Going Beyond the Letters That Define Us: A Lesson in Collaboration and Community Building

community-buildingBy Heather Fiedler

[This is the second article in our “effective collaboration” series, written by alumni of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Davidson School recently launched the Leadership Commons, which is a project of The Davidson School, dedicated to building educational leadership that works together to create a vibrant Jewish future.]

In our recent celebration of Rosh Hashanah, many of us taught students and parents about the custom of taking honey and dripping it onto letters of the aleph-bet. We hope that as our newest, youngest students lick the honey off the letters, they will taste the sweetness of Jewish learning. But there are times when these same sweet, holy letters that bring us together with a shared language can also divide us, create animosity, and prevent us from strengthening our Jewish community ties.

In my previous work at Jewish Teen Learning Connection (JTConnect), Greater Hartford’s complementary high school program, we brought together teens whose high schools, synagogues, and, youth movement affiliations were quite diverse. Who they were and how they were perceived as Jews, by themselves and others, often derived from their youth group affiliation (BBYO, NCSY, NFTY, or USY), involvement with the JCC or Friendship Circle, or attendance at our local day school or Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE). Collectively, all these organizations, represented by their requisite set of letters, comprised the aleph-bet of our Jewish teen community. To say that it was (and still remains) a challenge to break through those silos is an understatement.

It was time we invited our teens to shed their acronyms a bit. I was privileged to work with incredibly talented teen education and engagement professionals who envisioned a teen community that could be both personalized and communally oriented. Together we worked to create programming where Jewish teens came together, “without their letters,” to learn and celebrate as a community. As professionals, we were concerned about the vibrancy of our own particular organizations, but were able to go beyond counting the number of teens we engaged individually to looking at the broader picture of what was right for our community of teens, creating an atmosphere where Jewish teens could see their commonalities through their differences.

As a result, teens crossed over their letter barriers to share Shabbat dinners, learn about leadership, and engage in mitzvah projects on common ground without judgment and in friendship. Movements, youth groups, and synagogues are important venues to help us express our own individual social and religious values, but when brought together, they make up the fabric of the community we share.

A challenge to us adults then: If teens can move past these barriers, why can’t we? I’ve since moved to working as the head of the Commission on Jewish Education and Leadership (CJEL) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. In this capacity, I work with religious school and day school professionals as well as synagogue and agency lay leadership. We move the conversation about Jewish education forward and pursue opportunities to train lay leaders, empowering them to become more effective as they work in partnership to guide our community schools and agencies.

In this new capacity, I find myself at the nexus between inspiration and aspiration, asking:

  • What do we need to encourage the best of the best to teach our collective community about the richness and beauty of Jewish life?
  • As a community, how do we tap into the talents of our members across synagogue, geographic, and social barriers?
  • How do we drop the armor that preserves our synagogues and agencies without sacrificing our identity, in order to realize a community that we all value and of which we are proud?
  • And, most important, who are my partners in this work, as it will be only with effective and unique collaboration that all of this, and more, can come to fruition?

As synagogues, schools, and agencies continue to attempt to meet the challenges of a Jewish population joining later in life, if at all, a collaborative model – and one in which there are choices for engagement – is going to be key. We should be looking at:

Concierge programs: Communities need a serious concierge program that goes beyond shuttling people into already existing structures and programs, one that also helps each person along his/her Jewish journey in a meaningful way. This is an investment of both human and monetary capital, and one that would take courage on the part of our synagogues and agencies. Our local organizations will become focused on the needs of the people, and the community as a whole will be better for it.

Leadership training for both lay and professional leadership: A focus on Adaptive Leadership in these sessions will help us learn to listen more closely and respond more effectively to the changes within our community. Learning together always creates common ground. Learning to be better leaders within a community strengthens us all.

Educational innovation: Synagogues and schools should coordinate educational opportunities, opening them to all regardless of affiliation or non-affiliation. Different types of programs and learning experiences could be offered, enabling community members to participate in experiences that tie in their own personal interests while creating affinity groups within the broader community. Public space programs, classroom learning, camping, retreats, connecting online, and other undeveloped opportunities could be advertised and promoted across community barriers.

Our letters, on this communal scale, are words or names that can be used harshly in fear and competition as well as beautifully in collaboration. The reality is that each of our synagogues, schools, and agencies is built on the same set of letters, ones that are common to us all. Let’s realize the commonalities for the greater good of the community, while maintaining the uniqueness of each individual combination.

Heather Fiedler is the Associate Vice President for Jewish Education and Leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. A lifelong Jewish learner and educator, Heather has headed up synagogue schools, taught in day schools, and worked at Camp Ramah in New England. Heather received her MA in Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS.