by Adam Pollack
After reading Joel Frankel’s recent article in eJewish Philanthropy, “Engagement Doesn’t Happen by Accident,” I was inspired to share what I’ve learned over the last four months as NEXT’s Western Regional Director. In that time, I’ve spoken with over 75 Jewish young adult engagement professionals who, like Joel, are working hard to leverage the Birthright Israel experience by organizing creative and relevant Jewish programs for alumni and their peers.
These professionals – and in some cases, peer leaders or volunteers – are spirited and driven, and seek to create multiple avenues of engagement for Jewish young adults. They do this in many different and meaningful ways, whether it is Jewish-themed ski trips, Jewish learning groups, social events, or do-it-yourself holiday programs. They work at federations, startups, synagogues, JCCs, museums, national and local organizations, and in their living rooms, day and night.
Through my conversations with these “engagers,” as we call them at NEXT, here are some important lessons I’ve drawn:
1. They invest a great deal of time in their jobs, and have a deep knowledge of what young adults seek. In addition to the 4-6 events that they plan, implement and evaluate every month, they also meet for one-on-one conversations with young adults and work with lay committees, among other things. These tasks require a lot of time – above and beyond what most professionals are required to work in similarly salaried positions – and demonstrates their commitment to their work. In many ways, it pays off, putting them in direct touch with over 100 Jewish young adults every month. These professionals have a deep knowledge of this population and what they look for in the Jewish community. What they are finding confirms and reinforces what we at NEXT have learned through years of work with Birthrighters and their peers: young adults want multiple access points to the Jewish community, the opportunity to interact with personable and welcoming engagement professionals, and the chance to create their own Jewish experiences.
2. Engagers enjoy their work and understand its importance, but don’t feel that they receive the support they need. The people I speak with are proud of their work and believe that they are making a difference in the Jewish community, and I believe that they are, too. However, it is rare that they are given enough time to do the job well. Many of these engagers possess several different (and competing) roles at their organizations, and with the already high demands on their time in running effective engagement and outreach initiatives, they are at risk of experiencing burnout within a few years on the job. These professionals are also eager to try new and creative approaches to engagement work, but lack the funds or support from leadership necessary to try them.
3. Engagers seek further professional development opportunities. Many engagers are new to the workforce, within a few years of graduating college and are eager to learn new skills and to expose themselves to new ideas. In their current positions, they need event planning, social media, evaluation, volunteer relations and fundraising skills. Those with more time in the field, and potentially advanced degrees, have other needs: executive leadership, management and other skills that will help them as they advance in their careers. These can be learned through experience, but also through ongoing mentorship, strong supervision and professional development opportunities.
4. Engagers want to connect with fellow engagers. In the West, there are groups like the NextGen Engagement Initiative in Los Angeles, HaReshet in San Francisco, as well as groups in Denver and San Diego, that are connecting engagement professionals on the local level. The frequency of their meetings and overall goals vary from city to city, but in general, they present engagers with a chance to learn new skills, to collaborate on local projects, and to support each other. This past year, NEXT launched a network for engagers, called the NEXTwork, that builds upon these local initiatives by providing engagers with spaces to connect, learn, and collaborate across cities, regions and the country. In the last nine months alone, my colleagues and I have hosted five convenings across the country that attracted 140 engagers. At these day-long gatherings, NEXT staff shared best practices in Birthright Israel follow-up; experts taught skills in storytelling, social media, public relations and evaluation; and engagers discovered how they can learn from one another and share resources. Between these convenings, the NEXTwork offers engagers ongoing skill-based webinars, one-on-one consultations, Alef (an online resource) and Insight, our professional learning groups. As we continue conversations with engagers, we will expand our offerings to meet their needs.
Over these last few months, it has been an honor to hear so many personal stories of why these engagers do what they do and how NEXT can support them. Many times, engagers share that it was a connection with a Jewish professional who convinced them that this work was worthwhile. Now, they want to give the gift of a diverse and welcoming Jewish community to other young adults.
As I move ahead, I look forward to my ongoing work with engagers: providing them with a unique perspective on how to leverage the Birthright Israel experience; creating opportunities to learn new competencies, while strengthening the ones they already have; and enhancing the NEXTwork. Naturally, this work cannot happen in a vacuum. We must also garner support from their supervisors and other leaders in the Jewish community. I invite you to join me in conversation around how we can support these outstanding professionals and give a voice to those on the Jewish community’s “front lines” of young adult engagement.
Adam Pollack is Western Regional Director of NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.