I was reading ejewishphilanthropy this morning, and was struck by a piece by Marci Mayer Eisen called The Power of Belonging. It is an eloquent statement about how we need to recognize that it is relationships, rather than programs, that we Jewish educators and Jewish professionals should be focused on. Yes, sometimes programs facilitate relationships, but most of the time they just become an end in themselves. And that is often a mistake. It is interesting that the catalyst for this conversation is the proliferation of web-based social networks, and the fact that Jewish professionals are often scrambling to become literate in these technologies and use them to their advantage. But the truth is that, with or without the technology, relationships really are the most important things. Look at the success of Chabad – they do it through relationships, not programs. Look at the success of Hillel’s most recent initiatives (which I was involved with several years ago) – they also focus on relationship building rather than programming.
The most important ramification is, indeed, the shift that this implies, from focusing on programs to building and nurturing relationships. This, of course, isn’t as easy as it sounds. The skills that Jewish professionals need to build a “successful” program are very different from those needed to initiate and nurture meaningful relationships, as well as to be an effective “connector”. We have to think very carefully about the ramifications for hiring, training and supporting professionals. And I would also emphasize a point that Marci makes right at the end, that the relationships are not an end in themselves. We don’t help build connections just so that people can say that they know a lot of people. These should be connections and relationships with purpose – the purpose of building community. And that implies that once we have facilitated a web of connections and relationships, we help those people find ways (our ways or their ways) to actualize them, to turn them from a vague emotional sense, into a practical set of behaviors that express that belonging and community.