The magic of engagement is not to be believed until it's experienced - feeling, in a moment of certainty, that this is where you belong, committing, for the foreseeable future to walk a path together, to enter into covenant, partnership, something binding that you vow to work at, to invest in, to cherish and develop actively every day. Gazing at your beloved, you just know. Engagement is the first step into a future that, although unknown, contains the tantalizing promise of more time together with the companions you've chosen, creating connections to people who inspire and energize you, who amplify your creativity, your intelligence and your impact, who partner with you to create a community that serves you as much as you serve the community.
Many of us in the Jewish world - single and married, younger and older - are tasked with creating “Jewish engagement” opportunities every day. Some of us even have the actual word in our professional titles; for others, it's implied. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that no one knows what “engagement” really means.
Some of you may know that I used to write extensively about relationships. (And here’s where I apologize for the misdirect that may have made you think that this piece was going to be an update about my social life.) But the fact that the community has so deeply embraced the term "engagement," particularly those who work with the so-called "NextGen,” has made me think that there may be something deeply resonant about the choice of this word to describe Jewish connection.
Language of Love
Think both of those who measure success in number of Jewish unions or Jewish children birthed, and those who spend their weeknights and weekends at "young professionals'" events, seeking connections and companionship. (Many of us have been there, some of us are still there.) For some, engagement may come hand in diamond-ringed hand with engagement. But Jewish engagement must be bigger than marital status or parenthood potential, otherwise it retroactively and tacitly deems those who do not meet their soulmates – or those who do meet soulmates but are not on a parenthood path – as engagement failures. It also conveys the false message that those who are married and/or on the parenthood track do not need to be engaged. So the success of Jewish engagement cannot be measured solely by marital status or parenthood potential.
There are other metrics, of course, goals in terms of numbers that measure attendance, or donations, or memberships, or website visits. And every organization determines what constitutes success for its own particular Jewish engagement efforts. But Jewish engagement - especially for 20s and 30s - is as hard a concept to dissect as romantic love. (Warning: the beating to death of the central metaphor begins...now.) Why does or doesn't someone connect to a person (or a community)? If a person doesn’t find another person (or community) attractive or compelling, does that mean there's something wrong with that person (or community)? There's no predicting chemistry; what looks great on paper may not result in an engagement of any variety. Both the language and the experience of Jewish engagement seem as ethereal and essentially indescribable as the language of love.
Our age of cultural and spiritual abundance provides endless choices and multiple paths; encourages weak and strong ties; and serves a buffet of fusion cuisine, options that can all co-exist on the same plate. Jewish identity and life can be individually forged, cultivated and adorned with your particular needs or wants in mind. What Jewish thought leaders used to refer to, with some degree of alarm, as "a la carte" or "pick and choose" Judaism might have yesterday have been called - more or less accurately - as "point and click," "drag and drop," "open-source," or "Judaism 2.0." Whatever you call it, it's about being modular and dynamic, responsive and personally meaningful.
So how do 20s and 30s make meaningful choices? It's not a question of "this or that" - choices grow from a complex cocktail of influences starting in youth with parental influence, childhood environment and education, and are joined along the Yellow Brick Road by self-individuation, relationship with family, connection to tradition, manifestation of passions, media messages, and - perhaps one of the biggest influences in the days of social networking, crowdsourcing and peer recommendations - what choices their friends are making.
Affiliation is a choice. Civic engagement is a choice. Social activism is a choice. And when it comes to making space in their lives for those choices, many of which exist concurrently and definitely non-exclusively, most NextGen people don't rely on organizations to do it for them, because they can do it better, faster, stronger and cheaper themselves. As Clay Shirky titled it in his book, "Here Comes Everybody," this is the particular power of "organizing without organizations." Is there any concept more terrifying to legacy organizations than the threat of their obsolescence?
Regular commitment to a set of people based in a singular geographical place is not today's default organizing mindset. For those who perceive a need, the web is a field of dreams: build it, and people will come. Some will wander through on their own, others will come because you invite them and their networks. But this is the era of the flash mob - if something resonates, a passionate crowd will gather as its champions. But from that temporary, immersive, intense community, relationships can develop and persevere beyond the end of a specific motivation. It’s the equivalent to having a summer camp experience – it may not be that many weeks or months long, but it makes an impact and creates relationships that often persevere, and occasionally, evolve into something more intimate and connected.
So in courting engagement, “engagement professionals” and the people who employ them should keep two questions in their minds, with the simultaneous awareness that neither one of them has a definitive answer:
1) How can we create experiences that encourage the formation and deepening of relationships among program participants as well as between them and Jewish organizational professionals?
2) What can the organized Jewish community provide to this self-reliant and independent group of people that they cannot provide for themselves?
(Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, coming Monday or Tuesday, and which will present some answers, as well as some additional guiding principles for thinking about the role of relationship in effective Jewish engagement.)