Where are your community’s young adults?

As my colleagues and I have been criss-crossing the country, visiting with Jewish communities of all sizes, we hear a common refrain: Where are the young adults?

Whether the communities we speak to have an active young adult engagement strategy or not, there is always a sense there are a large number of young adults who are totally unknown to the Jewish community. When pressed, community professionals have a pretty good sense of how young adults are finding their way to the city, but it is the rare community that has created a strategy to leverage these avenues for connection. Below are a few examples and how best to identify and access the pipelines bringing young adults to your community.

Major Companies Located in Your City

The top five major employers in your city are also likely the top five locations of young adults, including Jewish young adults.  It is also highly likely that there are synagogue members or federation donors in higher-level positions in these companies. These people can help you make the inroads into the company’s HR and employee attachment/engagement infrastructure. A good HR professional understands the importance of employee engagement on reducing turnover.

Have a conversation with someone in HR about how the Jewish community can serve those employees who identify as Jewish, and in doing so, help the company’s talent management process. Ideally, it becomes part of the on-boarding process to inform employees of opportunities to connect to community beyond work, and suddenly you have a new pipeline of recently arrived young adults.

Graduate Programs and Residencies

We’re a people who place a high value on education, and you’ll still find a sizable number of Jewish young adults in graduate programs and medical residencies. In fact, 25% of American Jews hold a graduate degree, compared with 6% the general American population. Try reaching out to the dean of graduate students or community engagement to start the conversation about connecting with their Jewish students. Again, your main selling point is that you can provide the type of community that can prevent burnout and potentially help root a person locally.

Teach for America, and Similar Programs

There are now a number of programs like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and Venture for America that are bringing college graduates into cities across the country. It is always worth connecting with these groups, particularly with their local chapters, as they tend to attract Jewish young adults (at least 10% of TFA corps members self-identify as Jewish). The burnout rate can be quite high in these programs, so make sure to stress that the sense of community you can offer can help provide the support network to keep people focused, positive, and productive. For more on how to engage local, Jewish Teach for America corp members, check out Rabbi Adam Grossman’s post here.

Now What?

Now that you know where to find young Jewish adults, what should you do next? Here are some tips that will help make your initial outreach a success, a crucial step for building a strong relationship down the line. Don’t forget, you have something to offer people, and to your city;  Citizens’ sense of community attachment is  linked with a city’s GDP growth. For more suggestions, program ideas, or feedback, you can always connect to us, @BI_NEXT or to me, @yonisarason.

 

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?

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.

Tips from the NEXTwork: How do I Engage the Totally Uninterested?

By Yoni Sarason

A couple of weeks ago, 50 young adult engagement professionals gathered in Long Beach, California for the first-ever NEXTwork Launch. In a day full of training, networking, and best practice-sharing, attendees had the unique opportunity to spread their wealth of knowledge in an asset mapping activity.

What does asset mapping look like? Check out the photo to the right. Each participant expressed an issue with which they are grappling in order to encourage their peers to lend their expertise. Rebecca Halpin, a former NEXT fellow currently working at IKAR, a spiritual community in Los Angeles, CA,  asked the question, “How do I engage the totally uninterested?” She clarified further: “Someone who would never step foot in a synagogue or go to a Jewish event.”

The question is a big one, and reaches to one of the core tensions of living in a country that provides us with so much freedom and so many options. To begin to answer her question, it is worth framing the reality that organizations, particularly Jewish non-profits, must decide who they want to reach in order to have the focus to achieve that reach. We must decide if we are trying to deepen experiences for those already bought into our mission, or organization, or if we are going to try to reach those who haven’t yet stepped through our doors.

If we follow the first path, then we should take the advice of the participant who responded to the question succinctly, “Don’t bother!”  To elaborate:  If you are doing something well, and the people who come really like it, don’t burn yourself out worrying about everyone else.

