Network-Weaving with Smadar Bar-Akiva

Deborah Fishman sits with Smadar Bar-Akiva.
This interview is part of the Network-Weaver Series.

[Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers (WCJCC) and an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.]

Tell me about your network.

I direct an umbrella organization that represents more than 1,100 Jewish Community Centers around the world – we’re a network of networks. We have a 70-member board with representation from all the JCC networks and sponsor organizations. The purpose of our organization is to enrich Jewish lives and strengthen Jewish communities by connecting JCCs as institutions that open their doors to large number of Jews on a regular basis.

What role does network-weaving play in your work?

Though I sit in Jerusalem, my whole day revolves around connecting with JCC leadership worldwide. I have two functions: one is a networking function, as a facilitator between JCC leaders – finding out JCC leaders’ needs and interests and connecting them to others worldwide through conferences, Think Tanks, study visits, regional conferences and more. The other part of the work is implementing specific projects that connect specific JCCs. For instance, several years ago we initiated a Tri Center program that connects communities in Israel and North America to those in a third country, involving some 30 JCCs worldwide. We recently launched a Global Jewish Fellows program, co-sponsored with UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and PresenTense. It trains lay leaders from partnered JCCs to become leaders with a global Jewish perspective and to initiate projects in their local JCCs. It involved webinars, working with mentors, and seminars in Israel and Budapest. During the last couple of years, I feel that leaders from the JCCs and the JCC networks who are involved in these partnerships have become a global leadership group. We hope in the future to develop this phenomenon into a more formalized global forum.

What lessons in network-weaving have you learned from your work?

I’ve been working with JCCs since 1987, and I’ve found out that it’s first and foremost about the personal connections I’ve developed over the years and continue to develop as the network expands. Technology helps a lot, but it’s about sensitivity to every person; it’s not a template. Once a year, we take a study visit to a different part of the world to understand the needs and see how we could better connect them.

What challenges have you experienced in network-weaving?

First, there are cultural gaps, time differences, and mentality differences. These professionals and lay leaders work in different settings, and they need to come to the process with an open mind. People have to learn to take off their own lenses and understand the different context. Second, there are so many pressing needs in local life that it’s hard to find extra resources to connect with people far away. The challenging part is really the first meeting, the first encounter, to put global Jewry on their radar – but it’s very encouraging that people who do get involved are really drawn into it. Finally, the network needs constant cultivation; it doesn’t happen on its own. It needs facilitation, staff time and resources. We have a new part-time professional working on our global Jewish year-long project, and I already see that we’ve created additional momentum and energy in our network.

How do participants benefit from your network?

More and more, JCCs understand the power of these global connections. Through anecdotal evidence and some research, we found that those involved with the global Jewish partnerships feel their personal Jewish identity and connection to the global Jewish community strengthened. We give a lot of attention to communities outside of Israel and North America. For instance, Latin America has rich and powerful communities, but they feel off of the radar screen; it’s important to them to be acknowledged, to learn from each other, and to see what others are doing in the Jewish world. Many from the larger communities feel this encounter invigorates their work as well. Very often, leaders from North America come back home from places like the JCCs in the Former Soviet Union and say, “Now I remember why I got into this field in the first place!” After going all the way to a different part of the world, they understand themselves better. They become leaders who understand global Jewish issues better, and can be our advocates to initiate more partnerships.

How would you like to see the network grow in the future?

I would like to see it more professionalized and formalized, with the interactions taking place at closer intervals and impacting more people. I would like a greater use of technology for participants to connect more with one another, to share more, and to invest more of their time in the network. We are welcoming to everyone, but there is a limit to the number of people you can reach with limited resources. At the same time, as we expand, we have to find ways to still keep the feeling of personal, family-like intimacy.

I really like the term network-weaving. Our network is something really tangible. When I connect people, it really feels like weaving – it grows across different levels, like a tapestry.

This post is cross-posted on Deborah’s blog, hachavaya.blogspot.com, as a part of her ongoing conversation series with network-weavers about their best practices.

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