A Concierge for the Jewish Community

By Paul Golin and Zohar Rotem

Perhaps you’ve benefited from the services of excellent hotel concierges. They listen to your interests, offer relevant options, hook you up with people on the inside, and may actually bring you to places or experiences you weren’t even looking for, which then far exceed your expectations.

What if someone provided that level of excellent concierge service to Jewish households not actively participating in the organized Jewish community?

That’s what Big Tent Judaism Concierges, now in eight communities, have been doing since our first Concierge began serving less-engaged Jews and unaffiliated intermarried households in Chicago three years ago.

We chose the word “concierge” deliberately. This is about serving you, the individual, based on your interests and needs. It’s not about getting you to do what we, the organized Jewish community, want you to do.

In Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and elsewhere, Big Tent Judaism Concierges are casting a wider net than anyone else in the community, to go where the people are and where they’re “at” – to find Jewish households not being served, and to engage them in meaningful activities that leave participants curious for more. Then, Big Tent Judaism Concierges actually follow up with the individuals they meet, and steward them into relevant next steps elsewhere in the organized Jewish community.

This personalized follow-up is key. As an organization that in the past decade has consulted with over a thousand synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and other local Jewish organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada, it is clear to us that individualized follow-up with new people met is something the organized Jewish community regularly fails to do. That changes with Big Tent Judaism Concierges.

We believe our Big Tent Judaism Concierges have no parallel in reaching and engaging a broad swath of unaffiliated Jewish households – even as a growing number of other organizations create “concierge”-like positions of their own.

Our Big Tent Judaism Concierges operate with the following advantages:

  • We’re neutral and cross-communal. Big Tent Judaism is a national, independent, transdenominational organization. We work with everyone in the community who wants to work with us, and we’re not limited to a single denomination or organization when we look to match newcomers with relevant next-step programs or events.
  • We don’t solicit. Ever. We’re not a membership organization. Our funding model is through supportive third-parties, not the end-users themselves. So we will never measure outreach success by how many newcomers we flip to contributors or members. Solicitations are a huge turnoff for so many people who’ve been asked to give before they’re fully a part of the community. The future of Jewish communal life is about engagement, not affiliation; this is model focused on engagement – and empowering newcomers to find what’s right for them from among our community’s diverse offerings.
  • We’re not the endpoint; we’re the door-opener and bridge. While the nature of our programming is to find people in a grassroots way, we’re not building alternative stand-alone Jewish communities. We’re partnering with dozens of other Jewish organizations to hand people off to them. We don’t succeed unless the entire community is growing.
  • We’re activating networks. Partnering Jewish communal professionals (Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates) and volunteer leaders (Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors) in each community come together from many different organizations, around the shared goal of finding and serving more people. They learn together, program together, and benefit from having the Concierge serve as the hub of the wheel. They know that with the Concierge doing personalized follow-up, some newcomers will be directed to them, some to other organizations, but together, a rising tide raises all ships.
  • Our personal touches are data-driven. Individualized connections happen one contact at a time but can still be measured utilizing metrics and tracked against benchmarks. Each local Big Tent Judaism Concierge benefits from the support of a custom-built, constantly improving SalesForce database and national IT staff.
  • We’re working along a proven methodology. When Big Tent Judaism (formerly Jewish Outreach Institute) began advocating for our “Public Space Judaism” program model in 2001, almost no other Jewish organization outside of Chabad had a regular presence in secular venues. We’re proud that we helped more organizations move beyond their four walls, but recognize the challenge most Jewish communal professionals still face in making such events actual outreach: the ability to collect contact information and follow-up with people individually. Freed from having to also serve an already-affiliated membership, our Concierges can dedicate their time to doing effective, personalized follow-up to steward newcomers into deeper engagement.
  • And we’re not reinventing the wheel each time. We’ve proven our concept with our pilot Concierges, who are now able to mentor their newer colleagues in other communities, together creating an internal learning network of best practices and proven programmatic offerings. Their work is strengthened by the national office, which provides supervision, development, marketing, and content creation.

We know it’s working. In 2014, our Chicago Big Tent Judaism Concierge, Alyssa Latala, and our Houston Big Tent Judaism Concierge, Elise Passy, both exceeded their goals of finding, serving, and following up with over 1,000 and 500 (respectfully) less-engaged Jews and unaffiliated intermarried households. They both reached nearly 2,000 such individuals with their programs. In all, over 6,000 individuals (affiliated, unaffiliated, Jewish, and Jew-curious) were served in each community by the programs they coordinated.

We also know that this kind of success is not being replicated by other organizations that set up their own “concierges.” We conducted a study in collaboration with a team from the Capstone program at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service of such community-wide engagement coordinator positions in over 30 communities. We found that while these professionals are eager to find and bring new people to their institution, they are hindered by the need to measure success through increased affiliation/donation. Twenty one of 33 professionals interviewed (70%) have membership or donor development as part of their professional portfolio. They often realize that “jumping” from first contact to membership is too large a leap for most unaffiliated families, but they are pressured by an institutional framework which functions on a membership or fundraising model.

These professionals also confess to being under-prepared to measure and track their work. While some implement a large number of creative outreach programs, they have little or no way of knowing whether any participants then embark on a Jewish journey toward deeper engagement. Twenty four of 33 professionals interviewed (73%) have no measurable outcomes in place to determine programmatic success. They often see new people for the first time, but rarely see them again.

In the coming year we intend to strengthen and grow the Big Tent Judaism Concierges already on the ground, and add more Concierges in large Jewish population centers. Our funding partners have included family foundations, Federations, individual donors, and partnering organizations. Our model has been tailored to meet specific target populations, such as our Concierge for single Jewish moms in San Francisco. If you’d like to see a Big Tent Judaism Concierge tailored to the needs of your community, please contact us at PGolin@BigTentJudaism.org.

Paul Golin is associate executive director, and Zohar Rotem is manager of research and evaluation, at Big Tent Judaism.