For the Sake of Doing: Harnessing Alumni Engagement

Moishe House (for case study)[This is the third 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 about Moishe House, visit their Playbook case study and join Moishe House leadership for an intimate webinar about their alumni strategy on Thursday, November 19 at 3 PM EST.]

By Jordan Fruchtman

Right from the start – or more accurately, the end – there is an inherent challenge in engaging alumni. The core of their program or experience has concluded and the organization is left with the task of coming up with new and continued methods of engagement outside of its regular scope of operations. While online communications and annual touch points have value, alumni engagement in the Jewish world should strive to reach a deeper level. Jewish organizations create meaningful, often life-changing experiences for their participants, but how can we ensure alumni continue to utilize the skills and build on the momentum gained from the programs and experience we provide them?

Over the past nine years, Moishe House has become the world’s largest pluralistic Jewish community building organization for 20-somethings. Groups of 3-5 friends (residents) live together in a home or apartment and open their doors to their peers 5-7 times per month for engaging and meaningful programs. There are currently 83 Moishe Houses in 20 countries serving more than 30,000 unique individuals annually. Moishe House also hosts more than 20 Learning and Leadership Development Retreats every year for residents and community members, training young adults in essential elements of Jewish community-building. Since 2002, the Moishe House alumni network has grown to more than 1,500 individuals.

In creating its alumni strategy, Moishe House approached the process with a commitment to building a platform that continued to allow young adults to build community and use the skills they acquired as Moishe House residents. In 2012, our sixth year of operations, we had approximately 300 alumni and it was clear we needed a strategy to keep them active. We faced three main challenges creating an alumni engagement platform:

  1. Alumni have “graduated” from our core programs, leaving us with the need to create new engagement platforms from scratch.
  2. It is hard to determine the long term impact of an alumni engagement platform and how much – or how little – to invest in it financially.
  3. We were committed to helping our alumni apply the skills they learned from our program, and communications alone – no matter how robust – would not be enough to accomplish this.

We began an experiment in 2012, thanks to the support and trust from the Leichtag Foundation and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, called Moishe House Without Walls (MHWOW). The idea was to give alumni a platform to continue creating Jewish community for their peers, but in a way that would work for their new, post-Moishe House lifestyle. The concept is simple: For three years after living in a Moishe House, alumni can host up to two programs for their friends every month and Moishe House will reimburse them up to $150 per program. The program took off and now, alumni “hosts” facilitate an average of 4-6 programs every year.

It quickly became clear that MHWOW’s online platform could be expanded to support many more young community builders who did not necessarily have the opportunity to live in a Moishe House. Attendees of Moishe House’s Learning and Leadership Retreats are also eligible to become MHWOW hosts. This is especially exciting to see in cities where Moishe Houses do not yet exist, like Tucson, Arizona, or Jackson, Mississippi – where dozens of young Jews now have peer-led communities and significant leadership opportunities.

Along with House and Retreat alumni, we have incorporated two other strategies to capitalize on the incredible efforts of other organizations training Jewish community builders. To do this, we have launched cohorts of alumni from partnership organizations, wherever they may be living, and have expanded citywide by identifying promising young leaders in each city. Thus far, Moishe House has targeted three communities: Chicago, San Diego and Washington, D.C. We have also cultivated partnerships with Urban Adamah in Berkeley, CA and the Jerusalem-based Pardes Institute so that their alumni can have access to MHWOW’s online platform.

To date, 278 hosts around the world have hosted 1,082 Jewish programs in their homes or communities for more than 8,000 individuals.

A recent external evaluation of Moishe House found that MHWOW has a considerable impact on both hosts and participants of MHWOW programs. Specific findings include:

  • MHWOW hosts who felt that they are part of a bigger movement and working to achieve a higher cause, rather than just doing something for themselves, increased by 105 percent (from 41 percent prior to their involvement in the program to 84 currently);
  • MHWOW hosts who described themselves as organizing, motivating and inviting others to be involved in Jewish life increased by 123 percent (from 39 to 87 percent); and
  • MHWOW participants who described themselves as leaders or role models in the Jewish community increased by 86 percent (from 28 to 52 percent).

Moishe House’s mission is to provide vibrant Jewish community for young adults by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create meaningful home-based Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers. The concept that drives us is an empowered Judaism that begins and thrives in the home; our Jewish engagement cannot be solely reliant upon institutions or community groups, and there is an opportunity to harness alumni engagement as a way to distribute leadership and Jewish experiences. I know that we can create this shift towards a more empowered and vibrant Jewish community, and MHWOW, our alumni engagement mechanism, is allowing me to see that shift happen every day.

What would our Jewish world look like if every Hillel student board president, every social justice fellow, every person moved by a friend leading a ritual for the first time, had both the means and the opportunity to build upon and recreate that experience for others? How robust and accessible could a new version of Jewish identity become for countless young people?

And that reality, the one that is full of enthusiastic Jewish 20-somethings leading and building their own community, isn’t possible with just communications. We need to do more and MHWOW has shown that giving young Jewish leaders the chance to take charge of their own destiny will pay off every time.

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.

Jordan Fruchtman is the Chief Program Officer for Moishe House, where he works to develop its program team and the community builders they support around the world.