Thursday, November 6, 2014

More on Jewish Social Capital: Lessening Fear, Opening Doors

I published this, and it got some pretty good feedback. Mostly, I think, the pain of not knowing what to do in a Jewish setting - and yet feeling totally, completely, Jewish - resonated with people. Then, Marissa commented on the piece, "...But how do we get this culture to pervade among the general community?" It's one thing, she was saying, to talk about this with her organization's board and staff. It's another thing to create a culture of openness, of accessibility, that welcomes those even in between organizations.

How, indeed. I don't know that I have the answer. But there is a lot to say about this.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to study the reasons that women choose to celebrate their bat mitzvah as adults. Diane Troderman was one of the women whom I interviewed. Diane is a leading community philanthropist and activist in Western Massachusetts. Her foundation supports Jewish education extensively. She has been the chair of countless committees and organizations, often focusing on Jewish education and Jewish living. And, raised in a secular environment, for most of her life she had little connection to Hebrew, to prayer, or to synagogues. As a result, she explained, “I consider myself a leader in the Jewish community but I considered myself illiterate … I’d always gone up to the bimah – [but] I’m the curtain puller," not the Torah reader. She shared a story from her childhood: "One holiday afternoon, my sister and I went for a walk and passed the home for the elderly. We wandered in and went into services. We picked up books and a leader came over and turned my book right side up, then closed it and gave us the right book. We had picked up something else and needed what I now know is a mahzor. I knew nada! Nothing!” Perhaps more significantly, in addition to how little she knew, Diane emphasized how her ignorance felt. Synagogue ritual was a "secret society," filled with what seemed like "mumbo jumbo." It was alienating, despite the contributions she made in her philanthropic and organizational roles.

Sasha was one of my participants on a Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Born to two secular Russian émigrés, she was raised in a Manhattan Soviet environment that disdained religion and celebrated high literature and science. She grew interested in religion in college when she lived with an ardent Palestinian who accused Sasha of being part of a community of oppressors. Sasha went to Israel to understand more about the background that had been denied her but with which she was now being associated.

And she fell in love with her culture and her community. She began to understand the complexity, richness, and sadness of Jewish history. She began to relate to this tradition and to see it as hers.

On the Saturday morning of our Israel experience, Sasha and I went synagogue hopping in Jerusalem. I was eager to show her – and she was interested in seeing – the beauty and intensity of the various religious traditions of a Jerusalem Shabbat.

At her request, as we went from synagogue to synagogue, I translated directly much of the Hebrew that we saw and heard. “Know before whom you stand,” we read on so many arcs, over and over again. I watched Sasha turning these words around in her head. What do these words mean, she asked repeatedly – why is this written there, why is it so important, what is being commanded with these words, she wondered. I explained the phrase as one of awareness, love, respect, awe, and humility. She saw it as one of power and fear. She began to see the phrase as representative of a lifestyle she did not understand. She became overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotions of those in the congregations we visited, almost afraid of a tradition and a relationship that she could not grasp. Perhaps our synagogue visits were too much, too soon. Perhaps I translated too directly, without enough mediation. Perhaps we should not have visited these communities whose members seemed so sure, so confident in their beliefs and their relationship to their concept of God. Just recently unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with the very idea of religion, Sasha was not ready to connect herself to a tradition that had the potential for such power. Rather than being empowered and excited by these synagogue visits, she became intimidated and estranged. Her lack of literacy was not a challenge. Her lack of the understanding that can come with literacy, of the ability to empathize - that was a challenge.

One Shavuot, I participated in a tikkun, a study session, with a small group of people, one of whom, Amy, is a Jew by choice. Amy had learned the tradition that a Jew does not remind a convert of his non-Jewish past. Yet, as we read the book of Ruth, we noticed that Boaz deliberately reaches out to Ruth because she chose a new God, because she was in a strange country, because she was a convert and needed some hand holding. Thank goodness, Amy cried! In Boaz’s actions, Amy saw him creating space for Ruth to ask questions, to understand her new tradition, to learn the customs of this strange land. She had never understood, she explained, the Jewish tradition of not reminding the convert of his past. How else can a convert learn, she asked, but through such assertive and careful explanation and openness? Can't we create a culture of questions, of curiosity, of information?

