Talk Tachlis? Try Talking Like You Do With Your Friends!

by Marc N. Blattner

I continue to read national articles and op-ed pieces about the Jewish community that have wonderful intentions, yet miss their audience. The organized Jewish communal leadership is masterful at talking to itself. We use “insider” terms that most Jews do not use in their everyday life. Although I am a professional in the field, I am trying to think of the last time my friends (all in their 30s and 40s) talked about Jewish peoplehood, Jewish continuity, Israel-Diaspora relations, innovation, and all the other important buzzwords we like to share. Instead, my friends and I talk about real-life personal concerns like our children, their education and after-school activities, aging parents, how expensive (Jewish) life is, and where to eat – no different than anyone else.

At the same time, I am always impressed by how these articles use names and quotes from national Jewish communal leaders (from the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations and philanthropies) as validation. The problem, however, is that 95% (if not more) of the American Jewish population has no idea who these people are. Peer word of mouth and web information/reviews are the key connectors today that will make people interested in Jewish life and Judaism – not the names of Jewish communal leaders. (Think of the trust we place in comments from strangers on websites such as Amazon.com and Zappos.com).

Recently, CNN.com posted an article comparing Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to Steve Jobs of Apple in their presentation styles. Zuckerberg was launching a new program for Facebook. In his presentation, he was using logarithmic charts, preached about Moore’s Law, and talked about “inflection points,” all the while forgetting that most Facebook users are from the non-tech general public (sounds like the Jewish articles I often read). Jobs on the other hand is a master at speaking in a folksy and relevant manner, talking about our innermost needs and desires, and sharing how the company’s products will make our lives richer and less stressful.

Oftentimes, Jewish professionals are so enchanted by our own programs, services, and yes, even language that we have a hard time understanding why everyone else does not feel the same way. Why is there a lack of interest and excitement about the Jewish community? Perhaps it is because people have no idea what we are talking about, or our words may even be a turn-off? When we learn to begin conversations by understanding what people are thinking, feeling, and believing (not by using our own nomenclature) – only then can we excite them about all that Jewish life has to offer.

This issue is prevalent in many professions. I feel the same way when I visit my doctor, talk to friends in the tech industry, or listen to my children’s teachers at conferences. The “professional babble” is lost on me and inevitably I have to turn to them and say, “Can you tell me what that means in plain English?”
It is time for the leadership of the Jewish community to speak a new language – or better yet, a common language. We must imagine ourselves as the person we want to engage within the Jewish community and learn what will connect them in their Jewish life.

Once this is done, we can then take on what may be our greater challenge – do the Jewish community’s program and service offerings (day schools, summer camps, social services, overseas experiences to name a few) outweigh the opportunities found elsewhere based on: affordability, quality, convenience, and value? Now these are real discussion points my friends can understand.

I am an insider who loves Jewish communal discourse, but also recognizes that this is a very small universe. People want natural conversations, minus the jargon. Remember, the Jewish community (its strengths, challenges, and opportunities) is not what I say it is … it is what THEY say it is. By putting ourselves into the mindset of those we want to attract and involve, we will appreciate – and overcome – the challenges ahead.

Want to talk tachlis about the Jewish community and Jewish life? Then talk like you do with your friends!

Marc N. Blattner is President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

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Comments

  1. Nanette Fridman says

    Your post reminds me of a blog post that I wrote in 2009 called Closed Circuits (you can read it at http://nanettefridman.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/closed-circuit/). In this post, I used the phrase “conversations with ourselves” to describe the phenomenon of both talking (what you are describing) and listening only to ourselves. An excerpt is below.

    “Conversations with ourselves is a chronic problem because we all tend to talk to on regular basis to our same core or inner-circles both individually and organizationally. In addition, communities arise out of shared general interests and result in overlap between the inner-circle networks of complimentary or related organizations. So even when we ask people not from our direct organization for their feedback or opinions, these supposed outsiders are often still part of a broader closed circuit.

    This is problematic because while a closed circuit may be necessary for building computers, it is counterproductive in designing programs, events, campaigns etc. that attract a broad range of people. Even organizations with the narrowest of missions can’t afford to talk only to themselves.

    Many are afraid to open the forum up and hear from a broader audience because let’s face it, you may hear things that are critical that you don’t really want to hear. However, they are things that need to be said and should be heard and processed. The only way to truly expand as an organization is to open the circuit up and stop having conversations with yourselves.”

  2. says

    I too feel you are raising here one of the most critical points to Jewish organized life – that Jewish un-organized life is just not interested in it.

    This is an issue we are trying to address at Leadel (leadel.net) one thing that we found is that this is not only a problem in Jewish organizations, it’s a problem with all “value-based” organizations. In these we are referring to all things that are not for profit or pure entertainment – but want to make a positive impact.

    If you’re in the environmental movement, you have the same issue – you’re preaching to your choir (pros or core volunteers,) the same is correct for religious circles, worker unions, student organizations and even political parties!

    What we came up with is an interesting, but a quite straight-forward idea: If we can get all these different crowds to take interests in one another, then we would have a much larger group of engaged people.

    This might sound at first a bit odd “groups should not try going after the general public, but focus on the interaction with other groups that have no direct interest in their cause,” but yes. We should focus on others that care, if they care about student’s communities, then they might understand environmental issues and/or Shabbat.

    Talk to the people who are talking, as those who are engaged in conversation are the likeliest to listen to you.

    Now how can this be used in Jewish life?