Engaging Our Alumni, Amplifying Our Impact

As our alumni make their homes in communities around the country, they are our primary conduit through which we make a meaningful impact on the broader Jewish community.

AVODAH Volunteer; photo courtesy AVODAH
AVODAH Corps member; photo courtesy PresenTense Magazine and AVODAH

By Rachel Glicksman

[This is the fifth installment in a series that highlights the community case studies featured in the Alumni Playbook, an online resource from the Schusterman Family Foundation designed to help community initiators build robust alumni networks. To learn more AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, visit their Playbook case study and join the AVODAH team for an exclusive webinar about how they empower their alumni to stay engaged in meaningful service on Thursday, January 7 at 12 PM EST.]

As a Corps Member, and even for a while as an AVODAH alumna, I never thought much about the organization’s mission. Had I been asked what it was, I may have assumed that our mission was to provide an awesome, immersive yearlong experience for young adults that profoundly shifted their understanding of social justice and their connection to the Jewish community. That was true for me and it’s a pretty great result, in and of itself.

But AVODAH’s mission is the why of all of this, the reason we provide Jewish young adults with this immersive, impactful and authentically Jewish experience. As I was reminded when I joined AVODAH’s staff, our mission is to strengthen the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. Our Service Corps and Fellowship programs are, in fact, just the starting point – the entryway – to what we hope will be lives dedicated to creating a Jewish community focused on and committed to fighting poverty and advancing social justice in the United States.

In other words, it is the alumni of our programs who we look to and partner with, long after their initial experience with AVODAH, to do the difficult and important work of shifting the way in which the American Jewish community takes up issues of poverty and racial injustice and economic inequality. As our alumni make their homes in communities around the country, they are our primary conduit through which we make a meaningful impact on the broader Jewish community.

And they have been doing this work for many years: Our alumni have been part of creating 36 new initiatives in the Jewish community. They are leaders of independent minyanim and work for Federations, Hillels, synagogues and day schools. Alumni in Chicago came together with other young leaders to found Jewish Solidarity and Actions (JSAS), a network of Jewish young adults committed to ongoing education and engagement around issues of structural injustice. Alumna Rabbi Alana Alpert is launching Detroit Jews for Justice, and our alumni are staff and leaders of many Jewish social justice organizations, such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York and Jews United for Justice in Washington, D.C. As a Chicago Corps Member, Jessica Shaffer worked with Ethiopian refugees, and now is the Director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Chicago. The list goes on and on, and we are so proud of the work that our alumni are doing on a professional and volunteer level to advance social justice in the Jewish community.

As described in AVODAH’s Alumni Playbook case study, for many years, our alumni strategy focused primarily on strengthening our alumni network through programs and resources to connect and keep connected our hundreds of alumni who live around the country and across the world. Through the dedicated efforts of my predecessor, Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, we succeeded. Despite significant differences in age, life stage and career path, our alumni remain highly connected to us and each other, and often look to the network to find places to live, work, organize and worship. We’re proud of having helped to meet the essential needs of many of our alumni in this way, and we attribute many of the examples of success I’ve cited to the strength of our programs and this strategy.

At the same time, we realize that this network of nearly 800 social justice-focused Jews can have a big impact outside of our own sphere. We have been doing community engagement work for many years, sharing our perspectives on social justice with the broader Jewish community through workshops, presentations and panels. Staff members have taken on many of these opportunities, but alumni have done this work as well. In 2014, alumni in New York led a session at UJA-Federation of New York’s “Poverty Slam” for teens creating anti-poverty initiatives within the Jewish community. Just last month, a New Orleans alumna who works with clients on death row led a text study at a synagogue about Jewish perspectives on the death penalty – while also shedding light on Louisiana’s incarceration epidemic.

But we’ve also realized that we can help our alumni achieve much more – and we can achieve much greater success on behalf of our core mission – by focusing more time and resources on programming structures that are expressly geared toward positioning our alumni to effectively engage the broader Jewish community. Therefore, over the next several months, we will begin to tie our community engagement and alumni engagement work together, in order to equip our alumni to bring our programming and frameworks to other Jewish institutions and networks.

Moving forward, our alumni strategy will incorporate a combination of tried and true tactics, as well as some new initiatives:

  • Build alumni leadership: Recognizing that our alumni are the primary way in which we are achieving mission impact, we have created a robust alumni leadership infrastructure across all levels and facets of our organization. Alumni Network Weavers create Jewish social justice programming for other alumni and their peers in each of our hub cities. Alumni members of our Advisory Councils serve alongside prominent local supporters as our front-line ambassadors in each of our communities, helping to grow our visibility, support local programming, and raise the funds we need to run our programs. Finally, alumni national Board members help to set organizational strategy. We are in the process of creating a national alumni leadership team to align the work that alumni leaders are doing across the country and help set and implement national strategy.
  • Strengthen social connections: We will continue to create regular opportunities for our alumni to come together and forge social connections with one another through subsidized holiday meals and alumni-led gatherings.
  • Provide ongoing innovative opportunities for learning: We will offer educational and leadership programming, including both one-time learning sessions and more intensive, ongoing opportunities – such as our seven month-long AVODAH Women Leading Together program, an advanced coaching and professional development program for alumnae.
  • Support our core programming: We will leverage alumni to support our Service Corps and Fellowship programming through fundraising, speaking engagements and the support and mentorship of current participants.
  • Support our alumni to impact the organized Jewish community’s understanding of and work on poverty: We will continue to connect our alumni with professional and volunteer leadership opportunities at Jewish organizations. In the coming year, we plan to seek opportunities to partner with Jewish organizations and develop materials to train and deploy our alumni throughout the country to engage the Jewish community in crucial conversations about antipoverty work, a crucial endeavor that is deeply rooted in Jewish values.

Even as we will continue to implement this multi-pronged strategy, we recognize that our community is constantly changing and evolving: between our Service Corps and Fellowship programs, we’ll be adding more than 100 new members to our national network each year. The needs of our community shift as our alumni become parents, take on more senior leadership roles in Jewish and social justice organizations and move to new places. In order to keep the foundation of our community strong, we need to keep creating programming that is responsive to and led by our alumni, and also constantly be in communication with members of our network to identify new needs as they emerge. By being in constant communication with members of our community and alumni leaders, we are able to ensure that programming stays flexible and is driven by the needs and interests of our network.

We hope that this shift to fully integrate our alumni strategy with our community engagement work will further build and nourish our alumni network for years to come and optimize our organization’s impact in the broader Jewish world. Eighteen years of working with our nearly 800 talented alumni has given us plenty of evidence to inspire confidence in this new approach to alumni engagement, as well as its ability to advance the impact that AVODAH by leaps and bounds. As both an alumna of AVODAH and our Alumni Director, I can’t wait to see what our growing community can accomplish together.

Interested in learning more about alumni engagement? Check out the Alumni Playbook, a hands-on toolkit designed to help community initiators learn from successful alumni programs and provide them with conceptual guidance, practical advice and tactical support as they plan, shape and implement alumni strategies.

Rachel Glicksman is the Alumni Director at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Rachel got her start with AVODAH as a Corps Member in New Orleans in 2009-2010 and has been a staff member in New Orleans, and then New York, since 2012.