Engaging the Four Students

by Benji Berlow

In his book Conscious Business, Fred Koffman articulates a concept that he calls “mental models”–models that depict how each of us perceives the world.  As a result of biology, culture, and personal experiences, we each have a unique lens through which we see the world, one that is often different even from those closest to us.  Many times, we get stuck in a pattern of seeing the world a certain way, making us oblivious to problems that surround us (even though they are obvious to others with different mental models).  Koffman goes further and suggests an evolutionary model for how mental models can change overtime, from the unconscious stage (not even perceived) to the impulsive stage (“it’s all about me”) to the conformist stage (herd mentality) to the reflective stage (not satisfied with conventional thinking).

As I read Koffman’s description for each stage, it hit me that each stage corresponds to one of the four children from the Passover story, and that each child has a different mental model for how they view the Jewish community.  It inspired me to analyze college students from this perspective in order to uncover engagement methods that fit their mental model:

First is the student that does not know how to ask.  He is unconscious and unaware of the Jewish community.  However, he is not at fault for not knowing how to ask, because he has no language, no background, and no connection to the Jewish community.  For this student, one must make the barrier to entry as low as possible.  Find out who he is and create relevant and attractive programs in the physical place where he is already. Being warm and welcoming will not work, because he will never step foot into Hillel.  Your approach should be accessible, sexy, and visible.

Next is the simple student.  She knows about the Jewish community, but only has a surface relationship.  She attends events with free food, but never will stay for the speaker.  With a sense of entitlement, she will take everything that Hillel has to offer, but give nothing in return.  For this student, one must demonstrate the value of community and purpose.  Find out what her passions are and connect her like-minded students.  Show her the power of organizing and shared value.  Your approach should focus on creating networks of interest groups and meaningful programs.

Then there is the wise student.  He is absorbed in the Jewish community, perhaps even a leader.  Although he gives all of his time and energy to his group, he also seems to be going through the motions of recreating the same, stagnant programs.  For this student, one must change the status quo.  As Wayne Firestone says, “If it ain’t broke, break it.”  Challenge his assumptions and innovate with compelling, never-before-seen initiatives.  Your approach should be out-of-the-box and anything but normal.

Finally, there is the wicked student.  She knows the Jewish community, but sees herself as better than the establishment.  She may come to events, but will not fully engage with the program because she will tend to point out what is missing or unappealing.  While the simple student may not feel part of the group, the wicked student sees all of the people not included in the group.  For this student, one must trust and take a huge risk.  Create a space for her to be independent and still part of the community.  Give her an internship with responsibility to do things her way.  You will take a leap of faith to engage this student, but listening to her will allow you to connect to others who are not yet engaged and who have difficulty feeling included in their community.

I once had a teacher who explained to me the difference between Shammai and Hillel.  When someone asked a question of Shammai, he would labor intensively for days to find the “true” answer.  When a question was asked of Hillel, he would answer with a question: “Who is asking?”  As we create different models for young adult engagement and assess their effectiveness, we need to know exactly who we are engaging.  Which type of student was Taglit-Birthright Israel designed for?  What would a successful experience look like through the lens of each of these mental models?  Should we expect every student to become a leader?  How should we engage students who are already leaders?  Is the student who sees everyone that is left out of the group truly wicked or just perceived as wicked from the mental model of the establishment?

It is important to remember that while we may get stuck in our own mental model, we are able to transform and grow out of them as well.  As we continue to evolve our mental models and our engagement methods from the unconscious stage to the reflective stage, what could the next stage look like?

Benji Berlow (@benjiberlow) is the director of Jewish student life at Carnegie Mellon University.

Honoring what Matters: Making Young Jewish Engagement a Profession

By Morlie Levin

Last month, Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Global Planning Table issued this challenge: What do you think are the important Jewish issues that could be significantly influenced by philanthropic intervention if the Jewish community could devote sufficient resources on a large scale? What types of interventions would be most effective? NEXT CEO Morlie Levin authored the piece below in response.*

Connecting young Jewish adults to one another, Israel, and their local and global Jewish communities fills much of the bandwith of communal discussions about Jewish identity and continuity. Watching and learning from Taglit-Birthright Israel, we know a great deal about what matters to young Jewish adults in their 20s who are exploring their Jewish connections. While the reality on the ground is complex, in the end the broad message is simple. It’s about:

  • Authentic, personal experiences;
  • Being with friends and experiencing (or creating) community together; and
  • Opportunities that deepen Jewish knowledge and stimulate Jewish growth.

This is not a new message. We’ve long understood that identity formation is episodic and ultimately a result of personal discovery. That’s why experiential, immersive, interventions (like camping and Birthright Israel trips) have gained such traction. And while we have, in certain instances, invested in deepening the knowledge of the young professionals who touch the participants — the guide/madrich – we have done woefully little as a community to commit to their careers. This is a plea for taking that on as a serious commitment of the Jewish people.

