Power play

Jewish empowerment: developing language to aim higher

In Short

Leadership is one possible manifestation of empowerment, but empowerment is not the same as leadership: empowerment is fundamentally an internal phenomenon that manifests first and foremost in one's own Jewish life.

Two terms have become ubiquitous in our language marketing Jewish programs to both prospective participants and funders: “engage” and “empower.”  While the last several years have borne rich discussions about what engagement means — especially in relationship to education — we still lack a common definition of empowerment, both to its process and its outcomes. Standing on the shoulders of those whose contributions have laid the groundwork in naming, leading and articulating a vision for empowerment, I’d like to suggest a framework for building towards advancing greater empowerment in the Jewish community.

At UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, defining empowerment became pressing when we identified it as one of our 2022 strategic priorities for strengthening our Jewish community. We realized that while engagement remains an essential priority, simply taking attendance and counting the number of “heads in beds” doesn’t suffice. We ought not be shy about articulating the need for a community in which people feel that they are a welcomed, integral part and in which they are equipped to be enactors of Jewish culture, ritual and other domains of Jewish expression and living. To this end, our strategic plan calls for us to both reach the greatest number of Jews and to empower them to lead a Jewish life.

To be empowered Jewishly is to have agency to enact or produce Jewish practices, broadly defined. We often rely on others to enact our Judaism – clergy to lead synagogue services; Jewish programmers to organize activities; grandparents to host Passover seders; professional organizations to engage in activism and advocacy; and even — one could argue — subtitles to translate Israeli television shows like “Shtisel.” Empowered Jews do not need to rely on the offerings and invitations of other individuals or organizations to be proactive participants in Jewish living — rather, they have the motivation, skills/knowledge, commitment and the sense of self-efficacy to enact ritual, cultural and social Jewish practices for themselves, their families and others.

To be clear, while leadership is one possible manifestation of empowerment (and thus, Jewish leaders typically feel empowered in their leadership), empowerment is not the same as leadership. Empowerment is fundamentally an internal phenomenon that manifests first and foremost in one’s own Jewish life. Individuals, therefore, may be empowered in any number of facets of their own lives without choosing to take on a formal leadership role. While leadership is essential in the perpetuation of strong communities, having an internal state of Jewish empowerment influences how — or, in some cases if — the people in those communities live a proactive Jewish life; having communities made up of many empowered individuals contributes to communal vitality and strength. 

In achieving the charge of our strategic plan to foster an empowered community, we outlined a number of steps on our path towards the goal of increased “empowerment”:

  1. Propose shared language for an agreed-upon definition(s) of the term empowerment;
  2. Learn about programs and experiences that market themselves as “empowerment” programs or are identified by others as such;
  3. Develop a framework that identifies key programmatic characteristics that are likely to lead to empowerment outcomes;
  4. Share the framework with practitioners — educators and programmers — seeking to empower their participants;
  5. Convene communal conversations about this topic in order to advance its development and evolution;
  6. Scale up or seed initiatives that have the potential to empower young Jews, impacting their lives and the vitality of our community.

Together with our colleagues at Rosov Consulting, we embarked on a six-month process, and today we share with you the results of steps No. 1-3 (the complete results are at Jewishempowerment.org). By no means do we intend this work to be seen as definitive, all-encompassing or complete. Instead, we hope that it is viewed as a meaningful contribution to this field of thought. 

The resource has three components: a graphic framework of empowerment; a narrative explanation of the model; and program sketches of a sample of Jewish communal and educational programs that were designed with empowerment as a goal. Here are some key learnings:

  • When people are empowered, they act with great authenticity, intentionality, self-confidence and self-activation;
  • Empowerment might be expressed as leadership, expertise, commitment and/or cultural competence;
  • Programs that cultivate empowerment outcomes are characterized by offering mentorship, ownership opportunities and license to experiment, among other benefits.
  • Empowerment occupies an important place on a spectrum of Jewish involvement ranging from outreach to personal Jewish sovereignty;
  • This model addresses the question of “how” to design for empowerment, not the “what” — the educational content or domains — of empowerment.

Some questions we intend to explore further, and invite your thoughts and feedback about include:

  1. Professional Jewish educators and programmers are often tasked with creating Jewish experiences that lead to empowerment outcomes, but also must curb their own authority, expertise and control to allow for empowerment-cultivating experimentation. How might we better support them in this work?
  2. In which Jewish educational domains might we try to cultivate empowerment? Different organizations and educational sectors focus on different educational domains. The more clearly program providers articulate the educational goals within their domains — including goals related to empowerment — the greater the likelihood for strong impact. 
  3. If we were to map out empowerment opportunities across different local settings — JCCs, Hillels, Moishe Houses, teen programs, synagogues, schools, camps — what would we find? What are our local strengths, what are the gaps and how do we fill them?
  4. What would a community populated by empowered Jews look like? How would it change the vibrancy and vitality of our institutions and community? 

Yael Bendat-Appell is vice president for Jewish education and engagement at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. To join the conversation, please reach out to her at ybendat-appell@ujafed.org.