JPRO19: What Connected Us?

By Audra Berg and Ilana Aisen

I heard so many voices – in the hallways, in our small table discussions, and in quiet conversations around the conference center – that I have been waiting to hear for many years. Young voices, older voices, from all walks of life and backgrounds – all bringing new insights and passion to our profession, and marveled at the thought of how this will actually change us as we move forward. I walked behind a group of young professionals yesterday morning… smiling to myself at their enthusiasm and their savvy. I know our community continues to be in good hands, and that nothing is lost but only gained in abundance by listening intently to what they are telling us. And then acting on it together.”
Beth Mann, Vice President, Institutional Advancement, JFNA; JPRO Board Member

The energy was resounding. The experience was unique. What was the secret sauce that made JPRO19: What Connects Us a game-changer?

Wait. What was JPRO19? Here is a window into the experience that 580 of Jewish community professionals from 228 organizations and 29 states and provinces shared this summer in Detroit:

Since the conference, we have reflected, read and reread feedback, and analyzed survey results to distill the essential ingredients of JPRO19. As best as we can tell, here they are:

  1. Begin with purpose, then blend thoroughly with play;
  2. Welcome, connect, repeat;
  3. Throw away the recipe.

Purpose and Play

There was a lot of playtime at JPRO19: Corn hole! A stilt-walking juggler! The first official Jewish Connect Four Tournament! (Congratulations again to the delegations from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, our champion and runner up from a competitive 16 team bracket.) That said, the JPRO19 committee started with purpose. We sought to:

  • Enable participants to build enduring connections across diverse roles, organizations, generations, and geography;
  • Engage with Detroit as a learning laboratory;
  • Provide a “choose-your-own-adventure” array of learning opportunities, applicable to far-ranging professional roles and career stages.

JPRO Network serves the entirety of our diverse Jewish organizational landscape, which means that many different challenges and opportunities characterize our participants’ day-to-day. Following many stakeholder conversations, we selected four pressing issues as programmatic themes: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ); Civil Discourse in Complex Times; Designing Workplaces for the Future; and Building Resilient Communities. We then invited colleague organizations leading in those areas to serve as our programmatic partners and – of course – each one brought their A game. Of special note: The session, “Jews of Color, Our Multiracial Jewish Communities, Our Work As Leaders” taught by Ilana Kaufman, Executive Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative and sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation as part of our DEIJ programming attracted exceptional interest and feedback.

JPRO is doing an incredible service to the Jewish community by providing professionals with the support and the tools that they need for success, alongside discussions about some of the most vexing issues that our communities face.
Dr. Elana Stein Hain, Scholar in Residence and Director of Faculty, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

Purpose and play could have existed in parallel, as two separate elements of JPRO19 but we intentionally blended them:

  • Steal This (which we, in turn, stole from 100Kin10) and Pop-up Workshops provided peer-to-peer learning opportunities for bite-sized learning during extended breaks from theme programming, creating a “choose-your-own-adventure” vibe.
  • That Connect Four tournament: it wasn’t only a game. It built team spirit within and among the city-based delegations at JPRO19 and set up the closing program, Connect More.

JPRO19 blended purpose and play because we do our best learning when our whole selves are engaged and because there is a deep joy and privilege to working with and on behalf of our Jewish communities. Mostly, we blended purpose and play because JPRO Network’s leadership treasures and enjoys the people in our professional community and it really is a delight to be together.

Welcome, Connect, Repeat

On the way home, a colleague shared that after many years working at a Jewish organization the conference made her now feel like a Jewish professional. That right there sums it all up. WIN!!

In order to connect, everyone at JPRO19 needed to be explicitly welcomed and included. We thought about the person who is brand-new to the field, the person attending a professional conference for the very first time, the person who isn’t Jewish at a very Jewish-feeling conference. Conferences can feel like reunions, which can feel intimidating and off-putting to those who aren’t seeing familiar faces. JPRO Network wants and needs everyone to feel like an insider. We also learned a lot about diversity and inclusion along the way and have more work to do to truly walk that talk.

