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Star (of David) bursts: On the “Bursty” Nature of Jewish Engagement

October 14, 2008

Bursty. It’s a term I have started to use over the past several months when attempting to describe the nature of Jewish engagement.  Borrowed from the technical understanding of network theory, “burstyness” occurs in structured networks when the network experience a “burst” of activity, either as the result of intentional stimuli or because of the natural behavior of the network. The exploration of burst activity in connection with computer networks is an area that has received increased focus as our world has become more and more network-oriented.  Additionally, it has even taken on more innovative usage when characterizing the nature of workforce productivity.

My use of the term however relates to my concern for something far older than current network technologies – the Jewish people. The more time I spend in my local Jewish community and with my engaged and not-so-engaged Jewish friends, the more I recognize the ebbs and flows of their Jewish engagement.  While there are some friends who have consistent patterns of Jewish experience, many others seem to be engaged in bursts of Jewish activity. These bursts may participation in a single event, observation of a particular holiday, or association with a particular cause that they care about for Jewish reasons (even if the cause isn’t distinctly Jewish).  Sometimes they go through periods of time where they engage in several Jewish activities – only to then disappear from the community radar for an equal if not longer time. And while sometimes the burst of activity is driven by individual growth and opportunism, many times the engagement is more inspired by habit, fear, guilt or social pressure and acculturation.

Take the recent high holidays for example. There are many Jews whose familiarity with the rhythm of synagogue life is based on three days a year (for many it may even be only two). Shabbats, daily services and other holiday celebrations come and go, but the amount of time that many individuals spend in and around the synagogue barely registers on the dial. But on the high holidays, the activity is off the chart.  People who don’t make it to one Shabbat service a year get there hours early (early!) for Kol Nidre.  People who rarely peruse the synagogue bulletin, read every word of the service schedule and parking instructions (and of course the babysitting forms) twice (or three times!) to make sure nothing is missed.  The opportunities for spiritual experience can be found inside the synagogue (and outside as well) all year round – the network is always there, but on these few days, the burst of activity nearly overloads the system.

And the same occurrence happens in less Jewish religious experiences as well. Many people who have never thought of joining the JCC also never fail to miss the JCC community festival. And even those Jews who spend time in the Jewish community living and learning on a more consistent basis create their own times when their Jewish lives slow down or speed up – taking the summers “off” from the Jewish engagement and then bursting back into their Jewish lives as the first leaves fall in autumn.

Without surveying the vast landscape of literature on the state of modern Jewry, it is easy to recognize that the “Jew within” as described by Cohen and Eisen continues to redefine Jewish behavior across the spectrum of Jewish life. And while there are plenty of studies that review patterns of Jewish association and engagement, I have found that many of them fail to make the final reduction of theory into what is increasingly obvious – Jewish life in 2009 is not only made of the “sovereign Jew” choosing experiences and investing time and money in independent manners, but those experiences and investments are increasingly coming the form of discontinuous bursts. These bursts manifest themselves episodically over the course of Jewish lives, but also on a much short timeframes; bursts of Jewish engagement may cycle in the matter of weeks or months.  Taken together, these patterns of bursts of engagement give flavor to the burstyness of Jewish life as a whole.

And I don’t believe that as organizations, communities and as a broader people we have sufficiently adapted the opportunities for Jewish engagement to be responsive to this developing landscape of Jewish burstyness. As professionals and as volunteers we need to do so – much faster than we have to date. And our response can’t be bursty – it needs to be strong and consistent.

I will leave it to the much more thoughtful Jewish thinkers and academics to explain in more artful terms the nature of Jewish burstyness. But I think the imperative is simple enough – we need to develop Jewish experiences that create more and longer sustaining bursts of Jewish engagement. Birthright is one example of a large-scale systemic approach to developing one particular burst of Jewish experience and one correlative impact – a bursty experience of Israel is intended to create a lifetime of affinity for Israel. Without exploring the merits or results of that approach, one thing is clear – there is a burst of activity.  How we sustain that burst is another matter altogether, and as more and more communities focus on developing “post-Birthright programming” what they are beginning to find out is that when you start with a high quality, high-energy burst, the follow-up opportunities for subsequent burst need to be equally attractive and inspiring. If not, that initial burst may turn out to be… well … a bust.

So the question we should then ask, must ask, of our existing Jewish infrastructure is this: Are we designing and implementing opportunities for Jewish experience that are responsive to the bursty nature of modern Jews?  Similarly, are we coordinating the opportunities for bursts of Jewish activity in a way that help increase the number of bursts, sustain their lengthen and increase their magnitude?  These questions are questions that can be reduced to a more granular set of questions for each organization and initiative. For example, when planning a multi-part education/social/philanthropic initiative, is the programming responsive to the bursty nature of the target audience? Does its time commitment parameters exceed the typical length of burst that the target audience considers “available engagement time” for the offered experience? What is the follow-up plan for the burst, and when is the next burst opportunity?  If the answers to these questions aren’t known, or aren’t even considered, than it is likely that the potential of that specific opportunity to develop and magnify the number of Jewish bursts will be limited.

So back to network theory  – most network developers would tell you that a high functioning network is less bursty and more regular in its performance.  The network should be used in an optimal manner with a high level of activity so that bursts are irregular, not the norm. 

However, the Jewish network is a bit different… in an era where the level of engagement is inconsistent, and where we seek to encourage a high level of activity, bursts of activity and results in the “Jewish engagement network” are signs of what works, and perhaps what doesn’t. Understanding what makes Jews bursty will ultimately strengthen the future of one of the most important networks of all – the Jewish people.

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