What Are Federations Doing in the Engagement Business? The Problem

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.


Cleaning my grandmother’s desk after she moved to a nursing home revealed the mementos from her experiences as Temple Sisterhood president: plaques, pins, notecards from speeches, programs from events. But I was confused—why was it from two different congregations? Apparently, my mother explained, she was president of her Sisterhood not once, but twice: After my grandparents moved from their longtime Long Island home to Detroit (to be with their grandkids), they joined and became similarly involved in a new congregation. What else to do but become Sisterhood president, again?


In addition to their synagogue involvement, my grandparents bowled and had a supper club; my grandfather played cards with the guys (in New York, Detroit, and then Florida); they celebrated seder with my grandfather’s entire extended family, about 75 people, in a rented hall in the Bronx. They showed up. They paid membership fees, led, and found both formal (organizational) opportunities and informal community (my grandfather’s card game). For my grandparents, as for many of the Greatest Generation, joining was the path to social activity, and institutional support the price that they paid for community; their friendships were launched and cemented through ritual activity. 


Little of this reflects the experience of most North Americans today. For a variety of reasons, well documented in the perfectly titled Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, North American society has shifted to be more atomized, governed by the boundaries of households, with social engagement taking place virtually.  


In some ways, my life is not that different from my grandparents’. We celebrate Shabbat with a small group of friends. I’m a room parent at my son’s preschool; we just had a Havdallah and pizza playdate, with some 30people in our two-bedroom apartment. We dance between congregations, the one down the street to which we pay dues and the one that has great toddler programming.
My husband and I are collecting friends, stragglers, others who also don’t have family in the Bay Area. We’re combing calendars for organizational opportunities, going out of our way to integrate Shabbat and other Jewish opportunities into our lives. We’re issuing invitations, trying to find the basis for that lifelong havurah, and looking online for Jewish toddler activities for the sometimes-motley crew that we gather. 


We’re extroverts who know how to find community and where to find Jews (and the people who love them), and we’re happy to lead Jewish ritual in our homes. But what about the rest of North American Jewry? I’m referring to the ones who lack:


  • Jewish self-confidence, a sense of comfort and security that they are good-enough Jews and can therefore experiment with ritual, try on different Jewish identities and practices, and otherwise enter unknown Jewish spaces;
  • Genuine knowledge of how Judaism and Jewish community work, the ability and confidence to find Jewish organizational opportunities for themselves and their families; and,
  • Jewish friendship networks; others to be Jewish with (play dreidel, make hamantaschen) and to echo and validate their Jewish decisions.


Many can’t put together their own opportunities; they lack, even, a vision of what’s possible, of holding Havdallah in their living rooms or Jewish playgroups for their children. To them, Jewish life happens in institutions—and many are not terribly interested in institutions, and so they stay away. Jewish life and community happen in a parallel world that has little to do with them.

In this new environment, the very ways that we understand the concept of a Jew, of Jewish community (or “the” Jewish community), and even of Jewish institutions and leaders have shifted significantly. Some have even argued that these concepts no longer exist. 




  1. The word “Jew” is complicated. Many North Americans consider themselves Jewish and. Intermarriage is a norm, not an exception. The children of intermarriage are now raising children without any religion or with multiple religions, and they are the Jewish majority, particularly of households with kids at home. All of these people are part of us. 
  2. “The Jewish community” refers to institutional Jewish life. But the majority of North American Jews do not engage with institutional Jewish life, or they engage briefly and not substantively. And they feel alienated from Jewish community—from institutions and from mainstream Jews. “The” Jewish community has many facets and pieces—but when we refer to it, we are often talking about only some of those pieces.
  3. Jewish institutions increasingly work with non-Jews. JCCs dance between universal and particular values, for example; Jewish Family Service agencies act as significant social service resources for Jews and non-Jews alike. Even synagogues play their roles with increasingly expanded constituencies, leading early childhood programs and sponsoring neighborhood playgroups for all families. Moreover, more of the platforms that play a (Jewish) role in people’s lives are often not our traditional Jewish institutions. They are startup organizations, virtual communities, or grassroots projects.
  4. Jewish leaders lead some Jews but not all Jews. They speak for those affiliated with their particular institutions—which, as noted, is far from a majority of Jews in any city or area. And the increasing political polarization in our society can lead to fewer people hearing or listening to voices with which they don’t agree, including the voices of Jewish organizational leaders.


All of these concepts, then, perhaps once unquestioned in North American organized Jewish life, are anything but straightforward today.


These characterizations of our current reality get at the heart of what we do. For some of us, they may be hard to hear. In actuality, they are a story of broader North American institutional change and of societal change. This is not a distinctly Jewish challenge; all traditionally organized Jewish communities, institutions and leaders face this challenge. 


Change is hard, and, many Federations have embarked on a journey of transition. Others are holding onto traditional structures, frameworks, and assumptions. The shifts we describe have great implications for the ways that we interact with partners, for our language, and even for our core ways of doing business. To summarize, “what got us here won’t get us there.” The next chunk of our work is going to have to be different.


The thing is, a lot of people crave community. They want the palpable sense of ethnic belonging that dominated the 1950s and even ’60s and ’70s. But they don’t want affiliation with large and anonymous institutions. They want friends, deep friendships, family traditions, and intimacy—the warmth that comes from real relationships and roots. Even—especially—if they live far from family. And they want that community to be easy to access, to bring people together.


That’s where we Federations come in.