Human connection

What’s next?

It’s time to be planning for outcomes

A few months ago, I was speaking with a group from the Cincinnati Teen Collective. This is a group of gifted teen professionals, and we were talking about reopening spaces – camps, youth groups, teen programming. One of them, Dori Singer Zoot, an assistant director at URJ GUCI, made a statement that has been reverberating in my head ever since. “I’m less worried about the first days of camp. We know how to manage that,” she said. “I’m more concerned about what they leave with.”

Wow. Many of us have been focused on masks and hand sanitizer and social distancing and the ever-changing CDC recommendations. We’ve thought about separation anxiety for both parents and kids. I’ve recommended that kids bring stuffed animals and special blankets. I’ve talked about technology withdrawal and the elimination of visiting day. About skin starvation (the need for physical contact) balanced with fears, the creation of explicit touch protocols that are not about sexual behavior. 

But what do we want them to leave with? Whether we’re talking about staff, leadership or campers, all of us are in adjustment mode. Debby Shriber, director at Crane Lake, says she’s focused on joy. Rabbis tell me they’re focused on connection. And the Pew report tells us that we need to set new goals in all our institutions, at least if we want people to see the value we hope to offer.

If COVID has taught us anything, it is the importance of human connection. Isolation is simply bad for human beings. COVID has also taught us about ourselves, and we have learned what we truly value. Family matters, however you define it. For so many of us, the first visit after vaccination was to a parent or a child. We missed each other deeply. Our values became clearer.

I often hear people talking about “back to normal.” And it makes me scared. Do we really think that “normal” was working? Synagogues have seen gradual membership declines. Communal professionals work too hard for too little recognition. Our seminaries have fewer applicants. Worship that doesn’t ask personal questions, education that doesn’t challenge personal growth – these cannot create deep connections. 

I wonder what parts of “normal” we need to keep. I know I don’t want the busyness for the sake of busyness. I’m not sure I want the universal hugging. I want the learning that has been part of COVID, the long thoughtful conversations about Judaism or morality. What of the before-times do I want to keep? Travel, friends, teaching. But I recognize that I hope to live with greater intentionality going forward. That I need to be sure I’m living the life I intend, rather than the life I filled with activities. 

It’s time to be planning for outcomes. As Dori reminded me, it’s the impact we have that matters. At the end of this year, what do you want people to feel about your institution? Do you want them to feel valued or challenged? Educated or attended to? We need to set explicit goals and work towards those goals – and back to normal isn’t a goal that works. Those goals might be a deepened sense of connection or more people at activities – but the goal should reflect your values going forward. These goals are your road map as you enter the next normal. 

What is the goal of your work? Does your shul, your JCC, your organization create deep connections between people? Do people feel loved? Do they feel spiritually or intellectually challenged? Did they learn they mattered this year? 

Don’t answer these questions. Ask them. Did congregants and members feel cared for? Does your leadership feel their contributions mattered? Is your staff challenged or overwhelmed? Are their contributions recognized or rewarded? Spend some time listening to how people feel and what they need. 

If we set simple goals – connection, joy, compassion – can we achieve these goals through our “back to normal”? These human goals are essential in our reopening. But they’re even more important as we progress out of this awful year. Who do you want to be? How can you progress towards that goal? 

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.