Let’s Grab Coffee: Shifting from Affiliation to Engagement

By Rabbi James Greene

When I left home for college, I was not Jewishly connected. This was somewhat surprising since both my parents were working for the Jewish community at the time. But, when I arrived on campus I met some great campus Jewish professionals. They were not there to encourage me to affiliate with an organization. Instead, we met for coffee, and I showed up to an all-night hangout and study session. Later, I went to a Shabbat dinner and then the next month to a bagel brunch because of the relationships I had formed in those initial meetings. Over the course of the next few years, and without ever being pushed or pulled, I served in a leadership role for my local Jewish campus group, spent a year abroad in Israel, had some intense immersion experiences, and found myself deeply committed to Jewish life and rediscovered my Jewish identity. In short, Hillel’s model of cultivating meaningful Jewish experiences and relationship-based engagement worked.

My story is not unique. Hillel made a strategic shift to this engagement model and has seen incredible success. Yet, for some reason the rest of the Jewish community has not yet made the transition to relationship-based engagement models. There are examples of individual synagogues or agencies using pieces of this model, but community funders and legacy organizations of the Jewish community have not yet made this shift in a significant way. We continue to focus on membership models, which, in a consumer-driven market, bring smaller and smaller returns from an aging population while not effectively reaching out to an emerging generation of Jews seeking to create relationships rather than simply joining. Although this older system may continue to be sustainable in large urban populations, in smaller Jewish communities around the country the relationship-based engagement that Hillel pioneered should be seen as a model. These personalized Jewish experiences, intense immersion opportunities, and small-group learning moments represent a potential Jewish life that is vibrant, inspiring, meaningful, and relevant.

What is true relationshipbased engagement?

Sari Dorn, a student at University of Maryland, College Park, described this kind of community work in an article about Hillel’s engagement model as simply “asking open ended questions and getting to know students instead of having them get to know Hillel.” It is about forming personal connections that can serve as the basis for continued engagement. Instead of forming Jewish life around the continued needs of institutions (facilities, staffing, legacy programs), Jewish life emerges as a focused response to the needs of the Jews in that community. Rather than thinking about what the Jewish community was a generation ago, this model invites us to imagine a Jewish future together. Micro-communities form to meet those unique needs but share communal space in the midst of those highly individualized experiences. In short, Jewish institutions become more committed to relationship-building, rather than program development.

That doesn’t mean the programmatic closet is bare. In fact, the outcome might be ever-richer and more-targeted program options. But, what success looks like might change. At many JCCs and synagogues, we think about success in terms of dollars raised, program participants at our facility, and membership units added or lost. In this new model, “good” might look like a series of Shabbat dinners hosted in people’s homes with their friends rather than attending a lecture or a Shabbat service. It might involve taking a handful of Jewish families on an alternative spring-break trip to engage in social justice work and Jewish learning. It could include community clergy serving as authentic Jewish teachers and community organizers not just for their members, but for the community at large, leveraging the unique talents and strengths of professionals in the community to best serve the community. It will take place both inside and, more and more, outside of our buildings. And, it will be driven by peers rather than professionals.

Lessons to be learned:

Measure success in coffee dates, not memberships: It is not so simple, but we do need to rethink what “good” looks like. If success is measured not in program enrollees or participants, but instead by the depth of relationships built over the course of time, we would structure our work differently and emerge as a community committed to people, not programs. That would allow us to leverage relationships to draw more people in. We should think about success as creating measurable differences in the lives of the people we are in relationship with. We must engage people, invite them in to partnership and exploration, and empower them to take ownership of their Jewish journey as their right, while at the same time providing the structure, space, and staffing to support those emerging needs.

Remember the everexpanding impact of relationships: Hillels around the country have learned that having engagement interns who each builds personal relationships with 40 people is significantly more efficient and successful than asking a staff member to build 400 significant relationships each year. We should transfer that model to the rest of Jewish communal life. If we build core “hubs” that can link people together, we are much more likely to succeed in this new relationship-based engagement model.

Partnerships with funders and foundations are key: Jewish communities should be working in collaboration with community funders and foundations to solicit investment in this new model and to work on new metrics for evaluation. If our foundations continue to invest in programs that reflect a Jewish reality of a generation ago, we will not be able to succeed in building a Jewish future outside of the major Jewish population centers. Instead we should spark new engagement opportunities with significant funding that will allow us to build relationships over a longer period of time. This investment needs to be committed for a decade, rather than a two- or three-year grant cycle.

