Engagement Doesn’t Happen by Accident

by Joel Frankel

Engaging the next generation of Jewish young adults and empowering the next generation of Jewish leaders takes not only an investment of financial resources, but also a competent and strategic approach that accepts the challenging demographic realities that exist in our local Jewish communities. In an article recently published in The Jewish Daily Forward about Taglit-Birthright Israel (“Birthright”), the author states, “Since the ‘crisis of continuity’ is never explicitly addressed on these tours, participants don’t see a pressing need to engage as individual actors once they return home.” While perhaps there is a need to explore different ways to more strongly emphasize the educational aspects of Birthright to the general public, discussing Jewish continuity is absolutely a part of the Birthright curriculum. It is outlined in the Taglit-Birthright Israel Community Trips Manual through the three over-arching core themes that are the focus of all Birthright trips: Narratives of the Jewish People, Contemporary Israel, and Ideas & Values of the Jewish People.

In my work as the Israel Engagement Professional for the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis, I have found that once participants return to their local communities, the issue is not one of apathy. The desire exists, but we need to foster further interaction. Upon returning from a Birthright trip, rather than engaging in their local Jewish community, which to an outsider can appear daunting and unwelcoming, participants often revert back to what feels most comfortable. That means mingling in the same social circles they were a part of before the trip and becoming dismayed when their first interface with the local Federation is a fundraising mailing that arrives a year after they return from their trip. It is incumbent upon us to create an array of access points into the community that are socially comfortable and easily accessible.

Here in Saint Louis, we are committed to creating opportunities to engage past Birthright participants in activities that are both socially welcoming and inclusive, but also meaningfully related to the Jewish identity they began cultivating in Israel. For many Birthright participants, simply having a Jewish circle of friends can empower them to continue to explore their Jewish identity, so it is our responsibility to facilitate those types of social interactions. We do this in several different ways:

  • Personally inviting participants to partake in NEXT Shabbat dinners with me at Moishe House. Beyond being assured that they will know at least one person in attendance, two-thirds of the Moishe House residents are local Birthright alumni who have experience community building and engaging Jewish young adults
  • Creating awareness for YPD’s annual Christmas Eve celebration, Lollapajewza. Encouraging people to come to large social gatherings provides a way to keep Jewish life fun and gives us an opportunity to build goodwill towards the Federation amongst young adults
  • Interweaving participants’ social action interests into our local Jewish community. Connecting them to Next Dor to help organize Tikkun Olam projects that are personal to their own Jewish values

The author, Jillian, a postdoctoral fellow in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, was definitely right about one thing; not having these engagement opportunities in each and every local Jewish community across the country is a missed opportunity. Yet while the “rich history of American Judaism can provide models for local community engagement,” those models cannot simply be imitated, as shifting demographics are forcing us to constantly reevaluate them. In the past, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, and local federations catered to a generally homogenous constituency and could focus primarily on programming for traditional family units.

Even with proper planning and execution, however, there will always be more single, young adults to engage and more work to be done. So Jillian, as a member of the Saint Louis community, and someone who is obviously interested in improving local engagement post-Birthright, I would love to meet you for a coffee some time. I am always looking for new ideas to help integrate local Birthright alumni into the Saint Louis community, but more importantly, I would like to pose a question that no Jewish professional has probably ever asked you: “What are you looking for out of your local Saint Louis Jewish Community?”

This article was originally submitted to The Jewish Daily Forward as a response to Jillian Powers’ article that was published in the Jewish Daily Forward on November 21, 2012. They declined to publish as it is their policy to not run op-eds that are direct responses to other op-eds.

Joel Frankel is the Israel Engagement Professional at the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis.

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  1. Adina Frydman says

    Dear Joel,
    As the former Director of Focus Israel at the St. Louis Jewish Federation I was thrilled to see your article. St. Louis Federation’s steadfast strategic commitment (beyond a one off program) to create and Israel engaged community is evident and I hope will be a model to other communities. One question I would ask regarding your birthright Israel engagement strategy is whether you have built in forums for honest conversation which give young adults permission to “hug and wrestle” with the “real Israel” before and after their Israel trip? In my opinion this has been generally lacking everywhere and only further alienates young adults from Israel when they don’t have the language to articulate an aspirational vision for Israel while grappling, in solidarity and love, with the Israel of today.

  2. says

    In general, I agree with the intent of this piece but I think it needs some key additional points:

    1. While Mr. Frankel is correct that there needs to be attention to engage younger folk, it is less and less true that the community as a whole is homogeneous and that approaches to other “cohorts” per se are viable. There are many boomers, x-ers, etc who don’t see themselves as part of the mainstream of Jewish life even if they personally feel fully Jewish. In medium and smaller communities, for many reasons beyond the scope of this brief response, this trend is less visible than in larger ones, but it is true nonetheless. The reason this is relevant is because to engage those who feel like outsiders requires a major re-think of how the organized community is structured, presents itself, and sees itself. If engagement only focuses on those 20 somethings, it will miss a larger and more problematic reality.
    2. The words “continuity” had fallen out of favor over a decade ago, and for good reason. Not everyone believes that continuing “what is” is a worthy goal. [Is the term back in fashion? I confess to being out of that loop.] Engagement which has an agenda to try to get folks into something which was created for another time and/or group may ultimately fall flat. Mr. Frankel is quite correct that most of the Birthright-Taglit alumni are not rejecting their Jewishness even if they don’t see a place at the communal tables. The methods he describes are fine and worthy, but they don’t address the longer term need of change [whatever that should mean.] There are an awful lot of young folks quite content with their Jewish identity and appreciate it being recognized on its own terms. If there is an assumption that this is only a step in to a house not of their making or aesthetic, there may be some resistance down the road.
    3. The brilliance of Michael Steinhardt’s insistence that Birthright had to be big [I was involved in the early years of Birthright so I am privileged to give direct credit where it is due] was that it would create a peer reality for identity. Fostering that peer reality may be challenging, for all, but it is the most promising and hopeful part of one of the great experiments in modern Jewish life. That should continue to be everyone’s priority.

  3. says

    “It is incumbent upon us to create an array of access points into the community that are socially comfortable and easily accessible.”

    This piece perfectly articulates a sentiment that my organization has seen in conversations with Jewish community leaders across North America. Isolated one-off programs and single access points for Jewish engagement no longer work for a young Jewish population that is comprised of individuals who expect to define their own Jewish identities, on their terms, and in their time.

    Last April, I wrote a piece (bit.ly/WYkQLu) about GrapeVine, a new tool being used by the Jewish communities in NYC, Rhode Island, Columbus OH, and Toronto that addresses this problem but using modern social networking and marketing approaches, similar to Pandora and Netflix, to align an individual’s interests and needs with the organizations and opportunities that are most relevant to them in their community. Feedback from our communities has been overwhelmingly positive. I’d welcome your insights, and in the meantime you may want to check out this video to see how it works – tinyurl.com/7esoe8t.