, networks have become a vital mode of connecting ideas, institutions and people. More than just technology platforms, networks allow for individuals to share social capital, express common passion, and drive change. In my talk, I explore the opportunities presented by network-thinking and the ways those opportunities are being explored in the Jewish world.

As part of the senior leadership team of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Seth serves as its Senior Director, leading the Foundation’s global efforts to identify, connect and support networks of young Jewish adults to enable them to create Jewish experiences and communities for themselves and their peers. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Seth also holds numerous volunteer leadership positions in his local and national Jewish community, including currently serving as the President of Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta and co-chair of the Assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem. He has served on as Vice-chair and Chair of Allocations of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta as well as a member of the Board of Joshua Venture Group. Most importantly, Seth is married to his best friend Marci, and together they have three children that attend the Epstein School in Atlanta.

So I was recently at home with my family, on vacation and I started talking to my parents about what I was doing and Shoshana just mentioned it’s new and very new. It’s all about networks so I’m going to explain about that and what I mean. So I was riding with my dad in the car and we were thinking about social capital and all sorts and he said stop. When you were in LA did you check with your cousin David, and I said Dad I am trying to explain to you what I’m doing for a living, he said I know but you just told me you were in LA, you need to see your cousin David he knows a lot of people, you should talk to him. So I start explaining again that I’m going to be working with young adults in Israel – and he said wait a sec, did you see your cousin Sophie when you were in Tel Aviv last time, because she knows a lot of people and you should talk to her because she could help you? So you can imagine, it’s a very long car ride, two hours I’m driving trying to explain, I know everything about all of my cousins, my father yet still doesn’t know what I do for a living. It’s that moment to me captures what’s both new and what’s old about networks. Because well we talk about social networks, we talk about Facebook and Twitter, really it’s a very very familiar thing to us especially to the Jewish people. Our cousins, our family, our social networks, are what really created us as a people. When we exploded around the world in various places we stayed connected through our family, we stayed connected with one another, we brought each other to the countries in which we lived in. We saved each other, we served each other, we celebrated with each other, we really were a network. So then what is so different today about networks that isn’t what we already know? That isn’t essentially what my father was telling me that I was trying to tell him? And part of it is because there is just so much greater opportunity for us to stay connected , not just with our cousins but with everybody we know, wherever we go we can meet friends, we can stay connected, you can talk to people. We can do it through amazing social networks, we can do it through technology and we celebrate technology, we lament technology, some of you are still using your technology even though you were told to take it off. But the idea that you can stay connected with one another through technology changes the way your social networks are created, that changed the way they grow, and it’s amazing, even as I am talking to you today to know that there are a lot of people listening in, to not just this conversation but to Limmud because of web cast, because of Twitter. People all over the world are part of the Limmud network, even though they are not right here at Limmud. It’s amazing. It’s amazing.
So, one of the things that we started to realise at the foundation and the Schusterman foundation is really all about trying to figure out how to empower young adults. We do lots of things at the foundation but one of the things we stay focused on because of the vision of Lynn Schustermann is to make sure that young adults can be empowered to embrace the joy of Jewish living, to more deeply connect with Israel, to take ownership in repairing and healing the world, and you can’t do that alone. You have to do that with people that you meet, you have to do it with friends, with connections and there are strangers in the world. We know the other, we take care of the other we meet them but really they are the friends that we just haven’t met yet. That’s what social networks can do for us, that’s what our own social capital can do for us as well. So, how does this all fit together? Well we do it at work, we all know we do it at work. Who doesn’t necessarily have a computer hopefully one a little bit more updated than these, but the idea that we can stay connected and we can work in global teams and we can have offices in Jerusalem and America and we can be working- that’s what we do with technology, we stay networked together. But we also do it for fun, we do it for games we play with one another, perhaps even while we are supposed to be at work. But the way that social gaming has changed the way we connect. And now people don’t just do it online, they talk about it when they are actually in real life. They talk about games in the virtual world, in the real world, they stay connected because can stay connected.