We put up walls in so many ways. Our tradition is built, almost, on walls, on boundaries between us and them, on behaviors that bind into community. Literally, Jewish tradition was constructed this way: The "holy of holies," the innermost priests and sanctuary, sat together with the ark at the heart of the Temple. The heart of the religion was forbidden, inaccessible. Perhaps all traditions are; perhaps religion, by its nature, has the devout at its core, and so the very essence of the tradition is such closed intensity. Regardless, the walls are doing their job too well in 2014. Too many people who want in are kept out. So Marissa asks, how do we create a culture of openness, of knowledge, where building Jewish social capital is not so darn hard?

She asks this of all of us, because we are all gatekeepers of Jewish social networks. We all participate in making Jewish social capital a precious commodity we need to fight for rather than a plentiful richness in which we can all share. This knowledge is mine! we seem to cry, not, This knowledge is beautiful - come, take part. We casually use Hebrew, we joke about moments in shul (synagogue) that only regulars would understand, we forget to announce page numbers of prayers, we forget to explain the reasoning behind the ritual, we forget the value of such an explanation – and our Shabbat dinner guests, new to Shabbat, at our tables because they are friends of friends, the Hebrew of the benscher (prayerbook, related to meals) swimming in front of their eyes, see the beauty of our community, but believe it not to be theirs. Hamevin, yavin, the saying goes - or "if you understand, you understand:" So embedded is this in Jewish culture that there's actually a Hebrew saying that captures this idea that those who are in the know remain so. And so Diane feels confused by Hebrew she does not intellectually understand, Sasha feels intimidated by an environment she does not emotionally understand, Amy feels her questions to be silenced.

I don’t mean to suggest that we do this maliciously. Part of being actively Jewish, of course, is building a community, and we build a community through common language and unspoken customs. I once wondered why every prayer service wasn't some kind of learners' service, with continual explanation of the barrage of customs and rituals that compose particularly a Torah service. And then I began to participate in a traditional community, with rich davening (prayer) and a high level of literacy, and I saw how fluid the service can be when all are singing heartedly, with few interruptions. I got the power of a community of those in the know, into which someone else in the know can enter, immediately feel at home, and truly live the tradition in its fullest potency.

But when a Jew does not speak ‘torah,’ as many do not? Diane, Sasha, and Amy are not alone; countless North American Jews enter a Jewish environment and immediately feel confused, lost, disempowered. Building Jewish social capital, then, has to be about how we interact, each of us with each other. It has to be about the space that we create through our interactions. It has to be about recognizing that someone who seems inside the community can still feel outside of the community, recognizing that we put up stumbling blocks all the time, recognizing that the best way to welcome someone into Jewishness is to hold out our hands and make ourselves available to help.

As we teach and create Jewish space for learning and growth, what values about learning do we want to teach, to convey in our actions and our relationships with our students? How can each of our actions build a positive learning culture? How do we convey to a student new to Jewish learning and active Jewish living a sense of honor and empowerment because of their motivation rather than shame and embarrassment at what they do not know? How do we encourage and reward curiosity, rather than ostracize the unlearned?

We have to find a way to translate, to open communities, to celebrate our tradition thickly while we invite everyone in. The fluidity of a richly traditional prayer service is striking, but so is the excitement on someone's face when they can access that fluidity, when the prayer service is not opaque but inspiring because it suddenly makes sense, literally and emotionally. Can we be equally excited about these moments of clarity for those newer to Jewish tradition, recognizing them as part of our mission as modern Jews with the gift of literacy in a Jewishly illiterate society?

Can we take all of our students’ hands into ours and say not just baruchim habaim but also welcome as we teach, explain, and include?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Key to Jewish Engagement: Developing Jewish Social Capital

When I was fourteen, I went to BBYO leadership camp for the first time. I had been raised in a committed Jewish home, but it was one that practiced non-religious Judaism, and while I was a regular at Jewish overnight summer camp, Shabbat services in BBYO still felt uncomfortable to me. A non-believer, I was also new to the language of prayer, and I was never sure what to do with myself.

