Lessons Learned in Engaging Young Families

berger5775By Lori Rubin and Anna Marx

In 2008, five congregations participated in a new network in Greater Philadelphia that looked at how to successfully engage Jewish families with young children. Over the last seven years, The Harold and Renee Berger Synagogue Network for Young Families has included 27 congregations learning about and innovating in the area of family engagement. Through our assessment of these programs over the past seven years, we have learned important four lessons.

1. Breaking down congregational silos leads to better engagement.

Congregations in the Berger Network plan and execute new strategies by creating broad-based teams of volunteers and professionals representing multiple voices of the community. For those congregations who have been able to best break down these internal silos, they report that the new collaborations have lead to greater success than they had previously experienced. For example, the educator at Temple Judea of Doylestown brought the Early Learning Center committee together with the Men’s Club – two groups that had not previously worked together – to plan a family picnic. By working together, not only did the congregation report that they were able to better plan, promote, and execute this event, they also had the largest attendance this annual event had ever had, including many new families. “The Berger network helped us to begin to think of congregation-wide activities through a different lens, really making us put thought into intergenerational programming, rather than just all staying in our silos.”

Similarly, Congregation Beth Israel of Media brought together a new cross-functional team to plan their Tot Shabbat pilot, which allowed the program to benefit from resources across the synagogue – education, religious life, communications, strategic planning and more. The team’s collaboration resulted in ongoing experimentation, which brought in many new families as well as current families who built relationships with the newcomers. Of their Berger project, the congregation said: “It also further involved the board in planning efforts and dialog about important challenges and issues within our congregation.” By sharing the responsibility of engaging families with young children across the congregational system, they were better able to plan, develop materials, and reach out to their target audience.

2. The freedom to experiment leads to more successful engagement. (Or, You have to try something different to get different results.)

All congregations in the Berger Network are expected to experiment and are given a small stipend to cover the cost of innovation. Congregations have found that this freedom has enabled them to take new risks in order to really learn more about what families are seeking. Mishkan Shalom made a seemingly small change that made a big difference. As part of their Berger project, they changed their Tot Shabbat program from Saturday mornings to Friday nights in pajamas, which yielded three times the number of participants and actively engaged families. As the educator reported, “Working as a team with my parents, I got ideas that took me out of our usual schedule and gave me alternative ideas of new times to do things.” By listening to the target demographic and bringing a willingness to try something new (even small), can yield big results.

Old York Road Temple Beth Am decided to try brand new programming for their Berger project. They wanted to provide families with a variety of Shabbat experiences: a Magical Shabbat (service and magic show), Shabbat morning puppet theatre, and a Havdallah dance party. These events brought in many new families who were looking for a fun family experience. From those encounters some have already joined the synagogue. The congregation reported that because of their work in the Berger Network, “We were able to more closely tap into our families’ interests.”

3. Offer meaningful experiences that engage whole children.

In the Berger Network, congregations experiment with many kinds of engagement strategies and programs. A few that have stood because they were able to offer programs that fully engaged young children at their level; they used movement, hands-on activity, sight sound, and caring relationships. Kehilat Hanahar offered Sunday morning learning programs for children ages 1-6 and “their favorite adult.” These free events, open to the community, brought new families into Jewish experiences full of music and movement. Germantown Jewish Centre launched J.A.M. (Jewish Arts and Movement) two years ago, designed to engage whole children ages 1 to 5 by offering experiences around Shabbat and Jewish holidays. J.A.M. allows young children and families to “explore Judaism together in a kinetic, whole-body way, singing, moving, dancing, creating, listening, thinking and connecting.”

4. Families need to trust your organization before they will walk through your doors.

Closely related to the work of the Berger Network, Jewish Learning Venture also has created jkidphilly, an initiative that offers resources, programs, and concierge services to families with young children throughout the Philadelphia area. This year, congregations in the Berger Network were offered the opportunity to offer “jkidphilly partner programs” – programs planned and hosted by the congregation, promoted and branded by jkidphilly. We quickly learned that the jkidphilly brand made families feel at ease because they associated it with welcoming, engaging, and low barrier events. Families came to in large numbers to congregational programs because they were labeled “jkidphilly,” which sent an explicit message, “You’ll be comfortable here.”

In the past, we have seen programs offered to families with young children where attendees were handed membership packets and given the membership “pitch.” This sent families running away – exactly the opposite of the intention of the congregation. There are important ways the congregations can send the clear message to families: “You can trust us” by offering programs that are open to everyone, partnering with broader community organizations, hosting programs outside of the synagogue space, and making sure everyone feels welcome, cared for, and knows that there is not an expectation of membership or even of repeat attendance.

The Berger Synagogue Network for Young Families continues to grow and to engage an ever-widening network of Philadelphia-area congregations in ongoing learning, sharing and experimentation. The Jewish Learning Venture has build a series of workshops and resources to support the network, including an online program bank of initiatives developed in the first five Berger cohorts. This summer, the sixth cohort of the Berger Synagogue Network will launch to include new learning, networking, coaching, and experimentation across the greater Philadelphia area.

Lori Rubin is Director, Family Engagement and Anna Marx is Director, Jewish Education and Leadership Development at Jewish Learning Venture. The Harold and Renee Berger Synagogue Network for Young Families was launched in 2008 with the generous funding of Harold Berger, and has supported 27 congregations in its 5 cohorts to learn about, plan, and deliver new family engagement programs.