How to Leverage the Human Capital of a Community

By Rachel Raz and Linna Ettinger

Temple Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Lexington Massachusetts, enjoys the creative leadership of Rabbi David Lerner and Rabbi Michael Fel. Together they have strengthened the can-do atmosphere that has been a feature of Temple Emunah since its inception, continuing to empower congregants with the freedom to run creative programs that facilitate the creation of meaningful, joyful connections to others in the community and beyond.

While people are hyper-connected via social media, one of our community’s goals is the development of enduring person-to-person connections. In his book, A Passion for a People, Avraham Infeld beautifully describes the importance of connecting people, making them feel part of the Jewish people, the Jewish family and the significance of Jewish Peoplehood. He also describes what is required for fostering healthy family relationships: “it requires us to be active members, engage with the family in many different ways.” We as a people need to spend time together to get to know one another, create opportunities to listen and talk, thereby deepening our relationships by taking interest in one another beyond the one area that connects us, of being “Jewish.”

Alongside many volunteers, the rabbis provide creative, inviting experiences such as: The Morning Ride, a weekly bicycle ride; Men’s Shul Softball League; Running with the Rabbi; Rabbis in the ‘Hood,’ social gatherings outside of the synagogue walls (such as Hanukkah at Barnes and Noble, social gatherings at local ice cream parlors and Starbucks, and bringing a pop-up sukkah to the town center); and the Emunat HaLev Meditation Institute that is co-led by congregants and staff. Other opportunities to connect include Yoga with a Jewish twist; Shema Pajama party with young children and their families; Emunah Walks, an informal walking group that meets three times a week; Israel trips; and our Theme Minyans, (later changed to, “Theme Night at Minyan,”) a volunteer program that has gained national attention by being included in Ron Wolfson’s recently published book, Relational Judaism Handbook: How to Create a Relational Engagement Campaign to Build and Deepen Relationships in Your Community.

Theme Minyans are the idea of longtime member and past president Fred Ezekiel, and fellow congregant Kathy Macdonald. Currently 89 years old, Fred Ezekiel immigrated to the US from Iraq at the age of 18 in order to study at MIT. Fred worked with Kathy Macdonald to organize an evening to bring together people that are associated with MIT by announcing an “MIT Night” that would serve the dual purpose of supporting the daily minyan as well as bringing people together. To their surprise, over 60 people showed up for that first “Theme Minyan.” This was the beginning of endless topics and possibilities designed to connect people. Theme Minyans arise when a member of the community suggests a topic of personal interest and facilitates a night. It is not necessary to be an expert, nor is it necessary to prepare a lecture or be an experienced speaker. Everyone adds to the conversation in the same way that we would if we were sitting in someone’s living room or yard and having a conversation. People gather and talk about their shared interest over coffee and tea or a meal. Some theme nights turn into monthly gatherings, while others generate topics for conversation when people see each other. Some examples of past themes are: Gardening; BBC Mysteries; Aging Parents; French Night; Start-Up; Bike Rider; Women in STEM; Davids; Miriams; Sephardic Melodies; and Health Care Professionals. Over the years, some nights have had modest participation and others more robust. This model can be easily implemented any place such as in Hillels, JCCs, summer camps, and schools. It can also take place at any time of the day or the week. It can be named “Theme coffee,” “Theme Sunday,” etc.

The topics for “Theme Night at Minyan” in most cases do not have Jewish content, to help people connect around other shared interests. “Theme Night at Minyan” is now a well-known program in our temple that has added more opportunities for our members to connect, get to know one another’s other interests in life, and deepen connections. So far, our community has offered over 60 “Theme Nights” and new ideas are brought up regularly.

Shimon Peres, in his “forward” to the book, Start-Up Nation, writes,

[P]eople prefer remembering to imagining. Memory deals with familiar things; imagination deals with the unknown. Imagination can be frightening- it requires risking a departure from the familiar. The seeds of a new Israel grew from the imagination of an exiled people  … On our ancient journey from Egypt to Israel we Jews crossed a huge desert and, in modern times, too, returned home to more desert. We had to create ourselves anew. As a poor people coming home to a poor land, we had to discover the riches of scarcity. The only capital at our disposal was human capital.” (emphasis added)

American Jewry today is not poor, definitely not by the standard of the pioneers returning to the land of Israel. Many American Jewish communities and organizations are busy imagining the future while crossing the modern desert. Like the pioneers in the Land of Israel, we also have at our disposal human capital, and should strive to leverage it.

As a community, members of Temple Emunah regularly re-examine their goals, challenges, needs and opportunities. The community has created a wide spectrum of ways to practice Judaism and “be” Jewish. Temple Emunah offers multiple paths to deepen learning and connections for all ages. New ideas are always welcome. We understand the value of our human capital and strive to make the best use of it to ensure a strong, loving, vibrant and caring community to which we all can connect and belong.

Rachel Raz, member of Temple Emunah in Lexington, recently offered a theme night on the topic of “Jews in Space.” Over the years, Rachel has been an educator, lay leader and volunteer on many committees and currently serves on the Israel Committee. She is also the Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.

Linna Ettinger, member of Temple Emunah and Co-chair of Adult Education, welcomes ideas for programming. For more information about Adult Education programs, including about learning in Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute, contact Linna at More information can be found at Linna is Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.