From the Foundation Team

August 2010

August 14th, 2010

The Jim Joseph Foundation has four key strategies of grant making focus: educating educators; peer-to-peer learning; immersive learning experiences; and organizational and field capacity building. (See the link for the current composite of the foundation’s funding to each of these four areas.) Social networking on the web, which only a few years ago was just a relatively small part of online activity, is becoming a pervasive feature of our digital world. Increasingly, in each of JJF’s four strategy areas, this type of online activity is a fundamental means by which teaching and learning occur.

Online social networking involves connecting with others who have shared interests by using technology which provides access to the internet. Such internet-capable technologies include computers, iPads, smartphones, blackberries, etc. JJF professionals struggle to understand whether the online social networking strategies proposed in the grant applications we invite will achieve their desired effects. We want to know that the prospective grantee will be able to access and expand social networks to reach and engage their target populations—although we are rarely sure how to assess this with much certainty. We ask ourselves whether there is any way to really know or to accurately measure what is gained. How will we ensure that we are not recommending funding for an organization that will take credit for informal Jewish gatherings that could indeed occur in the proposed project but which would have happened anyway? Can substantive Jewish learning take place over social networking sites? How do online and offline elements of social networking interrelate?

JJF must assess the importance of online social networks to Jewish education. On the one hand, nothing about online social networking is inherently educational. On the other hand, these networks “can facilitate accelerated learning and on-demand access to information—all [the] while reducing costs of participation and coordination” (see the Monitor Group’s paper entitled “Working Wikily”). University of California, Davis professor Ari Kelman notes that online social networks, “allow one to have relationships with greater numbers of like-minded peers because they create links where none would otherwise exist.”

In light of growing empirical evidence, there is little question that online social networking can build what is called “social capital.” Several of JJF’s grantees receive funding specifically allocated to support young Jews who possess significant amounts of this capital. These individuals push Jewish content into online social networks and pull increasing numbers of their peers into interactions with other young Jews, thus amplifying the meaning of Judaism in personally relevant ways to the network participants.

We are learning that online social networking is a potent tool to advance Jewish learning – particularly in the peer-to-peer learning arena. The JJF-funded Lookstein Institute Jim Joseph Fellows program, for example, gives life to a host of online communities of practice in which a wide array of Jewish educators capitalize on shared matters of professional concern to learn from one another. Online social networking in Birthright NEXT is helping lead significant numbers of young adults to celebrate Shabbat, learn Hebrew, attend Jewish cultural events together, and participate in service learning projects. Similar kinds of experiential Jewish learning are taking place on Facebook and other online social platforms. Such learning is working to drive teen participation in such projects as those led by the JJF-funded North Shore Teen Initiative – a program based in a region north of Boston. Moishe House residents are also ultilizing Facebook. In over 29 cities around the world, individual houses are creating their own Facebook pages and harnessing the internet as one portal through which young adults find their way to regularly held, local Moishe House events.

While I have come to appreciate the growing presence of online social networking, I still find myself vacillating between poles of either romanticizing or, alternatively, outright repudiating the role this new technology is playing in contemporary education. My wavering in the last analysis, however, is unproductive. The fact of the matter is that online social networking is here to stay. Siegal College of Jewish Studies provost Brian Amkraut astutely noted several years ago that online social networking is integral to the culture of Web 2.0 and “is merely the latest means, and perhaps the most powerful, of continuing the 3,000-year-old conversation that is Judaism.”

The pace of technological change is dizzying. (It feels to me as though this pace is actually accelerating.) My JJF colleagues and I constantly challenge one another to try to make sense of what the revolution in digital technology means for us as foundation professionals focused exclusively on Jewish education. We invite you to contribute to our learning even as we forge ahead, trying to identify grantees whose strategizing about the use of online social networks shows the greatest promise for advancing Jewish life and learning.