At that BBYO leadership camp one Shabbat morning, I stood next to a friend from home (let's call him Jamie). He was a bit of a joker, and when at some point I dropped my prayerbook on the floor and he told me to kiss it, I thought he was making fun of me. Several times, he instructed me to kiss the book; several times, I laughed. As we went back and forth, Jamie got increasingly more frustrated and impatient until he grabbed the book out of my hands and kissed it, then handed it back to me. My cheeks turned red but the episode ended. We each turned back toward the front of the room, silent again.

When this exchange ended, Jamie's prayer experience probably picked up where it had been before I dropped the prayerbook. Mine was completely altered. I was ashamed, deeply ashamed, and confused. I did not feel comfortable in that service but until that moment, I still felt that I belonged. Perhaps particularly because of my camp experience and my BBYO experience, certainly also because of my upbringing, I felt deeply, strongly Jewish, part of many Jewish communities. Suddenly, as my lack of knowledge was called out, I felt like an outsider, not only to the service but to the entire project of Judaism and Jewish community. I can still feel the shame and confusion that washed over me as I realized how important this act was to him and how foreign it was to me.

When I interviewed adults in their twenties and thirties about their Jewish experiences, I heard often that they have felt or even feel this shame and confusion continually. Thirty-something Katie shared that her family – specifically, her mother – was a bit of a seeker, interested in various religious and spiritual rituals, including Christmas. For that reason, her mother's home during her childhood had a Christmas tree and related symbols. One Christmas, her sister wore Christmas bells on her shoes to school; she simply liked the way that the bells sounded and didn't see anything wrong with a Christmas symbol. She kept them on for Hebrew school, not really making the connection. “People yelled at her and made her take them off,” she explained, “and we felt really outside the mainstream.” Katie and her sister were unfamiliar with this idea that there should be a strong boundary between Judaism and Christmas. Another respondent, Dena, told of a more typical lack of knowledge, of going into Hillel in college and feeling that everyone “was more traditional” than she was, since they “knew the songs – they'd all been to Jewish summer camp.” Their innocent ignorance and subsequent confusion and embarrassment chased Katie and Dena and many of those whom I interviewed out of Jewish spaces.

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, brought the concept of social capital outside of economic discourse and offered a foundational concept that binds individuals into communities. Social capital, generally, can be considered to consist of three elements: a social network to which individuals belong or in which individuals participate, the norms, values, and expectations that those in the network follow, and sanctions put on members of the network when they do not follow the network’s norms, values, or expectations. Social capital - familiarity with norms, with a community's rules, even with those with influence in the community (the ability to engage in name-dropping) - allows individuals to participate in a given social network. The sanctions individuals receive when they lack social capital protects the network from outsiders, pushing them away.1

When I dropped my prayerbook decades ago, my lack of Jewish social capital – my ignorance about this fundamental Jewish prayer norm – allowed me to be sanctioned by a community member. Similarly, without Jewish social capital, Katie and Dena – with Christmas bells, without knowledge of the right songs to sing – became alienated from Jewish community, groundless, and also sanctioned, without an understanding of how to fit in. Both of these interview respondents – like many whom I interviewed, like many American Jews – had some Jewish education prior to these moments. They were not complete novices in Jewish life. They could follow a basic Passover seder and recite the four questions; they could recognize the key moments in the High Holiday liturgy. This knowledge, however, overshadowed by a variety of more influential experiences, or their lack of experiences. They never participated in Jewish youth group or summer camp, and so their Jewish circles were small, their awareness of Jewish or Hebrew songs meager. Moreover, their families chose when they were children to live outside of Jewish neighborhoods, again shrinking their Jewish communities. And, at the celebration of their bar or bat mitzvahs, their parents stopped mandating participation in Passover seders or in religious school. Their parents made choices away from Jewish life and, specifically, away from Jewish social networks and Jewish communities. As a result, their knowledge of Jews and Judaism stagnated and their confidence in themselves as Jews remained small, pediatric, or even shrunk as they aged.

