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

Have You Reached Out to Jewish Teach for America Fellows?

This past year over 5,900 of Teach for America (TFA) fellows were placed in 48 regions across 35 states and the District of Columbia to begin a two-year commitment to provide low-income students an excellent education. While there is both praise and criticism surrounding this program, the accepted fellows, mostly recent college graduates, are truly stellar individuals. Fellows come from top-notch academic institutions, are leaders in their respective communities, and seek to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.

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However, being a fellow is not easy. Fellows move to new cities away from the comforts of home and college life. They are quickly immersed into the work force with limited classroom experience. And the intensity of the workload can be demoralizing.

Various sources indicate that about 10% of TFA fellows self-identify as “Jewish.” This means that a significant number of Jews in their early twenties enter Jewish communities across the country every year. In Memphis alone, over 200 individuals begin their TFA experience every year, and typically between 15 and 20 of them are Jewish.

When these fellows are confronted with professional hardship, connection to and support from a Jewish community could provide the sense of home and familiarity needed for

a Jewish TFA fellow’s success and a local community’s growth. Yet, more often than not, Jewish fellows do not reach out to local Jewish institutions or synagogues for reassurance, aid or community. In parallel, these local synagogues and Jewish institutions fail to realize the exceptional talent entering their community yearly.

In order to address this situation, Temple Israel in Memphis, in partnership with Teach for America in Memphis, created a Jewish interest group open to any fellow. Mostly attended by Jews, we developed a three-prong approach to support TFA fellows in their service, connect them to the Jewish community, and engage them with the synagogue.

Professional Support

While TFA does a significant amount of training and professional development, many fellows struggle to adapt to their new position. Classroom management, balancing time, and creating lesson plans can be overwhelming. At Temple Israel, we identified a well-respected school administrator in our congregation to be a liaison for the fellows. After introducing the fellows to the educator at a sponsored wel

come dinner, she became a much needed personal resource for them to ask teacher-specific questions, to link them with more experienced teachers in the city, and to help their overall development.

Additionally, since a percentage of the fellows will move away from teaching following their TFA commitment, we network them with congregants currently working in their specific field of interest. The goal is to encourage the fellows to consider Memphis as a permanent home well beyond their TFA contract.

Community Networks

Being in an unfamiliar location, working long hours, and not knowing many individuals in the city can make finding a doctor, an auto mechanic, or a quality salon indeed daunting. So, Temple Israel created a team of individuals that fellows could call to immediately find answers to these kinds of questions. In one instance, a fellow coming down with an infection was reluctant to take the time off to see a doctor, so he called his designated community support person, who arranged for the fellow to see the doctor in the doctor’s home that evening.

Realizing the importance of this network, we set out to do more. Prior to the start of the school year, the Jewish interest group was invited to a welcome dinner at a local restaurant with a community member and me to make introductions and to offer the fellows our help. In order for fellows continue to build connections with the community, share our “Southern hospitality,” and give the fellows time to unwind away from the office, we set up monthly Shabbat dinners rotating between homes of temple congregants and the clergy. The community members have become valuable resources for the fellows as they navigate the city and go through employment struggles. Additionally, the congregants can be instrumental in helping the fellows find long-term employment opportunities in Memphis post-fellowship.

Social Needs

When moving to a new city, it’s hard to imagine that the place can ever become a “home.” It’s not until one feels secures navigating the city and confident with friendship networks that the new locale feels comfortable. Typically, transplants are left on their own to reach out to communities and to individuals. While Temple Israel cannot guarantee friendships, it is crucial to provide space where friendships can take shape.

Upon arrival to Memphis, Jewish TFA fellows are given a complimentary Temple Israel and JCC membership for the duration of their two-year fellowship. During the summer, we arranged with local Jewish 20s and 30s two events complete with free food and drink – a VIP area at an outdoor concert and a suite for a Memphis baseball game – to acclimate the fellows with Memphis residents and encourage friendships outside of the TFA bubble.

Furthermore, I contacted each of the fellows and offered to meet them for coffee or lunch. Learning more about them and their hopes beyond the classroom, I sought to help them better network in the community whether through sports leagues, social action projects, or teaching religious school. Finally, I selected a group of TFA fellows and local “twenty-somethings” to create unique Jewish experiences for their age group. Providing micro grants between $50-$250, ideas such as Friday night Shabbat dinners, Bible and Bike Rides, and social action projects came to fruition.

