Remaining Relevant Requires a Creative Approach

by Danielle Foreman

Throughout American history, some of the greatest innovations have come at times of considerable challenge. Today is no exception. The onerous national political climate and volatile economy have inspired city governments, philanthropists, urban planners and business leaders to develop creative solutions at the local level to address social and economic problems. This phenomenon is occurring in cities across America, from New York to Ohio to Los Angeles. As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley from the Brookings Institute write, American cities are adapting and evolving through a “Metropolitan Revolution.”

The Jewish community is also facing unique challenges. The 2013 Pew Center report entitled, A Portrait of American Jews, presented strong evidence of a trend many in the Jewish community have observed for quite some time: increasing numbers of modern Jews identify less with their religion than with their culture and ancestry. This change represents a stark divide between previous generations of Jews and is driving local Jewish communities to consider “metropolitan revolutions” of their own. They are learning that members value interpersonal connections, self-expression, and diversity above religious exclusivity and conformity.

These evolving attitudes are forcing traditional Jewish institutions to rethink the way they engage with their communities. As the Connected to Give reports have shown, these institutions no longer compete solely with other Jewish organizations, but face mounting pressure from secular players as well. Museums, cafes, farmers markets, and social clubs all offer compelling alternatives to individuals with limited time yet are actively looking for community. For institutions so firmly cemented in the landscape of American Jewry to adapt, clues may lie in methods being tested by cities and businesses, entities not typically known for being particularly nimble, but have revolutionized out of necessity. These pilot programs have included applied design thinking, the creation of “third spaces,” and promoting the development of a sharing economy.

Businesses looking for new ways to engage their customers have employed a human-centered approach to problem solving known as “design thinking” that emphasizes listening and active engagement over strategizing in boardrooms and backrooms. Designers in this school ask questions of those being targeted and make exhaustive observations of behavior to develop a deep understanding of an issue before attempting to prototype solutions. As Rachel Cort mentioned in her article last week, this approach could help Jewish institutions develop programs that more accurately reflect the needs of the whole community, Millennials and beyond.

Consider a Jewish Community Center hoping to deepen the involvement of fathers whose children attend activities at the Center. A leader employing design thinking would notice these men milling around on their smartphones while their children are otherwise occupied, and recognize this as an opportunity to provide them with an alternative. This could mean a comfortable place to relax, targeted programming, or networking and social events. Most importantly, a designer would remain flexible, solicit feedback, and work with these fathers to ultimately improve their experience, which in turn will increase the likelihood of future involvement.

According to urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, the places people visit with regularity can be separated into three categories: one’s home (“first space”), one’s work (“second space”) and, critical to the organizations at hand, one’s community (“third space”). The third space brings people together to gather and interact; it may serve as the “living room” outside of one’s home. To be most effective, the physical space should encourage socializing, be flexible enough for mixed use, involve its participants in its design, and stay open publicly while still being privately managed and maintained. Examples include campus student unions, farmers markets, coffeehouses, and urban “parklets.” In the Jewish community, examples include JCCs, museums, Hillel houses, and synagogues.

Using the principles of creating a successful third space, an organization like a JCC could think about redesigning its lobby. Arranging furniture deliberately could encourage both socializing and privacy, and installing strong Wi-Fi along with plenty of electrical outlets would allow for professionals to work remotely. In San Francisco, a third space has been developed with great success at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (“CJM”). A recent partnership between the popular (and delicious) Wise Sons Deli and the museum has improved attendance, attracted new visitors, and serves to promote the museum’s Jewish cultural mission. This example can be instructive to other institutions looking to make participants feel good about becoming “a regular.”

Embracing design thinking and recognizing the importance of third spaces will help institutions understand the needs and behaviors of individuals. Another lesson can be learned from companies capitalizing on the emergence of a “sharing economy.” A sharing economy relies on collaboration, networking and a greater acceptance of mutual, collective benefit. The web company Airbnb has created a “trusted community marketplace” that allows apartment owners to rent empty units, providing an essential service to owners of underutilized properties and individuals in search of unique accommodations. The trust required for this type of secular transaction to work suggests that Jewish community institutions could also facilitate individuals’ interest and willingness to network with and trust other Jews. It is not difficult to picture a JCC lobby filled with Jewish families swapping used children’s gear, or a Federation-sponsored nanny-sharing website for local Jewish families. Empty conference rooms could facilitate casual meet-ups for Jewish professionals looking to network. The potential is limitless.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman responded to the Pew study by suggesting, “our institutions will require new thinking as they reimagine their [much needed] roles.” A modern strategy that uses creative, entrepreneurial and inclusive solutions can help Jewish institutions strengthen their position to remain relevant with Jews of today. Just like cities and companies, established Jewish institutions always change slower than the individuals they serve, but with a little encouragement, they can and will catch up.

Danielle Foreman is a Senior Program Officer at the Koret Foundation in San Francisco and is a board member of Slingshot.