Engagement: Paths to Meaning through Jewish Conversations and Programs
By Heather Paul
What does it take to spark authentic conversation?
Recent articles claim that people crave connection, are starved for meaning, and are seeking questions that reach below the surface. Despite the evident interest in connections of depth, most people struggle to get there. How does a conversation move from superficial to meaningful? How do relationships grow through intentional interaction?
Over seven years of coffee dates, often with students I was meeting for the first time and now with community members of all ages, I learned a lot about constructing these kinds of relationships and conversations. Before I moved to Seattle, I worked as a Hillel engagement professional on two different college campuses in California. In the language of Hillel professionals, engagement means building relationships in order to have these deep one-on-one conversations that most people crave but can only seem to initiate with close friends.
On campus, whenever I had three or more coffee dates in a row, I felt like a campus story collector. Stories were everywhere, hovering around their people like auras made of words. As I walked through the quad, I saw vowels and consonants tumbling through hair, adjectives and verbs whipping in the wind like streamers tied to bicycle spokes. From my current perspective as a newcomer in a big city, the ability to spark and collect authentic conversations is one of the most helpful skills I learned on the job, and it’s one that I am continuing to develop through my role as Jewish Engagement Lead at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
The “Jewish” part of my work empowers me to have these conversations more often. Being a Jewish professional gives me permission to approach topics that most people avoid. I am allowed to ask questions about life and death and why. I can start a conversation about prayer or about God. People are willing to offer their beliefs (or lack thereof) because they assume I have a special understanding, even though I’m not a rabbi and my Jewish academic degree is in education. Having “Jewish” in my title means I can create space for discussions that crack us open in the best way possible. When our lives seem to be full of surface-level interactions, a Jewish conversation can be a welcome relief, a deep breath in the middle of a long week.
This is not to say that religion is a prerequisite for meaning, however; these questions are meaningful because they’re universal. How did I get here? Where am I going? Why does it matter? Recognizing that we share these questions goes a long way toward addressing that most critical need: to know that we are not alone. Whether I’m talking with an 18-year-old or a 60-year-old, everyone, at some point, reveals that they feel isolated in one way or another. As it turns out, we are all alone together, and if we learn to approach conversations from this perspective, we might find out we have more in common than we think.
More and more Jews cannot access Judaism as a language of meaning, nor can they access Jewish community as their home and haven from the pressures of the broader world. There are many reasons for this: They lack Jewish educations, they feel that they don’t belong, they don’t have Jewish friends, or they think they are “not Jewish enough” – that Jewish spaces are only for Jews with a certain observance level. Federations are in the business of building Jewish life and Jewish community, and of mobilizing community resources to make Jewish life accessible. Before we build donors, we need to build Jewish community. Our communities thrive when Jews are engaged, and Federations can empower Jews to engage in the way that’s best for them. Through conversations, through relationships, and through engagement, we can help Jews today (and their non-Jewish partners) confront and cut through these feelings of alienation. We can empower Jews to own their Judaism and to become part of a thriving Jewish community.
How can Federations do this? Start with conversations.
- Meet people where they are. Literally, we go to them. Jewish spaces can feel intimidating. Public spaces feel safer. People are more likely to attend coffee dates or programs in their neighborhoods.
- Let them lead the conversation, but follow where they are going. Ask open-ended questions. Jews have opinions and stories about everything, including Judaism. Invite them to share. Ask follow-up questions. “Tell me more about that” is a great non-judgmental statement that you can use to to elicit stories and ideas.
- Be a resource, but don’t push an agenda. If I can connect someone with programs in the Jewish community, that’s fine. If my coffee date wants to develop a Jewish practice at home, I share ideas. If they’re not interested, that’s ok too. Empower individuals to find or create the Jewish life that they want for themselves.
- Our vulnerability empowers theirs. We can’t be afraid to share our own experiences with Jewish life. As long as we are not making it about us, we can use our own stories to answer questions, to encourage openness, and to deepen the nature of the discussion. While some feel more comfortable talking about Judaism with a Jewish professional, others feel like they’re “not Jewish enough” or that they’ll be judged for being “bad Jews.” We get to show them that we’re people just like they are.
