Beyond Programs: The Relational Judaism Handbook

By Dr. Ron Wolfson

It’s that time of year. T’is the season for “let’s program next year.” Executive directors, program directors, rabbis, educators and lay leaders huddle in offices with 2018-19 calendars splayed out in front of them to figure out what big events, worship experiences, adult education courses, and all sorts of meetings need to be “calendared” for the coming Jewish year. Many of the programs are targeted for specific populations: families with kids, seniors, young professionals. The task is intentional and the hope is clear: the cleverness of the title, the attractiveness of the speaker, and the timing of the event will bring out a crowd. Success is “butts in seats.”

People will come, no doubt. There is nothing “wrong” with programs. What is in doubt is what happens after the crowd goes home? Has anything happened during the time they were at the programs to deepen their relationship to the sponsoring institution, to the leadership of the organization, and most importantly, to each other? Or, will they check it off their to-do list, another consumable activity, demanding little or no commitment other than a couple of hours of their time? Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, reports: “A woman who was a member of my congregation for twenty years resigned. I was shocked because she showed up to all of our programs. So, I called her to ask why she was leaving. You know what she said? “I came to everything, and I never met anybody.”

To be sure, anyone seeking to find connection in a community must do her/his part to engage with others. But, the good rabbi took it to heart and today at Temple Emanu-El, as at an increasing number of synagogues and JCCs (Hillels have been on this for years), there is a robust effort to ensure that every member and guest feels not only welcomed, but also engaged in a significant way with the people of the community.

There is hope and progress. Since I wrote Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing) in 2013, I have watched as “program directors” have morphed into “relationship directors.” I have been excited to see new clergy positions created for “engagement” and “small groups” rabbis. And, most thrilling of all has been the adoption of the language of Relational Judaism into the communal conversation.

And yet, as I travel to communities far and wide, there are still many organizations that seem stuck in the twentieth-century transactional/programmatic model. “Where do we begin?” the email from the incoming synagogue president cries. “What are the best practices and best principles of engagement?” “How do we get everyone on board with such a profound shift in our strategy?” “We need a handbook.”

I am pleased to announce the handbook is here.

In the spring of 2017, two rabbis called me from the CCAR Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Rabbi Nicole Auerbach and Rabbi Lydia Medwin, colleagues in a community of practice organized by the Union for Reform Judaism to experiment with applying the small group strategies of large megachurches in synagogues, were on the phone. Lydia, the director of congregational engagement and outreach at The Temple in Atlanta, and Nicole, the director of congregational engagement at Central Synagogue in New York City, felt that they had gathered substantial knowledge and experience to write a book about this work. Nicole turned to Lydia and asked a simple question: “Do you think Ron Wolfson is writing such a book?” Lydia answered: “Let’s call him.”

As it happened, I had been gathering research on the best principles and practices of Relational Judaism. I was always convinced that engaging far more members of our organizations in a small group would be a foundational element of a successful relational community. In fact, when I was asked to invite Pastor Rick Warren, the founder of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California to speak at the URJ Biennial in 2007, he emphasized that more than anything else, connecting the members of Saddleback to one of the 5,000 small groups in the community was the secret of “growing bigger by getting smaller.” The URJ followed up in 2014 by asking Pastor Steve Gladen, the genius behind the Saddleback small group initiative, to consult with teams of clergy, staff and lay leaders in their community of practice … and the congregations lucky enough to be in the group began their work.

In the Conservative Movement, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, California, had also been influenced by his friendship with Pastor Warren and wondered aloud with me whether his congregation would respond to a small group initiative. I encouraged him to give it a go, and he did on the High Holy Days in 2015. Rabbi Spitz and his leadership team organized a “campaign” to create small groups – defined as two or more people – willing to meet in each other’s homes once a week for five weeks to read and discuss his wonderful book, Increasing Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing). Much to his surprise and delight, 94 congregants agreed to host a small group of friends and relatives, a spectacular success engaging hundreds of people.

Sensing that the time was right, Nicole, Lydia and I set about writing The Relational Judaism Handbook: How to Create a Relational Engagement Campaign to Build and Deepen Relationships in Your Community (Center for Relational Judaism of the Kripke Institute). A step-by-step, interactive guide for connecting people to the Jewish experience, to a relational community, and to each other, the Handbook is designed for the professional and lay leadership of our communal institutions to literally “be on the same page” as they plan for and implement a relational engagement initiative. Punctuated with case studies and best practices from institutions large, medium and small, the Handbook offers strategies for getting to know people beyond the typical demographic form, best practices of “quality service,” and a detailed guide for creating, launching and sustaining small groups organized around affinity, demography, geography and availability. The book is available from our website – www.relationaljudaismhandbook.com.

Our hope is that in addition to “calendaring program meetings” this spring and summer, the boards and leadership of cutting edge congregations, JCCs, schools, Hillels, Federations and other Jewish organizations will gather for “deepening engagement meetings” to continue the sacred task of building relational communities where each person is connected to others who seek meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University in Los Angeles and President, Kripke Institute. The authors invite you to connect: