The JOFEE Report: Lessons, Successes and Challenges

by Nigel Savage and Jon Marker

Seeds of Opportunity: A National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education” – also known as the JOFEE Report – was released yesterday by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Leichtag Foundation, The Morningstar Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Schusterman Family Foundation, UJA-Federation of New York, and Hazon.

We call it JOFEE because:

a) Jewish life was clearly in need of another acronym; and
b) “JOFEE” was the shortest thing we could come up with to cover the emerging world of Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education.

The new acronym describes a set of experiences that have arisen in the last dozen years. It encompasses the work of a slew of programs and organizations, including not only Hazon (and discrete Hazon programs such as Adamah, Teva, and the Hazon bike rides) but also things like Eden Village Camp, Ekar Farm (in Denver), Pearlstone Retreat Center, Jewish Farm School, Ramah Outdoor Adventures, Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah. In 2000, when Hazon was founded, the only one of these that existed was Teva.

The report was intended to answer a series of questions that funders and local community leaders have been asking for a while. What’s the nature of this space? Who attends your programs? What’s their Jewish background? What impact – if at all – are you having? And behind these questions the larger ones: What should we be doing? How can we achieve the most significant long-term outcomes? The report is joined by two companion case studies on the investments that have been made in JOFEE across Colorado and New York. We hope both of these will be insightful to local funders looking to learn from different models of intervention and integration of JOFEE into established Jewish life.

Developing and creating the study was a fascinating learning experience. Six funders, two research houses, and an extremely active advisory board collaborated throughout the process. We determined early on that we needed to define the scope of the study in order to manage all of the moving parts and to have a final product that offered substantive findings and key lessons learned. Thus, we focused only on multi-day immersive experiences and we excluded the (still deeply meaningful) work that Hazon and many partners engage in regarding content production and thought-leadership – separate curricula on food, family meals, and shmita, for instance. We focused only on adults aged 18 and over, which excluded, for example, measuring outcomes of programs like Eden Village or Teva on their middle-school participants – though we included the (substantial) influence of those programs on the over-18 counselors and staff at those programs. And some of the most vital questions – about the future potential of JOFEE, as opposed to only what it is today – are by definition beyond the purview of the study.

Yet despite these qualifications, we believe that this will prove to be a critically important study in the development of American Jewish life. It is one of the very first post-Pew studies that clearly captures not only the accuracy of the world being described by Pew, but also some of the ways that new programs and new methodologies are breathing new energy and commitment into the contemporary Jewish community.

The key conclusions of the study describe and corroborate what instinctually we know either to be true or to be highly likely:

  • JOFEE programs are multi-generational, but the modal groups are 20-somethings, followed by 30-somethings;
  • There has been tremendous growth in the space in the last decade by all metrics – number of programs, participants and staff;
  • Connecting Jewish tradition with key contemporary issues – the outdoors, food, environment – in ways that are pedagogically serious has a profound impact on participants;
  • Participant impact measures do not show particularly high rates of affiliation with traditional denominations or synagogues. But they show high and significant impact in the actualities of Jewish life – observance, friends, commitment, etc;
  • Very high proportions of our respondents (and the respondent sample was more than twice as large as our researchers were expecting) said not only that they feel connected to Jewish traditions but that their JOFEE experience had had an impact on them in this regard.

Some of the other conclusions were less obvious or predictable:

  • JOFEE participants have a particularly high likelihood of going on to found or lead Jewish experiences themselves. 87% reported that they had helped to organize a Jewish event and 73% consider themselves a leader in the Jewish community; in both cases very large proportions reported that in this regard they were influenced by their JOFEE experiences;
  • The Jewish community often draws an implicit distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Many JOFEE participants seem to fit a third profile: people who had to some reasonable degree a traditional Jewish upbringing; who subsequently became alienated from Jewish life; and who then stepped back into Jewish life and leadership through a JOFEE portal;
  • JOFEE programs seem to have fairly high program revenue – an important finding since it signifies that funder dollars are more leveraged than would otherwise be the case.

Some of the conclusions focused at the organizational and professional level, as opposed to the participant level. Here the picture was more mixed. The findings reveal the downside of being a young space: there was a clear sense among JOFEE professionals surveyed that they felt that they worked particularly long hours, for “low-ish” pay, without a clear sense of career development, in organizations that were often significantly under-funded, and with a lack of background or support in needed areas other than JOFEE – management skills, fundraising skills, business planning and so forth.

The launch of the report thus heralds, we hope, a period of both reflection and opportunity. Reflection both locally and nationally, as JOFEE practitioners and organizational leaders – existing and, we hope, new – come together to discuss its finding and make plans for the future. And an opportunity because the data makes clear that, for those of us who care about the future of Jewish life in this country, the emerging JOFEE strategies hold high promise for renewing Jewish life – and creating a more sustainable world for all.

Nigel Savage is executive director of Hazon. Jon Marker is a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Both were among the team that coordinated the JOFEE Report. They can be reached at nigel@hazon.org and Jmarker@jimosephfoundation.org, respectively.