The 20- and 30-somethings whom I have interviewed have walked out of Jewish spaces, feeling alienated, because they were never taught how to participate in such spaces and never helped to belong. Scholar of ethno-religious social capital Laurence Iannacconne argues, “Religious capital is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of most religious activity”; religious capital both enables participation and leads to participation. A lack of such capital – a lack of certain kinds of knowledge and a lack of feeling at home – prevents the building of more, as one begins with questionable feelings of comfort, and then a lack of knowledge leads to sanctions and to even greater feelings of exclusion. Without capital, one cannot participate and subsequently, through participation, develop more capital.2

And yet. The reverse, as Iannacconne points out, is also true: As individuals begin to build (Jewish) social capital, that capital helps them to increase their (Jewish) communal participation. The Riverway Project demonstrated this. By offering the right opportunities for engagement in Jewish community, those who previously felt sanctioned by community, by Jewish social networks, began to acquire Jewish social capital enough to begin to engage not only in the Riverway Project, but in other Jewish communities as well. When the Riverway Project amassed dozens of 20- and 30-somethings with similar (low) levels of comfort with and knowledge of Jewish life, everyone became equally uncomfortable and comfortable, everyone learning together. When on lighting the Shabbat candles Riverway Project leadership announced, after saying the blessing, “That's it. It's as simple as that,” a boundaries were lowered. When Riverway participants were helped to build community by sharing their names and where they lived – their exact street – each time they introduced themselves, participants went from Jewish isolation to Jewish community (literally, as they began to invite each other for Shabbat dinner or to events such as the local Jewish film festival). When prayer services included as many niggunim (wordless melodies) as prayers, participants could easily internalize liturgical tunes as part of their Jewish experience; when Riverway Project leadership said, “It's okay if you don't know the words. Just lai dai dai. This is simple,” participants were freed to participate even with little knowledge. As they engaged in a low-barrier space, where opportunities were designed deliberately for those brand new to Jewish life, where those in the community were helped to become assets to each other, sources of support and genuine community, where sanctions were almost non-existent because everyone was learning together, Riverway Project participants built Jewish social capital and became prepared to move into higher-barrier communities, to use their capital throughout their Jewish lives. For the first time, many developed a sense of belonging to a Jewish social network on which they could found their growing Jewish social capital, through which they could feel confident wandering into other Jewish spaces.

Carmel Chiswick recently created a book-length study applying economic theory to American Jewish families and choices, and she includes an exploration of Jewish social capital. A review of the book suggests that American Jews need to “choose to acquire” Jewish social capital. But it is not that easy, not necessarily a deliberate choice. Or, to be more precise, powerful sanctions fight such choices. It feels bad to be sanctioned, to wear Christmas bells unknowingly inappropriately, to sit quietly when it seems everyone else is singing, to drop a book and be scolded. Jewish social capital comprises a lack of knowledge of religious traditions but also of informal/unwritten norms and a lack of relationships with other Jews and Jewish communities. It includes knowledges even less concrete, more internal: comfort, confidence, feelings of internal validation, a sense of belonging. Developing all of these knowledges – this capital – is imperative to Jewish participation, and such development asks that Jewish educational spaces be created where sanctions are low, boundaries are low, and opportunities and freedom to screw up as deep and as prevalent and normal as can be.
1 David Halpern, Social Capital (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2003), 2-3.
2 “Religious Practice: A Human Capital Approach.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,, Vol. 29 No. 3. (Sept. 1990).   

Friday, October 17, 2014

Strategic Jewish Engagement a.k.a The Hedgehog Principle

20s/30s opportunities – adult Jewish opportunities – can and should focus on Jewish growth.

