7 Lessons on Family Engagement

by: Rabbi Joshua Fenton, Associate Director, Jewish LearningWorks

For the last three years, we at Jewish LearningWorks have taken a close look at families with young children in the Bay Area. What we’ve seen are a growing number of families looking for opportunities to connect to Judaism and Jewish community, but in non-traditional ways.  

This might not sound like news. The Jewish community has been hearing for years about the emergence of alternative, non-traditional, post-denominational Jewish communities and congregations. What’s news is who these alternatives are attracting; simply put, everyone. Even though traditional institutions (shuls, day schools, JCC’s, and so on) strive to remain interesting and attractive to families, the trend is clear. People are connecting in entirely new ways and we need to understand what motivates 21st century families if we hope, as a community, to remain relevant to them.  

Recognizing this change in the way families engage with and connect to community, we began asking ourselves, “how can we support these families in the creation of Jewish lives that work for them?” Initially our work focused on two new initiatives, Shalom Explorers – an alternative parent-led learning program for young children, and Kesher – a community concierge and outreach program. As part of these two initiatives, we spent time speaking with parents, professionals, and community leaders. We surveyed the field of Jewish family engagement and education initiatives nationally, and in the process learned some valuable lessons about how 21st century families think and feel about Judaism, and how our communities can be a lot more effective at reaching them and playing more meaningful roles in their lives.  

Lesson 1
Program for real people. We are professional educators, rabbis, and academics, and the truth is, when you get us around a table we seem to know just about everything. Don’t believe it. We continue to find that the best informants and partners in program creation are the end users, and we apply that to all of our work. That means before you create any program or class, first speak with potential program participants to make sure that what you’re designing is what people are looking for. 

And then go back to those very same people and talk to them some more. Engage them in the creative process and through them, your programs will grow stronger and more relevant. Never stop asking yourself and your students/families/customers, “Is this really meeting your needs and wants, and how can we do better?”  

Last year we piloted an at-home learning program for children, designed to be taught by parents. Our pilot groups were active participants in the evaluation process and after the three-month pilot, their feedback allowed us to make significant tweaks, which are now resulting in a much stronger, more resonant, and more meaningful program. We were able to do this because we listened.    

Lesson 2
The affiliated/unaffiliated dichotomy is unhelpful at best. Synagogue membership is not the single most important marker of connectivity, and a donation to Federation might say more about your age than it does your Jewishness. Synagogue membership is also no longer the only reasonable option for families who wish to create Jewish lives or connect with community. Think of the growing number of educational organizations offering content to families outside of an institution. Take Godcast, Hazon, Interfaithfamily.org, and Kveller; these organizations are all becoming hubs of activity from which new kinds of Jewish communities are emerging.  

As the number of alternative engagement opportunities and ways to connect grow, opting out of traditional modes of affiliation tells us less and less. Nowadays, opting out of synagogue life might simply mean you want something deeper and more meaningful than a one size fits all shul. As we try to better understand families in our communities, we need to revise the assumptions we make about synagogue membership, and what it implies about families who do and don’t join. In a DIY world, people are looking for experiences that uniquely speak to their specific interests and they’re more likely than ever to build something new for themselves rather than settling.   

Lesson 3
To build on the previous point, membership is an old model. More and more people are limiting their memberships to fitness centers and Netflix. For JCC’s that run gyms, this is no big deal. They’re Jewish organizations invested in businesses and revenue streams that meet needs beyond the spiritual/social/communal. I’ve always believed that a Jewish person who joins the JCC does so as a Jew, making a Jewish choice.  

But for the rest of us, families want to know why they need to be invested in a synagogue when all they want is a Jewish education for their children. People are looking for community and connection without the burden of dues, the building fund, and so on. More and more families are doing Jewish stuff, less and less as members of Jewish institutions. It’s time for us to rethink, as a community, how membership does and doesn’t work, to investigate new models, and most importantly, to engage our constituencies in this conversation about investment and financial sustainability.  

Lesson 4
Identities are complicated. If the Pew study did nothing else, it showed us how our understandings of Jewishness and the labels that go along with it are pretty much completely off the mark. For example, the Pew study found that 4% of Jews with no religion attend synagogue services monthly. As we continue to get to know this new and different American Jewish community, we must embrace the many new ways of expressing identity. Judaism is a facet of people’s lives and the ways they see themselves. The question is no longer whether “Jewish” or “American” comes first. The question is, “what else is in there?” 

I don’t have to choose between environmentalism and Judaism, between a hike and Shabbat services; I can be a part of the eco-Jewish movement or hang out at Urban Adamah. Or perhaps I’m a foodie, or an athlete, an amateur gardener, or even a Phish fan. Rather than competing, innovators are looking for more and more ways to integrate, celebrating the amalgams that make us who we are. With this comes a growing disinterest in distinguishing between interfaith or patrilinealism, a desire to claim “post-denominationalism,” and a growing discomfort with older definitions of Judaism. As we work to better understand these 21st century families, we need to be much more nuanced in our understandings of what they are all about, what moves them, and what language and terminology best reflects who they are.  

Lesson 5
There is a huge marketing issue. Families can’t figure out what and who is really out there, what programs, events, and institutions might work for them, and they often shy away for fear of ending up in the wrong place.  There is too much noise coming from the Jewish world. How many websites can a person check? How many Facebook groups can someone be a member of? 

Families with young children are more open to and interested in engagement than just about any other demographic group. These new families are looking for opportunities to try out different experiences. They’re actively looking for us. And unlike other demographic groups that might require some careful PR and messaging, the parents we’re talking about are waiting for an invitation – an effective communication plan that is comprehensive and clear is the way to go.  

Lesson 6
Community, community, community! Families long for community above everything else. Let’s be honest, that’s what everyone is looking for and it’s really one of the most compelling things we Jews have to offer. Everyone knows we do community well, and families want in. Across all of our family engagement programs, after hearing from hundreds of families, community is the common denominator. They might sign up for a Family Ed program or something for their kids, but in the end parents almost always say they are looking for other families to be friends with.  

Families want to be part of a group they can call their own. Parents want friends for their children and for themselves; they want to socialize with other families with young kids. These groups or communities aren’t synagogue communities, though they may be found in them. They aren’t affinity groups connecting people with common interests. These are small groups of like-minded friends who parent similarly, share similar values, and appreciate the ways in which their kids play together. This is the Holy Grail for families, a small social network to grow up with. 

Lesson 7
Parents and their children are sophisticated consumers. Organizations have to put their best feet forward if they want to compete in the crowded Jewish education and engagement marketplace. That means not only having great products, programs and initiatives that deliver on promises, but also savvy marketing materials that send the right messages. To continue to keep families engaged we need to be as particular about our marketing, branding, and communication as we are about the content.  

Parents and kids look for signs of excellence. Whether we like it or not, our website design and the ad in the local Jewish newspaper has to look good and be on trend or folks will simply pass it by. Without high quality marketing and messaging, we risk folks making the same judgment they’ve always made about Jewish education and engagement, that it isn’t serious, doesn’t take itself seriously, and is therefore, likely of low quality.  

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Jewish families are ready to take American Judaism into an entirely new and exciting place. They bring new ideas to the table, they value Judaism and Jewish identity in mature and interesting ways, and they’re looking for opportunities to realize Jewish lives that work for them. We just have to meet them where they are, in the 21st century.