What makes us strong?
As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing slogans such as “Diversity is Canada’s Strength” and the echoing notion of the Canadian cultural mosaic. For some, these are equivocal concepts that evoke a wide range of feelings and opinions. Nonetheless, this column is not so much about diversity as it is about factors that make a single community within this diversity strong in its own right.
If you contemplate, say, an ancient Roman mosaic, you are likely to notice that each single piece of glass, stone or other material has its own defining features such as colour, boundaries and texture, that artfully interplay with all surrounding pieces. So, too, is our Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) “piece of mosaic” – while it has its own distinct shape, shade and character, it still fits into the larger Jewish community fragment of the Canadian mosaic.
Thus the question becomes: what constitutes those features characteristic of our community that, in the long-run, will enable us to truly influence and positively contribute to Canadian society as a whole?
The rich and complex heritage, history and culture of the RSJ community uniquely positions us within the Jewish world. However, does this uniqueness entail communal strength and prosperity? Does it makes us self-sufficient as a community? What factors would make us, or any other community for argument’s sake, thrive, be successful and have noticeable impact on the surrounding Canadian mosaic?
Factors like financial resources and political power are the two obvious contenders when it comes to formulating answers to these questions. Without downplaying demographics and relative community sizes, which at times present significant electoral power, I suggest yet another crucial factor, in particular for emerging communities such as ours: interpersonal relationships and social networks.
The so-called social capital of each single member of our tribe, which amounts to a social network of our community, is the foundation for long-term sustainable prosperity and the overall influence that our community is able to exercise on its surroundings.
The information revolution and the rise of social media brought forward to social conscience a concept of social capital, which is often paraphrased as the idea that one’s social network is also one’s “net-worth”. Yet the concept of high capacity resulting from wide social connectivity is not novel. In 1957, long before Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg was around, another fellow Jew – in fact, Russian-born American mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapaport – developed the weak ties hypothesis, which later in the ‘70s became one of the cornerstones of social network theory.
The social network theory is a field of study in social disciplines that deals with interactions and connectedness between members of groups and allows us to better understand the structures and dynamics of society. Social network or infrastructure serves as the basis for distribution and flow of all factors that contribute to the success of a given group, including wealth, various resources and, perhaps most importantly in this day and age, information itself.
As Rapaport demonstrated in his research, the defining attribute of a network’s size is the flow of resources and information that it is able to facilitate. This carrying capacity is exactly what makes up the net-worth of the group. In other words, this capacity is the sum of all interpersonal ties between members of a given group.
It is not controversial to say that most of us have substantially more weak ties than strong ties. The latter may be attributed to familial ties or very close friendships, while the former is associated with a wider circle of one’s acquaintances and friends of friends. Without getting into scientific terminology and detail, my assertion is that the key to a stronger RSJ community lies in the expansion of our weak ties inside the geographically-dispersed or socially-distant communities as well as between them. One example of socially-distant communities is that of the RSJs who came to Canada directly from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and those who made it to Canada after spending time in Israel. Grassroot initiatives that emerged in recent years proved to be indispensable in building bridges between these remote social clusters inside the RSJ tribe. Within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), these initiatives include Jewish and Modern (JAM), an organization for young RSJ professionals in the GTA, and the volunteer-driven Limmud FSU Canada conference, both of which have become extremely instrumental in knitting social webs within the RSJ community. Beside the plethora of anecdotal stories of meeting one’s bashert at such volunteer-organized events, there is ample evidence to illustrate the positive impact of extending one’s social network.
Some examples of how weak ties may lead us to unexpected but fruitful new opportunities include JAM, which is notorious for its count of young couples that met at its events and later united in marriage and started Jewish families, as well as business partnerships which spring out of idle weak ties that appeared to be merely hanging out at a community gathering.
Limmud FSU Canada has led to a number of educational engagements and spilled over outside of the RSJ community into the general GTA Jewish community with such initiatives as weekly online classes on relationships and kabbalistic themes with Rabbi Eliezer Shore, who lives in Jerusalem and was a presenter at the Limmud CONNECTIONS 2015 conference.
Similarly, Veronica Ressina, after becoming the children’s program facilitator at the very first Limmud KULTURA conference in 2014, has successfully spun her teaching and theatrical skills outside of Limmud FSU into a theatrical program for children, producing shows inspired by the creativity of the very same kids. Luxurious judaica products designed by David Roytman’s fashion house found their way to the GTA and can be tried on and purchased locally, also thanks to Limmud FSU Canada events.
These are but a few instances, which I am sure are just the tip of the iceberg, of the overall benefit of the expansion of our communal network, which is yet to fully manifest itself. Essentially, this is all about making our community into a “small world” – a notion we often allude to upon encountering strangers and realizing that they are, in fact, friends of friends from our past somewhere in the former USSR or in Israel.
It’s being part of such a tightly-knit network that will strengthen the prospects for a successful future for the RSJ community and will help us fully leverage our unique position at the intersection of Russian, Jewish and Israeli cultures. And hopefully, it’s through this type of communal strength that our piece of mosaic will shine through and bring its best to the larger Jewish community, making our contribution to the greater Canadian mosaic beneficial and noteworthy.