Before I studied the Riverway Project for my dissertation, I was a participant. Only once or twice, but I had the experience. I remember clearly why I felt comfortable participating in Riverway events and why I felt compelled to go in the first place. I was relatively new to Boston and I was single – but more than that, I wanted to pray, to turn Friday into Shabbat. At the time, I was experimenting with participation in varied religious communities, in minyanim and synagogues throughout Boston and Cambridge. Riverway seemed interesting. It was minyan-like, in that it was small and in a living room, but with a rabbi from whom I might learn, and also with people my age, who could become friends and a community. It did offer the potential for me to meet a romantic partner, but it was not blatant in that regard. Its first and most substantial offering was as a prayer experience, with all that such an experience brings (the spiritual, community, friends, a deep Jewish connection). Married people and single people would be there. With the potential of meeting someone, but without the pressure of this being a singles' event, participation felt infinitely more comfortable than it did in a singles' event. The purpose – not even the ostensible purpose, but the actual purpose – was for me to do something other than meet people. The pressure was off and the event filled a need in my life that could be immediately met. Whether or not I got a date from the night, I would have a good, fulfilling evening.

Later, when I became a participant observer of the Riverway Project, I tested these ideas about the attraction of the Riverway Project with my peers. Most felt the same way. A few were sorry that Riverway did not do more to help them meet a life partner. But most – married and single, gay and not, older and younger – appreciated that Riverway was straightforward about what it was doing, deeply and authentically what it was, and substantively Jewish. It was a prayer community, a study community, a holiday community. It was a Jewish community, organizing individuals around Judaism and not only around their social and romantic needs. In this way, Riverway stood out to many as unique among other synagogue offerings for this population. Personally, as I was thinking about participating, I compared it to minyanim, not to programs for “young adults” or “young professionals.” These seemed so often, Riverway Project participants themselves noted, to be mixers masquerading as wine tasting, or horseback riding, or skiing. Riverway was exactly what it seemed to be. Of course, “masquerading as wine tasting, or horseback riding, or skiing” is not really fair. These events – which I attended, also as part of my dissertation research, and about which I interviewed the event coordinators and some participants – are deliberate and also, often, perfectly authentic. Meaning, they are genuinely and intentionally social events, looking to attract those who want to taste wine, or ride horses, or ski, or who want to expand their social circles and and create a general Jewish connection. They offer exactly what they seem to: wine (or horses, or snow), as well as friends and Jewish community.

These social events seem often to be part of a larger calendar of varied events, tied together by their sponsoring organization. In general, the paradigm for 20s/30s Jewish life seems so often to comprise one organization hosting a range of events, trying to attract a diverse population to engage with the host. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Adam Freedman describe such a paradigm in their synagogue's new 20s/30s programming, for example. As Mikelberg and Freedman explain, this paradigm works – that is, specifically, it can be effective in connecting younger adults to Jewish life through the host organization and in populating the host organization with younger adults.

But, this paradigm is not for everyone. The connection to Jewish life, as my Riverway interviews revealed, can seem loose and, in fact, inauthentic, forced. Moreover, this paradigm organizes Jewish life around the sponsoring organization. That is, the reason to engage repeatedly will be ultimately because the participant develops a relationship with the sponsoring organization or with the community of people participating. When that organization changes its programming, or when the participant moves to another community, it's hard to take that experience elsewhere. It's also hard to tie these programs together into a satisfying, complete Jewish life; the programs themselves are by their nature dissimilar, disparate.

The Riverway Project turns this 20s/30s strategy around, maybe even upside-down. Riverway leadership certainly aim to build community, but they made specific programmatic choices, focusing deeply on certain pillars – not necessarily related to Riverway's sponsoring synagogue – around which to build community. These pillars include Torah exploration and prayer and ritual experiences, based either in Boston neighborhoods or out of the synagogue. To be “involved,” you participate in prayer services, or you study. Maybe you have a meal in a sukkah or go to a Purim performance. But mostly, you meet people in your neighborhood, for intellectual and spiritual conversation and exploration, and you explore what it means to you to be Jewish.

