Shifting Social Networks: Studying the Jewish Growth of Adults in their Twenties and Thirties

By Beth Cousens

Brandeis University, 2008

Normative ideas about the ethno-religious identity of adults in their twenties and thirties suggest that these individuals take an individualistic orientation to their identities, or that they feel spiritual but do not celebrate that feeling within typical religious communities. Their absence from congregations, it is further argued, is exacerbated by their self-focused experimentation and their resulting postponed marriage and childbirth. Yet, adults in their twenties and thirties are creating new psychological and behavioral structures that allow them to celebrate their identity fully and distinctively. Specifically, Jewish adults in their twenties and thirties, members of Generation X, are producing and participating in creative ritual, arts, and educational projects. Shifting Social Networks studies this environment and presents a case study of one of these initiatives, the Riverway Project, a Boston synagogue-based educational and outreach project. Using a case study paradigm, the dissertation presents empirical evidence gathered through participant observation, interviews of Riverway Project participants and its lead educator, and analysis of artifacts related to the Riverway Project.

This dissertation focuses on the process of Jewish growth that participants experience. Participants come to the Riverway Project uncomfortable in most Jewish spaces. They lack Jewish social capital, knowledge of Jewish communal norms and values, and a sense of belonging to a Jewish community. The Riverway Project helps participants shift social networks through the critical study of Jewish texts. It brings participants into an intimate community, inculcating them into the celebration of Jewish life. Through the Riverway Project, participants expand their senses of themselves as Jews and their potential Jewish practice, develop their position in a new social network, and build Jewish social capital, which enables them to feel more comfortable in other Jewish spaces. Participants’ figurative membership in a Jewish social network becomes an important statement of affiliation, an illustration that institutional participation in religious life is shifting, but that the collective remains an important tool in individuals’ ethno-religious growth and celebration, particularly when it strengthens individuals’ ethno-religious social capital.

Topic: Congregations and Synagogues, Networking, Jewish Identification, Adulthood, Social Context, Generational Issues, Jewish Text, Belonging, Outreach, Adult Education, Community Building, Synagogues and Congregations

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Genre: Dissertation

Coverage: Boston, Massachusetts , United States

Language: English

Copyright Holder: Author

Copyright Information: Download for personal use, freely distribute link

Bibliographic Information:
Cousens, Beth. Shifting Social Networks: Studying the Jewish Growth of Adults in their Twenties and Thirties. Brandeis University. 2008:


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