If we decide, however, that our goal is to connect to those not already a part of our initiative, we should probably stop using terms like unaffiliated, or unengaged.  Instead, we need to do something a bit different.  The first is to identify more specifically who we are trying to reach, and this is known as market segmentation.  Are you looking for recently transplanted individuals who don’t know where to turn, or might have tried something and were turned off?  Or are you after people who have created their own personal groups and communities and currently don’t find value in your offering?

One of the best places to start, as noted on the asset map, is to, “find out what they are interested in.”  Whether or not it turns out that individuals are interested in your particular offerings, this information is actionable.  It allows you to identify if you have an existing offering the individual simply doesn’t know about (suggesting a marketing issue), if you aren’t offering things individuals want (a content issue), or if your institution is simply on a different planet from the individual (a vision issue).

So how do you get this critical information?  NEXT believes one answer is one-on-one personal engagement. If you make yourself available as a contact for people who are new to your city or looking to learn more about the community, and take the time to hear their stories, you will learn a great deal.  Learn from insurance salespeople. Oftentimes, they also don’t know who to talk to, so they start with who they already know, and ask for referrals.  At the end of every conversation, ask, “Do you know anyone else who might have an interesting perspective on X,” or “Can you recommend a friend who is Jewish but doesn’t come to ‘Jewish’ events?”  As people hear that you are willing to actually sit down with them and hear their story, don’t be surprised if you start getting unsolicited calls.

Concurrently, another good piece of advice from the asset map is to “have regulars bring a friend.” Young adults often do things because it is where their current friends are, or where their potential friends may be.  Your current participants can be your greatest asset in promoting your events.  You just have to ask.

As an epilogue, a lot of the other responses to Rebecca’s question revolved around low-barrier programming, and most of the advice was to take the Jewish content out entirely.  While this may be a great starting place for organizations whose primary goal is to engage young adults, it may not be a great approach for an organization focused on spirituality and Jewish learning.  Instead,  I would advise that such organizations continue to do what they do best–create great Jewish spiritual experiences–and ask those who appreciate it to share it with their friends and networks.

Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation

Making the Most of Our Minutes

By Shelby Zitelman

No, I am not talking about my cell phone’s rollover plan. Although is there even a need for cell phone minutes if we can all use skype on our smart phones? Alas, I digress… What I would like to discuss in the 7 paragraphs herein is how to make the most of your time with volunteers.

Since 2007, PresenTense has been working with creative, inspired individuals from international Jewish communities to effect social change. Whether hosting a parlor meeting, starting or supporting a new community-focused venture or writing for the (currently discontinued) PresenTense magazine, PresenTense has offered the opportunity for Jews from all backgrounds, perspectives and stages of life to impact their Jewish Community by responding to the calling ““how can I make my community a better place in the 21st century?”

Over the past 5 years PresenTense has refined our Fellowship program, the program for which we are now known, and has worked with 285 entrepreneurs (Fellows) and almost 1,000 volunteers to launch 149 ventures, and another 120 ventures in 2011 alone. PresenTense Fellows are the visionaries, and commit at least 6 months to develop a new community-changing initiative.

>>Check here for a complete list of PresenTense Fellows and their projects.

But the PresenTense volunteers are the secret sauce of our Fellowship program, and are crucial to the success of the Fellows. Our volunteers donate countless hours as steering committee members, coaches and mentors, offering their professional experiences, insights and time to build the Fellowship and directly support the Fellows.

So what is the method we’ve used to successfully recruit and motivate our participants and volunteers? We believe there are three key elements:

  • An open-ended calling,
  • Multiple points of meaningful engagement, and
  • Structured work-plans, tasks and deadlines.

1. The Open-Ended Calling

Are you passionate about the environment? Education? Arts and culture? Hunger and Poverty Relief? Cross-cultural connections? Israel?

