Building Engagement Through Small Self-Led Groups

Go to any gathering of synagogue leaders these days, and you will inevitably hear people talk about the challenges they face in creating deeper, more meaningful engagement opportunities for their members.

At the USCJ Large Congregations Conference in January, we wanted to learn more about what such an engagement campaign might look like. Rabbi Lydia Medwin of The Temple in Atlanta, who, along with Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, recently published The Relational Judaism Handbook, spoke about their campaign to engage a large segment of their congregation in small groups.

The Temple, founded in 1867, is the oldest synagogue in Atlanta and a bastion of classical Reform Judaism. Many changes occurred in society and Judaism over the past several decades, and The Temple had not kept up. When Rabbi Peter Berg arrived in 2008, he worked with the leadership to explore how The Temple should evolve to address the changing needs of its members. Rabbi Medwin was hired later as The Temple’s first director of congregational engagement and outreach.

In most congregations, the senior staff creates programs and tries to recruit members to attend. The Temple turns this model upside down. They begin with what their members want to do, not what the staff thinks they should do. They invite members to request a group, or to offer to lead a small group. Then they recruit and train volunteer coaches to support the various groups that have formed. This model returns the power to the congregants. The staff person is a resource and facilitator for this engagement campaign, not a program director.

Community as a Jewish Value

From its earliest sources, Jewish tradition has always valued community. In chapter 2 of Genesis, the first five books of the Torah, we read, “It is not good for a person to be alone.” Our traditions and practices understand and promote the strengthening of communal bonds.

In practice, The Temple understood that in our highly interconnected world, many people do not feel connected. Rabbi Medwin noted that several members expressed feelings of loneliness and anonymity, and they were not at all sure that the synagogue was the place where they could meet their social needs.

The Temple sought to prove those people wrong. They knew that Jewish traditions and rituals, and our primary institution, the synagogue, can help people build meaningful relationships. And people do not need to look only to a rabbi or other leader for the answers; they can turn to one another to get their most deeply held needs met.

Small Groups: Launching the Campaign

In this segment we will review The Temple’s Plan and explore how it aligns with our USCJ Sulam leadership experiences.

Step 1: Get clear on your “why” with the clergy and lay leadership

Temple engagement campaign leaders were very clear about the reasons they were engaging in this campaign, and then communicated these reasons clearly to the Executive Committee and the board. This led to the creation of an Engagement Committee.

Step 2: Listening campaign Intentional conversations around 3 questions

Engagement leaders recruited hosts and invited members to gather at the synagogue and in homes. They asked a few critical questions:

  • When was a time when community was really there for you or worked for you? When was a time when it wasn’t?
  • If ten people would follow you, where would you take them? What would you want to do together?
  • At what crossroads are you in your life right now?

USCJ Community Listening Conversations

We share The Temple’s sense of purpose. At USCJ, we have created a tool we call Community Conversations, where we gather people together in groups to hear from them about what engages them in the synagogue. We ask them when they felt the synagogue was at its best and we ask about peak experiences that shaped their lives. The Temple’s listening campaign, like our Community Conversations, starts with strengths. In USCJ’s Sulam leadership materials, we argue that a “B” quality idea with an “A” level of commitment can succeed, but an elegant initiative designed by others without the commitment of people to work on it may well go nowhere.

In our research, we have found that only about twenty percent of the congregation is very involved. Contained in the other eighty percent of the membership, there are members whom we would call “seekers.” These are people who, while not very active in the synagogue, are at a transitional moment in their lives. They are looking for what is next. It can be a transition from parenting to being empty-nesters or from working to being retired. It may be a health crisis or an economic crisis, the loss of a loved one or a loss of faith. Asking this question helps us discover who might be at a point in their lives where they have the energy to step into conversation and community.

Step 3. Reporting Out: The Big Reveal

After 4 months of a listening campaign, The Temple did a “Big Reveal” of what they had learned. Then they began to recruit leaders for the groups and coaches to support them.

Step 4: Support, train, and celebrate your leaders

They then held training sessions once or twice per year. Leaders saw every program as an opportunity to train the congregation on how to be more relational, incorporating relational components into every meeting and gathering.

They recruited leaders during the summer and early fall months and trained them before the High Holidays. They launched the groups after the Holidays. They planned to meet 6-8 times during the program year, and during the summer, the groups made decisions about the following year.

The program was sensitive to the needs of their members. They made it easy to join and provided easy “off ramps” as well. Leaders at The Temple felt people needed to make a minimum commitment of only 3-4 months, not a multi-year commitment like what is usually expected when people join a board.

