Networks and the Jewish Environmental Movement

On November 8-10, I traveled to Boulder, CO for a unique post-GA event: the NetWORKS Gathering, organized by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation. According to the organizers, the event brought together "a group of exceptional innovators, activists and network curators pushing the boundaries of the most vibrant organizations, projects and communities comprising Jewish life today." It was an honor to participate and to represent a network that I'm quite fond of – the global Jewish environmental community as gathered together on Jewcology.

In addition to being — as you might guess — an excellent opportunity to network with other Jewish leaders, the event had a specific purpose. In sessions ranging from panels and talks to participatory opportunities in using models like World Cafe and Open Space, we had the opportunity to explore what networks are, how they work, and what they can offer to us as a Jewish community. The wise people at Schusterman (led by new network guru Seth Cohen), have recognized that while young Jews may not be interested in joining Jewish organizations for life, we are interested in connections in our Jewish journey. We understand — and participate — in networks.

The sessions gave me an excellent opportunity to explore how networks are active in the Jewish environmental movement, and what we can do to strengthen them in order to achieve our mission.

In networks, people know each other, educate each other, and inspire each other to act. Networks are bound together through ties between people and generalized reciprocity — the idea that if I help you today, someone else in this network will help me tomorrow. There are three types of networks: centralized (in which all elements are connected through a single hub); decentralized (in which numerous mini-network nodes are connected to a central hub), and distributed (in which all elements are connected to each other through random ties). See a visual representation of the three types here.

While networks may happen on their own, there is an art to building them. One can learn techniques to strengthen networks. We also had the opportunity to evaluate the strength of our own networks in the Jewish community, using a network effectiveness diagnotistic tool.

Of course, the Jewish environmental movement is already a network. Anyone who has been to a Hazon Food Conference or a Kayam Beit Midrash knows that! We know each other, we share a common language and values, we make and strengthen connections between our communities. I often comment that one of my greatest pleasures at a Jewish environmental conference is having a roommate who also uses Tom's of Maine toothpaste — then I feel at home. It is the ties between people of shared values that hold our network together.

But there is still a lot of opportunity for growth when it comes to the Jewish environmental network, because in addition to building ties between people of like minds, we have a mission we're committed to.

That mission includes the greening of Jewish homes and institutions, modeling and practicing sustainable eating and agriculture, learning and practicing Jewish wisdom as it relates to the modern environmental challenges — and for many of us, working together for a more just society. In addition to these goals, we also seek to identify and implement strategies by which the Jewish community can act to make a true and important difference in our global sustainability challenge.

Achieving that mission will require a stronger network than we've got so far.

The Jewish environmental movement includes numerous mini-networks – large and small groups of individuals who know each other, share ideas and work on common campaigns. However, we have lacked a central hub to tie these individuals and organizations together effectively. A central hub does not have to be prescriptive – it does not have to direct how the movement should go. But a central hub IS needed to foster communication between the various mini-networks of the Jewish environmental movement.

In the Jewish environmental movement, when a single individual or organization has a campaign, it will generally want to reach beyond its own network to engage Jews of different organizations – from different mini-networks. To illustrate, say that the Green Zionist Alliance (GZA) wants to engage Jewish environmentalists in a campaign to save the Samar desert. The GZA has a network that it can reach to engage on this campaign. However, to be truly effective, it will want to engage other Jewish environmental networks as well.

That is the role of the central hub – to foster communication between the different nodes of the Jewish environmental movement, so that Jewish environmental activists and organizations can more easily engage each other – and each other’s networks – in shared efforts that will help us achieve our broader mission. And indeed, when the GZA used Jewcology for this purpose, it engaged numerous other Jewish environmental leaders and organizations. This shared effort helped to produce a positive result in postponing the destruction of the Samar.

Jewcology — a social media portal connecting the Jewish environmental community — provides a tool to help Jewish environmentalists build their own virtual networks andshare campaigns with people beyond their own networks, so that we can strengthen the Jewish environmental movement and join together move effectively to achieve our mission.

Of course, there is much more to do to build Jewcology into a better virtual tool for this purpose. One of the virtues of networks is that they take into account the skills and perspectives of their participants, so I hope you will post your comments and suggestions for how we can do that, below.

I look forward to working with you and building the network of the Jewish environmental movement — and I’m excited to partner with you in this new phase of Jewcology!

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