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

Identifying Participant Needs

by Bennie Cohen

This post is the second in a series entitled “Who Do We Serve,” inspired by our Southeast NEXTwork Launch in May 2012.

The question of “Who Do We Serve?” is one that we have already flagged as crucial to young adult engagement. When determining how to assess the experience of the people that we serve—Jewish young adults—one interesting factor stood out: the impact of the economy and growth of the “boomerang child” phenomenon. With so many young Jewish adults nationwide moving back in with their parents/guardians, we have to rethink the picture of what the average 23-year-old looks like.

At our Southeast NEXTwork Launch in May, we considered this scenario. Joel Marcovitch, director of Hillel at the University of Georgia, then posed the following question: What is a young Jewish adult going to need now and five years from now?

Brainstorm on Participant Needs

A Brainstorm on Participant Needs from the Southeast NEXTWork Launch

When considering what makes our audience unique, who they are, and what they are all about, we had not yet touched on what their needs are and how we can help—the “serve” part of “who do we serve.”

Before we solicit young Jewish adults to volunteer or come to an event, how can we help them get settled? What more immediate needs can we fulfill?

Think of the “boomerang child” moving back home, or the recent college graduate moving to a new city. We know that when someone relocates, there are certain things that have to get done in order to put their lives in order. They need to find a job, build a social network, pick new doctors, and even locate new places to eat!

What if there was a Jewish life website that could serve as a “Welcome to [your town here]!” The site could be set up to provide all of the things that a new person needs to get started and settled in the community. I know I would have greatly benefited from something like this when I moved to Atlanta.

Help me further explore this idea. What sort of information do you think should be offered on this kind of site? Do you think there should be an Angie’s List-type function so people can leave comments and ratings? Maybe by starting this discussion here, we can one day soon make it real.

As we look for new ways to engage young Jewish adults in our communities, we must try to understand not just what we need from them, but what they need from us. For many of them, finding a place to live and building up a circle of friends is a top priority, and their needs are always going to come before ours. However, as natural connectors in our communities, we can help them fill those needs. We now need to determine how. Got ideas? Please share in the comments section below!

Bennie Cohen is the Southeast Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Creating Worthwhile Programming

by Heather Wolfson

An asset map of enriching programming areas from the Southwest NEXTWork Launch. Click to enlarge.

During the Southwest NEXTwork Launch a question about programming caught my eye. Specifically, what types of programs can we, as engagement professionals, create for young Jewish adults that are not only engaging, but also worth people’s time? I believe it means developing relevant and authentic events. Here’s how:

1. Consult with participants. Don’t hesitate to conduct an informal focus group of your participants to find out what they want.

2. Develop goals and objectives. Before developing the program out, go into it with clear ideas of what you want people to get out of the program.

3. Get buy-in from key participants. Have some of your participants been clamoring for a specific type of event? Is this program someone’s idea? Don’t do it all yourself — involve participants throughout the process.

4. Think outside the box. Get as creative as possible. Consider the content, venue, food, presenters, entertainment…etc.

5. Present meaningful content. Participants should walk away with a new nugget of knowledge.

6. Set the mood. The tone of the program is really important. Fostering a warm and welcoming environment is critical. Have greeters at the door, floaters to connect with new people and always do a short ice breaker (clearly dependent on number of people in attendance).

7. Create action. What is one thing people can do when they go home? Think about how this program can be relevant beyond the program itself.

8. Plan for follow-up. Before the program begins, know how you want to follow up with everyone in attendance, more than just a thank you. Provide participants with links to other programs of interest, educational resources or anything else that may have come out of your program.

 

Heather Wolfson is the Western Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

 

Who Do We Serve?: From North to South

by Rafi Samuels-Schwartz

Perhaps the single most prevalent misunderstanding to come out over thirteen years of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips is the idea that there is a single “Birthright alumni” profile in which all the nearly 300,000 participants nicely fit. In 2012, past-participants of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are, in some cases, approaching their upper 30’s, live in every state, and occupy a wide spectrum of religious practices, demographic categories, and economic strata. The successes of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip are due, in part, to the Trip’s capacity to offer meaning and personal relevance to this wildly mixed multitude of participants. Unfortunately, these participants are oftentimes lumped into a single category – “Alumni” – the moment they return home exhausted and electrified from their 10 day experience. While this may be a convenient classification, it’s not necessarily an accurate one. We must ask ourselves: What is a Taglit-Birthright Israel participant? What does this participant look like? Do they look like that everywhere?

With these questions in mind, I recently participated in an eye-opening exercise at NEXT’s Southeast Regional NEXTWork convening. Entitled “Who Do We Serve?,” this workshop encouraged the room of young-adult program professionals from a number of different organizations – many of which often have overlapping, but decidedly non-identical, audiences – to name the attributes, hobbies, interests, and characteristics of the audiences they serve. What emerged was a patchwork “profile,” oftentimes incomplete and even contradictory, of a “typical” Young Jewish adult in the Southeast United States.

 

Graphic Notes, Who Do We Serve?

Graphic notes, click to enlarge!

As Northeast Regional Director of NEXT, I focus on opportunities and communities decidedly above the Mason-Dixon line. And so, I was fascinated to hear how this room full of Jewish professionals from across Georgia saw the people they were aiming to serve. Some of it seemed universal; a returning trip participant in Hoboken craves the same authenticity in their Jewish life as one in Makon, GA. Other times, attributes felt distinctly regional; the centrality of multi-generational family roots in Georgia would likely be out of place in the oftentimes hyper-transient Northeast.

Ultimately, the importance of the exercise seemed less to do with the eventual “profile” that emerged. Instead, it seemed to have more to do with creating a space and opportunity for those present to balance their assumptions about the Young Adult population they serve against those of their fellow professionals. Because, as it turned out (unsurprisingly, in hindsight) there was no single “profile” to define. Rather, the room was left considering the things that made their participants and their communities different. And, more importantly – similar.

All too often, it seems, in their eagerness to get out and do something, organizations leapfrog over the important process of honing in on the “who” for which that something is intended. 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?

I encourage you all to share how you have gone about asking the all-important question of “Who Do We Serve?” at your organizations. After all, without the “who”, the “what” might not matter at all.

 

Rafi is the Northeast Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.  Follow him on twitter at @NEXTRafi.