Like-Minded Jews: How Can Congregations Solve the Riddle of Relational Judaism and Impact Giving?
Part 1 of 2
by Robert Evans and Bryan Schwartzman
Adam Furman has affiliated with a Reform congregation in southern California for more than a decade. As a single man and now married with two young toddlers, Furman has attended numerous temple events, often schmoozing within the same small circle of friends. The problem, as Furman saw it, is that he never felt connected to his congregation, despite his participation, and he believed the essence of the problem was a lack of developing relationships with other temple members.
A conversation with David Lorber, a friend from business school at the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego, led Furman to realize that he was not alone. Lorber was similarly disenchanted with the lack of connection to his congregation and he and Adam assumed they were not alone. Furman’s background is in executive technology leadership and Lorber is a data scientist with a doctorate in neuroscience. Roughly two years ago they embarked on a journey to tackle this problem and created TwoLikeYou, a relationship platform that allows members to interact with others affiliated with their synagogue.
In this era of “Bowling Alone,” as the sociologist Robert Putnam dubbed it, when adults are struggling to form connections and make friends while juggling busy lives, the synagogue seems like a logical place to turn for connection. But too many people are failing to build substantial relationships at their synagogue, and many are either dropping out, wondering what they are getting in return for substantial membership dues, or are failing to participate fully. And those who haven’t formed deep relationships certainly aren’t giving generously to their congregations.
The Jewish communal conversation on connectivity was jumpstarted by Ron Wolfson’s 2013 book Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. The deep anxiety within the synagogue world was captured by last year’s Pew Study, which showed that growing numbers of Jews consider themselves as having no religion, are intermarrying, and are less connected to Israel. Within this context, Wolfson’s attempt to reframe the communal paradigm has struck a chord.
Wolfson’s central critique is that Jewish institutions have overly focused on programming and drifted away from the lost art of knowing their members and relationship building. He’s spent a great deal of time studying Christian mega-churches and the model of using small groups to engage members and turn enormous institutions into intimate ones. If members form deep social relationships with one another, Wolfson wrote, they are more likely to remain part of a synagogue. But then it is up to the synagogue to offer a truly meaningful experience.
Across the country, synagogues have just begun to look for ways to put Wolfson’s ideas about relational Judaism into practice. There’s a great deal in the book about philanthropy and synagogue-funding models and it all relates back to the idea that people who are more connected, and don’t view their congregation in a transactional, fee-for-service way, are more likely to give.
Connectivity was a major theme at the December biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, where Wolfson was a featured speaker and Furman and Lorber rolled out TwoLikeYou. By highlighting TwoLikeYou, we are not necessarily endorsing the product. We have chosen to examine how it works because its creators aptly describe the relationship problem confronting many synagogues and present one of many potential solutions.
Wolfson, in an interview with us, recalled a rabbi who would keep detailed note cards on all his congregants so he would have as much information as possible at his fingertips. Wolfson said he’s been looking for a more contemporary means that synagogues can use to track relevant information about their members. He said he’s intrigued by TwoLikeYou and is interested to see how it is received by the Jewish community.
“It is another attempt to use technology to help people connect with each other, and to help institutions track that. It is a kind of relationship management software,” he said.
Wolfson noted that he doesn’t see this software or any other as a panacea, but he does think it is a step in the right direction. He teaches that ultimately congregations will succeed or fail based on the question of whether or not they are helping people form meaningful relationships with the Jewish community and Judaism.
“Are we really teaching Jewish practice that is meaningful? Are we really engaging them in the life of the community? “Wolfson posed. “Are we moving people to think of something beyond themselves? I call it God, but other people don’t like that word,” said Wolfson.
Creative answers and strategic solutions abound and others are coming to our attention about how best to connect congregants.
How does TwoLikeYou work and what does it do?
The patent pending software, which uses no ads and places a premium on privacy, allows congregation members to find other members who share similar interests. TwoLikeYou might best be described as a hybrid between Facebook and J-date for families. The idea is that congregants can use the platform to learn about and meet one other and ultimately, build more relationships and forge deeper connections within their community.
Members create a family profile through a uniquely fun and interactive process. They include as much (or as little) information as they want, such as their profession, travel and food interests, favorite sports and much more. Members can review recommended profiles or conduct a specific search to find other members with children of the same age or who also enjoy Italian food, independent films or tennis for example. Staff members are empowered to personalize the membership experience by targeting relevant communication to its members as opposed to sending out mass email blasts that are often ignored. As an additional benefit, the staff can use the platform to gather important information about their members to better serve them. Members are potential investors and, when it comes time for “the ask” it behooves synagogues to know as much about their members as possible.
Some of the basic questions we have are: Do synagogue professionals need another program to log into? Do cash strapped synagogues need another monthly bill to pay? Perhaps more importantly, how many members will buy in? Will an overworked single lawyer or young parent of toddlers take the time to engage with the software?
Diana Einstein, director of community connections for Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, a 2,500 hundred family congregation that is exploring using the software, said that in conjunction with a synagogue-wide focus on relationship building, the software can help change the culture of the temple.
“We love this software because it puts it in the hands of our members,” she said. “It is member-driven. It doesn’t require staff assistance, which is huge. Once it is up and running, it will be a huge time-saver. But it is not about what it does for me. It is about getting our members engaged and involved.”
Our own era demands innovation. And while we are not necessarily endorsing the software, we agree with Wolfson that TwoLikeYou represents an ambitious example of a potential innovation – whether or not it takes remains to be seen. But what isn’t up for debate is that congregations must focus on building relationships and strengthening connections if they hope to survive and thrive. As Wolfson so eloquently explains, Judaism is, at its heart, a system of interlocking relationships.
Watch for our next post looking at how the small group model in a mega church is forcing synagogues to reexamine how they do business.
Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofit organizations and conducting fundraising campaigns in major metropolitan areas nationwide. Regarded as an authority on campaign strategy, Mr. Evans is known for his inventive campaign plans that have enabled clients to reach development goals even in the most challenging circumstances. He sits on the Giving USA Editorial Review Board and serves on the National Steering Committee for Giving Tuesday. He writes a regular column for eJewishPhilanthropy.com and is quoted frequently in mainstream and professional media outlets.
Bryan Schwartzman is manager of marketing and communications at the Evans Consulting Group.