Part 4: Building Relationships with Unengaged Millennials

Relationship-based engagement is difficult. It can take a long time. It’s more complex than offering programming. It requires investing in relationships with young adults without the expectation that they will ever want to get involved with what your organization currently offers.

by Rachel Cort

Last week, I wrote about improv as a collaborative “ritual” that can help foster teamwork and create idea-generating spaces. At the end of the piece, I noted that it is important to include our target audience (in this case, unengaged Millennials) in our collaborative teams. For organizations that don’t have relationships with unengaged Millennials, the critical question then becomes: how do we build relationships with the people who are not engaging with our organization? As a solution, I’d like to suggest utilizing relationship-based engagement, a technique that draws on principles of community organizing, leverages the power of social networks, and emphasizes building a relationships with people before attempting to connect them to Jewish life.

I first encountered relationship-based engagement when I worked as the Director of Engagement at Newberger Hillel during the 2011-2012 academic year. Relationship-based engagement is an approach that has become central in national Hillel’s efforts to reach out to Jewish students who would not normally seek out Jewish life on campus. Hillel defines this kind of engagement as “the act of reaching others, getting to know them, and connecting with them on the basis of their interests, ambitions, and passions.” This emphasis on reaching out to students on the margins of Jewish life (“meeting them where they’re at”) represents an important evolution of the previous model in which the Hillel building was the sole locus of Jewish life on campus. My perception of relationship-based engagement in Hillel is that there is some confusion about what it is ultimately for: is it an end in itself, or is it a way to recruit students to pre-existing Hillel programs? I suspect that it was conceived of as the former, but is actually widely used in service of the latter. And as discussed in previous articles, unengaged Millennials often require Jewish experiences that established institutions are unable to provide.

Still, the technique of relationship-based engagement is a very effective way to engage with Millennials, particularly Millennials who understand their Jewish identities to be merely one part of an “identity mosaic,” and who want to be acknowledged and approached as the unique amalgamation of identities, interests and choices that they are. It seems obvious, but having a sit-down, one-on-one conversation is simply the most effective way to start building a relationship with someone. Community organizers have long known this, and used one-on-ones as the basis to create change. Where relationship-based engagement departs from community organizing is that there is no expectation that your conversation partner will necessarily do an “action” after the conversation concludes. In this framework, the conversations should be about listening and asking questions in the service of building a relationship for the long term.

Relationship-based engagement is also an effective way to build and maintain small communities, which Jonathan Woocher calls “a consistent source of meaning, a focal point for relationships, and a powerful contributor to a sense of self-worth.” My organization, jUChicago, is using relationship-based engagement, combined with a philosophy of empowerment, to help build small student communities around shared interests, activities and concerns. Investing in relationships with students is our priority. If and when a student has an interest in some facet of Jewish life, our goal is to connect them to peers with similar interests or resources to help them create their own Jewish experience, not necessarily to connect them to our organization. We see this as seeding a number of different experiments that might grow into the next Jewish future. As we build a network of empowered, creative and confident Jewish students, we’ll continue to figure out ways to deepen the Jewish content and increase opportunities for learning (next week, I’ll write more about the importance of traditionally radical Jewish text study, for both unengaged Millennials and Jewish professionals).

This approach has been informed by an understanding of how networks operate, and how people operate within networks. In Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discuss how social networks can magnify and spread behaviors, “because of our tendency to want what others want, and because of our inclination to see the choices of others as an efficient way to understand the world.” Each relationship, or connection, between people is an opportunity to both influence and be influenced by others’ choices. At jUChicago, relationship-based engagement is used to create a network in which Jewish behavior (hosting and attending Shabbat dinners, engaging with Jewish texts and ideas, celebrating Jewish holidays) is normal, habitual and happens with enthusiasm in student homes and dorms. Helping someone find a place in a dynamic Jewish community can provide them access to a vast range of Jewish resources as well as relationships, without requiring them to affiliate with an institution first. Institutions have a lot to offer Jewishly self-confident individuals with articulated Jewish needs, but they can also be a significant barrier to entry for unengaged Millennials, who would rather be connected to people than to institutions.

Building Jewish communities of previously unengaged Millennials can also set the conditions for new and interesting Jewish practices to emerge. Sometimes disruptive innovations happen by design; sometimes they happen by accident. Unengaged Millennials might have fewer assumptions and might be able to approach Jewish life with a beginner’s mind; some of our students who are very new to Jewish life have created compelling new Jewish communities and modes of expression. If we can encourage more currently unengaged young adults to focus their energies on Jewish life, it’s a smart bet that they’ll be the ones to invent the next Jewish future.

Jewish professionals can and should see themselves as working to build empowered communities. This approach will build the kinds of networks that 1) encourage the spread of Jewish behaviors and engagement amongst Millennials and 2) build small, highly creative communities from which exciting new Jewish practices and ideas will arise. I want to be perfectly clear: relationship-based engagement is difficult. It can take a long time. It’s more complex than offering programming. It requires investing in relationships with young adults without the expectation that they will ever want to get involved with what your organization currently offers. And it can be emotionally draining (ask any Hillel professional!), because building relationships with young adults often means giving more than you get back. But in a time when we can no longer expect unengaged Millennials to walk through the front doors of our institutions, leveraging the power of relationships is an effective way to build the communities which can serve as the sites of meaningful Jewish engagement.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.