Communities need to rightsize: Part of the reality of the Jewish community is that we have more institutions than our communities can sustain moving forward. Already, we see struggling agencies and synagogues that are tapping ever-diminishing members and donors to maintain facilities and staffing levels from their past. We continue to measure success based on numbers of participants compared to a generation ago, and staff members are unable to try new models because of our inability to effectively sunset programs as part of the natural life cycle of an agency. Although it is surely a painful process, Jewish communities must consider whether the agencies and institutions they have will meet the needs of the Jewish future in the same way they met the needs of the community in the past.

This does not mean closing the doors of struggling institutions, but perhaps helping to rethink mission and vision. A day school that is struggling to attract families in an area with excellent public school options might consider a community conversation and seek support to transform into a center for Jewish education throughout the life span, utilizing staff to host on-site programming, work with synagogue supplemental schools, and also launch new off-site small-group learning opportunities. This restructure will allow for funding to flow more freely and will be less traumatic to a Jewish community than a shutdown of those struggling institutions that, without challenging the existing norm, will surely falter.

Belief in abundance: So much of Jewish life has become fee-for-service. You join a synagogue to have access to the clergy, religious school, life-cycle space, etc. You belong to the JCC because of its fitness center, early learning center, or summer camp. And you pay for all events that you attend because, without paying, there is no value. We operate in this place of scarcity, or as the Psalmist says, from a “narrow place.” Funding models currently don’t allow for a free Shabbat dinner each week, time-intensive and deep relationship building work, highly subsidized immersion programs, or even free public holiday programming. By right-sizing the Jewish community now, with a forward-looking approach, we can free up funding that can help us cultivate that sense of abundance that will provide no-barrier entry into meaningful relationships through impactful experiences. Cost does not bring value to a program; relationships do.

Making safe space for legacy institutions: Our synagogues, federations, JCCs, and other legacy institutions offer tremendous value to their members and to the greater community. As a parent of two young daughters at a shul with a fantastic clergy team, I want that to continue, as I see incredible value for my own spiritual practice and for the spiritual development of my daughters. And yet, the fear and grind to gain new members, solicit new donors, and program so folks don’t lose touch with these agencies is ever-present. We need to work with these institutions and with funders to make safe space for these organizations to embrace an engagement-based community model. That might include providing direct funding to support institutions as we make transitions away from the membership-based model, continuing to fund staff positions even as organizations shift in mission or size, or offering organizational coaches to assist lay leaders in managing this emerging Jewish world. But, many communities have incredible talent in the professional staff of their institutions. It would be a true shanda if we lose that in the midst of this shift. Instead, we should consider how best to leverage the expertise and resources that exist in the community, regardless of what organization that staff person directly serves.


This new community model would in some ways look similar to our existing community and in other ways might look quite different. I believe that area synagogues will still exist, served by incredible professionals committed to their organization, but not burdened by the metrics of a membership-based model. Federations and JCCs will continue to play a key role in the life of the Jewish community and may serve as backbone institutions in the engagement process, providing staffing, funding, evaluation, and programming expertise that is critical to success. New staffing positions and key volunteer roles, much like the engagement interns and professionals on college campuses, will emerge to support these new micro-communities as they form and grow. Community clergy across all agencies and organizational roles will serve as senior Jewish educators, making time and space to be relationship builders, authentic Jewish presences, community organizers, engagement trainers, and creators of meaningful Jewish experiences for community members.

I do not believe that this model will work in every community. Each college campus has its own realities and norms, and each Jewish community varies in countless ways that cannot be measured or articulated here. However, in every case I believe we can benefit from rethinking our affiliation-based model and the funding structures that, in smaller Jewish communities, encourage this unsustainable system to continue ever closer toward default. If we can think less about membership and more about relationship, we can spark a creative Jewish future that is worthy of the Jewish adults who are emerging in the next generation.

Rabbi James Greene lives in Stafford Springs, Connecticut and serves as the Assistant Executive Director at the Springfield JCC in Western Massachusetts. He is a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.