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't, Jim Collins draws out Isaiah Berlin's metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, applying it to company strategy. In Berlin's conception, hedgehogs understand the world through one big idea, while foxes recognize great diversity in the world around them. Similarly, the successful company is a hedgehog company, whose leadership figures out what the company is good at, focuses on this one thing, and pushes the rest away. Having too many priorities allows distraction, for both the company and for the clients, users, or participants. To get good at what it does and to get the point across, a company (or non-profit organization) needs to work deeply and sharply in a specific area.

By focusing on its pillars, the Riverway Project works in a hedgehog way, and it works effectively. Because of its focus, Riverway leadership can work deeply and with excellence in its specific areas. Its focus allows its messages to come through easily and clearly. I was comfortable – participants were comfortable – showing up at the Riverway Project because we understood its purpose: When I left my apartment to go to prayer services through Riverway, I found the opportunity not threatening but attractive because I knew what I was getting myself into. I and other participants were (are) compelled by its purpose, because it is about Judaism, not about loose community connections and not about the sponsoring organization. Because its purpose never changes – from event to event Riverway focuses on the same themes – participants who were attracted to Riverway in the first place keep coming back for more.

Because it focuses, Riverway lacks these opportunities that other 20s/30s projects offer. There is no wine tasting, or business education or networking, and some miss that. But because it organizes participants not around the synagogue but around Judaism, because it attracts participants for a few, deep purposes, the Riverway Project makes a different choice, one for the Jewish growth of its participants. Through their repeat engagement, the Riverway Project literally moves participants. Those showing up to the Riverway Project develop skills and capacities in the areas on which Riverway focuses. Engaging in the Riverway Project means engaging in Torah study and prayer again and again, with peers in one's neighborhood. Community gets built and prayer skills are developed and sharpened. Torah study becomes familiar, possible. Their 20- and 30-something opportunity takes them seriously as Jews, and participants grow Jewishly.

In its repetition, the Riverway Project model itself is educative for participants, suggesting:
  • Torah study and prayer matter.
  • You – you, young adult, in your twenties and thirties – can access these things.
  • Jewish life can happen in your neighborhood.
And, in its repetition, these messages are heard.
The Riverway Project strategy – that it has such a clear and focused strategy and that its strategy is deep – makes engagement in Judaism and Jewish life through the Riverway Project not about the individual, or the Riverway Project, or the sponsoring Temple, but Judaism. And as a result, it builds not only Jewish community, but also Jews.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

An Introduction to the Riverway Project

A frequent focus of blog posts: The Riverway Project

Living in Boston and studying for my PhD in the sociology of Jewish education at Brandeis University, looking for Shabbat prayer experiences and to meet people, I stumbled onto something called the Riverway Project. My second time at this 20s/ 30s experience, both times having involved living room-based, Friday-night prayer, I realized that with its portable chairs and prayerbooks, with the community it intentionally brought together repeatedly in the Cambridge/Somerville area, it would be the perfect focus for a research paper on experiential education, and then the perfect focus for a qualitative study in a research methods class, and then the perfect focus for a dissertation on the Jewish growth of adults in their twenties and thirties. My Riverway Project research was conducted not quite ten years ago, and it could be said that much about the Riverway Project has changed since then, including its director and programmatic staff. At the same time, the guiding principles and programmatic pillars of the Riverway Project are the same today, the ideas to be understood from Riverway about the structure and potential of Jewish education for this population as true now as they were then. As such, I (will) draw from it as a case of healthy and interesting experiential Jewish education throughout this blog.

