Jewish Outreach, an Unorthodox Approach

ShabbatifyBy Rabbi Jill Levy
and Kari Dunn Saratovsky

The pressures of parenting young children in today’s modern world, whether self-induced or society-induced – has overwhelmed us with choice. From the “right” diapers to the “right” pre-schools – whose opinions to follow, and what advice to take seems to multiply as the years go by. While choices abound in nearly every facet of our lives, there is a common choice that many young Jewish families are making – that choice is to not affiliate in organized Jewish life. Countless studies over the past decade have reaffirmed this growing trend. These studies are what prompted our community to make a choice nearly five years ago. We could simply let these trends win, or we could experiment and see if we could begin to reverse them – even if on a smaller and more localized scale.

While we don’t claim to have all of the answers, over the past five years the staff and lay-leadership of the ERJCC of Houston (The J) have come together to build Jewish “community” for a cross-section of families – engaging them in authentic, meaningful, and fun ways. The success of these programs has fueled demand, and challenged us in a positive way, to find new ways to keep people coming back for more. What started as a small but committed group of families has grown to a diverse and representative list of 400 households across Houston and the surrounding areas. This demand has also forced the expansion of programming from preschool all the way to fifth grade.

Mishpacha and Me (M&M) began as our core outreach program, focused solely on families with children five and under. For us, it was an experiment made possible by the Federation of Greater Houston’s Fund for the Jewish Future. The question was – if we build it, will they come? From larger community-wide programming to localized neighborhood gatherings – there truly is something for everyone, regardless of interest, geography, or level of observance. Over the course of one month we may have Shabbat dinners in three different neighborhoods, an event at a local bounce house, weekly open swim at the pool, and a planning committee meeting of parent volunteers. But, the programming itself is secondary to the relationships that are being forged.

Last year, our initial cohort of families began to age out of our program and started to ask, “what’s next?” With their needs in mind, we developed two new opportunities to keep them connected to one another and to “do” Jewish – however they defined it. One is “Shabbatify,” a two hour Shabbat afternoon program that mixes family time and separate parent and child-only activities, culminating in a Havdalah service. The second is Jewish and Hebrew Explorers, a weekly supplementary education program for children in kindergarten through second grade.

Our goal is not religious commitment, denominational affiliation, or even membership – it is Jewish connection. We connect to Jewish time by celebrating Tu B’Shevat at the Science Museum. We connect to Jewish values by making care packages for the homeless on Black Friday. We connect to Jewish living by offering home-hosted Shabbat dinners.

We are proud of what we have accomplished over the past few years and while it hasn’t always been easy, we want to share what we believe to be some of the key ingredients for success:

  1. Focus on relationship building as a core business. While our staff ensures that programming is strong, what keeps these families coming back are the relationships they make with one another. Consider shifting to a relationship paradigm, and invest in strategies that will train leaders and practitioners in relationship building as their main practice.
  2. Parents are people too, provide opportunities for them. During Shabbatify, we’ve seen the value in creating space for adult-only programs – ranging from coffee tasting and discussion to creating family vision boards while the kids are engaged in their activities. By setting aside this space for adult conversation and engagement to take place, parents have an opportunity to connect on a different level both as couples and as friends.
  3. Build communities within community. With a city as diverse and sprawling as Houston, we have found great value in forming “micro communities” from geographic areas and neighborhoods, to groups like GLBT families, or Spanish speaking cohorts. These connections are intentional and new groups are being added each year.
  4. Involve parents in the planning. There is no cookie-cutter approach to modern Jewish programming. Program staff are important conveners but the parents and neighborhood liaisons know what works best on the ground. Understand that what might work in one neighborhood, may be totally different in another.
  5. Reduce barriers to entry. Price events reasonably, eliminate membership requirements, and greet people the moment they come in so they know they are part of something special. Don’t forget to follow-up, or have a volunteer connect with them in an informal way after a program is over.

Outreach at the J has become a central component of Jewish Houston. Many of our participants have said that they have community today because of what these programs offer. As communities across the country grapple with how to best engage this rising generation of young families – we believe there is much that can be shared and learned from one another. We will continue to do so as our programs evolve, and we hope to learn from others who were brave enough to experiment as well. Jewish families want connection and we all have a role to play to bring it to them.

Rabbi Jill Levy is Director of the Bobbi and Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. Kari Dunn Saratovsky is a lay-leader and Principal of Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies.