Relational Judaism: The Only Experience Left for Jewish Community

For professionals such as myself, the desire and drive to find ways to engage families and enable them to feel empowered in their Jewish choices is a model I believe will save Jewish life for future generations.

By Lisa Bodziner

[This is the fourth in an annual series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

Fortunately or unfortunately the following words are not familiar to the millennial generation:

  • Synagogue membership
  • Building funds
  • Pulpit
  • Sermons

But these are:

  • Innovation
  • Social media
  • DIY
  • Experiential
  • Grassroots

Our Jewish community is at a crossroads. While it seems presumptuous to generalize an entire generation, research and experience shows us that those raising young Jewish families in the 21st century are far more self-selecting than those of the past. Young people and young families desire – and in many ways require – new and innovative strategies in order to be reached. They need to constantly be “engaged” through experiences. I often wonder whether it is possible to merge this new type of Judaism that values the subjective experience, the relevant and personable touch, with a Jewish tradition that values community, adheres to thoughts, concepts and rulings of the past.

Critics and skeptics may say why bother? Why make the effort for Jewish families “on the cusp” who question any commitment to Jewish life at all? For professionals such as myself, the desire and drive to find ways to engage families and enable them to feel empowered in their Jewish choices is a model I believe will save Jewish life for future generations. In my organization, we call this the “engagement to empowerment model“ and it is the guiding model for all of our work.

Let’s imagine a young Jewish couple that recently had their first child. One partner has a mother that identifies as “Jewish by choice” and was raised in a humanistic household. The second partner “retired” from Jewish learning after the age of 13 and Jewish life for that person was dreadful up until his bar mitzvah party. It is a common and familiar structure. Once this couple has a child, something deep in their conscience might be stirred. It asks, “Judaism. What should we do about Judaism?” The couple experiences together an “ah-ha” moment. Often, what follows this moment is a sudden loss with what to do next.

The model of high touch interactions or what Dr. Ron Wolfson calls “Relational Judaism,” is a truth within itself. Social connections are not just a portal or a “way in” to Jewish life and community, rather “experiences” and the memory of those experiences is a crucial component that can make Jewish life attractive to these families. We must build relationships first if we are going to succeed at enticing the next generation of Jewish families to come into the fold of Jewish life, tradition and joy. Connecting to this family has nothing to do with synagogue membership, building funds, or sermons. This family will be interested in a social media message inviting them to a “potluck” style DIY (do it yourself) Friday evening neighborhood get together with singing and drinks. This is an experience that will be “worth it” to the new family. The family is intrigued by something low-key, non-threatening and non-committal.

In the work we do, every day is a gift and opportunity to provide positive Jewish experiences family by family. With the launch of the community connector project in April of 2014 Baltimore’s CJE (Center for Jewish Education) provides families with the choice to opt in to relationships and Jewish experiences by offering them relevant, meaningful and personal experiences every step of the journey.

As a participant in Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, I was exposed to a model that I now use to more effectively develop these types of experiences. It is a model that has shaped my approach in the engagement work I do with these families. The Content Development Model (CDM) suggests that in order to create meaningful experiences that enable growth, change and development, an individual (or couple, or family) should encounter, over the course of their experience, an exposition, conflict, journey and resolution.

In experiential education, relational Judaism is not passive. It is not “of the past” and it is not static. In relational Judaism, the emphasis is on crafting a Jewish opportunity for families to experience a journey. The journey for the couple aforementioned might include struggling with an old Jewish memory: a boring teacher or the monotony of Hebrew school. It is our job as educators and mentors in the field of experiential Jewish education to make Judaism come alive in these moments and tease out conflict as an integral part of the Jewish journey; a journey that we believe is worth holding onto, not giving up on.

At CJE, the community connectors shape programs that follow the Content Development Model, so that nearly every family that participates grows and changes in their orientation towards Jewish community as a result of coming into contact with the connectors and staff. In implementing this model, it has become apparent that experiences are the critical portal through which we can successfully impact non-traditionally engaged Jewish families. Every experience created must be authentic, relevant, grassroots, organic and natural for the family. Moreover, we have found that the experience is most successful when led by a peer, not clergy or staff. Families are looking for experiences that “speak to them,” that provide them with “ah-ha” moments or opportunities. Often, this can be achieved by having them play an active role in the creation of the experience.

Before we began using the engagement to empowerment model, we used to ask ourselves different questions: In what ways is your life about transactions? In what situations do you think to yourself, what do I have to do in order to receive “X”? What does that person have to do for me in order for me to give “Y”? “Transactional Judaism”, the phrase coined by Dr. Ron Wolfson to explain a philosophy at play in much of the organized Jewish world, is no longer a model that applies to young families and new generations. The YU EJE program elucidated this truth for me, and has given me tools to create experiences for young Jewish families so that they will opt into more and more Jewish experiences, which in turn, we believe, will sustain our Jewish community for the future.

Lisa Bodziner is the Director of Educational Engagement at the The Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and a graduate of the fourth cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through March 14, 2016. For more information and to apply visit

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.