The Riverway Project was developed in the early 2000s by Rabbi Jeremy S. Morrison, a new pulpit rabbi at Boston's Temple Israel. Before designing the project – in order to design the project – Morrison met with adults in their 20s and 30s throughout the Boston area to hear from them about what they wanted and what they resented in existing Jewish institutional life. He heard themes: His constituents wanted intellectual and spiritual exploration of Judaism and they wanted to build local community, to get to know others with whom they might celebrate Shabbat in their own backyards. Morrison expanded a program the synagogue was already running – Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays – and launched neighborhood-based prayer and study. At the time of my dissertation research, a few events comprised the Riverway Project's calendar:
  • Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays: A biweekly, Tuesday evening, open text study that takes place in the synagogue. Dinner begins at 6:30; study begins at 7:00 and continues until 8:00. Under Morrison’s leadership, about twenty or thirty participants studied the Torah portion of the week. 
  • Neighborhood Circles: Living-room based Friday-night prayer services and Shabbat dinners with ten to thirty participants. Like Torah and Tonics, Neighborhood Circles do not have “members” nor even consistent participants, but there are those who attend frequently and who comprise a shifting core of the Circle. 
  • Soul Food Friday: Monthly, Friday-night Shabbat services at the synagogue with a band and a Jewish soul food oneg afterward. Approximately 300 participate in an energetic prayer service. 
  • Mining for Meaning: A four-week class for ten or twelve participants located in one neighborhood that focuses deeply on several holidays, “mining” them for meaning. This has been the only serial class, with the same participants repeatedly, that the Riverway Project offers. Several times that it has been offered participants have chosen to extend the group’s meetings beyond its initial four weeks.
Additional events – Riverway Tots, for parents and children, and service opportunities, and study in local cafes – also now comprise the Riverway calendar, but these above opportunities are those mentioned most often on this blog.

The Riverway Project today is directed by Rabbi Matthew Soffer. Its website today reads its purpose as:
Through our study and ritual experiences, the Riverway Project creates opportunities for reflection and learning. Our goal is for participants to feel comfortable and connected as they explore their Jewish selves. 
And its mission is: 

"Connecting 20s and 30s to Judaism through Temple Israel."

As explored in blog posts, it is important that the Riverway Project's mission is about connecting participants to Judaism and then to Temple Israel. Riverway was and remains a uniquely structured program in the 20s/ 30s Jewish arena, a project that promotes the Jewish growth and development of participants. From that, all else that is so often in the 20s/ 30s space – friends, romantic partners, new synagogue members – will and has come. It is this focus on Jewish growth, on its participants' rich Jewish lives, that makes the Riverway Project such an interesting case for learning about the Jewish educational experiences of this population and of adults more generally.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Facilitating Evaluation, Imperfectly

1. A friend, an Executive Director of a non-profit organization, an educational organization, came to me asking to talk through a challenge she was grappling with at work. She felt like her financial supporters really want to know – they keep asking – what the impact of her organization's work is. She would not mind knowing her work's influence either, but she trusts that the particular intervention that she creates, the educational experience her organization facilitates, is well-rooted in sound educational theory and is effective. At the same time, she is fairly certain that it is impossible to prove impact, and she isn't even sure how much impact she can expect to come from this one intervention. The experiences her organization facilitates are quick. They are integrated into the daily lives of the families she reaches out to. The experience is hard to isolate from other interactions the families might have.

So, she asked, how does she pursue evaluation?

2. A potential client came to me looking for an evaluation of a new program. The program, the client admitted with frustration, had been launched by a third party with none of the smart practices that this client had learned are associated with evaluation. There was no logic model, no set of established goals, no uniform expectations of what this program was supposed to be doing. I spoke a little bit about developmental evaluation, about evaluation techniques used with program innovations, about doing evaluation research with less certainty than we often have. I heard her frown over the phone. “But it's not a program innovation,” she explained, “It's not innovative; it's just an idea that some practitioners had and ran with.”

So, she asked, how does she pursue evaluation?

3. A potential client came to me because he had funds in his organization's budget for evaluation. But, he acknowledged, he had no real interest in evaluation. It seemed to him like busywork, meant only for financial supporters, with surveys and questions that do not capture the essence of what he does.

How does he pursue evaluation?

These three stories are not exactly the same. In each case, though, the practitioner seemed to be coming to me with the idea that they needed to engage in something called evaluation and that evaluation would produce an answer to the question, “Does this program work?” They seemed to see this as a yes/no question, related to long-term life change, with little room for the flexibility and fluidity that characterize their real work and lives.

In the most robust circumstances, with plenty of clients and financial resources both, where different environments can be accessed and a control group isolated, such definitive questions about evaluation might be answered.

