(It's always gratifying when a blog post here starts a conversation somewhere else. To check out how the subject of engagement might look through an education lens, check out Dan Mendelsohn Aviv's post at his blog, The Next Jew. And now, part two.)
While Jewish engagement professionals struggle with questions and answers that may not satisfy funders or program providers, it may help - because it at least helps me - to focus on building and deepening personal relationships, which should be the foundation of any expected engagement.
1. Attendance is not engagement. Having 200 people at your event doesn't mean you've engaged 200 people any more than going on speed dates with 200 people means you're in a relationship. (In some cases, speed dating might get you closer.) Like Facebook relationship statuses, connection to community often gets an "It's Complicated." A packed house creates great energy, but can dilute content, and may overwhelm in a way that prevents relationships from forming, either among individual particpants or with the convening organization(s). So if you're a Jewish professional who's staffing this incredibly successful party, get out there and talk to people you don't know. Find out what they're passionate about, introduce them to other people, especially if you discover a point of connection. Then empower them to work with you in achieving something neither of you could do separately. Create the connection, forge a relationship, then leverage it to greatness.
2. "Engagement" or "young leadership" may not be everyone’s goal. While some young adults state an ambition toward leadership or a desire to become deeply involved, most people may be satisfied with more of a browsing relationship with Jewish initiatives and institutions - read a book, see a movie, attend a party as wingman for your friend. The default mode is: don't get tied down, try lots of things. It's casual dating. Some may already identify as connected, even if you can't count them among your donors or co-chairs. If you call them "unaffiliated," you may just learn what "disaffiliated" means. Some NextGen folk may be searching and some may be happily single (communally, or within this overarching relationship metaphor). So listen to the people who come through your doors, and make sure there is room in your Jewish organization for everyone, regardless of their marital and/or procreative status.
3. Age is relative. The 20s and 30s seem to be today’s magic target population, but they’re not the only ones in the Jewish community who may be seeking engagement with community. There are people of other “Gens” around who deserve props for their past and contributions to Jewish communal life. What of the teens who see bar and bat mitzvah as a natural opt-out point but who are the true "NextGen"? What of the poor generationless 40somethings, increasingly closed out of both "young professionals" and "Jewish innovation" programs? How can today’s leadership make room for young(er) professionals without phasing themselves out? The demographics of our collective and particular communities challenge us to think about engagement (and innovation) as a goal that’s independent of age. The question isn’t necessarily “how can we expect 20s and 30s to feel that engagement is important?” but may in fact be “how can we create the space for programs that meet the needs of community members and which make Jewish life meaningful?” So focus on the relationship between the two parties and focus on creating authentic and meaningful experiences. Don’t get hung up on age – it ain’t nothin’ but a number. (For more on the age thing in regard to innovation and leadership, see this piece at eJewishPhilanthropy.)
5. A true courtship is authentic as well as passionate. Authenticity is the name of the game: if someone thinks he or she is being courted for the wrong reasons - exploited for her connections or expertise, or being solicited for his money - any prior indication of interest swings to the other extreme. Whatever the true definition of engagement is, it’s opposite is surely alienation. And - if you're speaking mostly about young adult engagement - because this particular "dating population" is so interconnected, alienate one (even accidentally) and you may have poisoned the network well. The good news is the flip side of that connectedness - impress one person, and you make a positive impact on their social circles; one authentic and passionate stakeholder will bring you other authentic and passionate stakeholders. So court both wisely and well.
6. Technology helps build relationships and weave networks, online and off. I hear the fear from people constantly – the internet is ruining our ability to effectively meet each other. But while there is truth to the fact that how we communicate and perhaps first meet is changing, what’s true of online dating is also true for Jewish community-building – it’s not the medium that determines successful communication, it’s the user. Just because today's default settings are wireless doesn't mean we should eschew in-person connections. A long time ago, in an era many readers may not consciously remember, telephone commercials urged us to "reach out and touch someone" because "we're all connected" - this was Bell Telephone or New York Telephone emotionally binding the use of a piece of technology to something more sentimental - a human need to connect. So use the internet. In fact, use all the tools at your disposal: an email to let someone know about an event he specifically might like; a tweet because you noticed your friend checked into a local coffee shop and you'd like to join her; a phone call to ask someone's opinion or catch up. Spend time in that person's world online and in person - be socially connected in the fullest sense of the word. Use online media to arrange meetups, parties and social revolutions. But do so authentically, considerately, and in the service of creating and deepening relationships.
7. Love takes time, and more than a little bit of luck. Unless you're ultra-Orthodox, you're unlikely to get engaged after a first encounter. So be true and authentic, listen to the other person, and see if there's chemistry. Let the relationship develop over time. Some people may decide your program is not for them. Or it could be the wrong time for them. But if you engage honestly with them, they may feel enough of a connection to recommend you to someone else who is looking for the kind of commitment that you're offering. And who knows if it's through these kinds of secondary connections that you might actually find a match that needs you, respects you, strengthens you and engages you. You might find a community, and even a partner in building a more meaningful and connected life together.
So that's part one and part two on the subject of Jewish engagement, mostly focusing on young adult programming. And now's the part when you share your experience, dissent, and additional ideas for making the Jewish community a more meaningful, more connected place, where everyone feels welcome.