Small Groups: The Basics

Scope: The program at The Temple generated about 45 groups and engaged over 500 people.

Group Size: Most groups were 8-12 people. Some were as small as 5 and some as large as 20.

Frequency: Most meet monthly. Members are asked to commit to each group for that time.

Location: Usually they met in at the home. Some were at the synagogue. Even in a large organization like The Temple, there would be no way to hold all of these groups in one place. The Temple found that many members in remote suburbs did not want to drive in to the synagogue. They began to have neighborhood meetings. This led to members gathering for Shabbat dinners and taking field trips.

Food: Leaders are always encouraged to provide food.

Program: The focus of the groups was “relationships first, content second.” That said it was important to create a diverse range of opportunities. Here are some examples:

  • Affinity Groups- something they like to do
  • Mah jong
  • Hiking
  • Israeli books
  • Bereavement group
  • Social justice groups- different interests
  • Geographic – Neighborhood groups
  • Age related groups- young families, empty nesters, seniors.
  • Ben Franklin – Virtue groups

Impact: First Fruits

The Temple has put their learning into action:

  • They now encourage everyone to wear name tags. This has become part of their culture.
  • This relational vision encouraged them to re-purpose synagogue space. They converted the gift shop into a coffee and conversation space..
  • They have begun to create more relational moments in worship services. They welcome people to say who they are standing for during prayers for healing and kaddish.

USCJ Member Engagement Strategies

USCJ’s research about Thriving Congregations shows that congregations that are thriving are constantly working to expand circles of participation and engagement, and communicate a vision of welcoming and connection. We have also found that leaders need to be reflective and innovative, and try new things.

At USCJ we have created some “turnkey” resources to help engage important affinity groups. Our Sulam for Emerging Leaders program is designed to help 35-45 year old congregants explore why they might want to get involved in synagogue leadership and contribute to their communities. Sulam for Purposeful Living helps baby boomers look at the important issues they are wrestling with in their own lives so they can emerge with even greater purpose in their lives.

The Temple’s campaign for small group engagement uses similar strategies to our USCJ Sulam strategies. Whether your congregation chooses to create 5 groups or 50 groups, we believe all congregations should think about their current affinity groups and decide how they might use the small group engagement strategies discussed above to expand these groups and invite deeper engagement.

from USCJ https://uscj.org/blog/building-engagement-through-small-groups
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How This Congregation’s Women’s Retreat Filled a Need They Didn’t Know They Had

In February 2019, Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Silver Springs, MD hosted a women’s retreat. The following case study was written by Dana Pelzman and Sharon Light, the retreat’s co-chairs.

In April 2018, Or Kodesh Congregation hosted a congregational retreat for synagogue members of all ages, including families. While it was a lovely Shabbat weekend, we didn’t feel like we had attended a relaxing and spiritual retreat. As moms to young kids, we had spent a harried weekend chasing our children and needed another weekend away to recover from the chaos. We left that retreat feeling a great need to create stronger connections with other women and a space to develop our spirituality in order to feel something beyond the requirements of daily parenting.

We polled the community for input on a women’s only retreat. A small group of women were very enthusiastic. Another small group were lukewarm on the idea – together, these two groups represented about forty-five women. A few women were adamantly opposed – or at least opposed to the idea of holding the event over Shabbat. Still others did not want to leave their families over a Shabbat weekend. Some admitted that they did not feel comfortable spending time with other women in this format or felt they were not into retreats because they focus too much on personal feelings. Based on the positive interest we received, we took a risk and booked space for thirty people at a nearby Jewish and kosher retreat center.

Despite some hesitancy, we felt it was important for people to connect as a larger community, but also to create connections based on affinities and identities. Many of the functions of a traditional Sisterhood would have formerly fulfilled these connections, but our synagogue does not have one, so women-only activities are now organized by other groups and individuals within the congregation. We do have a women’s Rosh Chodesh (first day of the new month) group and an informal social group for parents of young children, but we do not regularly offer programming that affords women in our congregation the opportunity to connect with each other across generational lines and in a way that goes beyond exchanging pleasantries at kiddush on Shabbat.

We settled on a theme of “Sacred Balance.” Our priorities for the retreat weekend were to build varied programming that would touch attendees across mind, body and spirit. We were intent that people come away from the weekend having deepened existing connections and created new relationships. Attendees with special skills were encouraged to contribute those skills to the program.

People were hesitant about signing up and unsure of what to expect at first. A lot were worried it would be too “touchy feely”. But the registrations kept rolling in and we quickly blew past our initial 30-person reservation limit. When we closed registration, we had 60 women signed up to participate.

