The Power of Belonging

by Marci Mayer Eisen

A sense of belonging is a powerful emotion. Those of us who are fortunate enough to study the field of social group work are motivated to help others find meaningful relationships and cultivate belonging through community involvement. Social group work views the small group experience as a primary way for people to develop friendships, enhance self-worth, learn decision-making skills and contribute to society. On a basic, human level, social group work finds merit in connections, whether among kids in a cabin at summer camp or as members of boards of directors.

Shelly Dickstein wrote in the 1-28-13 issue of eJewish Philanthropy that Jewish educators are realizing the importance of social networks. She highlights Mark Rosen’s 2011 study for the UJA-Federation of New York that parental choices, including Jewish choices, are often influenced by friends. Dickstein writes: “It became evident as we reflected upon the data that the focus in our early engagement models and early childhood settings needs to shift from programs to relationships.” Rosen’s study also emphasizes the importance of the professional in a key role as catalyst in relationship development. “We need to measure success not only by how many people attend a program or how much they know or practice, but by how many leave with new friends.”

These theories have literally guided community builders since the settlement house movement of the late 1800s. Although it goes much farther back, as acclaimed author Margaret Wheatley eloquently describes in her writings on leadership and communities, human beings have always sat in circles and councils to do their best thinking and to develop strong and trusting relationships.

Early social group work literature from the 1930s highlights the importance of group dynamics and the essential role of the staff person in meeting community needs. These principles have reliably and consistently guided many of our institutions, especially Jewish Community Centers, for decades. In fact, many of our present leaders found their paths to long term commitments through professionally-led youth group and camp experiences.

I find it ironic that the explosion of online social networking is driven by nothing more complicated than people trying to connect with other people. It appears that the more technology isolates us with our personal devices, the more we crave basic human connection.

While I see the benefits of group work recognized and even celebrated, I recognize that, sadly, we rarely teach the skills that allow staff to heighten the impact of group experiences. After all, staff is in the perfect position to facilitate relationship-building, influence good decisions and help promote true community. Group work training provides a foundation to elevate every group experience to a higher level.

Perhaps all Jewish professionals need to see themselves as “connectors.” In his book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” author Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to “Connectors,” people who are curious, self-confident, sociable and energetic that have a knack for bringing people together. I’d add that connectors are comfortable approaching strangers and skilled at promoting common interests. Connectors know their role is significant. They know how to provide a constructive environment and then manage the process.

While strong social skills are important for developing groups, training in group dynamics is critical to group facilitation. Professionals need to learn how to create a shared vision, when to step forward and lead, when to step back and encourage, and most important, how to provide concrete ways to make effective decisions. When group work theories and skills are mastered, wide-ranging possibilities for effective outcomes with respect to building community and developing leaders emerge.

We need to recognize that group work theories go beyond just promoting friendships. Effective groups comprise diverse personalities and perspectives. Group workers understand the inherent vulnerability people bring to group participation and the importance of building trust. Professionals identify and respect the differences and reference the similarities, creating an empowerment and “mutual-aid” framework. This constructive environment enables members to meet their own needs and simultaneously furthers the mission of the organization. Effective groups manage conflict and celebrate accomplishments. As group workers like to say, the process and the task are always intertwined.

If we are to be effective, we must embrace every contact with a member (congregant, student, volunteer, leader) as an opportunity to help others find relevancy, meaning, and make their own contributions. Our core work as connectors is to cultivate relationships that lead to a deeper sense of belonging and involvement in community. In the end, groups are the only way to provide long-term connections to Jewish life and make the world a little less lonely.

Marci Mayer Eisen is Director of the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership, a community-wide program of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Marci is a graduate of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a passionate group worker.