We embraced our chutzpah and asked senior professionals to spend hours of the conference as greeters, handing out gifts, and saying goodbye. What might have seemed like a big ask in other contexts was eagerly embraced by our ambassadors, a group of 35 JPRO champions, comprised of key colleagues in Detroit, the JPRO Network Board, and the conference committee. Having VIPs doing the welcoming was vital to setting the tone.

I am early in my career, and I felt encouraged, validated, and empowered by stories and messages I heard from JPRO presenters and participants. A successful career as a Jewish leader feels like a more real possibility now.”

Throw Away the Recipe

I was very touched to be a part of this gathering. I gained from colleagues and appreciated that national ‘experts’ weren’t paraded in front of us. We learned from each other, which encourages me to think about what I want to continue to learn from colleagues and what I have to contribute.”

When envisioning JPRO19, we took a deep breath and committed to letting go of any assumptions about how to structure a conference. Being bold in our thinking meant we had to get comfortable with not knowing what this thing would look like. Risk-taking is a team sport. Our funding partners supported the big ideas for JPRO19 before we were able to be specific about how it would all land. Our Nachshons, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the William Davidson Foundation, took a real leap of faith by stepping up first to make JPRO19 possible and giving the JPRO team the keys to the city.

Before there was a conference schedule, the committee turned to our goals and dreamed about how to make them happen. For example:

  • Enable participants to build enduring connections across diverse roles, organizations, generations, and geography. On one hand: structured opportunities like WellAdvised Live; the “What Connects Us?” video booth; and a plenary session that had all 580 of us learning in chavrutah. On the other hand: a warm, energized environment with a lot of informal time to connect.
  • Engage with Detroit as a learning laboratory. Immersive experiences at ten innovative hometown locations, each opportunities tied to one of the four conference themes. A large cadre of participants from Detroit who brought Jewish Detroit’s intrepid spirit to the fore.
  • Provide a “choose-your-own-adventure” set of learning opportunities, directly applicable to far-ranging professional roles and career stages. Optional three-hour JPRO Master Classes. The Connect Lounge, our very own “professional development amusement park” with nine zones of activity and dozens of ways for participants to engage with purpose/play tied to their own career aspirations.

We also started with the assumption that the expertise is already “in the room.” Professionals at all career stages interviewed C-suite colleagues during the “Teams and Dreams” plenary; more than 50 of our colleagues helped facilitate “Connect More.” All together, more than one third of all attendees spoke, led, presented, facilitated, interviewed, or otherwise brought to help make the magic happen.

An article about what made JPRO19 a resounding success would not be complete without one more not-so-secret secret. We made a mess. We cleaned it up. And then we made another mess. There were false starts, eggs broken, batches thrown out, and sleepless nights. We learned from many, many mistakes along the way. We will pave the road to the next JPRO conference with those learnings.

Every moment at JPRO19 was given immense thought and planning – and it showed. Just as important, nearly every conference moment had elements of experimentation and risk-taking as well. This is a mindset and approach our sector can emulate as we work to inspire more people through meaningful Jewish life.”
Barry Finestone, President and CEO, Jim Joseph Foundation

The secret sauce of JPRO19 is that we were able to come together to harness the talent, creativity, drive, and enthusiasm that already exists in our workforce. Together, we magnified and refracted it across and beyond all of us who came together to explore What Connects Us.

Just like we threw away the recipe when cooking up JPRO19, we are closing this piece in an unconventional way. With YOU, the professional who JPRO exists to serve. Please drop us a line here to tell us what JPRO Network means to you, what you hope to see from us next, or how we can better support your work and career. We will compile all responses and share them without attribution in JPRO Network’s final newsletter of 2019.

Audra Berg is the Board Chair of JPRO Network and Vice President, Leadership Engagement and Board Relations, at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Ilana Aisen is the CEO of JPRO Network.