From the moment people arrived before Shabbat for the retreat, there was an unexpected level of enthusiasm. By the end of dinner on Friday night, one woman summed it up perfectly: “You’ve filled a need we didn’t even know we had!”

In the end, the connections that we made over the retreat weekend were far more vast and strong than we could have imagined. The memories from this event will be long lasting and the women were all talking about next year’s retreat before the first one even ended!

If you are considering a women’s retreat in your community, we have a few recommendations. Survey your community to gauge interest and to poll available dates. Provide lots of opportunities for women to share stories, thoughts and experiences that would not come up in regular conversation. Encourage people to connect across life stages by assigning seating and groups for some activities. Provide lots of chocolate (this isn’t just a stereotype – it was the most common feedback we got in our post-event survey). Most importantly, don’t assume that because no one is asking for it, there is no desire for an event like this. For us, it was truly a “you don’t know what you don’t know” situation – but as soon as women could wrap their arms around it, they realized how special and important this opportunity was for them.

One other suggestion that helped allay anxieties back at home: Our community’s men’s club (called the “Mensch Club”) organized low-key programming at shul around the theme of a “Here-treat: A Staycation with your Congregation.” The Here-treat was carefully communicated to make clear that it was a community-wide offering. Having this available made a number of people more comfortable with the idea of some of the women being away over the weekend. It built additional community connections, and gave our kids something to look forward to while we were away!

from USCJ https://uscj.org/blog/womens-retreat
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Sulam Text: Can We Fight Fairly?

“It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak and were discussing the Exodus from Egypt throughout the night, until their students came and said to them: ‘Our masters, the time to recite the morning Shema has arrived.’”

This is my favorite passage from the Haggadah (text recited on the first two nights of Passover). I love imagining that sages with unparalleled wisdom still needed to sit around the table and analyze the story that I will discuss with my family and friends each Pesah (Passover). Upon closer analysis, this passage from the Haggadah reveals a powerful message about the importance of not assuming that we have nothing left to learn, and that we cannot avoid discussing difficult issues with those with whom we might passionately disagree. Rabbi Eliyahu ben Harush, a nineteenth-century Moroccan rabbi, writes in his commentary on the Haggadah that,

“…it is impossible to repeat the story of the Exodus without learning something new and different from one another. A person should not only repeat that which he already knew based on his own learning, but should learn new lessons and insights from others. The Haggadah goes on to give an example of this in the incident of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah” (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Harush, Kos Shel Eliyahu on the Pesah Haggadah, “Ma’aseh B’Rebbe Eliezer” 1:1).

If we take our sedarim (Passover meals) seriously, everyone will learn something new, yet the Haggadah goes one step further by bringing together five rabbis with diverse pedigrees to dissect the Pesah story. Rabbi Eliezer grew up in a wealthy agricultural family; Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was a Brahmin who descended from the prophet Ezra; Rabbi Joshua was a Levi who was poor and pious; Rabbi Akiva only learned Torah later in life; and Rabbi Tarfon largely followed the halakhic (pertaining to Jewish law) rulings of Beit Shammai, instead of Beit Hillel.

The Haggadah could have told us a story about five rabbis who came from identical backgrounds and still imparted the message that all of us are obligated to take the Pesah Seder seriously. Instead, we are told a story of five different rabbis who spend all night in discussion and debate, unafraid to challenge one another. In fact, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua’s presence at the seder in Bnei Brak exemplifies this lesson, as they were the two main protagonists of the famous “Oven of Akhnai” story, where Rabbi Eliezer is banished from the Beit Midrash for disagreeing with the majority opinion led by Rabbi Joshua. By sharing the story of these rabbis, the Haggadah is challenging us to ask ourselves what people and conversations we will invite to our sedarim this year, and will we have the courage to welcome those people with whom we may passionately disagree.

I have always been skeptical of any leader or organization making a plea for “Jewish unity,” because even a cursory reading of Jewish history reveals that sectarianism, rather than unity, has been the Jewish norm. I could point to Korah and Moses, Judeans and Samaritans, Pharisees and Sadducees, Rabbinites and Karaites, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, and Socialist Zionism and Revisionist Zionism, to say nothing of Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, and post-denominational Judaism. Moreover, there is a disturbing correlation between pleas for “unity” and an implicit desire to stifle dissent. Instead, the challenge for the Jewish community today is not trying to pursue fruitlessly a unity that does not, cannot, and will not exist, but to hold one another accountable for pursuing disagreements in a manner that is civil and loving.

