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

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?