Is Relationship Based Engagement Enduring?

What are Jewish journeys made of if the explorer never does anything Jewish? What is a Jewish identity if it is void of any Jewish action outside of conversation?

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By Jake Campbell

The most important relationship narrated in the Torah is simply that between B’nei Israel, the Jewish people, and Hashem. We may erase other relationships such as Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Ya’akov and Rachel/Leah, and the narrative of the Torah would still make logical sense. However, remove the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people and the story not surprisingly falls apart. Every lesson, every tale, every mitzvah, and every sin centers on the relationship of a ‘brit,’ the relationship of a covenant. It seems almost self-explanatory, but what is a covenant? What is this thing that Judaism is centered around? A covenant is a relationship where each party is responsible to the other. It is no different to any healthy relationship except that the responsibilities are explicit. After all, is any relationship enduring where there isn’t mutual responsibility?

Many interpreters of Relationship Based Engagement however do not see relationships this way. They will claim that all Jewish engagement is relationship-based in the sense that it is connected to a friend or an already connected person, or if not it should be the priority. To this school of thought, people are not engaged with their Judaism through Jewish programming, but rather through their relationship with one or more engaged Jews. The emphasis is on the depth of the connection between two Jews rather than the number of Jews at a program, the quantity of programs, or even the quality of a Jewish program. The home of Jewish connection is not at the Synagogue, it is at the café where one’s Jewish journey is discussed over a latte like the revolutionaries and philosophers of Europe. If coffee fueled the passionate dialectic of 18th-century enlightenment, it can fuel an enduring commitment to a Jewish identity. As one organization has said “engagement and these relationships are l’shma, for their own sake. Synagogue membership is not the goal – connecting Jews to Judaism is.” However, this begs the question – What are Jewish journeys made of if the explorer never does anything Jewish? What is a Jewish identity if it is void of any Jewish action outside of conversation? Can a Jewish connection really be considered a substantial enduring connection or a compelling identity if it is wholly defined by the connection to another? Is there really an enduring relationship if there isn’t mutual responsibility?

Such a connection is hollow. This interpretation of relationship based engagement is not really based in the concept of a relationship at all – Judaism is not about the café. Judaism is not about talking. Judaism is, and always has been about doing. A relationship that begins in the café must eventually lead to some kind of action. Yes, it may lead to a synagogue of prayer but a relationship to Judaism is a lot more complex than this – after all, we are the people who wrestle with G-d.

The relationship could lead to a synagogue of community service where the shul is the homeless shelter. It could lead to a synagogue of social justice, where the shul is the streets of DC and prayer is done by walking in resistance. It could lead to a synagogue of tzedekah where the shul is the federation. It could even lead to simply a synagogue connection where the shul is Jewish parties. Whatever the expression, whatever form the relationship grows into it cannot end in the café where it started. Talking about Judaism is not l’shma – talking about Judaism must lead to doing Jewish.

Last year, Hillel at FSU conducted an experiment. We gave our Jewish programming board the same access to our relationship management database that our peer network engagement interns have. The mission of our programming board is to create a Jewish community through program based engagement as the focus. That is, engagement through a variety of opportunities to do Jewish. On the other hand, the mission of our peer network engagement interns was to engage disengaged or unengaged Jewish students through coffee dates and genuine friendships where talking about Jewish was the focus. When our programming board was asked to record their relationships and interactions with Jewish students in the same way as our peer network engagement interns, we discovered that our programming board reported a significant average increase with two board members individually at the time having reported more relationships than the intern team combined.

With this result discovered, we asked our interns “why?” Indeed, many of the interns were former board members. The magnitude of the gap was nonsensical. Their answer was enlightening – the relationships weren’t meaningful to the interns forming them. They craved the opportunity to bring people into a community that they were creating beyond relationships. They wanted the relationship to be the means, with a community within which they were an active producer being the ends. So Hillel at FSU listened to our interns and developed internships around their passions. Internships centered on Jewish education, interfaith organizing, women’s communities, spirituality, social connection, shabbat and more. We became a total Jewish institution where no matter what was the connection to Judaism desired by a student, we were producers of that connection. Further, our relationship management data showed the improvement we could feel. In one year the number of interactions increased from 236 to 1,137 – an almost 500% increase, and the number of students with interactions increased from 94 to 428 – an increase of just over 450%.

There were more relationships being made, and the relationships being made were deeper and more meaningful. Further, the center of the relationship was not to a person, but a connection to Jewish community. There was no talking for the sake of talking, the relationships were not l’shma – they were sparked with the intention of action, of doing Jewish. The relationships did not just give, the relationships asked as well. There was a brit, a covenant, and that made all the difference.

Jake Campbell is Jewish Student Life Coordinator at Hillel at FSU (Florida State Univ.) Foundation and Ezra Fellow.