The Jewish people are in a collective marriage, for that is the essence of what it means to be in a covenantal relationship, and the most important quality of a marriage is whether or not the couple knows how to fight fairly. A healthy relationship is not defined by whether or not fighting takes place, because fighting is inevitable. Instead, a successful relationship is defined by how we set boundaries between loving disagreements and toxic arguments, because the tenor of the argument will ultimately have a more lasting impact than the argument itself.

Unfortunately, too many of our sedarim will avoid topics such as the future of synagogues, intermarriage, BDS, the Kotel, denominationalism, the Iran Deal, Donald Trump, and many other subjects that will feel too toxic for polite conversation. But as we approach Pesah, it is our responsibility to lean into the tough conversations, rather than avoid them. These debates are important and consequential, and there is little chance of universal agreement. But will any of us be able to look ourselves in the mirror if the only way we can share our opinions is through name-calling, ad-hominem attacks, and character assassination, or alternatively sharing our opinions in an echo chamber of people who already agree with us? Such debate is unbecoming of any people, certainly not one that is tasked with living a life of Torah.

This Pesah, the Jewish Community needs to ask if we have the courage to fight fairly, to love one another even after the dust settles from inevitable disagreements. Like the rabbis at the seder in Bnei Brak, some of my most important Jewish relationships came from meeting Jews who share none of my beliefs about halakhah, Israel, or politics, and over time I learned how to sit around a table with them, argue vigorously, and still be excited to sit together the following week. This Pesah, take the journey of making the commitment to fight fairly, not to allow important conversations to be controlled by the lowest of impulses. This journey will be a difficult one, but if we take it together, this Pesah can mark a moment where civility will liberate each of us, so that we might liberate one another.

Click here for the printable Passover text study.

from USCJ https://uscj.org/blog/sulam-text-can-we-fight-fairly
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Six Easy Ways to Increase Viewership for Your Weekly Streamed Services

From the StreamSpot team

For any congregation hoping to grow its online audience and reach those who cannot physically attend due to difficulty or distance, metrics matter, and increasing viewership week over week is an important measurement. However, by only offering a video player for viewers to find on the synagogue’s website, you could be unknowingly cutting your synagogue short on your potential reach. With these six updates to your streaming setup, you’ll be seeing results and higher tune-in rates in no time.

Schedule and share your religious services

Your services take place on a regular schedule each week so that congregants know when and where to join in worship. Your livestreams should be consistent, too. If you have an A/V team, they can manage your streaming equipment for regular services and post an archive at the same times each week so viewers who could not tune in live can find it. Or, you can use StreamSpot’s software, which allows you to set a recurring schedule. With this software, essentially no onsite staff or action is needed; the software starts the recording, runs the stream, and posts the archive automatically, allowing you to focus on your service, not the broadcast.

Mult-platform delivery

In addition to streaming to your website, there are other destinations you need to consider when sharing your content and stretching your reach. Simulcasting can be a powerful tool to take one stream source and multiply your destinations to make your content available where your viewers already are. Simulcasting your weekly service to Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitter, and many other popular destinations will guarantee that you reach your viewers who may not know to look on your website for your live video.

Interact with your viewers

Have a member of your staff or congregation monitor the chat on your website and the comments section on Facebook Live during the live stream to make the viewers feel included in the service. A simple tag and welcome from someone goes a long way with someone halfway around the world! Many congregations also begin their services with a quick shout out from clergy to those who can’t be there in person, but are joining in online. Not only will this help the viewers feel more included when watching online, but more inclined to attend in person when the opportunity presents itself.

Use your past streams as your best marketing

Your best marketing is simple: your moving and meaningful services. You already have newsletters and online communication tools with your congregants, but are you letting them know how to share the online stream with those who can’t make it, or who perhaps want to hear a sermon again? Instead of sending interested viewers a link to the full, hours-long service, you can trim a few minutes of a broadcast archive, pop it in your newsletter, share to popular video platforms like Vimeo, and tell recipients where to tune in live or on-demand for more.

Stream special events for your congregants

Inevitably, behind every life cycle event that takes place in your congregation, there is a handful of family members who wish they could attend in person, but can’t. By offering (and promoting) the ability to have these important events streamed and archived for family members, you’ll draw more viewers to the particular stream while also providing an important outreach to your community and beyond.

Quality Counts

Synagogues oftentimes dip their toe into live streaming first, using an iPhone, iPad, or laptop as a proof of concept for streaming before taking the leap. But, for long-term streaming, providing your viewers with a high-quality, reliable live stream is the best plan if you want recurring viewers. A fixed shot, high-definition camera with a direct out from your sound board is a winning combination for A/V needs to keep viewers coming back stream after stream for more.

