Social Capital and the Communal Leveraging of Adult Jewish Learning

by Morey Schwartz

Adult Jewish learning as a priority seems to have fallen off many broader communal agendas in recent years. Even before the financial downturn of 2008 there were signs that serious adult Jewish learning had faded from the list of communal priorities.

Lack of Research

Some supporters of making adult learning readily available believed that it would lead participants to more involvement in communal life, and inspire them to be more philanthropically engaged as well. Unfortunately, without firm evidence to that effect, it is not clear at all what impact different forms and approaches to Jewish learning have actually had on these participants and their communities. While some studies have explored its impact upon individuals, none have gone beyond that to explore the impact that adult Jewish learning has had in terms of transforming or strengthening Jewish communal life. While of course adult Jewish learning has intrinsic value in terms of enlightening students and furthering their knowledge-base and sense of Jewish competency, the communal piece has been sorely under-valued and surprisingly under-researched.

I submit that it is precisely the absence of such research that is empowering communities to write off adult Jewish learning as a priority, at a time when more than ever communities need to be investing in it for their own self-preservation.

Building Social capital

There is strong evidence that adult education can produce something called social capital outcomes. A straightforward definition of social capital was offered in 1998 by Alejandro Portes who wrote that “…whereas economic capital is in people’s bank accounts and human capital is in their heads, social capital inheres in the structure of their relationships.” Increasing social capital, expanding and broadening the social networking in a community is very advantageous, for it can in turn enhance the growth of human capital and thereby contribute significantly to the social-economic well-being of the learners and the communities in which they live. When communities focus their attention on social capital, when learning is no longer mainly a matter of individual acquisition of skills and knowledge, but rather, learning becomes a function of and a vehicle for building social relationships, it is then that such communities really begin to reap the benefits of their investment.

Communities of Learning

In the 1990’s, the Jewish Community Federation of Marin County, California (inclusive of San Francisco) created an initiative called “Communities of Learning,” with the expressed goal of building community, reaching out to those who have yet be involved, and providing a non-threatening way for others to return to active communal participation. Already in year two, women in the group began to feel more comfortable moving outward and noticeably increased their participation within the larger Jewish community.

A key contributing factor to the success of “Communities of Learning” seems to have that the Federation professional in charge of all of the logistics also made it a point to meet individually with each and every participant outside of the group, cultivating a good relationship. The relationship between the professional and the lay leader was crucial to the long-term success of the project. “Communities of Learning” was a successful initiative for connecting Jews to Jewish life, and it was achieved through the conscious building of local communal social capital.

Leveraging the Learning

Hillel the Elder, amidst the celebrations of the Sukkot festival, is said to have remarked:

  • “If I am here, then all are here. And if I am not here, who is here?” (Bab. Talmud, Sukkah 53a)

This obscure statement has been open to many differing interpretations. In the interests of this discussion of social capital, I suggest that Hillel was making a very significant observation: the communal agenda is only achieved when individuals are engaged, networked, and set in motion. When individuals are connected and motivated to step forward and participate, when social capital is nurtured and developed, only then does the communal agenda gain traction. Without individual engagement in the building of social capital, visions for communal prosperity will not be achievable.

The key to providing an adult Jewish learning opportunity that maximizes social capital and launches learners on a path of greater communal involvement and concern begins with a clear conceptualization by local sponsors and instructors as to their short-term and long-term goals for sponsoring adult learning in their community. In my opinion, it is not enough for sponsoring agencies to underwrite costs and then move to the bleachers where, instead of participating in the process, they are content to merely keep score. Getting to know the students and being transparent about the community’s objectives in offering programs of study is a critical component that seems to be skipped over in many Jewish communities. Sponsoring agencies of adult Jewish learning should remain integral parts of the learners’ experience, maintaining ongoing contact with the teachers, scheduling representatives to address the group at different points, introducing to them the extensive activities of the sponsoring agency in an effort to inspire them to take part as well. The sponsors should continuously present participants with specific opportunities to participate and contribute to the overall communal agenda, while instructors look for ways to build introductions to these activities and initiatives into their teaching. In this way, both the instructors and the sponsoring agency representatives create and activate social capital, simultaneously expanding the size and number of networks through which the participants will be able to pass as they move in the direction of greater communal participation, ultimately perceiving the important role they play in forwarding the communal agenda, and coming to the important realization, that if I am here, then all are here.

Morey Schwartz is the Director of Education for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, a project of the Melton Centre of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and is currently earning an Ed.D. at the William Davidson School of Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.