Escaping Egypt, Engaging Jews
[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJPand the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: www.cliforum.org/blog/.
An earlier version of this article appeared on eJP April 19, 2018.]
By Rabbi Dan Horwitz
It’s the Saturday evening before Passover. You find yourself and a group of eight friends entering an airy, well-lit loft in a hip neighborhood in Metro Detroit. You’ve been given the objectives and your mission: to find all of the items to fill the Seder plate sitting empty on the large Passover table set in the middle of the room. You and your friends try a sip of horseradish infused vodka before the clock starts, which puts you in the mood not only for Passover, but for a challenge. That’s when you hear it: Click. The sound of being locked into a room with only 45 minutes to escape.
Hundreds of young adults in Metro Detroit experienced this moment of excitement in the week leading up to Passover last year, ready to take on The Well’s “Escape From Egypt” – a professionally designed Passover Seder-inspired Escape Room.
The Well, Metro Detroit’s inclusive Jewish community-building, education and spirituality outreach initiative geared toward the needs of young adults (featured in Slingshot ‘17 and ‘18 and a member of The Open Dor Project’s inaugural cohort), now in its 4th year, is no stranger to taking an out-of-the-box approach to delivering content-rich experiential Jewish education. From drones releasing hydro-degradable paper into the Detroit River, on which participants had written their “sins” at a community-wide Tashlich festival, to building and programming out of a Game of Thrones-inspired Sukkah in the heart of Downtown Detroit made out of over 2,000 recycled soda cans and shipping pallets, to creating the #Reflect4Rosh social media campaign of introspection and gratitude leading up to Rosh Hashanah that has engaged over 120,000 unique individuals around the world in the month of Elul in the last three years alone, to welcoming Syrian Muslim refugees resettled in Detroit to come and share their stories with the Jewish community, finding ways to creatively build community, deliver substantive Jewish educational content, and to inspire folks to action, is what we’re all about.
Like any nonprofit, we’re constantly striving to figure out how to have the greatest impact possible while cherishing, honoring and (thriftily) spending donor dollars. In a Jewish world where it seems far too many things are advertised as being “free” (a word that we never use on principle, and which should be abolished from the Jewish non-profit lexicon), we are constantly striving to determine how to create offerings that people are willing to pay fair market value for (and that also contain substantive Jewish content).
So, when the idea was presented to create an Escape Room concept for Passover, it was an intriguing opportunity to put theory into practice.
Too often in the Jewish community, we strive to mimic existing models, but don’t actually execute them in a professional way, resulting in a subpar experience for participants, who are then reluctant to participate in future communal offerings. So, from the start, after researching nationally and not finding any other Jewish communities that were selling the rights to a professionally designed Passover Escape Room concept, we partnered with a professional escape room designer in Los Angeles. We relied on his expertise to craft the puzzles, while we infused the meaningful Jewish content, sublet a loft apartment in the cool part of town, and ultimately transformed it into the room requiring escaping, which we ran for a week leading up to Passover to help folks gets excited about / to learn about / to connect with the holiday.
We did our market research, and found that locally, an average professionally executed escape room charges $18-25 per person to participate. So, we confidently charged $100 per group, for a group of up to 8 people (a lump-sum price encouraged folks to bring friends in order to help share the costs, helping us reach that many more people). We intentionally made sure that whether one was a Biblical scholar or had never heard the word “chametz” before, there was equal opportunity (and challenge) in solving the puzzles. And, because we were offering a professional product, with quality marketing materials, excellent buzz (check out The Detroit News article and photo gallery here) and referrals from participants who had a great time (and who overwhelmingly commented that they learned something new too!), we not only accomplished our goals, but we actually had thousands of dollars of ticket sales (and if you take out the cost of commissioning the game itself, made money)!
Our major takeaways:
- Young adults are willing to pay for Jewish experiences, provided the associated experiences are of the same professional caliber they would have in a secular setting.
- Our educational, identity and impact goals have the potential to be achieved in a manner that enhance rather than deplete our organizational programming budgets.
- Not every organization has the desire to commission and create these kinds of programs, and that’s okay. Individual Jewish organizations and communities need not recreate the wheel. It is much cheaper to collaborate on programs that have been successful in other cities than to have everyone constantly creating from scratch.
- There is a real need for meaningful, large-scale investment to explore the creation and accompanying R&D for these kinds of programs, which can be run all over the country, at a professional level, with minimal expertise, and that can actually make money.
Whether the groups escaped and in their group photo got to hold up signs such as “Winner Winner Brisket Dinner!” or didn’t quite have what it took and were immortalized in photos holding signs such as “Maybe NEXT Year In Jerusalem!” there is no question that they escaped with deeper Passover knowledge and connection, excitement about the upcoming holiday, and a positive feeling about being part of the Jewish community.
We are ready to hear the ideas you have for similar programs and to help make them happen if you’re looking for support in doing so. We are also eager to hear about existing programs you’ve already created that fit this model that we might be able to collaborate on and to benefit from.
And we’re excited to be partnering with a handful of other communities around the country this Passover to help make this particular Passover Escape Room concept possible for them at a reasonable cost, allowing them to maximize their return on investment and have quality experiential education actually serve as a fundraiser for their organizations. If interested in bringing this to your community next year, drop us a note – we’d love to help you make it happen. And in the meantime, check out www.friendseder.com to see The Well’s new creative Passover opportunity that you can participate in in the coming weeks!
Rabbi Dan Horwitz is the Founding Director of The Well, an inclusive Jewish community building, education and spirituality outreach initiative of the Lori Talsky Zekelman Fund at Temple Israel of Metropolitan Detroit, geared to the needs of young adults and young families. He was a graduate of Cohort 2 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). For more information, visit meetyouatthewell.org