Beyond the classroom, TFA Fellows can make an extraordinary impact on any community. Their determination, eagerness, and sacrifice to make a difference are valuable assets to any city. When synagogues and local Jewish organizations recognize this and subsequently offer them the professional, communal and social support needed to thrive, the fellows can become more inspired and connected with Jewish life.

As Pirkei Avot 5:23 challenges, “According to the effort is the reward” – both for the fellow and our community.

Since becoming a rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis in 2008, Rabbi Adam Grossman has constantly sought to break old paradigms with cutting-edge ways to engage Jews of all ages with Judaism. He has co-founded the nationally recognized TI Fellowship, designed the URJ Belin Award winner, “Community Six Pack,” developed an HGTV-esque “How-to” Jewish video series,  and been selected to the 2013 Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Five things you can do to connect to young adults for the first time

There are a number of things that make it hard to ‘engage the unengaged’, particularly young adults. Not least of which is that you might not know who or where they are, or how to reach them. Here are a few ideas for tackling those particular challenges.

1. If you don’t already have a outreach list, start with what you have, your current participants. Bring them together and ask each to get two friends who aren’t involved to join you for dinner. Ask a few questions, but mostly listen. If it turns out that what people tell you they want is something you provide or should provide, ask them to help you design it. Then follow through.

2. If you happen to have a list, like a list of children of your synagogue membership who are now college grads, don’t send a blanket email. Most people won’t open it up,  they may never even see it. Instead, reach out through Facebook, particularly to those with whom you have many mutual friends. For those with whom you only have one or no mutual friends, ask for an introduction from your mutual friend. Be clear in your explanation of why you have invaded their inbox, and what you are looking for.

3. What should you say? Ideally, you are reaching out to your peer group, so you can draw from your own experience and transmit genuine issues. When I worked with Next Dor in St. Louis, I would reach out to people and ask if they had been able to find a good group of people to explore the city and hang out with since moving to or back to St. Louis. In my work with the Jewish Federation in St. Louis, reaching out to recent Israel trip participants, I asked to hear more about their trip, and offered to buy them coffee or a drink for their time.

4. Try to move from digital to face-to-face interaction. Sitting down with a person you don’t know can be hard. It can feel like a blind date, or worse. Acknowledge all that and be friendly, warm, and listen well. Explain again who you are and why you wanted to meet. Then ask the person to tell you his or her story. How did he or she end up in your city? Has he or she always been there, recently returned, or was his or her life just upended to move to your city? Learn as much as you can about what this person might be looking for: a job, friends, a sense of community attachment?

5. Be honest about what you can or can’t provide. You will gain far more trust if, when a person asks for social opportunities, you don’t try to sell them on Israel education, but rather help them connect to the people or organization who can best meet that person’s needs (even if that organization is not yours). That trust will help you immensely when you ask what should always be your last question: Do you have any friends living here with whom I should also speak?

Video: Shabbat Blessings

If you’re not familiar with the Moishe House Rocks series, you should be.  NEXT teamed up with the brains behind Moishe House and G-DCast to create several animated shorts that make certain elements of Jewish ritual more accessible to a wide audience.

The first video is a how-to on Shabbat Blessings said at home.

Video: Leading a Birthright Trip-The Itinerary

Yoni Sarason, Midwest Regional Director at NEXT describes how to best prepare for your Birthright trip and best utilizing your itinerary.

Image by upyernoz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Video: Email Marketing: Target Market and Audience

Heather Wolfson, Western Regional Director at NEXT describes how to leverage target market and audience to improve marketing email performance.

Image by dominicspics, licensed under Creative Commons.

Video: Creating a Welcoming Space. Bennie Cohen

Bennie Cohen, Southeast Regional Director at NEXT discusses the importance of creating a welcoming space for newcomers.

Photo by Rameshng, licensed under Creative Commons.

Video: Getting the One on One. Joel Frankel

Joel Frankel of the St. Louis Federation shares his tips for getting a one on one meeting with a new participant.

 

Image by Aiden Jones, licensed under Creative Commons.

Video: Email Marketing: Testing Subject Lines

Heather Wolfson, Western Regional Director at NEXT describes the A/B testing process to improve marketing email performance.

Image by miniyo73, licensed under Creative Commons.