Sarah is a Wexner Graduate Fellow alumna, Class XI; she is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She has published widely on Jewish language and identity, and her book, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press. She can be reached at

Continuity. Outreach. Pluralism. Innovation. Linking the silos. Peoplehood.  What concept will be the next to spread like wildfire among Jewish communal leaders? I predict: social capital.

The notion of social capital has been widely researched and debated within the social sciences. In his influential book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam defines social capital as “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” He measures Americans’ social capital by tallying their participation in civic life, voluntary associations, churches, and even informal card games and house parties. He argues that social activities like these strengthen ties and trust among individuals and ultimately benefit neighborhoods, towns, cities, and society as a whole.

As this notion spreads, I imagine leaders will write about the benefits of social capital for the Jewish community, urging financial support for “social capital initiatives,” especially those geared toward young adults. The talking points might go something like this: People join synagogues and organizations partly because of peer pressure, and through organizational participation they strengthen ties with other Jews. More engagement with Jewish organizations means more funds in the communal coffers, more support for Israel and Jews around the world, and more in-marriage. When Jews interact socially on a regular basis, whether or not in an institutional framework, they become more likely to feel part of local and international collectivities.

We already see a few instances of this term in Jewish communal settings. In Jumpstart/Natan/Bronfman’s latest report, “The Jewish Innovation Economy: An Emerging Market for Knowledge and Social Capital,” the authors argue that Jewish nonprofit startup entrepreneurs have been so successful partly because of their strong, intertwining social networks. Drawing on work by WGF alum Shaul Kelner, the authors point out that these networks have been cultivated by fellowships like those of the Wexner Foundation. Social capital fosters Jewish innovation.

In her 2008 analysis of a Jewish educational initiative in Boston, WGF alum Beth Cousens offers a slightly different take on social capital. Drawing not only from works like Bowling Alone but also from Laurence Iannaccone’s notion of religious capital and Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, Cousens defines “Jewish social capital” as “knowledge of Jewish communal norms and values and a sense of belonging to a Jewish community.” Most of the young Jews involved in the Riverway Project came in with little Jewish social capital. After meeting on a regular basis to pray and study Jewish texts, participants felt more Jewishly knowledgeable and connected. Participation in an “intimate community” fosters Jewish religious engagement, and religious engagement fosters social connection.

I’m all for fostering (and financing) ties to Jewish institutions and imagined communities. But my interest in social ties and social capital goes beyond this, as I believe they have inherent value beyond innovation, education, and Jewish peoplehood. Individuals benefit personally from being part of a tight-knit community, whether or not it’s Jewish. Who wouldn’t agree that it is nice to have close friends you can call on when you’re sick, when you need to borrow a ladder, when you need suggestions for a mechanic, or just when you want to enjoy someone else’s company? When you have a bunch of friends who are Jewish and get together regularly for Jewish activities (whether it’s Shabbat meals, prayer, text study, social action, community organizing, sports, or something else), you have a standing network for social engagement and support.

In some recent Jewish initiatives, individuals multiply the benefits of social capital by joining resources, living in close proximity, and working together toward a common goal, for example, AVODAH, Seattle’s Ravenna Kibbutz, Baltimore’s Kayam Farm, and Aleph Springs in Ashland, Oregon. Initiatives like these tend to use phrases like “intentional community” and “intentional Jewish living,” up-and-coming buzzwords related to social capital (I am reminded of WGF alum Rachel Nussbaum’s Kavana, as well as WGF alum Dara Frimmer’s recent post to the alumni list about this). And some of them draw inspiration from Orthodox enclaves, in which social capital runs high.

I end this short essay with a prompt I’ve given my Jewish Social Research class at HUC’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management: write a sentence including the phrases “social capital” and “organized Jewish community.” Here’s mine: “The organized Jewish community has the opportunity not only to tap into social capital to further its agendas but also to use its institutions to foster social capital, which has inherent benefit. One model of Jewish communal engagement high in social capital is the small group that works toward a mutual endeavor, especially one based in a neighborhood.”

If you had to write a sentence (or two) with “social capital” and the name of a Jewish institution you’re involved with, what would you write?