StreamSpot is a proud partner of the USCJ. Learn more.

from USCJ https://uscj.org/blog/ways-to-increase-viewership-for-streamed-services
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Sacred Balance: How This Congregation’s Women’s Retreat Filled a Need They Didn’t Know They Had

In February 2019, Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Silver Springs, MD hosted a women’s retreat. The following case study was written by Dana Pelzman and Sharon Light, the retreat’s co-chairs.

In April 2018, Or Kodesh Congregation hosted a congregational retreat for synagogue members of all ages, including families. While it was a lovely Shabbat weekend, we didn’t feel like we had attended a relaxing and spiritual retreat. As moms to young kids, we had spent a harried weekend chasing our children and needed another weekend away to recover from the chaos. We left that retreat feeling a great need to create stronger connections with other women and a space to develop our spirituality in order to feel something beyond the requirements of daily parenting.

We polled the community for input on a women’s only retreat. A small group of women were very enthusiastic. Another small group were lukewarm on the idea – together, these two groups represented about forty-five women. A few women were adamantly opposed – or at least opposed to the idea of holding the event over Shabbat. Still others did not want to leave their families over a Shabbat weekend. Some admitted that they did not feel comfortable spending time with other women in this format or felt they were not into retreats because they focus too much on personal feelings. Based on the positive interest we received, we took a risk and booked space for thirty people at a nearby Jewish and kosher retreat center.

Despite some hesitancy, we felt it was important for people to connect as a larger community, but also to create connections based on affinities and identities. Many of the functions of a traditional Sisterhood would have formerly fulfilled these connections, but our synagogue does not have one, so women-only activities are now organized by other groups and individuals within the congregation. We do have a women’s Rosh Chodesh (first day of the new month) group and an informal social group for parents of young children, but we do not regularly offer programming that affords women in our congregation the opportunity to connect with each other across generational lines and in a way that goes beyond exchanging pleasantries at kiddush on Shabbat.

We settled on a theme of “Sacred Balance.” Our priorities for the retreat weekend were to build varied programming that would touch attendees across mind, body and spirit. We were intent that people come away from the weekend having deepened existing connections and created new relationships. Attendees with special skills were encouraged to contribute those skills to the program.

People were hesitant about signing up and unsure of what to expect at first. A lot were worried it would be too “touchy feely”. But the registrations kept rolling in and we quickly blew past our initial 30-person reservation limit. When we closed registration, we had 60 women signed up to participate.

From the moment people arrived before Shabbat for the retreat, there was an unexpected level of enthusiasm. By the end of dinner on Friday night, one woman summed it up perfectly: “You’ve filled a need we didn’t even know we had!”

In the end, the connections that we made over the retreat weekend were far more vast and strong than we could have imagined. The memories from this event will be long lasting and the women were all talking about next year’s retreat before the first one even ended!

If you are considering a women’s retreat in your community, we have a few recommendations. Survey your community to gauge interest and to poll available dates. Provide lots of opportunities for women to share stories, thoughts and experiences that would not come up in regular conversation. Encourage people to connect across life stages by assigning seating and groups for some activities. Provide lots of chocolate (this isn’t just a stereotype – it was the most common feedback we got in our post-event survey). Most importantly, don’t assume that because no one is asking for it, there is no desire for an event like this. For us, it was truly a “you don’t know what you don’t know” situation – but as soon as women could wrap their arms around it, they realized how special and important this opportunity was for them.

One other suggestion that helped allay anxieties back at home: Our community’s men’s club (called the “Mensch Club”) organized low-key programming at shul around the theme of a “Here-treat: A Staycation with your Congregation.” The Here-treat was carefully communicated to make clear that it was a community-wide offering. Having this available made a number of people more comfortable with the idea of some of the women being away over the weekend. It built additional community connections, and gave our kids something to look forward to while we were away!

from USCJ https://uscj.org/blog/sacred-balance
via IFTTT

USCJ/USY Senior Director of Teen Engagement Chosen as Generation Now Fellow

USCJ/USY Senior Director of Teen Engagement Dana Prottas was picked to be part of the Jewish Education Project’s second cohort of Generation Now fellows. This fellowship is an immersive, world-class experience designed for senior professionals from across the country who are interested in making a lasting impact on the field of Jewish teen education and engagement.

Read more about Dana Prottas and the Generation Now Fellowship the Jewish Ed Project’s website.

from USCJ https://uscj.org/blog/generation-now-fellowship
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