How an “Ah-ha” Moment Changed My Spiritual Community

Here’s a problem that many Jewish organizations or synagogues face: maintaining ongoing young adult engagement.

During the High Holidays and Passover, Ohel Ayalah, which I founded in 2004 and serve as rabbi, reaches out to young Jews who are actively looking for community and Jewish experiences. To meet their needs, we run free, walk-in High Holiday services in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and a low-cost Passover Seder just for 20s and 30s. Hundreds of young Jews attend these events. A new challenge is how to engage this audience on a more frequent basis. So I went in search of a solution.

_MG_0286 (3)Along with other spiritual community rabbis and professionals, I recently attended NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation’s NEXTwork Convening in New York City. It was an inspiring event that brought together the NEXTwork—NEXT’s network of professionals and volunteers engaging young Jewish adults. There, at a breakout session, I had my “ah-ha” moment: To ease the burden of planning and running these events, I need to develop a cadre of volunteers prepared and eager to reach young adults.

During the breakout session, my professional peers pointed out that I was not spending my time wisely.  They were right. I was performing tasks that volunteers could easily tackle, such as setting up and registering people for High Holiday services and Passover Seders.  Until now, I resisted looking for volunteers because I thought that giving instructions and following up with newcomers would take more time than executing these tasks myself.

But the truth is that working with volunteers would decrease the amount of time I spend on certain tasks, while empowering volunteers to bring their own unique energy and skills to executing and enhancing the Ohel Ayalah experience.  If volunteers understood what needed to be done and how to do it, I could have more time to prepare for services and Seders.

When I returned home after the NEXTwork convening, I decided to “test” my theory. I sent out an e-blast to Ohel Ayalah’s network, asking for volunteers to help with data collection surveys, increasing our social media presence, event planning, and fundraising for Ohel Ayalah.

Right away, I received a number of responses.  One volunteer, a retired sociologist, offered to write a survey for people to fill out at the Ohel Ayalah Hannukah party (a new event for us!), so we could learn more about the young Jewish adults we’re serving.

Another person volunteered to collect and input new email addresses into our online email software, and to prepare a spreadsheet with the survey data so that the sociologist could write a short analysis of the survey responses. A third individual volunteered to promote Ohel Ayalah events on social media; she had done so in the past, but my call for volunteers gave her new motivation to lend her skills and help.

The lesson for me is two-fold:

1) Engaging volunteers should be a priority for me. This became obvious once my “test” succeeded.

2) Coming together with others in my field pushes me to excel at my outreach to young Jews. I felt an excitement at the convening, surrounded by other professionals who “spoke my language” and were dedicated to engaging young Jewish adults. I loved the convening’s interactive panel because the speakers—all communal professionals or volunteer leaders—offered real suggestions about how to work with volunteers. And any time I interacted with convening participants, I could be honest about my challenges as we worked to find effective solutions.

Over the years, plenty of people out there have offered professional advice on one thing or another. But to truly be pushed into recruiting and engaging volunteers, I needed to hear directly from my professional peers. Undoubtedly, this will not be the first or last challenge I will face in my work. Having access to my professional peers through the NEXTwork provides the right environment to think creatively and to learn the best new ways to engage young Jewish adults.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman leads the Ohel Ayalah spiritual community in New York and is the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Shared from the Schusterman Foundation blog

How Improv Helped Me Manage My Jewish Anxiety

We Jews have been thought of as an anxious people, by ourselves and by others. In my case, baseline Jewish anxiety is compounded by the fact that I work at a brand-new start-up, compounded once again by the fact that it’s a Jewish start-up. Building something from the ground up requires experimentation, iteration, and failure. As a Type A Millenial, failure isn’t something I relish, or something I’m very good at processing. My deepest fears all center around public failure—this characteristic, when combined with an inherently risky endeavor like starting a new organization, was a recipe for white-knuckling it through my organization’s first (and pretty successful!) year of existence. As my colleagues can tell you, for much of our first year I was wound tighter than than a two dollar watch.

Rachel at iO

Enter the 5 day Improv Intensive at Chicago’s famous Improv Olympic (iO), where comedy legends like Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and   (it seems) everyone important in comedy honed their long-form improv skills.   After reading about the benefits of improv in the workplace, a colleague and I were interested in dipping our toes into the improv world. Our executive director gamely gave us the go-ahead to enroll in the intensive, which met for six hours a day for five days straight. And because I’m a Type A, overachieving Millenial, I also bought and read the Improv Bible “Truth in Comedy,” written by iO’s founder, Charna Halpern.

It turns out that improv isn’t about being funny. Laughs happen, but they’re really a byproduct of “terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally,” as Halpern writes. The skills of improvisation are actually about listening and communication, building on the ideas of others and creating a group mind, being adaptive and flexible, and most importantly, GETTING OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD.

I know of no better definition for my particular brand of anxiety than being trapped in your own head, held hostage by a devious brain unspooling all sorts of worst-case scenarios. Improvisation demands that you stay anchored in the present and in what’s going on around you, rather than re-living the past or agonizing over the future. As Halpern explains, “An actor following each moment through to the next is constantly making discoveries…if he is planning ahead and thinking about the direction he wants the action to go, then he isn’t paying attention to what is going on in the moment.”

So, I failed plenty during improv. Plenty! Just ask my classmates At the start, I was so busy desperately searching for a clever line that I felt paralyzed on stage. It was terrifying, and a little embarrassing, and I’m sure it was hard to watch. But as the week went on, I learned to shrug off my failures, to dust myself off and get back on stage. To my surprise, the first time I got a laugh wasn’t when I was trying to be funny, but when I was responding authentically to what somebody else was doing on the stage. I learned that I could succeed just by being myself and making observations, because, as Halpern writes,  “The truth is funny.” Relaxing my control freak tendencies, getting out of my own head, and responding authentically without searching for the “perfect” answer allowed me to be successful in the context of improv.

Improv Class at iO

I have every reason to believe that cultivating these skills will also help me in my work; I’ll be a more collaborative colleague, a more creative and innovative thinker, and a more resilient person. What’s more, I have come to believe that the skills of improv are exactly the kinds of generative skills that Jewish communities can use to maintain the dynamism of our inherently creative tradition. Improvising doesn’t mean messily making things up, willy-nilly. One of the major principles of improv is “finding the game”—i.e., figuring out the pattern or “rule” of the game your scene partners are playing, and then using those constraints to create something new. Rules help us to focus our creative process and actually free us up to improvise. As you may know, there are no shortage of “rules” or patterns of behavior in Jewish tradition, which to my mind makes Jewish life ripe for a good dose of improvisation.

Most people would say that neurosis is the hallmark of Jewish comedy. As I’ve since learned since taking my class at the iO, several of the most important figures in improv’s development—Halpern, Ed Asner, Bernie Sahlins—were Jewish, which leads me to wonder if improv emerged, in part, as a response to dealing with Jewish anxiety, and whether it is improv and not neurosis that is the real Jewish art form. Perhaps that’s a topic for another time.

I’m considering signing up for more classes in the fall. After all, it’s cheaper than getting an analyst.

The author of this piece, Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago, a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future. Her piece was originally posted here. Rachel recently participated in the NEXTwork convening in Chicago.