By Meredith Woocher and Pearl Mattenson
Over the past few years, Rosov Consulting has had the opportunity to work with Jewish communities across North America as they seek to enhance community engagement and sustainability and chart new pathways for the future. This has given us the opportunity to learn about Jewish communities such as Louisville (Kentucky), Cincinnati (Ohio), and Tucson (Arizona), providing valuable insights into the vibrancy of American Jewish life beyond the larger coastal regions that often dominate the national focus. It has also deepened our experience and expertise in a critical area: helping stakeholders move through the stages of contemplating, embracing, and creating change. We share here what we have learned through these experiences about guiding these smaller- to medium-sized communities through this process. In brief, the two key stages are building a foundation of knowledge and trust through in-depth, on-the-ground research, and using that knowledge to facilitate conversations that let people both explore new possibilities while acknowledging and processing the challenges that inevitably accompany change.
“On the Ground” Research Builds Knowledge and Trust
Our first goal when working with any community is to learn about its landscape and unique characteristics. This is ideally done through “on-the-ground” site visits where we can engage in face-to-face conversations with key stakeholders and community members – those who will be decision makers and those who will be directly impacted by those decisions. We aim on our visits to get as much “flavor” of the community as we can (sometimes literally, as we enjoy our hosts’ favorite restaurants or meals from congregational kitchens). Seeing firsthand the key sites of Jewish Louisville, Cincinnati, or Tucson – the Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues, JCCs, Federations, community foundation buildings, kosher stores, and eateries – helps us create a “mental map” of the physical spaces that our clients and their constituents move through every day.
As an example, in Louisville, where we were guiding a strategic planning process for the community’s five congregations, we spent time visiting each of the synagogues and speaking with leadership and congregants. Having seen the beautiful stained-glass windows of one sanctuary, and the intricately carved wooden ark and bimah in another, we could understand more deeply the feelings of loss if the congregations were to sell their buildings, even if that would turn out to be the “obvious” financial solution. In Tucson, as we embark on a community visioning process, smelling the challah being sold at the JCC sports facility to its diverse membership, not all of whom are Jews, and watching spaces converted for students with differing needs, was a palpable reminder that Jewish values infuse this communal space.
Equally critical in our on-the-ground community work are the conversations we have with leaders, professionals, and – perhaps most importantly – community members. While we frequently use virtual interviews and focus groups to collect meaningful data, face-to-face discussions are particularly valuable for projects where we are helping a community navigate challenges and chart a path forward. When synagogue members discuss ideas for how their congregation can create a sustainable future, or parents share their hopes and concerns about their teens’ Jewish education, they often are talking and offering support to each other as much as they are informing the researcher in the room. That becomes much easier when sitting around the same table.
When gathering young adults without children for a focus group in Tucson, we became a catalyst for these folks to meet and find each other, thereby building the very connections we set out to make sense of. Our conversations with professionals and volunteer leaders (both in-person and virtual), in addition to providing us with multiple stakeholder perspectives on pressing communal issues, are critical to demonstrate that our work as consultants is grounded in listening, learning, and problem-solving in partnership with our clients. We feel that they have demonstrated trust in us by opening their communities to us, and we seek to build on and deepen that trust by providing detailed, honest, and meaningful reflections on what we have seen and heard, thus laying the foundation for the next steps of moving toward change.
Creating Openness and Pathways to Change
Too often, written reports – even those that clients find to be useful, accurate, and engaging – end up sitting on shelves or languishing in computer files. We have found that for many of our projects, the value of the data we produce is best realized through a Meaning-Making Meeting – a facilitated opportunity for our clients and other stakeholders to explore, wrestle with, and make sense of the findings that we have uncovered and synthesized. As a trusted and informed partner, we can often hold up a mirror to a community and help disrupt patterns of deliberation that may have led to discord or disappointment in the past.
As we know, any change – even toward something positive – can be deeply challenging for those involved. From our own experiences and our conversations with others who guide change processes, we have identified a number of “dispositions” that help individuals and groups in these communities work through challenges and become more open to change, even when doing so can seem daunting or overwhelming:
|Trust||Trusting that all parties involved are well intentioned and share a common goal.|
|Humility||Understanding that each individual’s needs and opinions must be balanced with the good of the whole.|
|Collaboration||Making sure that all voices are included in the process and that the group is working together.|
|Learning||Seeing the process itself as a valuable opportunity for learning and growth, not just a way to get to a decision as quickly as possible.|
|Patience||Allowing ideas to develop and be refined over time, with the realization that this process may not be quick or smooth; it requires persistence and perseverance.|
|Flexibility||Willingness to adjust and adapt one’s own vision and ideas to take into account those of others.|
|Vision||Ability to imagine a future that honors, but is not limited by, how things have “always been done” in order to design and build something new.|
|Leadership||Ability to personally model and guide others toward all the qualities listed above.|
Interactive Whiteboards by PolyVisionWe are privileged to support our clients as they work to shape their communities toward a vibrant and inclusive future. No two communities are exactly the same, but we do see some commonalities in the “intimacy” communities of these sizes have. Relationships between people, and between people and organizations, often run very deep and have history going back multiple generations. Understanding this history is critical in order to effectively bring people together and to help guide a decision-making process to chart a pathway for the future.
Meredith Woocher, PhD, is a Senior Project Leader at Rosov Consulting, a professional services firm helping foundations, philanthropists, and nonprofits in the Jewish communal sector meet their goals, assess progress, and make well-informed decisions to enhance impact. Pearl Mattenson, MA, is a Director at Rosov Consulting.