And then last, there’s also a of course network that we do every Shabbat or at other times we celebrate together. But we can even do that virtually as well and while sometimes there is nothing that substitutes for being together in person, there certainly is the opportunity to celebrate online. We know people in far away places can feel part of community. Then there’s online tools, there is, there’s G-dcast. There’s ways to celebrate using technology to give us a sense of spirituality, even when we can’t be around the table together. So really what networks allow us to do is to bridge our own social capital, the things that bond us together and the things that help us bridge to one another. And that’s really what social capital is. We also have wealth, we have wisdom, we have knowledge but it’s really what is inside of us that we drive to make our own commitments with our passions with that is the catalyst for us to desire to connect with another so we bond together over a common idea and then we try and bridge others over that idea. And it really evolves into some amazing things. Because when somebody says I cannot afford an apartment and she puts it on Facebook the world can change because she has a network because she then has a she, he has a he and he has a they and then all of them come out onto the streets in what I can only say was an amazingly beautiful display. Meaningful to be impacting, hopefully not to be short, network of people to create something significant, in the State of Israel also in the US and all around the world. We see people coming together they have a shared passion, and something catalysed them to leverage their social capital and their networks to create it.
So what does this really mean? What does this all mean to institutions? Institutions aren’t necessarily built the same way to react to the networks that we all are participating in. They actually sometimes become institutions, they become castles, they build walls and moats because they want you to get in and while you’re there they like you to stay a while and a while and a while. And they do amazing things with you whilst you’re in those institutions but sometimes it’s hard to get out, and sometimes it’s actually hard to get in. So really what we start to see in the world is the institutional mind-set isn’t built for the individual networked mind-set yet, because it can be. So the world looks a lot different when you think in network mind-set. It doesn’t look like moats and it doesn’t look like walls it looks like lines and dots and that may be scary too, but it really can be an exploding way of thinking about the connections we build in Jewish life. This chart too, which I have discussed with my Father doesn’t make a lot of sense for people. Because you have to really break it down into real life, what does it really mean? It means we need a new architecture for Jewish life, it means we need to design systems of Jewish life that are different than the systems we had before. The Jewish world today, we think, is built around a model of continuity, which is vital and important and we need it to survive, we need to endure. But it is also about contextuality, bridging those things you care about with those things you want to do and doing it Jewishly in a way that resonates with your Jewish identity and a way that helps you translate your Jewish values into action that changes the world. So you go to great things and you see great people and here is a great example at Limmud, music festivals bring people together, Burning Man in the United States is a point of celebration where people build community. It is not just about going it is about building. Because when you create a network at an event like Limmud you really are building something special. You are building something to take back home. And then you join into other organisations and other networks that create amazing things for the Jewish people. A lot of these organisations are represented in this room today and they are doing amazing things not just in the UK and not just in America but around the world. Because they have connected with one another and they’ve found a way to create with one another by bridging their capital by building those networks and then they do it just to do good things as well, to change the world not just in Israel, not just in America, not just at home, but in Ghana, in places in the developing world where they can translate their values through their networks to do amazing things. Because connecting it really not just about connecting it’s about change and change is not really just about change it’s about performance. When we connect with one another and we create change we can change the way the Jewish world performs, we can change the way the world performs. So networks in many ways is really about performance. It’s not just about knowing. And so what we know is there is a miraculous output of outcomes related to networks. There are emerging communities in South Africa, there are amazing organisations developing in Israel that support giving gardens and things that create communities of Ethiopian Olim – that come together not necessarily around a programme or an institution but around the opportunity to eat together and be together and the opportunities continue and the miracles continue and they continue. And we play together, we play with the ideas, we connect with the issues, about the issues and we experiment and we drive the network even bigger and bigger. Because you can’t just try once at a network and then let it go. You have to get feedback, you have to get feedback loops that allow you to understand even better how the network will react and will perform. So what we know, when we start to experiment and what we know when we play with these ideas and we know that we count on the networks to grow and expand is that we again can do amazing things, things that institutions can’t do but networks can. Your friends, your family the people you are bridging into your strategic networks around the world, can do things institutions can’t, including not just your old cousins but your classmates too.
I was flying out to come to Limmud and I called my Dad to say I’m going to mention you a little bit in my talk I hope you don’t mind and he said great have a safe trip, did I tell you one of your classmates was in the newspaper the other day, you should talk to him he’s doing something about networks too. And I said, sure dad, absolutely but he once again reminded that the friends I know, the cousins I have can be designed in amazing ways that really allow us to learn together and to create together, even if my parents are right and they told me to do it. And so before I close, I want to show a brief 2 minute video that sort of raps all of this together and share with you one final thought as we close.

VIDEO played

So you all can create networks, you can build networks and I would only invite you to think about how you can be the network you want to be a part of.

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