The question “how can I make my community a better place in the 21st century?” provokes an answer from anyone who has a stake. Instead of defining the issue, we let our volunteers connect to the question. Often people say, “I’m not sure how I want to get involved, but I know that I want to volunteer with your organization”. This leads me to the next point:

2. Multiple Points of Meaningful Engagement.

Do you have a vision? A network to share? Insights to offer? 2 hours a month to recruit/promote/plan?

The PresenTense platform has created multiple points of entry for individuals to participate in the way that works for them. Our program is designed to let anyone get involved if they are willing to give a bit of time. Our volunteers help with website management, blog posts, and press releases. They recruit, interview and admit our entrepreneurs. Our volunteers donate pro-bono hours of legal, marketing and accounting advice, listen to our entrepreneurs’ business presentations, plan events and represent our programs. There are a lot of moving pieces to our programs, which is why it is so important to have a process and method for overseeing our volunteers. Which leads me to point #3:

3. Structured work-plans, tasks and deadlines

We hold our volunteers accountable. Often volunteer managers do not want to “over burden” or call upon their volunteers to roll up their sleeves. But volunteers have the option to spend their time elsewhere, so by not giving them meaningful, guided work we would be denying them their opportunity to give back. So PresenTense makes sure that the volunteers’ work is structured, with understandable deliverables and due dates. It is our job to empower our volunteers to take ownership over their work, checking in and guiding as necessary detailed work-plans, calendars, suggested meeting agendas and intranets.

PresenTense would not be sustainable without commitment of our volunteers. We recently launched a campaign called the “million minutes campaign”, recognizing the amazing contributions our volunteers have given to international Jewish communities. Because PresenTense believes that communal change requires an eco-system of support and needs to be guided and managed to reach its maximum potential.

Shelby Zitelman is the North American Program Director for PresenTense.

 

Photo by backpackphotography, licensed under Creative Commons.

What’s Your EQ? Self-Awareness

 

By Heather Wolfson

IQ isn’t the only way to measure your smarts. Take your EQ, your emotional intelligence, for instance.  Emotional intelligence refers to five areas within an individual:  self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.  Each of these characteristics helps to shape you as a leader and it engenders more effective interpersonal communication. This is vital in developing meaningful professional relationships and can position you best to engage young adults in your community.  Having high emotional intelligence will position you as a stronger communicator with the ability to do more successful outreach and engagement.  Over the course of several blog posts, I am going to break down each of these five areas.

One very important characteristic of someone who has high EQ is self-awareness.  Self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize and understand your moods and emotions, as well as their effect on others.  Those with high self-awareness are self-confident, have a realistic self-assessment, and may even have a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Is this you?  In my years of serving both as a lay leader and a professional in the Jewish community, I’ve found that self-awareness is key to being a strong leader and manager.  Even the most deliberate people with high emotional intelligence can forget to examine the efficacy of their leadership from time to time.

At the start of the New Year, I made a commitment to myself to spend a bit more time reflecting on me and becoming more self-aware.

Self-awareness is also about being responsible for your own well-being. Checking-in with your emotions gives you greater perspective, makes you more receptive and empathetic in relationships, and can be grounding, especially in the face of stressors.

Here are some of the questions I have been pondering in my own quest to be more self-aware

  • When under pressure, how do I feel?  What do I do to cope with this pressure?
  • How can I work to balance my professional, volunteer and personal life?  When is it appropriate to say “no” to requests?  When do I need to step up and step back?
  • How do my actions impact other people?  What can I do to ensure that what I do is in the best interest of everyone?
  • What do I question?  Why do I question?  How can I question in a productive way?
  • What are my weak points?  What are my strengths?
  • I am happiest when…
  • I am fulfilled when…

I encourage you to find some time during your day, be it even on the commute into your office or at the end of your day with a glass of wine, to think a bit about yourself.  The more self-aware you are, the stronger a leader you will be and the more productive a team you will lead.

Until next time…happy thinking!

 

Heather Wolfson is the Western Regional Director at NEXT.

Photo by tj scenes, licensed under Creative Commons.