Possibility Knocks: Designing a Tool for Engagement

"Sabbath Afternoon" - Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1866.
“Sabbath Afternoon” – Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1866.

By Josh Rolnick

Two women sit side-by-side at a table lost in the same book. A man sits nearby, hands clasped, leaning forward over a text, absorbed by a shared thought. A child stands reading at the far end of the table facing a grandfatherly figure, who reclines in a high-backed chair before yet another open book, as if satiated by the swirl of learning and conversation.

The painting is called “Shabbat Afternoon.” Ironically, perhaps, it was this image, painted by the German Jewish artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim in 1866, that served as our creative wellspring as we set out to redesign the journal Sh’ma for 2015.

Last year, as I wrote in this space [“Updating a Deep Dive”], Sh’ma, founded in 1970 by a Reform rabbi, had begun an earnest process of introspection. Was it possible, we wondered, to take an “old media” product, beloved by a small but loyal following of rabbis, communal leaders, and Jewish seekers, and transform it for our current digital and Jewish moment, radically extending its reach?

Our chief sponsor, Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation for Living Torah*, gave us a clear strategic directive inspired by the best of design thinking: create new Sh’ma “prototypes,” test them with readers, collect feedback, and iterate, quickly, moving from model to model, learning as we go.

As our work began, the foundation provided a two-year financial ramp for discovery, funding our operating budget and project costs. We were asked, in particular, to explore new distribution models that would provide greater reach. Earlier this year, Sh’ma went on hiatus from monthly publication so that the staff could devote its energy to this dynamic process of re-invention.

One big result of this process is on display this week, when a special experimental High Holiday issue of Sh’ma appears as an insert in the Forward, one of America’s oldest, most respected, and widely distributed Jewish publications. (If you are not a Forward subscriber, you can find the insert online here.)

From our perspective at Sh’ma, there are at least three critical aspects of this “new” version:

  • Distribution in partnership with the Forward will allow the journal to reach a much larger audience in print, online, and digital formats;
  • Redesigned content is more dynamic and visually engaging, potentially appealing to a broader audience of readers/users;
  • A new “host guide” provides readers/users with a more sophisticated engagement tool, more explicitly positioning Sh’ma as a catalyst for conversation.

At the same time, this special issue, focused on the theme of “possibility,” draws upon the best of what Sh’ma has always been – namely, a provider of theme-based pluralistic content through a Jewish lens.

How did we arrive here?

We began by asking our Online Editor, Robert J. Saferstein, to shift into the role of Market Development Director, with responsibility for project oversight. Next, we reached out to potential partners who might value the kind of “fail fast/fail cheap” experimentation we had in mind. We worked most closely with three: Limmud NY, which sponsors an annual retreat devoted to Jewish learning in every form; Rabbis Without Borders, a rabbinic network that spans denominations and has served more than 1.5 million people nationwide; and Moishe House, an international organization made up of a collection of homes throughout the world that serve as hubs for the young adult Jewish community.

We asked each partner: What do you need to better serve your audience? What might Sh’ma provide that addresses one or more of your organizational pain points? How can Sh’ma be a part of your solution?

“People are looking to help define what their Jewishness makes them, as people,” one partner said. “They are experimenting and … looking for other avenues of expression.”

Could we design a new Sh’ma to provide one such avenue?

“There is definitely a hunger [among Jews] for more concrete experiential pieces in their own homes,” another partner said.

Could a redesigned Sh’ma help satisfy that hunger?

We contacted Toby Rubin, CEO of UpStart Bay Area, an organization that helps nonprofits apply proven theories and best practices from the for-profit innovation sector. She connected us with lead designer Denis Weil, former vice president of concept design for McDonalds and a globally recognized expert in design thinking and human centered design, who helped Sh’ma articulate its rationale for change (namely, that Sh’ma, a traditional media model, was losing its impact) and test assumptions (for instance, that Jewish seekers will want to “self-facilitate” peer-to-peer discussions, and will find such conversations meaningful).

Weil found and circulated the Oppenheim painting – which seemed to readily evoke the easy, informal warmth we supposed our readers might want from a Jewish experience – and we set to work generating new models.

Over Hanukkah 2014, we created “Dreidlespin: TableTalk by Sh’ma,” an 11-page downloadable print on demand PDF on the theme of chosenness. Our aim was to fuse accessible pluralistic content with a step-by-step host guide that offered conversation ground rules, ice breakers, related video pairings, and digestible text handouts designed to spark and nurture discussion.

And then we sat back and watched as our partners and subscribers “road tested” TableTalk. With the help of Conifer Research, a Chicago-based firm specializing in making sense of ethnographic data, we observed discussions, surveyed participants, and conducted follow-up interviews.

All told, there were some two dozen TableTalk conversations across the country between December and February, generally featuring between 5 and 15 invited friends or family members. Settings varied widely: a synagogue adult education class, a family living room circle, and, yes, a dining room table following a Shabbat meal.

For some, TableTalk was a welcome respite from the top-down programming often found in institutional settings. One facilitator in Brooklyn, N.Y., told us it “allowed for a nice, warm conversation over a beer.”

For Jews who live in off-the-beaten-path Jewish communities, TableTalk was a means to connect to the broader Jewish world.

One event in particular fell flat, in part because participants felt the materials didn’t offer enough autonomy.

But, true to our method, we did not see this or other bumps in the road as failures; rather, each event provided important learning opportunities to shape future iterations.

All along, we have been in discussion with the Forward about our process. And, as the summer began, we decided to work together on the special issue. Sh’ma’s editorial and design team created the issue; the Forward published and is helping to promote it. The partnership, we hope, is a win-win, bringing Sh’ma’s unique blend of content to Forward readers for the High Holidays and, at the same time, allowing Sh’ma to iterate once again and test its latest model with a much broader audience.

The Sh’ma that came out this week online and as an insert in the Forward – edited by Susan Berrin, who has served as Sh’ma’s Editor-in-Chief for 17 years – and designed by a team under the leadership of Eileen Levinson – founder of the websites Haggadot.com and CustomandCraft.org – responds to much of what we’ve learned. An infographic includes Jewish and non-Jewish sources; the design is modern and elegant, a long way from the newsletter look many felt characterized the old Sh’ma. Significantly, the host guide, written in conjunction with Beth Cousens, a consultant specializing in Jewish education, was crafted using pedagogical expertise to be more meaningful and meet people wherever they are on their Jewish journeys.

If this insert does what we hope, then it provides a potential model for future Sh’ma offerings. As we shape those offerings, meanwhile, our conversations with all of our partners, including the Forward, continue.

The word “sh’ma” means “to hear.” As we make sense of what we learn and chart our next steps, we want readers and partners to know: We hear you, and – even as we continue to hear the voices of all those who have contributed to the project of Sh’ma along the way – we will continue to listen.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: We would appreciate your feedback. After reading the insert, please help us shape our future by completing a brief online survey.

* Full disclosure: I have a dual role as publisher of Sh’ma and a trustee of the family foundation.

Josh Rolnick is the publisher of Sh’ma.