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

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.