Culture thrives on connection. From the sanctuary to the boardroom, we human beings depend on interpersonal relationships to understand our place in the world, to pursue collaborative endeavors, and to realize our individual ambitions.
In that vein, I have a confession to make. I’m a young(-ish) Jewish professional, an about-to-be-ordained rabbi who has worked in a variety of roles and locations and made diverse contacts. I’m always excited to meet new people, yet I tend to squirm a little when the conversation becomes a game of Jewish geography. I suspect I’m not the only person who has this reaction. People start to ask, “Hey, do you know So-and-So?” and it can be easy to think, “Oh no. I don’t. Am I supposed to?”
This sort of contact anxiety can have any number of causes. Maybe your family didn’t really participate in the local Jewish community when you were growing up, or you never went to summer camp or took part in youth activities. Maybe you deliberately steered clear of organized Jewish life in college. Maybe you’re a transplant, new to the area. Maybe very few of the people in your peer group, family, or other circles of community are Jewish. Maybe you just don’t spend a lot of time counting business cards or making mental maps of who knows whom.
Or maybe you’re like me: I’ve been officially Jewish for only a little over a decade. The contacts from AEPi, SAM, day school, or summer camp that you might expect a typical Reform rabbi to have in their back pocket never quite materialized for me. And my first spiritual guide, that childhood rabbi? Well, we’re still close, but that relationship only began in my college years.
As with a number of other things about coming to Judaism later in life than is typical, I try to regard my network as not worse, just different. It can feel a little intimidating to think that I might be losing when I play Jewish geography, so I remind myself of the perks of my peculiar situation. I have friends, colleagues, and students who have converted, and we share a special bond as a result. I have non-Jewish family and friends who offer me regular opportunities to work on interfaith dialogue. Among my fellow Jews, I find myself perpetually reminded to give every voice a fair hearing, from the most piously observant to the most scrupulously nonobservant. Each is equally a part of my tribe, my chosen family.
At the same time, I can’t deny that maintaining strong relationships with a broad assortment of contacts is indispensable in our world. Professional success, interpersonal skills, emotional maturity, spiritual and psychological health — all these and more depend on not merely maintaining deep bonds with a very few people, but on spreading ourselves around and, to use a phrase popular in the business world, “growing our networks.”
Why is this? What is so important about networking? Is it really a question of who you know, not what you know? No . . . at least, not exactly.
In September I began a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship at JVS Career Services. Previously, I would have said that over the course of nearly five years as part of Cincinnati’s Jewish community, I had learned to understand and navigate the landscape. I felt I knew who the major players and institutions are, to what sorts of demographic trends the ebb and flow of the community correspond, and how the cohorts of the community — differentiated by age group, religious identification, or other criteria — relate to one another.
In a short time, however, I have discovered that there can be a lot more to understanding the relationships and dynamic processes that form the basic structure of a community than simply observing them, or even participating in them from time to time as a guest, teacher, or leader.
Through my work with JVS Career Services, I have seen first hand the reciprocal relationships that can exist between a community and its institutions. When JVS was founded in 1940, it sought to address four issues: combating discrimination against Jewish workers, locating jobs for them, training them to work, and getting them hired. Since then, the realities of Jewish life in Cincinnati have greatly changed. Vocational training has become less relevant to the twenty-first century constituency the agency now serves, while interviewing, resume writing, and networking have become necessary skills in a way they never were seventy years ago.
What has not changed is the degree to which JVS’s mission of ensuring employment and job satisfaction among Cincinnati’s Jews leads to a more abundant and complete sense of Jewish life in the community. Conversely, a rich interconnectedness among agencies and individuals bears directly on the ability of JVS to fulfill that mission, because the agency’s chief job is making connections between people.
By acting as a nexus for new relationships, JVS Career Services strengthens the relationships it already has. In this sense, it illustrates something vital about the networking game. It isn’t about scrambling for limited resources and competing with peers over who has a better contact list. It is less about the what than about the why. It is about trading in spiritual goods.
For a basic explanation of the difference between spiritual and material goods, we can consult the definitions offered by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. He suggests the following distinction:
With material goods — money, food, or even time — we have a limited quantity to spend in a given place. If I spend ten dollars on food, I have ten fewer dollars to use for another purpose. If I give that food to a hungry person, I no longer have it myself to eat. And if I spend twenty minutes buying food and tracking down a hungry person to give it to, I have twenty fewer minutes in my day. No one would deny that I am doing something good with that time, that money, and that food, but they are spent in the process.
With spiritual goods, the story is altogether different. Affection, respect, and compassion are not consumed when we share them with others. In fact, by taking our spiritual goods and placing them out there in the universe, we will not spend them or get rid of them. We only stand to gain more in return. What a list of contacts really represents is a menu of options for investing our spiritual goods.
In tractate Ta‘anit of the Babylonian Talmud, a series of stories are told about a miracle worker named Honi. Most famously, Honi brings rain in a time of drought, and he even argues with God about how much rain should fall: not too little, he says, and not too much. For all his pull with the Deity, however, Honi is not immune to the human need for community.
In a story reminiscent of Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle, Honi falls asleep and winds up sleeping for seventy years, waking up to discover that everyone he knew is now dead and gone. He finds that no one will believe that he is who he says he is, so he prays for death — and dies. In response to this story, one rabbi says, “Hence the saying: either companionship or death.” Pithily, the Aramaic reads: o chavruta o meituta.
“Companionship or death” may seem like a harsh motto for us as individuals. From romanticizing aloof and brooding loners (see Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow) to promoting disaster-ready survival skills (see Man vs. Wild’s Bear Grylls), our popular culture has a tendency to idealize the ability to be alone as something rare and desirable.
Jewish tradition and Jewish institutional life offer a different perspective. Jewish institutions do not and cannot function in a vacuum. We need venues for sharing our spiritual goods as well as people with whom to share them. The life of the community depends on the vibrancy of each organization individually as well as collectively. In other words, they must function and be healthy, but they must also relate to one another in healthy and functional ways: transacting business, sharing information, trading resources, and fostering interpersonal bonds.
When one organization provides career satisfaction — or exercise space, or adult Hebrew classes — the entire community reaps the benefits, regardless of who the official stakeholders or target populations may be. When one organization serves to connect people whose respective searches for employment and employees align, it inevitably strengthens connection and trust between those people, between the organizations or agencies involved, and between that organization itself and the broader community.
My work with JVS Career Services has taught me that I am only as well connected as I make myself through offers of help and through facilitation of relationships. My contact list is an inventory of people both to whom and for whom I am responsible. It is, in one sense, a catalog of obligations. But in another, it is a catalog of the resources I have for helping others. As long as we remember that a network is not a scorecard but a map of our personal universe, we know where we can share our spiritual goods — and where we can go to find more when we need them.
Noah Ferro is a fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati and a rabbinic fellow at JVS Career Services (formerly Jewish Vocational Service of Cincinnati).