It’s Time to Move from Engagement to Empowerment

By Leemor Ellman and Robert Lichtman

What would we say about a Math teacher who engages students with the power of numbers, but fails to empower students to add them up? How long would a Physical Education teacher last who engages students by taking them to ball games but never empowers them to play? Why then, does so much of the language and activity from Jewish communal planners, educators and clergy stop short and aspire only to engagement, and not push through to the ultimate goal of empowerment? Why do they seem satisfied to foster a relationship with learners tethered by engagement rather than encouraging learners, even provoking them to become independent?

Setting a goal of engagement, and not pushing beyond engagement, is reflected upon in a comment attributed to Rabbi Irwin Groner as part of a discussion at the Detroit Federation Continuity Commission in the late 1980’s,

“One of the greatest errors we made in the synagogue was the establishment of the Community Seder on the second night of Passover. We thought people would host their own family Seder on the first night and come together as community on the second night. Instead, too many people skip the Seder in their home and replace it with the Seder in the synagogue.”

On the other hand, appreciating the power of empowerment leads to this,

Michael Brooks, the former and transformative Executive Director of the University of Michigan Hillel explained why he distributed food to the campus quads for students to create their own Shabbat dinners in addition to the communal dinner they offered. “If Hillel only hosted one Shabbat dinner for everyone, when the students come back for their 25th reunion, one might say to the other ‘Hey – Remember those great Shabbat dinners we had at Hillel?’ But since so many of the students are in charge of their own Shabbat dinners, when they come back for that 25th reunion, they will be able to say, ‘Hey – let me tell you about the great Shabbat dinner I hosted last week.’”

Every educator’s ultimate goal is to empower learners, to support them as they move from assisted learning to independent learning, to lead them to acquire knowledge organically, to make it so understandable, familiar and intrinsically meaningful that the knowledge affects their attitudes, cognitive decision making and behavior. Aside from education, we are surrounded by other instructive cultures of empowerment:

  • Business people empower their customers through a process called selling. The customer is contacted, engaged, develops preferences, and ultimately purchases the product.
  • Marketers move us along similar stages from Awareness to Interest to Consideration to Purchase.

These paradigms, and many others, extend beyond engagement and break through to the ultimate goal of empowerment. Success is defined by the purchase, the action of ownership. Teachers interact with students to move from “I do it,” to “We do it,” to “You do it.” Medical students learn to See One, Do One, Teach One. John Dewey said that what we call “experiential learning” is participation in a continuous process that stems from learning which produces interactions that lead to more learning. In every case, the product or the learning must provide value; if not, the result may not be Teach One, but One-and-Done.

One obstacle to the ultimate empowerment goal, as we have observed in our work with families with young children in Greater MetroWest, NJ, is the almost literal dis-connect if not the outright isolation of many families from one another. True enough in urban communities; the situation is amplified in suburban ones such as ours. Aside from some Orthodox communities, Jewish neighbors – even in the most cohesive towns – don’t readily connect with one another, and even if they do, they are hard-pressed to find Jewish families who actively do Jewish at home.

Synagogues and JCCs do a terrific job of “See One” through model Seders and family-sensitive Shabbat dinners. Imagine how meaningful and relevant participation in such organizations might be if they took the next steps to “Do One” and “Teach One” at home, such as Temple Sharey Tefilo Israel does in South Orange, NJ with their Shabbat baBayit / Shabbat in the Home program where they gather for Shabbat services and then fan out to homes throughout the community for Shabbat dinner. Communal professionals should encourage more Jewish sharing and doing at home and make it attractive and yes, “engaging” for busy, hard-working families with weak community ties to come together – in the home. These professionals would identify ‘alpha’ people with Jewish home skills to share with others (Teach One) and break through inherent isolation with a Judaism that is accessible, simple, fun, meaningful and connective. We should want more than for people to experience Shabbat; we should want people to create their Shabbat. We should want more than for people to read a Jewish story; we should want people to live a Jewish story.

Families are crazy busy; that is why it is okay to send the laundry out and it is okay to order dinner in. It is not okay to outsource one’s own Jewish journey. But even for families who wish to chart their own course, it’s not easy. That is why The Partnership is investing heavily in creating and nurturing relationships through a small network of “Family Connectors” who are charged with contacting, engaging and ultimately empowering family, friends and neighbors to chart their Jewish journeys. Our Family Connectors develop these relationships with Judaism at their core; the relationship allows them organically to inquire about and to encourage meaningful Jewish home practices, by gingerly introducing people to Judaism that is real in their own lives – be it a unique Shabbat blessing for their children, a backyard tree decorating project for Tu B’Shevat, family tzedakah meetings, choosing a baby’s name or how to shul-shop. As we are learning from our efforts, when this is done consistently and with genuine enthusiasm, families start adopting these practices as their own. They move from being engaged to being empowered.

From what we have seen so far, effective Family Connectors are special people who value the relationship and the potential outcome as a precious JEWEL; they embody the following traits:

  • Joy – Connectors show off their joy of Judaism without being asked; but are not overwhelming.
  • Expansiveness – Connectors have deep desires to expand their own Judaism every single day.
  • Watchfulness – Connectors wait to ask the right questions at the right time in the right way.
  • Empathy – Connectors use active listening skills, and listen more than they speak.
  • Loyalty – Connectors naturally stay invested in the families with whom they work.

The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life was proud to be among the early practitioners using “engagement” to describe our work. Through our engagement work it has become clear to us, as we hope it becomes clear to other practitioners, that our ultimate goal is beyond the Awareness stage where the customer walks into the car show room. Our goal is beyond the Consideration phase when the customer kicks the tires. Our goal is beyond the Engagement phase when the customer takes the car out for a test drive. Our ultimate goal is the purchase, when the customer is transformed into the owner; she leaves the lot and takes to the road in her own vehicle with the features she chose that embolden and Empower her to pull up in front of her friend’s house and say “Take a look at my car. Want to see how well it handles sharp curves? And check out these soft leather seats!”

Our show room displays an unbelievably precious and priceless product that enhances the everyday lives of the people with whom we interact. It is the greatest product in the history of the universe: Jewish knowledge, values, and traditions – our Torah. It was designed to be owned, not leased.

Leemor Ellman is the Director of Engagement Empowerment for Families with Young Children, and Robert Lichtman is the Founding Executive Director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.