Programs can also be excellent catalysts for Jewish conversations. Even if we can’t have a deeper one-on-one at the program itself, Jewish programs teach us a lot about engagement, and we can always reach out to participants individually in the days that follow. These are some of the ways that Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle is exploring programs as a path to neighborhood-based community and relationship-building:
- PJ Library Neighborhood Song and Storytimes (NSS) each week in twelve neighborhoods throughout Greater Seattle. All but three of the NSS take place in secular locations, such as independent bookstores and coffee shops. The other NSS take place in a day school, a conservative synagogue, and a reform synagogue.
- PAVE offers Jewish connections for adults in their 30s-40s through both PAVE-wide events and special interest group events, including book club, a movie group, an advocacy group, and a single parents network, which hosts monthly Shabbat dinners in different neighborhoods. PAVE Littles is the newest special interest group for the parents of babies and toddlers. They meet in a different neighborhood park or coffee shop once a month.
- Affinity Groups such as Cardozo Society (for lawyers) and JTech (for Jewish tech professionals) bring people together based on shared professional interests.
- Pop-Up Shabbat and holiday programs are hosted in secular community spaces, with a focus on neighborhoods that lack easy access to synagogues of multiple denominations. Eighty people attended Pop-Up Passover seders across three locations, all on the third night of Passover. These seders ran from 4-7pm so participants could get home early enough to catch Game of Thrones. Meeting people where they are is about understanding the implication of secular cultural events.
There are a number of ways that programs like those listed above can serve as a catalyst for further engagement. I first met one of the PAVE Littles organizers at a program, and I learned about her interests on a phone date not long after. A couple months later, she took on an organizing leadership role with another parent who shared similar interests. Federation staff connected the two moms and supported them in getting their first programs up and running.
That level of facilitation isn’t always necessary; sometimes the program itself is enough. Two women sitting at the same table at a Pop-Up Passover seder realized they had been on the same Israel program in the 1970s. They didn’t know they were living in the same neighborhood until that event, where they reconnected for the first time after many years.
It’s important to note that Federation does not want to take people away from traditional Jewish spaces like synagogues or JCCs. Most Jewish leadership understands that we are all in this together – engaging literally unaffiliated Jews (who are not synagogue or JCC members and are unlikely to be members) in programming, whether that’s at a synagogue or a secular bookstore, only builds a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community. It’s also necessary to partner whenever possible. We host special PJ holiday programs at Jewish day schools and synagogues and we invite all PJ families to attend. We partner with the nearest synagogue on each Pop-Up Shabbat so that unaffiliated families who attend these programs have a chance to explore that synagogue in a low-barrier, low-commitment space.
Too many Jews don’t see a place for themselves in Jewish community. Engagement goes beyond “a welcoming environment,” “inclusion,” or even “pluralism.” It means Jewish professionals must ask the community what they’d like to see. These conversations get at the heart of that most human need: to seek connections wherever possible. Engagement means using conversations as a method to empower participants to build the Jewish life they are looking for. It means focusing on the depth of each relationship instead of the number of people at a program or the number of programs per week. We have to listen first and answer second. We won’t have the answers for every Jew, but that we can support every Jew in building a Judaism that’s meaningful to them. In doing so, we help them find their place, and we build Jewish community together.
Heather Paul is the Jewish Engagement Lead at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and she previously worked as an engagement professional at Santa Cruz Hillel and Hillel at Stanford. Heather’s work has appeared in HuffingtonPost Religion, Jewish Federations of North America’s blog, PJ Our Way Parent’s Blog, KidsQuest Blog, and in the Santa Cruz GoodTimes weekly.
This article previously appeared in the JFNA blog “Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement.” An earlier version, entitled “Striving for Meaning,” appeared in HuffingtonPost Religion on February 1, 2016.