Even well-intentioned plans by well–meaning professionals and lay leaders will be doomed to fail if the process does not affirm the needs and priorities of those off the grid.
By Rabbi Joshua Rabin and Emily Winograd
Last year, a provocative editorial appeared in The Washington Post entitled, Want Millennials Back in the Pews? Stop Trying to Make Church ‘Cool.’ Rachel Held Evans argues that many churches incorrectly assume that millennials do not attend church because church is aesthetically unappealing, and thus millions of dollars are spent on sleek websites, concert-style worship services, expensive marketing materials, and endless free events at bars and cafes. Evans contends that if churches really understood the needs and desires of millennials, leaders would recognize that, “a church can have a sleek logo and website, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out… We’re not as shallow as you might think.”
Evans’ editorial should give the entire Jewish community pause, as her analysis reveals the possibility that many of the people charged with trying to engage the unengaged in Jewish life may lack the one essential trait necessary for success: empathy. Too often, efforts to attract unengaged and under-engaged constituencies are founded on uninformed assumptions about what people need and want from the Jewish community. If Jewish professionals and lay leaders want to stem the tide of disengagement, they urgently need to bring members of their target audiences into the conversation, or, at the very least, encourage leaders to think about their institutions from the perspective of those on the outside looking in.
Last November, The PresenTense Group and The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) partnered to run three IdeaLabs at the USCJ Convention with professionals and lay leaders to focus on critical challenges facing Conservative synagogues: teen engagement, interfaith families, and a tagline for Conservative Judaism. This partnership was an important experience for both organizations, as it gave us a chance to think about what it means for the Jewish community to make systemic change in overcoming seemingly intractable challenges.
One of the foundational principles of design thinking is customer empathy, the practice of uncovering the needs and desires of a customer through interviewing, observation, and immersion in their life experience. In An Introduction to Design Thinking: A Process Guide, the leading teachers of design thinking at the Stanford University Design School write that, “As a design thinker, the problems you are trying to solve are rarely your own – they are those of a particular group of people; in order to design for them, you must gain empathy for who they are and what is important to them.” Most Jewish institutions are asking how they can better engage millennials or baby boomers, take disability inclusion seriously, or rethink policies and approaches toward working with interfaith families. However, even well-intentioned plans by well-meaning professionals and lay leaders will be doomed to fail if the process does not affirm the needs and priorities of those off the grid.
This last point is particularly important for professionals and lay leaders in legacy organizations. On the one hand, the Jewish community will not solve major problems if there is a collective assumption that the only way to do so is by uprooting the entire system; Jewish life also needs transformational change from within, which requires tapping the wisdom of intrapreneurs from both legacy and startup organizations. At the same time, legacy organizations with entrenched cultures and systems need to understand that they are living in an age of co-creation and crowdsourcing, and sending the message that any one person or institution possesses the answer to a critical question dooms the process to failure. Institutions with proud histories are not used to getting inside of the head of those people who feel alienated, yet unless they do so, they will only re-create what they want, not what the unengaged need.
When our organizations partnered, it created an opportunity for leaders from Conservative synagogues to frame familiar issues discussed around many synagogue board tables as a design challenge. For example, many Conservatives synagogues are rethinking their approach to working with interfaith families, and yet is entirely possible that a well-meaning group of people could ask the wrong question about how to address this challenge, having conversations such as “How can we deal with intermarriage?,” or “What will we do about the growing number of interfaith families in our community?” Asking the question this way puts the process on the wrong track by failing to view the challenge from the perspective of the person on the outside looking in.
Instead, when our participants came together, their design challenge was, “How might we create an aspirational vision for the role of a supportive non-Jewish spouse in our synagogues?” The audacity of the question was intentional so that participants could rip apart the previous assumptions inherent in trying to solve problems by a single program or committee. Over the next ninety minutes, participants were tasked with creating, commenting on, and prototyping a series of ideas with the potential to address the design challenge. While the IdeaLab itself only provides a set of possible ideas that can meet the design challenge, the simple act of convening people together to ask the right questions about a particular challenge changes the flow of energy in how the challenge is approached going forward.
For USCJ, running the IdeaLab provided a launch pad for the organization to think deeply about how to help congregations develop customer empathy. This week, USCJ will convene over 100 synagogue lay leaders and professionals in the New York area series of workshops on how to reduce barriers to engagement by thinking about our institutions from the perspective of those who feel left out, whether a synagogue’s focus is prayer, LGBTQ inclusion, millennial engagement, and a myriad of other topics. These leaders will be forced to ask themselves tough questions: When was the last time they interviewed someone who did not participate in their local synagogue? Do the synagogue’s marketing materials convey that the community can meet the needs of all kinds of people? Has the leadership done enough to lower the barriers to entry for people entering the Jewish community for the first time?
A midrash offers a vision of what a Jewish community can look like when all organizations, particularly ones with the longest and proudest histories, embrace a co-creative culture and intrapreneurial spirit. The midrash states:
“Rabbi Hanina said: Torah is like a deep well full of water whose waters were cold and sweet and delicious, but no one was able to drink from it. Then a certain person came along, and supplied the well with one cord tied to another, one rope tied to another, and drew water out of the well, and drank from it. Then everyone began to draw water and drink it” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1.1:8).
The challenges facing Jewish institutions are many and varied, yet they are also shared, and nothing is accomplished if the community acts in silos and misses the opportunity to nourish the whole. In contrast, when organizations allow for the opportunity to co-create with their “customers”, and unleash the innovative spirit within, everyone wins. The only challenge left is to keep reaching down in the well and uncovering the ideas that will lead to the next renaissance of Jewish life.
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.
Emily Winograd is the Vice-President of Programs at The PresenTense Group.