From my perch at Birthright, I see time and time again the impact of a talented trip leader or motivational local engagement staff. The anecdotes are supported by the analysis. Numerous analytical studies, both in the Jewish world and the secular world demonstrate the profound impact a gifted teacher, camp counselor, young leadership professional, innovator, community organizer can have. We know it; we see it; most of us have experienced it.

But even the most gifted are often frustrated. We’ve heard the litany: low pay, impossible hours, divided (often conflicting) responsibilities, no career path, devalued skills, minimal collegial interaction, little investment in “continuing education,” an invisible community of practice. The turnover in staff is huge, rapid, and costly – not only in dollars and impact but, most importantly, in squandered passion. We dangle the opportunity to connect mission and meaning to work and then by our actions indicate that we consider “this work” simply as a way station on the way to a “real” career — and one increasingly outside the Jewish community.

It is true of course that some turnover is not only good, it is some times warranted. Some people age out of their role, others burnout in them. For still others, it’s simply not the right match. But systemic turnover undermines our communal ability to leverage many of the other investments we are making, especially in experiential interventions like camping and Birthright.

A serious philanthropic focus on young engagement professionals (across all organizations–mainline, entrepreneurial, and grassroots) could make a significant difference by:

  • Raising salaries of young engagement professionals;
  • Adding additional staff positions so that engagement is the sole responsibility, not one of many tasks;
  • Holding national gatherings across organizations to create a community of practice;
  • Developing, and continually refreshing, core curricula that fuses engagement strategies with up-to-date information about social/social media trends;
  • Arming engagement professionals with the (ever-evolving) technological savvy to interact with a wired generation;
  • Teaching research and analytical skills so that trends can be assessed and acted on;
  • Promoting full-time opportunities to part-time engagers working in informal Jewish education settings like camp;
  • Convening international conferences that bring young adult engagers from Israel, the FSU, Europe, and South America together to share best practices and develop professional networks, which would then be supported by online gatherings to sustain connections built during in-person gatherings;
  • Offering competitive grants to mentors to work with young professionals to teach work/life balance and provide coaching on career options and opportunities, coupled with opportunities for mentors to meet periodically and report back to the field on trends they have observed and new practices that have surfaced;
  • Creating a “master class” where highly-regarded young engagement professionals would teach and train their peers, receiving additional remuneration and recognition in the process;
  • Exploring the skill and knowledge linkage between engagement work and Jewish education so as to create alternative (and refreshing) career paths. This could mean offering special grants to those who have excelled in one and the opportunity to take on new roles in the other.

While not exhaustive, this list is illustrative of the kind of activities a major, systemic, philanthropic effort could enable. Embedded in many of these examples is the assumption that this effort would help to network myriad organizations in a way that would operationally bridge the work done between and amongst them: a dream many of us have had for a long time.

We know that young Jewish adults want to learn from peer engagers. Through and with them, young adults explore their identities, take on commitments to themselves and their communities and discover and embrace deep convictions about Jewish life.

It is time to really invest in peer engagers. This is a clarion call for convening a roundtable to move them to the forefront of our funding agenda!

*This brief think piece makes no attempt to address many of the mega-issues facing the Jewish people. Rather, and intentionally, it focuses on a narrow (and systemic) issue that, with a relatively modest increase of funds and attention, could have a disproportionately high impact.

They’re Shown It, But Can They Own It?

[The below essay originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, Volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

In the past 13 years, more than 300,000 young Jews – almost 200,000 from the United States alone – have experienced a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. As the website says, “The trip aims to … build an understanding, friendship and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide.” It is an apt “operational” definition of Jewish peoplehood.

The words signal the issues of concern that motivated the project in the first place: a lack of knowledge about Jewish history, religion, and tradition; a dearth of personal Jewish experiences, and little (or more often no) exposure to the land and people of Israel and Jews worldwide. These issues are byproducts of longstanding social and cultural trends that have been the fodder for numerous articles about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. The 10-day stint in Israel is meant to address those issues by providing a personal encounter with the land and the lore, and perhaps most profoundly, the Jewish people.

The awareness that one is part of something larger, something global and timeless, is what marks the beginning of what we might call peoplehood. But for one to feel a part of a people, one must first recognize themselves within a people. Trip-goers are shown it, but can they own it?

One thing that happens on a Birthright trip – and often for the first time – is the realization that Judaism is more than a religion. Time and again we have seen that realization slowly to sink in. We can almost read the internal dialog:

“I’ve never seen so many Jews in one place before. It makes me feel proud, but I’m also confused. Here, being Jewish seems to mean something different for everyone. How come I feel so comfortable (or uncomfortable)?
I want to know more…”

Those on the trip and those they encounter may define their Jewish identity in ethnic or nationalistic terms, or in different terms altogether. This can be a difficult thing for young Diaspora Jews to grasp, but it can also be a fascinating thing to explore. Judaism is revealed as the complex, living, evolving entity that it is. And in the process of exploring, Birthright participants emerge with more questions than ever about what the Jewish part of them is and how it ultimately will – or should – guide their actions and choices.

