Expanding our reach to engage Jewish teens
When it comes to effectively engaging Jewish teens, we know that talented youth professionals are critical to success. Our three communities in San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston are part of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative — which in total includes ten teen engagement initiatives across the country — and for years we have embraced the importance of professional development for the individuals who work with teens. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent impact on all Jewish youth professionals, as well as on the traditional methods of gathering, networking, and field-building, required us to rethink how to approach this communal priority. After all, long standing conferences that once brought these professionals together for learning and growth were suddenly off the table, but the appetite for quality programs and experiences remained. There was a palpable excitement for partnering ignited by the ongoing isolation as well as numerous technologies available to indulge it. After the Collaborative’s significant investment in professional development over eight years, we decided to open the doors wide and imagine new platforms that could meet the professional development needs of youth professionals serving our Jewish teens across the country.
To do this we designed a networking and learning series, Expanding Your Reach (EYR). This ten-month experience (registration is still open), led by experts, is based on our data-informed measures of success and five years of data drawn from cross-community evaluations – which reveals that networking and relationship building are essential components of any positive PD experience. Here too, the pandemic provided us a unique opportunity to really design around these elements and deepen external relationships by enabling participants to connect with peers from far beyond their own cities, an especially compelling feature in a time when people’s networks and social bubbles had shrunk so dramatically and abruptly.
Of course, integrating relationship building and networking into a small, local program over a virtual platform is already challenging. But EYR averages about 40-50 participants per session. Trying to build in meaningful networking into a program that size, scaling nationally, and still over a virtual platform, is an especially monumental task.
At the same time, EYR emanated from, and continues to be, a collaboration of our communities. While we’re thrilled to share this project with each other, collaboration of this sort is difficult. Many over the last 12 months have touted the benefits of collaborating. But there is a void in openly acknowledging the pitfalls that are encountered, oftentimes exacerbated by geographic distance, and organizational and community differences.
Moving from a single, focused project on which people collaborate to an ongoing collaborative relationship where collective impact is the goal is complex. We’ve dealt with the need to share leadership roles, to each having to answer to our local stakeholders who have different goals, to introducing new PD models into ongoing programs, and more.
The pandemic forced us to work through these challenges virtually and nationally. As we scaled, we began to more deeply understand how important relationships are — both within communities and across communities. For anyone thinking of scaling a program nationally, do not forget what made the small, local program successful in the first place: yes, the content, but also yes, the relationships. So, how do you replicate the closeness of a local cohort across a national program with hundreds of registrants?
One strategy is to create meaningful networking opportunities built both into and around the learning content. With this approach, the connection among professionals is fostered by intentionality. There is substance driving the networking.
EYR shares proven models of PD learned from years of successful local endeavors. These models account for today’s reality, just as other organizations adapted programs to virtual platforms and just as individuals gained comfort with them. But how do we build in the type of organic networking experience that we know people crave and that we know makes professional development so meaningful? EYR sessions cannot have the entire group engage together. Thus, we position networking as a great vehicle to engage with the content.
In many ways, this type of networking experience feeds into the concept that the best professionals are always learning. Many of us, until recently, took advantage of conferences, convenings, courses, retreats, cohort programs, and other opportunities to enhance our knowledge, grow in our work, and develop best practices. But beyond the content and knowledge shared, these experiences were impactful because of the confluence of people, of bodies crammed into plenaries or hearing the same speaker, of meeting someone new during a breakout session. These people quickly become part of our professional networks. Networking opportunities need to be carefully crafted to replicate these experiences
EYR Best Practices and Highlights:
- Teach Networking as a Skill: In the very first session of EYR, we taught networking as a skill to overtly establish that this was a goal of the experience and that doing it well requires planning and thinking.
- Create Pathways for Personalized Learning: We invite participants to curate their own experience through diverse, self-directed break out group options. One month participants might be asked to choose a group that best fits their level of professional experience, another month groups might be designated by interest in sub-topics or even to what extent participants anticipate staying on topic. For example:
~I love this topic and have a lot to say. Put me in a group with others who really want to talk about this.
~Rooms 4-6: This topic is interesting and I’m excited to use some discussion prompts as a way to meet new people.
~Rooms 7-9: I’m mostly here to network. Give me the prompts but I may go off topic.
- Take Advantage of Interactive Features and Online Tools: We have explored creative ways to utilize the chat feature on Zoom, introduced other methods of feedback and participation (such as Menti-meter, JamBoard and other tools), and have added additional dimensions to create interest such as live, artistic, visual note taking that is screen-shared simultaneously with content presentation.
- Experiment with Digital Platforms: We experiment with platforms. In March, we utilized gather.town to offer a Zoom break and further attempt to replicate the spontaneity of “bumping into someone.” This was combined with open conversation around the topic of social media as a vehicle for teen engagement and some networking was incentivized by challenges and prizes throughout the session.
- Encourage Ongoing Network Weaving: Networking in the moment is different than network-weaving and we focus on the latter too so that people follow up with peers.
Rabbi Nehorai said, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah, and do not say that the Torah will follow you, because it is your colleagues who will make it yours. Do not rely on your understanding alone.” (Pirkei Avot 4:14). This passage articulates something fundamental about learning: by nature, the best learning is social and never private. For wisdom to truly become both mastered and internalized, for it to become “yours,” it should be acquired among colleagues.
Debra Sagan Massey, RJE, is Senior Educator at Jewish Learning Works, San Francisco; Sarina Gerson is Assistant Vice President of Community Outreach and Engagement/Director at Springboard – JUF, Chicago; and Leah Finkelman is Engagement Manager of Teens and Camping at CJP, Boston Learn more about EYR here.