Digital Engagement Doesn’t Equal Meaningful Engagement

By Susannah Alfred

Last Passover, as COVID-19 triggered stay-at-home orders throughout the United States, Jews across the country scrambled to figure out how they could still spend their seders together despite being physically apart. Since then, hundreds, if not thousands, of events and programs have been hosted online without being optimized for real community engagement. It’s time to build on what we’ve learned about online events during the past eight months in order to increase engagement and Jewish connectedness, both now and in a post-pandemic world.  

In their recent study, “Building Resilient Jewish Communities,” Brandeis researchers found that in response to COVID-19, Jewish organizations have dramatically expanded their online programming. With that expansion came the potential reach to individuals both within and outside of their community. Most notably though, despite organizations embracing online programs, “new interpersonal connections to people and communities have not yet developed.” 

I know firsthand how difficult it is to continue building community online in a meaningful way. Before the pandemic, I worked as a Community Manager overseeing member experience for 1,200 individuals of a women’s focused community and coworking space in Boston. In March, I suddenly became responsible for shifting our Boston operations online and working with other community managers to connect over 10,000 global members digitally. Because of this, I understand why Jewish organizations haven’t yet met the challenge of building true community online. Doing so requires honing the proactive methods of digital engagement which have proven effective in the private sector.  

Some Jewish professionals believe that online programming makes it easier for people to engage and allows them to do so more confidently than ever before. This argument falls short though, when we recognize that ease of individual access is not what builds community. If we are unable to connect individuals to one another beyond their personal Zoom rectangles, then all we are left with is a screen full of people who remain independent of one another. I can’t think of a single Jewish communal organization for which that is the goal. 

Fostering interpersonal engagement takes effort. As both a former community manager in the private sector and active Jewish community member, I have three recommendations for building community online: 

  1. Make your invitation personal. The first step is to increase attendance by personally inviting people to attend. This may come in the form of an email, call, or text, to those who have registered for the event as well as those who haven’t yet done so. Personal messages let people know that their presence matters! If they know their presence is meaningful, or simply expected, they will be more likely to honor their commitment to attend. 
  2. Create ways for attendees to continue conversations and to build on connections asynchronously. This can be done by sending attendees an event recap email encouraging them to use the email thread to connect with each other about the event, or by creating a space for attendees to post comments to a recorded video online. By giving them an outlet to build on a connection started during the event, you’re creating the opportunity for relationships to grow far beyond the event itself.  
  3. Set clear mechanisms for follow-up communication by providing feedback loops for attendees to connect with program staff. To ensure that you are meeting the needs of your community, there must be clear modes and methods for ongoing communication. 

It’s not enough to move our programming online. As the pandemic rages on and we continue to practice social distancing, our commitment to kehillah, to fostering relationships and building community,depends on our ability to be innovative with the digital methods we use to keep our community members connected. The benefits of doing so will redound long into the future.

Susannah Alfred is a first-year student at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership on the Social Impact MBA track. She currently lives in Somerville, MA.