When Funders Have Your Back

Circles of Welcome couples learn to bake challah under the guidance of Shannon Sarna, food writer and cookbook author.

By Rabbis Joy Levitt and Miriam Wajnberg

It started the way many projects at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan begin – with a problem someone in our community identified. A couple came to us with a challenge. They were getting married and one partner wasn’t Jewish. He wasn’t interested in converting but wanted to feel a part of the Jewish community. They weren’t interested in a class exactly, but were interested in being part of a group like themselves. And they were particularly interested in celebrating Shabbat because they saw it as an opportunity to refresh themselves and their relationship. Circles of Welcome was born.

We ran more focus groups to be sure our couple was not unique – they weren’t. We talked with people who had created these kinds of groups to find out what they had learned. We developed a model that, in retrospect, was too complicated and too demanding, but I digress.

The model looked like this. We would create chavurot – ten groups in the first pilot program – of five-eight couples each. The couples would include those in endogamous Jewish relationships as well as those who were intermarried, having received feedback from couples that mixed groups would be helpful. They said they don’t divide their lives and friends this way, and wouldn’t want to for this purpose either. Half the groups would be for couples with small children; the other half would be for those very recently married or engaged. We imagined the groups would essentially form themselves – one couple inviting another, who would invite another and so on. Once formed, each group would identify an interest. It could be Jewish holidays, film, cooking, Talmud – we didn’t care. The point was that the groups would embark on a course of learning of their choice once a month in one another’s apartments. We would provide mentors for each group who would help facilitate the logistics and provide the educational content for each evening. The JCC stood ready to embrace these couples all along the journey and particularly when their year was complete. We would bring all of the couples from all of the groups together once a year for a retreat that would enable them all to see themselves as part of something larger than their intimate circle.

We identified sources of funding and created budgets. Because the program was largely designed to be word-of-mouth, we didn’t think we needed much marketing. Money was needed for the coordinator who would meet couples and facilitate the creation of groups, for the mentors who would provide the educational support, and for subsidies for the retreats to encourage people to attend.

If we apply the metrics we had baked into the project – number of couples that joined a group, stayed with it, and attended the retreat – we failed pretty dramatically. It turned out our initial couple was not unique but they, along with most of the couples we met, found themselves unable to schedule anything on a regular, monthly basis. It turned out that our theory that the groups would form themselves was also wrong. These couples didn’t want to go on this journey with their friends – they wanted to meet new people, and for us to find those people for them. In particular, the couples in intermarried relationships wanted to get to know other couples like them, facing similar questions and challenges. We were also wrong about their ability to decide what they wanted to spend the year learning; most of them didn’t know what they wanted. They liked the idea of having a community to do Jewish life with, celebrating holidays and Shabbat together, but were less interested in “learning” per se. Finally, the retreats proved impossible, with people saying they wanted it but very few actually committing to come. While the first year we did indeed form eight groups, very few of them operated the way we expected.

And yet … there were some surprising successes that have endured. The first – and in many ways the most important – was the response of our funders. These were partners many of whom we had worked with for years and we were completely transparent as our assumptions proved to be wrong. At every step of the way, the funders, while demanding the usual accounting and reports, stayed with us as we thought about pivots. We shortened the program, we simplified the learning experience, and we continued to talk to couples. We turned the retreat into a shabbaton with members of the leadership team of our Center for Twenties and Thirties, so the experience was more robust for the Circles of Welcome participants. Our funders stuck with us.

In the end, the most important finding was not what we expected. We had believed that the community of learners would lead people to find their way within Jewish life. We learned that what couples really needed from the Jewish community was support around their life cycle moments. For many of these couples, the liminal moments of marriage or having children was often the starting point on their Jewish journey and for the most part they were left to the internet or friends to find clergy to help them. For couples whose families are not synagogue members – and that is most of the couples we see – finding clergy to help them is challenging. The Internet works but is entirely transactional. For some couples, that’s fine. They need a rabbi, they get a rabbi. Finished. Yet many couples are explicitly rejecting this model. Rabbis Within Reach was born out of these discoveries.

Now we meet couples, families, and individuals where they are but we don’t leave them there. Each couple has the opportunity to meet with a rabbi who gets to know them and learns what they are envisioning for their life cycle event. They are then connected to clergy who have the potential to be the right fit for them. After the life cycle event itself, we all keep reaching out. Rabbis will typically be in touch weeks and months after the life cycle event to invite the couple to a Shabbat dinner, suggest a parenting class for new parents, encourage a recently bereaved spouse to attend a lecture or get involved in a mindfulness class – the points of entry are extensive and they don’t only include the JCC. Our clergy are from all over the city and from every imaginable Jewish background and include congregational clergy who will also reach out to suggest activities within their synagogues that might be appropriate.

The goal of Rabbis Within Reach is to create not only a meaningful experience for a couple, family, or individual, but to provide on-ramps into Jewish life in all its fullness so the life cycle event is the beginning of the journey rather than a transactional experience. The very same questions that inspired us to create Circles of Welcome are being addressed with our new effort, and they are being done so more effectively.

In the end, our funders were most concerned about our commitment to intermarried couples and our willingness to see with clear eyes what wasn’t working. They pushed and prodded and questioned us, all the time having our backs. We were free to worry about how to do the project better, not how to keep the funding. These funders have considerable experience in this work and were able to share that experience as we continued to rebuild the project.

We all like to be right the first time. But daring to fail isn’t just a slogan. Too often we are so concerned about being wrong that we obfuscate, avoid, or just give up. But this work is too important to abandon and our community is fortunate that these funders understand that and give us the space to experiment, fail, and try again.

Circles of Welcome is made possible by The Covenant Foundation, The Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation, The Neshamot Fund: Westchester Women’s Impact Philanthropy Group/UJA Federation of New York in Westchester, and The Genesis Prize Foundation.

Rabbi Joy Levitt is the Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg is the Director of Adult Jewish Learning and Interfaith Engagement at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, and works to open doorways into Jewish life for those on the porous edges of the Jewish community.