Our challenge, then, is not to assign or assume Jewishness, or a sense of peoplehood. Our job is to help these young Jews make sense of their new questions, and understand their Jewishness in the context of all of their other identities. In that process, peoplehood becomes something larger – the result of connecting to something that is at the same time common across people and deeply profound personally.

What can we do to ignite the process of personal discovery? How can we interest young Jewish adults to explore Judaism’s depths and meaning in their own lives? We believe the answer lies in providing opportunities for ownership of Jewish living and learning experiences. This is what peoplehood-building looks like in the 21st century.

At NEXT, we take the spark ignited on a Birthright Israel trip and work with partners to fan it into a fire. We use choice and ownership as our guide, connecting young Jews to myriad events and opportunities that appeal to their individual interests and inclinations. But we are also cognizant of the fact that organized Jewish activities are not for everyone. For some, finding meaning and making community is not a function of attending organized activities run by others but happens rather within a circle of friends, at home.

That insight galvanized NEXT to develop a do-it-yourself approach to holidays, Shabbat, and community-building that enables young Jews to create authentic Jewish experiences on their own terms. We also provide all of the resources and funding necessary to help them along the way. More than 20 young Jews have received support to fund their own community projects through Natan/NEXT Grants for Social Entrepreneurs. Over 6,400 Birthright alumni have hosted 16,000 Shabbat and holiday meals through NEXT Shabbat and Holiday grant programs. With an average of 10 people at the typical Shabbat meal or seder powered by NEXT micro-grants and educational material, we now know that this approach truly resonates with Birthright alums and their peers.

In looking at the words of young Jews who hosted Passover seders this year through our holiday grant program, we begin to see the true impact of owning a Jewish experience:

“Inclusivity and education are two of the most important values that I associate with Passover and the seder tradition. I wanted to host a seder to share these values with many friends of mine who had never attended a seder and had very little knowledge of Passover. For my Jewish friends, it was a great opportunity to discuss the different traditions we had grown up with and reconnect with our roots.” – Sam, New Orleans, LA

For others, owning these experiences allows them to create Jewish experiences in places where they cannot be found:

“Hosting a seder is a great way for me to connect with my heritage and celebrate the traditions that I grew up with. Going to school and living in Hawaii, I am physically isolated from my relatives back on the mainland. In Hawaii, my close friends are my family and I am more than happy to share my traditions with them.” – Matthew, Honolulu, HI

In these words, we start to see the things that connect one to a people – seeing one’s values reflected in a holiday, reconnecting with roots, and finding psychic comfort in sharing traditions despite physical separation.

At the same time, by providing ways for young Jews to own their journeys and experiences, we instinctively do something different that is profound in itself. We create spaces and opportunities where they aren’t asked to check their complexity at the door. Within these spaces, they are able to explore who they are as a Jew and as a person, and make their own determinations about what constitutes a meaningful experience.

This has ramifications for the larger conversation. Emphasizing Jewish “peoplehood” is not enough. For a large and growing share of the young Jewish population in the Diaspora, a sense of being part of the Jewish people occurs among peers and in a community that values authenticity, learning and debate, and interaction with the outside world. That’s when real ownership happens.

How such communities can be built, nurtured, and replicated is the question to which the peoplehood conversation must turn.

Morlie Levin is the CEO of NEXT, a division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Who Do We Serve: A Blog Series

by Bennie Cohen

On May 8, 2012, 25 professionals gathered in Atlanta for our Southeast NEXTwork Launch. The NEXTwork is our growing network of professionals engaging Jewish young adults in their local communities, and at this Launch, we endeavored to create a forum where they could share best practices, make connections, and probe deeper into challenges we face as a field.

One of our sessions, titled “Who Do We Serve?”, helped us to uncover our Jewish young adult audience–their demographics, personalities, traits, and inclinations. With the help of a scribe, we created a visual representation of our discussion (check out the image below) that emphasized the themes of our discussion: authenticity, Jewish young adults’ needs, feelings of acceptance, the stigma of “not being Jewish enough,” and volunteering (to name a few). Rafi Samuels-Schwartz, NEXT’s Northeast regional director, has already written a post about this fascinating topic, and it has left us wanting more. At the end of his post, he poses several important questions:

“Consider it – Has your organization taken the time recently to ask itself “who do we serve?” If so, how has your organization changed as a result of that question? If not, perhaps it’s time to clearly define, or redefine, your audience. Are they who you think they are? Have they changed? Has your organization?”

