Meeting ‘The Surge’ through relational engagement

Ed. Note: This article is the first of a three-part series by Gather Inc. on relational engagement strategies to jump-start and sustain Jewish community in response to changing demographics and interests.  

Last month, the Jewish Federation of North America shared a survey quantifying the changes in Jewish community engagement since Oct. 7. One core finding was that many previously unengaged or loosely engaged individuals have spent the last eight months actively seeking meaningful connection to Jewish life, a phenomenon the umbrella group referred to as “The Surge.”

The Surge is particularly strong among young (18-34) and mid-life (55-74) adults, who reported that they are seeking more Jewish friends and feel more welcomed and included in the Jewish community when they are personally invited to Jewish experiences and, once there, see familiar faces. Though the volume of demand has changed, JFNA notes that desire for this intentional, friendly community isn’t new. Even before Oct. 7, multiple studies revealed the same pattern of people looking for deep relationships to hold them in Jewish life. This is not to say that sophisticated educational experiences and meaningful worship are not important and should not receive our care and attention, but rather that the research reinforces what we at Gather see again and again: No matter how carefully planned and well-executed our programs are, only deep relationships that add meaning, purpose and connection to our lives have the power to keep people engaged long-term in Jewish life. 

The question for our community is how do we move from the abstract to the concrete — how do we actually create these deep relationships? What skills, tools and practices of relationship-based engagement can help us sustain relationships over time? 

The Gather, Inc. team has been wrestling with these and similar questions for over a decade. Drawing from our on-the-ground Gather Cities in Washington, D.C. and the East Bay, as well as our consulting work supporting Jewish federations, JCCs, synagogues and organizations across the country, we’ve developed a unique methodology, language and tool box that offers strategies to help Jewish communities and institutions sustain themselves through meaningful, personal relationships.   

We will be offering a deep dive into our methodology and tools at our upcoming Community of Practice launching this summer. We are excited to share a peek at some of these tools with eJewishPhilanthropy readers and explore how they can be particularly helpful in this moment. 

We will start with what we call our Three Models of Community Building, which provides a framework for how to approach this work. These three models represent three distinct but complementary ways to think about connecting with people — and connecting people with each other — as they enter into our Jewish spaces. Each model is a core component in a paradigm shift from focusing primarily on programs to focusing primarily on people.   

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The Hosted Curated Model

When thinking about how to meet the needs of The Surge, many people’s first instinct might be to create entirely new programs, starting with questions like: What event can we host that people will want to come to? What program can we organize that will get unengaged Jews to come through our doors? What gathering could bring in a significant number of attendees? 

What if we flipped the paradigm? Of individuals who make up The Surge, 77% say that knowing other people at a Jewish event makes them feel most welcome and comfortable. More than half shared that they feel more included when they receive a personal invitation. 

In a Hosted Curated model, we are not just program planners — we are hosts who create an experience for the benefit of connecting attendees together, before, during, and after the event. When we do this, we nurture networks of connection and friendship that can support people at our programs and beyond. The Hosted Curated model pushes us to radically shift how we spend our time as leaders. Instead of focusing our time worrying over Canva graphics and social media ads, we shift to spending the majority of the time cultivating and weaving relationships, the foundation of a community that will show up together for one another.  

To put the Hosted Curated model into action:

  • Think about the people you already know in the community who might be interested in the experience you are planning. Send them a personal email or text inviting them and letting them know you would love to see them. Ask them if there is anyone who they personally would like to invite and encourage them to do so.
  • Plan facilitated “get-to-know-you” activities in advance. Something as simple as asking attendees to introduce themselves to their neighbors is a great start.
  • Nominate a designated team member to be the community “weaver” at your next program, greeting people as they enter your space, introducing them to one another and helping them break the ice.
  • Take notes of people you saw talking with each other at your program. Afterward (and with their permission), connect these individuals via email so they can continue the conversation.

The Embedded Organic Model 

Cultivating Jewish friendships is essential to those in The Surge in becoming more engaged and feeling welcome in a community. An Embedded Organic approach to community building is about getting outside our programs and the walls of our buildings to make introductions and facilitate connections between community members that may then blossom into friendships. 

When we do this, our community members form genuine connections that lead to a supportive, interconnected Jewish community that cares for one another. These connections may exist outside of our organizational spaces, or they may tie back to us. Either way, this approach is about meeting the people where they are to build community. 

To put the Embedded Organic Model into action:

  • Set a goal to meet 3-5 community members per month for a 1:1 coffee (or ice cream run, or walk in the park). Prioritize getting to know your people deeply, both as they relate to your organization’s mission and outside of it.
  • Introduce people who have a common interest, are in a similar life stage, live near each other or are excited by the same things in Jewish life to one another. 
  • Invite them to do something – grab a coffee, organize a playdate, check out a Shabbat service – together.
  • Follow up on connections! Set a reminder for yourself one month after you make the introduction to see if it stuck. If it didn’t, think about who else you might introduce them to. 

The Concierged Partnership Model

For 42% of individuals in The Surge, seeing themselves reflected in Jewish spaces and among program attendees was important for establishing a sense of belonging. A Concierged Partnership model of community building prioritizes connecting individuals to the organizations, experiences and resources that fit their personal needs and interests and reflect who they are on the inside. 

At Gather, we call this purposeful and tailored way of connection-making “concierging.” It is a core practice of relational engagement: By concierging people to existing opportunities within our community, we not only support individual community members but strengthen the entire ecosystem of Jewish life. A relational approach prioritizes collaboration over competition and centers meeting the needs of the individual over increasing attendance or participation at specific programs we are running. 

To put the Concierged Partnership Model into action:

  • Get to know the staff and lay leaders at Jewish organizations in your community. Set up coffee dates to learn about and build relationships with your organizational peers.
  • Create a Jewish “ecosystem map” for your area. Write down the Jewish organizations, resources and programs in your community, what needs they fill, and who they serve, so that you can quickly connect community members with what they are seeking. 
  • When you meet a new person out in the community or at one of your hosted curated experiences, get to know them. Concierge them to the organization, resource, or program that best meets their needs — whether that’s your own organization or a different one.

As you strategize to meet The Surge — to sustain a sense of belonging and meaning for Jewish adults newly seeking to engage with communities of their peers, now and for years to come — we hope that these engagement models can support you in curating, concierging and community-building in ways that make Jewish life compelling, engaging and sustainable. 

Michelle Shapiro Abraham is the CEO of Gather, Inc. Her work explores the intersection of community organizing and relational strategizing as a way to reimagine Jewish leadership, communal power and individual thriving.

Sarah Fredrick is Gather, Inc. Director of Trainings. She leads Gather’s consulting and partnerships, collaborating with organizations to reimagine and sustain meaningful, accessible, relational Jewish communal life.