A Recipe for Relationships at JCCs & Beyond

By Erin Goldstrom

[Masters students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management write theses or capstone projects involving original research about topics of interest to Jewish organizations. eJewish Philanthropy is highlighting some of their findings in the form of short articles with links to their theses on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.]

Imagine a JCC where every new person who initiates contact or attends an event in the community is followed up with by a staff or lay leader for an individual meeting to learn about their interests; or a JCC that matches every new staff person with another staff or lay leader mentor; or a JCC that cares just as much about the greater community as it does about its own internal community; or imagine a JCC that does all of these things. Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not! Based on my research some JCCs already do these things, and many want to try them. Community organizing, or institution-based organizing, can be used as a recipe for successfully cooking up a nonprofit whose relationships make it stronger than ever. When I say organizing I refer to the act of building relationships among people in order to build power and work towards social/systemic change. Some of the ingredients of organizing include one-to-ones, house meetings, power analysis, and actions.

As a JCCA Graduate Fellow at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, I am invested in learning about the communities that I will be working in post-graduation. Additionally, organizing models offer great ingredients for nonprofits to use in order to promote a relational culture and effect positive change in their communities. I combined these two interests in a capstone research project titled “What can JCCs learn from community and institution-based organizing models?” I conducted twenty-four qualitative interviews with JCCA, JCC, and organizing professionals and lay leaders across the country at organizations with varying demographics. They shared with me the goals of their organizations and how they build community. By comparing the goals and missions of various JCCs and organizing groups, I was able to determine where there is alignment and what JCCs can adopt from organizing methods. Below are case study examples from my findings divided into four main approaches to organizing. These approaches can be compared to different ways to cook, starting with those least influenced by organizing or, to use a cooking metaphor, the least influenced by a recipe:

  1. Positive engagement already done at JCCs without any organizing influence – like being a good cook without using recipes.
  2. Work that looks like organizing, but without formal organizing influence – like being able to reproduce most of a dish based on taste, appearance, or smell rather than a recipe.
  3. Using organizing tools and adapting them to JCC settings – like using a recipe as inspiration but not trying to make the exact same dish.
  4. An affinity for civic-mindedness and future organizing potential – like the desire to take cooking lessons or buy a cookbook.

JCA Jacksonville: Positive engagement work already done without organizing influence – “The naturally good cook”

The Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) in Jacksonville, Florida, is developing an Ambassadors Program to enhance lay leadership while simultaneously reaching out to new members. Interested lay leaders are interviewed to determine their aptitude for being welcoming before they are allowed to join the Ambassadors Program. The program director said she looks for individuals who “reach out to people anyhow … wave to people on a tour. … [and] they spontaneously talk about how wonderful JCA Jacksonville is.” In addition to seeking out a certain type of person, this program could benefit from training used in community organizing for one-to-ones.

JCCs of Greater Baltimore: It looks like organizing, but without formal organizing – “Natural affinity for reproducing a recipe”

As a metropolitan JCC, Baltimore has already developed some public and communal relationships. According to Barak Hermann, the President of JCCs of Greater Baltimore, his organization has relationships with four major players in the city of Baltimore: the hospital system, Stevenson University, Baltimore Police Department, and city officials in Baltimore. These relationships are signs of a community that is aware of its relational culture and power.

Westside JCC, Los Angeles: Using organizing tools and adapting them to JCC settings – “The inspirational recipe”

Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) in Los Angeles brought in an organizer from the Union for Reform Judaism’s organizing branch called Just Congregations in 2014. The purpose was to train staff in one-to-one organizing techniques to utilize throughout the JCC in order to build relationships between staff and members. Ronnel Conn, the Assistant Executive Director at WJCC, arranged this program in order to improve relationships and, in turn, JCCA Benchmarking scores that measure relationships.

Currently, Westside JCC is again turning to organizing for its new Parlor Meeting Initiative. The goal is to have at least thirty members attend one of three meetings that will be based on house meetings from organizing to receive feedback from members, identify future lay leaders, and gauge capacity for change and action among members.

JCC San Francisco: An affinity for civic-mindedness and future organizing potential – “Buying the cookbook”

Two staff members at JCC of San Francisco (JCCSF) expressed the agency’s interest in becoming indispensable to the City of San Francisco. One example they both mentioned is how to be part of the conversation about affordable housing. They feel that this issue is greatly impacting their members who are forced to move out of their neighborhood as the Bay Area’s housing prices soar. One staff member expressed that she does “not know what we could do” to be involved. If JCCSF committed to a full organizing campaign, they could assess the issue to determine exactly how they could best allocate their resources to change the climate around housing. By developing their power and relationships through the organizing process, they could improve the lives of their members and the greater community.

Ultimately, the lesson is that organizing tools and models provide all of the ingredients that a nonprofit needs in order to fulfill its mission. Based on this research, I developed a Ladder for Engagement to help JCCs measure the engagement work they are doing and a training guide for JCC staff and lay leaders (that could easily be adapted to other settings) to teach them about one-to-one conversations from organizing and how to implement them in their settings. Relationships are key to so much of the work that nonprofits do. Any organization that is creative and open-minded enough to learn from other community models like organizing are going to find ways to strengthen communities both within the walls of their own buildings and by thinking beyond their own bricks and mortar.

Erin Goldstrom, a JCCA graduate fellow, is about to receive a Masters in Jewish Nonprofit Management from Hebrew Union College’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and a Masters in Social Work from the University of Southern California. After graduation she will work as the Development and Marketing Associate at Westside JCC. Her masters thesis can be found here.