Lately, in Jewish communal circles, I have heard a lot of talk about fostering networks. This talk has focused mostly on networks among organizations and the individuals who lead them, rather than on small groups of people who interact on a regular basis. In my research on Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, I’ve found that both types of networks have benefits.
First, a note on terminology: In social network theory, “density” refers to the number of people within a network who know each other, and “multiplexity” refers to the number of contexts in which individuals interact. A dense, multiplex network consists of a bunch of people who know each other and interact in multiple ways — at home, at work, at the park, etc.
Orthodox communities are prime examples of dense, multiplex networks. Dozens of people know each other, live near each other (and a shul or multiple shuls), share meals in each others’ homes, send their children to the same schools, and participate in the same organizations and cultural events. These networks are high in norm enforcement — one reason most people don’t leave Orthodoxy. The social and religious patterns found in Orthodox communities also foster reciprocal altruism: When someone in the Orthodox community is sick, has a baby, or experiences a death in the family, the community helps out. And most Orthodox communities feature a lending collective for wedding dresses, medical equipment, baby equipment, bicycles, moving supplies, and other needs.
The notion of such a dense, multiplex network is foreign to many non-Orthodox Jews. They tend to have thousands of Facebook friends but few people they would feel comfortable asking for help. They may interact with many people face-to-face — some at work, some at the park, some at shul, some through an organization — but, for the most part, these people represent different groups of friends who are not friends with each other. Exceptions to this pattern can be found among non-Orthodox Jews who observe Shabbat by attending services weekly and hosting regular meals, or who are strongly committed to a synagogue or organization — especially in smaller cities and towns. But most non-Orthodox Jews do not have a tight-knit community they call their social home.
The density and multiplexity of Orthodox communities is a major attraction for many non-Orthodox Jews, as I found in my research on ba’alei teshuvah, or newly Orthodox Jews. Many people I studied were drawn to a religious lifestyle because they wanted to be part of the supportive networks they found when they were invited to the homes of frum friends and teachers. Those who did not make the commitment to become observant were left looking longingly at Orthodox networks.
Although Orthodox Jews offer a model to emulate, they can also learn from the sparse, porous networks of non-Orthodox Jews, which tend to include Jews and non-Jews of diverse backgrounds. By their nature, these networks tend to foster innovation, as we see in the proliferation of organizational startups, attentiveness to current social justice issues, and the adoption of new technologies. They allow for individual variation and nonconformity more than dense networks. And, based on an individual’s regular interaction with people outside of the network, these networks foster a better reputation for Jews in the world at large. Of course, there are Orthodox Jews who maintain strong relations outside of their dense networks, especially representatives of Chabad and other kiruv (outreach) groups.
The organized Jewish community has a role to play in fostering dense networks among non-Orthodox Jews and openness within Orthodox networks. Synagogues and other organizations should nurture stronger relationships between staff and constituents and should engineer connections among people with similar interests. As Ron Wolfson convincingly writes in his book Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, “It’s all about relationships.” We should be fostering stronger ties among groups and encouraging members of each group to be open to learning from the other in order to create a stronger and more interconnected Jewish community.