Social by Design in All We Do

SmoklerBy Dan Smokler

If you want to influence someone’s behavior, it helps to ask who they know. Thanks to the groundbreaking research of Nick Christakis and others, there is now a mounting body of evidence showing that a range of our behaviors and attitudes are influenced by our social networks. Your friends help shape whether or not you smoke, if you can lose weight, how happy you say you are, where you live and what you buy. So strong is the influence that if I know if your friends of friends of friends smoke – these are people you have never even met – I can predict with a better than random average if you will smoke as well.

We are just beginning to understand how thinking socially can help build more vibrant Jewish life. Are there not Jewish attitudes and behaviors we wish to shape? If so, should we not cultivate social networks that bolster these attitudes?

It is all too common to hear that Jews opt in to Jewish life because they find it compelling and meaningful or pull back because it is too cold and alienating. This is only half true. People also participate in youth groups, synagogues, philanthropic ventures, study circles and other activities because their friends do. Content and social support bolster and amplify each other. Our problem is that we focus on the content of Jewish life and often neglect the design that will cultivate deeper social networks.

Several years ago, I ran a 10-week fellowship at New York University called the Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF), which introduced Jewish study to college students with limited Jewish background. I was sure that the most important aspects of the class were the the content of my source sheets, my pedagogical acumen and my ability to inspire. When I conducted research with the participants afterwards, they reported overwhelmingly that the most important aspect of the class for them was that they they found friends, mentors and a sense of community.

After that eye-opening finding, we redesigned JLF to not only deliver outstanding content, but to be “social by design.” In each class we placed “big sibs.” These were seniors, modeled on fraternities and sororities, who invited students to coffee after class and saved seats for them at the Shabbat table on Friday. We introduced “tapas time,” where students mingled over hors d’oeuvres for fifteen minutes before we began learning, so they would talk to one another. We paused halfway through class and served dinner, banking on the idea that if you eat every Tuesday with a group of 25 Jewish students, Shabbat dinner will become much more accessible. To further that idea, we held two Shabbatot together – one in my home and one on campus – so students would have an opportunity to get to know potential mentors more intimately and feel more at home in the campus Hillel. We changed the decor of the class, adding ambient lighting and warm colors rather than sterile fluorescent lights and seminar tables, so students could open up more in conversation.

In short, we designed the entire experience, from the moment they walked in the door, to the weekly news updates their big sibs sent them, to their graduation in front of past alumni, as a chance to foster richer social networks. We told each student during their interview – we not only hope you love the study of Torah, but we also hope that you forge friendships, find a mentor and feel at home in this community.

The result of all this work was a renaissance of pluralistic Jewish life on campus.  An independent minyan blossomed. A chavurah learning series grew exponentially. While for years our student leadership had come largely from day schools – where Jewish social networks are much richer – our Hillel leaders and interns were now mostly JLF alumni.

Last year, we brought the Jewish Learning Fellowship to 10 other schools and found similar results replicated on their campuses. We are blessed to have a waiting list of another 15+ campuses who would like to begin JLF when the resources are available.

This is, however, only a first step.  We have yet to fully assimilate the notion of experiences and spaces that are pro-social by design. I still ask myself, what would a Shabbat service, a volunteer opportunity or a pledge drive look like if it also sought to deepen social relationships among participants?  In a hyper-social society, this is an aspect of Jewish life that leaders cannot afford to ignore.

Rabbi Daniel Smokler, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 24), is the inaugural Chief Innovation Officer at Hillel International. Dan earned a BA in Art History from Yale University and was ordained in 2005 by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, of Jerusalem’s highest rabbinic court. Dan has worked for Hillel at Occidental College, UCLA and NYU. In 2011, the Jewish Week named Dan one of the 36 under 36 “changemakers” in Jewish life. In addition to his work, he completed a PhD in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU. Dan lives in New York with wife Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, the director of Spiritual Development at Yeshivat Maharat, and their two sons, Shalev and Nadiv. Dan can be reached at

Cross-posted on WexnerLEADS