Federations and Engagement: A Growing Conversation

It’s not clear how it started.


Maybe it was the birth of PJ Library—Federations are PJ Library’s largest organizational partner (135 Federations host PJ Library in their communities). Maybe it was the launch of One Happy Camper, and the 42 Federations that manage and match this camp incentive initiative of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Maybe it was new partnerships with Moishe House, opening new houses and supporting eager young adults building communities for their peers (Federations are, collectively, one of Moishe House’s largest donors and support 69 different Moishe Houses around the Globe). Or maybe it was the influence of Hillel, whose relationship-based engagement model turns 10 this year. Maybe it was all of these and more.


Regardless, today “engagement” is considered a critical part of a Federation’s local work. Federation-based engagement programs and related staff positions are growing fast. 


For sure, Jewish engagement does not exist in the Federation sphere alone—it is work born out of partnership. In addition to national initiatives like PJ Library, local partnerships manifest with JCCs and central agencies for Jewish education. Synagogues are hosts; rabbis are teachers. But Federations often play various roles—strategist, architect, and convener. They co-design and help catalyze an endless array of engagement activities, but there is still more to do. 


This year at the annual General Assembly (GA) in Washington, D.C., we will showcase some of the most innovative Federation projects and activities through a special track of programming called FEDovations. If you want to know how Federations are trailblazing in the world of engagement, you should join us


In addition, on November 15-16, immediately following the GA, Federation leaders will convene for FedEngage! This 24-hour seminar will bring together thought leaders to discuss some of the key elements required to build strong and vibrant Jewish communities; including the ins and outs of relationship-based engagement,  the invaluable role of experiential, hands-on learning, and thinking through genuine intimacy between mentors and students and how to approach engages in an authentic way. We’ll learn from experiences ourselves, walking through the building of community through sessions with practitioners, studying how connections among engagees are made that help engagees take their new Jewish community out of formal programming and into their own lives. 


We’ll also think through some of the stickier issues with experts from inside Federation and outside, including:


  • Power and Jewish education. Traditional Jewish educational settings seem to position a teacher against students: The teacher has knowledge that students are present to learn. Working in the 21st century, where knowledge is more democratized and collaborative (see: Wikipedia), engagement assumes more of a balance of power between teachers and students. How do Jewish educators and programmers deal with this loss of power? How do we create environments that give students power from the start? What does it truly mean to “empower”?
  • The purposes of engagement. We aren’t building relationships for the sake of relationships—relationships are containers for the learning and Jewish growth that people experience. It’s also crucial to understand that this isn’t just cognitive learning—it’s the essence of whole person learning. How do we think about engagement and about the purposes of education in this context? 
  • Radical inclusiveness. Many of us on the Jewish inside have preconceived notions of who Jews are. We often expect Jews to look a certain way, from skin tone to family structure to, even, a lack of tattoos. How do we open our hearts and our programs to all Jews, never blanching when someone looks different than we might expect?
  • Measuring success. We have mostly tracked success in Jewish education according to how many people show up. But relationship-based engagement asks us to look at how individuals grow as human beings and as Jews. How do we measure this in both breadth and depth? And what, specifically, are the outcomes that relate to whole person learning?


There is, of course, much that we will not have time to address, such as how we build collective impact through deep partnerships and true synergy, making the whole of a community’s infrastructure greater than its parts. Or what we can learn from external subject matter experts on engagement – from digital engagement to arts engagement. We’ll save that for our second convening.


Today, Jews and Jewish communities look very much like our Diaspora neighbors. That is, the containers and boundaries that once held our Judaism—our neighborhoods, American ethnic patterns of participation in Jewish communal activity, even anti-Semitism—have faded for many of us, and with these containers, our rich Jewish behaviors. Yet the vast majority of us, the 2013 Pew study tells us, are proud to be Jewish. Engagement puts Judaism on the people’s terms, making it not something we do because we have to but because it becomes integrated into the patterns of our lives. 


Engagement organizes Jews using 21st-century paradigms (like personal platforms) rather than the traditional models of the 20th century. Adopting and implementing this agenda in the Federation system—a system born of a different era—has its challenges. But to succeed, in our own mission and work, to help Jews be Jewish, we have no choice.

FedEngage! was developed in partnership with The Jewish Education Project. We are grateful to The David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation for their sponsorship.


Join the conversation! Learn more about FedEngage! and register now.