What Are Federations Doing in the Engagement Business?: The Goal

The day after the General Assembly, about 140 people—Federation volunteer leaders and professionals, expert educators and philanthropists, and other educational leaders—got together to talk about relationship-based engagement and its implications for Federations.


We defined what we mean by engagement and began to articulate the opportunities and challenges in the engagement agenda for Federation. 


This series on our Jewish Education & Engagement blog has four parts and one side bar : I. The Problem; II. The Goal; Sidebar: Why Does the Personal Matter? Rebuilding Jewish Social Capital; III. Federations’ Role; and IV. Our Work as a Field. At two points, discussion questions accompany the text for use with volunteer leaders and other stakeholders.


And if you need a summary? (As they say these days: TL;DR) 

Q: What are Federations doing in the engagement business?
A: (Re)Designing a community for a new way of Jewish living, learning, and being.

For more information about any of the ideas here, contact Beth Cousens or Rachel Shtern.


II.    The Goal: A Framework to Put Jewish Life Back into People’s Hands


We need a new set of “institutions” for the 21st century—new sisterhoods, bowling leagues, and supper clubs—and a new framework or infrastructure for Jewish living, learning, and being.


Interestingly, Putnam suggests that the conscious development of community engagement opportunities led to our community infrastructure today. Today’s institutions are the hallmarks of the Progressive Era: Just over 100 years ago, a slew of civic organizations blossomed, some creating activity for their members (the Boy and Girl Scouts) and some caring for constituents (the YMCA movement). The same thing happened in Jewish communities: Jewish educational institutions as well as social service activities—the set of organizations we know of today as our Jewish community—were born. Individuals with vision and means (power and resources) developed the organizational framework with which we would engage as Jews over the next century. 


These institutions of the past 100 years have had a certain profile: physical buildings that often were grand testaments to our success in North America; leadership hierarchies; often, membership fees and boundaries. The 21st century is seeing a radical turn away from these institutional profiles. We now need a new kind of Jewish infrastructure, opportunities that allow North American Jewry to engage with Jewish life not through big and anonymous institutions, but rather in intimacy and on their terms.


Our challenge is to manage two operating systems at once: Work with those whose connection to Jewish life and community may be more tentative or tenuous while also keeping our mainstream organizations healthy for those seeking a more historically typical experience. The new framework of the early 21st century will be shaped by today’s Instagram/ Snapchat moment, that of virtual and ephemeral frameworks built around relationships. In this new era:


We can assume no loyalty to or even interest in our traditional institutions. We will try to help people develop connections to and interest in their Jewishness, not in our organizations, helping to engage people broadly in Jewish life and exploration rather than competing for their attention to our institutional agendas. 


We cannot assume that engagees have Jewish friends or resources, knowledge and confidence—the stuff they need to celebrate Jewish life on their own. And so, we will seek to help them develop Jewish friends and acquaintances, knowledge of how Judaism works, and knowledge of how to put together their own Jewish practice. Success will come when they sit at their dinner table with their new Jewish friends around it and when they feel welcomed and known when they are out and about in their community. It will come when they can put together Jewish activities for friends and families on their own. Their experiences of intimate Jewish community will comprise success. From this personal starting point, some may connect to our organizations eventually, their Jewish explorations leading them to synagogues and JCCs and Federations, because these institutions are of course still relevant and valuable. 


In other words, we will seek to help all develop their own Jewish communities, their own Jewish practices and rhythms for celebration in their own homes—a personally relevant Judaism in which they may engage on their own terms, within the small sacred communities into which Jews have organized themselves throughout our history. 


This new Jewish infrastructure revolves around our best Jewish communal resource: Jewish teachers and mentors who inspire, validate, support, and share ancient and relevant ideas. This manifests in two ways:

  • Educators without organizational portfolio, who spend their time not planning programs but working with individuals on who they are as Jews. These educators should have profound and inspiring Torah, be excellent listeners and community organizers, who can continually dance between what they offer and where engagees are.
  • Peer connectors—ambassadors, organizers—who embody the definition of connector, who excel at building relationships. These peer connectors will not be trained Jewish educators but they will be on their own Jewish journey and will be comfortable sharing their experiences with others. Unlike the educators, they can use their peer experience to validate and support their peers as engagees embark on their own processes of Jewish discovery.


These educators and peer connectors should work within niches, in geographic areas and with specialized populations (LGBTQ Jews, single parents or empty nesters). They might even work within the boundaries of a workspace, a company or a field, not working for the organization but assigned that territory (campuses, hi-tech office complexes). They should define their populations, in other words, by social network (or potential social network) and not by organization, which gives opportunity for them to build natural connections among the people they are working with easily. And without organizational responsibilities, they will have time to focus on the people in front of them, on mentoring, on helping engagees to grow as human beings within the context of Jewish tradition.


We should note that these senior educators and peer connectors don’t need to work for Federation. But, they also might not work for any other singular organization. That is, in the traditional model, each of us hired and facilitated our own work of this kind, “recruiting,” essentially, for our own organizations. In the future, any one organization might hire these leaders on behalf of Jewish life—or, we might create yet-unknown networks, collaborations of synagogues and JCCs and Federations, co-employing our best resource—people—to reach out to other people.


This is a tall charge. But it can work. We know it can work because it is working—in Tucson, where a community roundtable employs a community concierge; in Los Angeles, where peer connectors employed by Federation connect twenty- and thirtysomethings to Jewish life in all kinds of ways; and in Chicago, where peer connectors organize young parent playgroups. Jewish and human connections are growing out of relationships rather than out of organizational affiliations.


Together, these senior educators and peer connectors constitute the framework we need to help proliferate and even become conventional, typical, in this new era.


For Discussion

  • What rings true for you in this piece, particularly in the description of organizational engagement offered?
  • What feels valuable in the overview of the engagement infrastructure offered? Does anything feel too foreign?
  • We don’t work with a binary population—engaged or unengaged. Even the simplest framework would understand people to be 1) highly engaged, in the core 2) peripherally engaged, on the margins, and 3) moderately engaged, somewhere in between, perhaps drifting in and out. Flesh out these profiles. Where do people in your community fall? 
  • How can we support Jews as they seek to build their social capital? What resources do we need to make available and through what platforms? And what is our particular job in engaging, in connecting, in encouraging others?