Relational Engagement as Strategy, Philosophy, and Pedagogy: How a Synagogue Can Build Community through Coffee Dates (and More)

By Ilana L. Schachter

[This article is the first in a new series written by participants in the Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

When I first began working at a Hillel, I served a community that was just emerging. Unsure of where to begin the work of building a Jewish community from the ground up, I started having coffee with every Jewish student who would take a meeting. I would ask the students to tell me their stories, prompted by questions like: “What was your life like up until now and what led you to choose a Catholic school as a Jewish person? What are you passionate about? What are you looking for in a Jewish community?”

I started to understand the Jewish landscape of the university as I collected the stories of my students. My relationships enabled me to keep specific people in mind as I developed programs and initiatives that directly addressed their needs and interests. As the campus rabbi and solo professional for that Hillel at the time, I saw my role as a connector, not only between students and their own Jewish interests, but also between students with similar stories or shared goals and passions.

This process of hearing people’s stories and crafting a program of Jewish life around them felt intuitive; in order to build a community within an institution, one must first learn who the people are within it. It was only later, in discussing my work with other Hillel colleagues, that I understood the sacred work of holding students’ stories had a name: relational engagement.

Seeing the power of relational engagement on the college campus has made me a firm believer in the methodology. Today, however, in my work as the Director of Community Building at Temple Shaaray Tefila, my approach to relational engagement is even more intentional. I have begun to see it not only as critical to building community, but also as a strategy, philosophy, and pedagogy. I believe in the power of creating sacred community as we actively engage people through inviting them into relationship. This encompasses the way we greet someone and listen when someone is talking, the questions we ask and the way we respond, and the way we teach, both in formal and experiential settings throughout the synagogue.

A great debt of gratitude is owed to Ron Wolfson and his book on relational engagement. So much of the work we do in the field is in conversation with his observations and recommendations. For example, relational engagement at Shaaray Tefila is an attempt to move away from the synagogue as a transactional space so that it can become relational. And now, in my synagogue we are testing whether these methods can, in fact, transform a multi-generational synagogue community so that we can deepen our relationships to one another.

We are using various techniques and strategies to accomplish our goal, several of which can be implemented at any synagogue:

  1. Creating an authentic yet strategic culture of welcoming: While all synagogues work toward creating a culture of welcoming, in order for these efforts to be successful, there must also be strategy around the touchpoints we have with our members. We must consider the language we use when we welcome someone at the door or when we send out an email. We must be intentional and reflective in the words that we use and the questions that we ask.
  2. Prioritizing relational meetings: Relational meetings (one-on-ones, coffee dates, etc.) are about building trust, comfort, and familiarity. Staff and lay leaders should be experts on their community and should know each person well. In a relational synagogue, these meetings are sacred and as much of a priority as a committee meeting or an event.
  3. Igniting versus fueling the spark: programming as an engagement strategy: Some of our programs are ongoing, such as Shabbat worship or volunteering at our soup kitchen, while others are one-time special events. A relational synagogue operates under the assumption that every program has the opportunity to engage someone and can either ignite or fuel the spark of engagement in that person. Ignition programs allow someone to access Jewish life for the first time, whereas fuel programs help individuals continue their Jewish journey within the synagogue. The same program might achieve both goals, depending on the congregant. For example, for some people, a meaningful Shabbat service might ignite the spark of their Jewish engagement at the synagogue. For others, it might be the fuel, a next step in the journey, after their spark was ignited earlier during a multi-generational Challah bake led by our senior rabbi. A relational synagogue can be a concierge service for its congregants: it prioritizes building relationships so that leaders and staff can know its members and identify programs for them that can ignite or fuel their sparks and passions.
  4. Investing in an engagement staff: At Shaaray Tefila, we started to change the way we think about staff, with a focus on engagement. We not only crafted new positions, including a Director of Community Building who trains the staff and lay leadership in relational methods, from the coffee date one-on-one and active listening to meaningful follow-up techniques, but we also changed the title and focus of existing positions to highlight their implicit relational work. Such new titles and newly focused positions include our Director of Religious School Engagement, Director of Teen Engagement, and our Director of Congregational Learning and Engagement.
  5. Understanding relational engagement as a pedagogy: While I have served as a Jewish educator and worked in institutions of higher education for my entire rabbinate, it was not until I participated in the M² Senior Educators Cohort that I began to understand relational engagement as a pedagogy as well. As the program modeled for us, taking the time to understand whom you’re teaching and what her passions, gifts, and talents are allow the educator to make a lasting connection with a learner. By placing relational engagement at the heart of Jewish education, learners are able to deepen their sense of Jewish identity as they share their stories with an active listener.

While relational engagement may not be so counterintuitive (after all, who doesn’t want to deepen relationships?), in a world where relationships are built and maintained virtually and people are busier than ever, it is countercultural, especially within the congregational world. It is also difficult and requires a significant commitment on the part of the community’s leadership. The strategies recommended above require buy-in from staff and lay leadership alike, as well as a commitment to view their institution, their programs, and their budgets differently.

Nevertheless, I have seen first-hand the power of relational engagement, am grateful to Hillel for developing best practices from which I have been able to learn, and am energized by the opportunity now to explore the possibility of a truly relational synagogue.

Rabbi Ilana Schachter is the Director of Community Building at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, and a graduate of the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications will be open soon for Cohort 3 of the Senior Educators Cohort.