As Jewish organizations who seek to involve young adults in our community, we must always remember the people we are trying to serve.  We need this reality check, because often, we want so much for young adults to buy into our missions that we forget to to do our homework on this demographic.

In looking at the complexity of the themes that emerged from this conversation, we feel that Rafi’s post serves as a great prompt for future posts on this topic. In the coming weeks, we’ll publish several posts as part of a Who Do We Serve? series. We invite you to join the conversation, and add comments and anecdotes along the way when you see themes that resonate with you.

Our next post will focus on the needs of Jewish young adults, so stay tuned.

Bennie Cohen is the Southeast Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @whosyourbennie.

10 Tips for Finding a Mentor

by Liz Fisher

When I saw this photo from the Southwest NEXTwork Launch, depicting one participant’s request for advice to newly minted young adult engagement professionals:

the big pink scrawl “find a mentor” jumped out at me.

During the course of my own career, I have had several mentors.  Of those people I would call mentors, some would say they mentored me, but others did so from afar and might be surprised to hear how much I learned from watching them. I wouldn’t be where I am without these guides.

At NEXT, we are committed to building the field of young adult engagement professionals.  Part of that work is helping you identify and connect with mentors.  Here are my tips:

  1. Choose your boss. I know this is hard and circumstances often prevent this from happening, but the person who supervises you is your real-time guide. When you have the luxury of making career choices, choose to work for someone who knows things you don’t and who will push and teach you.
  1. Ask authentic questions.  Relationship begins by getting to know the other person.  Before you ask about you, and certainly before you ask for favors, learn as much as you can about the other person.  Make it authentic.  Don’t ask about things you don’t care about.  If there isn’t anything you genuinely want to know about the other person–how they got to where they are, and why they do the things they do–they are not the right mentor for you.
  1. Mentoring is not networking.  Don’t seek out mentors under the false guise of wanting to learn when you really just want them to know who you are.  Find another way to meet and impress those people.  Send them a blog post you wrote.  Engage them in work-related conversation.  Try to get on one of their projects.  Mention them on Twitter.  But don’t waste their time pretending to ask for advice if you don’t care.
  1. Follow through.  Say thank you.  Every time.  When you do ask for advice, follow through and tell them how it went.  As a mentor, there is nothing more frustrating then having coffee with someone, giving them a ton of advice about their career search, for instance, and then never hearing where they land, or how it is going.
  1. Learn what you can where you can. You don’t need to take everything from one person. We all have strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant speaker with bad relationship skills? Learn the speaking, ignore the rest. The person who everyone loves but gets nothing done?  Learn the relationship skills, ignore the lack of execution.
  1. If you are a woman, seek out women a generation or two older than you as mentors.  Gender still matters in our field, and it’s helpful to have that perspective.
  1. If you are a woman, don’t only seek out women.  See above: gender still matters, and it’s helpful to have a powerful man or two in your camp.
  1. Say thank you.  I’m saying it twice because it is so important.  Let people know when they have helped you.  Give them credit publicly if you can.
  1. Pay it forward.  Mentor someone else.  Take the calls and emails from people who want to connect with you.  Make time for others the way people are making time for you.
  1. Contact us! Call your NEXT Regional Director.  Tell us what you are looking for and we will help you find someone to connect with. Or contact me!  I’m liz.fisher@birthrightisraelnext.org, or @liz_fisher on Twitter, and I love speaking with professionals in the field.

Stay tuned for more posts inspired by our NEXTwork Launch. In the meantime, see what young adult engagement professionals are talking about by searching the #NEXTwork hashtag on Twitter.

Liz Fisher is the managing director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Tips for New Engagement Professionals, Courtesy of the NEXTwork

Are you new to the young adult engagement field? Have no fear–your peers and colleagues are here to help.

On May 1st, 2012, NEXT hosted our first-ever NEXTwork Launch in Long Beach, California. In convening a selection of the western contingent of our NEXTwork–our national network of program providers for Birthright Israel alumni and their peers–we aimed to dig deeper into the issues and challenges facing this field. Over 50 professionals gathered for a day-long training, complete with interactive presentations by Brian Elliot (FriendFactor), Yechiel Hoffman (LimmudLA), Jill Soloway (East Side Jews), and Josh Miller (Jim Joseph Foundation). We’ll provide a more thorough recap soon, but in the meantime, we wanted to share this great takeaway from the “Asset Mapping” program. What you see below are the contributions of our brilliant NEXTwork to one attendee’s request for advice to a newbie in the field.

Some highlights:

1) Find a strong support system and a mentor

2) Make sure to enrich yourself Jewishly

3) Set reasonable expectations and then surpass them.

Check out all of them below:

Our next NEXTwork Launch will take place in Atlanta in just one week! More takeaways from both will be posted soon.