Engagement Doesn’t Happen by Accident

by Joel Frankel

Engaging the next generation of Jewish young adults and empowering the next generation of Jewish leaders takes not only an investment of financial resources, but also a competent and strategic approach that accepts the challenging demographic realities that exist in our local Jewish communities. In an article recently published in The Jewish Daily Forward about Taglit-Birthright Israel (“Birthright”), the author states, “Since the ‘crisis of continuity’ is never explicitly addressed on these tours, participants don’t see a pressing need to engage as individual actors once they return home.” While perhaps there is a need to explore different ways to more strongly emphasize the educational aspects of Birthright to the general public, discussing Jewish continuity is absolutely a part of the Birthright curriculum. It is outlined in the Taglit-Birthright Israel Community Trips Manual through the three over-arching core themes that are the focus of all Birthright trips: Narratives of the Jewish People, Contemporary Israel, and Ideas & Values of the Jewish People.

In my work as the Israel Engagement Professional for the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis, I have found that once participants return to their local communities, the issue is not one of apathy. The desire exists, but we need to foster further interaction. Upon returning from a Birthright trip, rather than engaging in their local Jewish community, which to an outsider can appear daunting and unwelcoming, participants often revert back to what feels most comfortable. That means mingling in the same social circles they were a part of before the trip and becoming dismayed when their first interface with the local Federation is a fundraising mailing that arrives a year after they return from their trip. It is incumbent upon us to create an array of access points into the community that are socially comfortable and easily accessible.

Here in Saint Louis, we are committed to creating opportunities to engage past Birthright participants in activities that are both socially welcoming and inclusive, but also meaningfully related to the Jewish identity they began cultivating in Israel. For many Birthright participants, simply having a Jewish circle of friends can empower them to continue to explore their Jewish identity, so it is our responsibility to facilitate those types of social interactions. We do this in several different ways:

  • Personally inviting participants to partake in NEXT Shabbat dinners with me at Moishe House. Beyond being assured that they will know at least one person in attendance, two-thirds of the Moishe House residents are local Birthright alumni who have experience community building and engaging Jewish young adults
  • Creating awareness for YPD’s annual Christmas Eve celebration, Lollapajewza. Encouraging people to come to large social gatherings provides a way to keep Jewish life fun and gives us an opportunity to build goodwill towards the Federation amongst young adults
  • Interweaving participants’ social action interests into our local Jewish community. Connecting them to Next Dor to help organize Tikkun Olam projects that are personal to their own Jewish values

The author, Jillian, a postdoctoral fellow in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, was definitely right about one thing; not having these engagement opportunities in each and every local Jewish community across the country is a missed opportunity. Yet while the “rich history of American Judaism can provide models for local community engagement,” those models cannot simply be imitated, as shifting demographics are forcing us to constantly reevaluate them. In the past, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, and local federations catered to a generally homogenous constituency and could focus primarily on programming for traditional family units.

Even with proper planning and execution, however, there will always be more single, young adults to engage and more work to be done. So Jillian, as a member of the Saint Louis community, and someone who is obviously interested in improving local engagement post-Birthright, I would love to meet you for a coffee some time. I am always looking for new ideas to help integrate local Birthright alumni into the Saint Louis community, but more importantly, I would like to pose a question that no Jewish professional has probably ever asked you: “What are you looking for out of your local Saint Louis Jewish Community?”

This article was originally submitted to The Jewish Daily Forward as a response to Jillian Powers’ article that was published in the Jewish Daily Forward on November 21, 2012. They declined to publish as it is their policy to not run op-eds that are direct responses to other op-eds.

Joel Frankel is the Israel Engagement Professional at the Jewish Federation of Saint Louis.