Even while such evaluations sometimes take place in the social sector, these circumstances frequently do not exist in Jewish institutional life. Perhaps more money would help, but it might not be a question only of resources: Our programs are (relatively) small in scope and not able to support the breadth required for even quasi-experimental research designs. That is, we lack the size and perspective necessary to create the random assignments for experiments as well as the real control mechanisms needed for almost-experiments, used when random assignments are not possible. (This is why the evaluation research on Taglit: Birthright Israel is so valuable, because the size of the population and the nature of the process – that there are those who participate and those who applied – give the program heft and make it suitable for something close to experimental work.) Moreover, the complexity involved in religion and religious participation is deep. Definitive evaluation needs to isolate the impact of an intervention. Can we imagine asking a group of families, not connected to Jewish institutional life, to participate in evaluation research as a control group for, say, synagogue members? How would we pick the families? Secure their participation? What if they changed their mind during the experiment and became involved in synagogue life? The formation and exercise of ethno-religious identity make separating the role of one specific program from the interactions that occur from a host of programs

Still, this question (“Does the program work?”), this idea that evaluation can answer such black and white questions, seems prevalent. We seem to have sold evaluation as unnuanced. Or, perhaps we have successfully conveyed that true evaluation has strict rules. As a result, practitioners wonder if evaluation can be useful to them, since it seems not to fit their circumstances.

The point is, it rarely fits any of our circumstances in Jewish life. So, we do something else:

We borrow from the field of evaluation research in order to answer our specific questions.

I began my conversation with each of these practitioners, in each of the above cases, asking, What do you really want to know? When we open up that question – when we ask, what do we really want to know? - we reveal a world of answerable questions.

In cases #1 and #3, above, when we put their perceptions of their financial supporters aside, we were able to isolate questions that were interesting to the practitioners themselves. I asked, “What really keeps you up at night about your programs? Or, what, if your programs could do, would you consider a wild success?” Slowly, we began to identify who the successful “graduate” of their programs might be, what they would know, feel, and be doing in their lives. We looked at the relationship between the practitioners' programs and these outcomes, and then we tried to design research that would answer these questions. We used qualitative research techniques: One organization would call program users randomly, consistently asking them the same three questions, and another organization would hold living room focus groups, keeping the intimate spirit of their organization intact, leading textured conversations that would both answer the practitioners' questions about their work and offer, possibly, a meaningful reflective experience for the participants. We began to switch the main question we were answering from “Does this program work?” to “How does this program work?” and even, “How can it work more effectively?” giving to practitioners useful understanding of their program theory that they could not develop elsewhere. Evaluation came to represent not something unnecessary and unanswerable, but a source of information that would help them do what they do better.

As part of these conversations, we did turn toward what their financial supporters might want to know. Through conversations with them and through their own reflection, the practitioners determined that their financial supporters' questions were, in fact, much more nuanced than simply, “Does this work?” And this was particularly important in case #2, above. In this instance, the financial supporters fully appreciated the “ready, fire!” nature of the program's launch. For a variety of reasons, they recognized that they would not receive through evaluation a summative judgment on the worthwhileness of this program. They recognized the limitations of experimental evaluation research in Jewish institutional life. And, decisions to support something financially are, themselves, nuanced and complex, involving a range of factors. They wanted not a final recommendation but instead insight that they could use to make a decision. There was a series of questions this research could answer that would be helpful to them, around the ways that the program influenced current participants, who participated and why, and how and if the program could be strengthened in the future. Evaluation research could shed light on these questions, making the financial supporters' decisions easier, helping practitioners and financial supporters both to understand their program more deeply.

Evaluation offers a way of looking at social interventions, an examination of these interventions in order to address a potential need in participants' lives, the exploration of a set of questions about intended outcomes as compared to the experience of the participants.

Rather than being overwhelmed by the rigor that evaluation technically requires, we can borrow its strengths. For example:

1. Create a logic model. Even for a program that has been facilitated for some time, documenting expected program outcomes, and the relationship between program strategy and outcomes, can be helpful.

2. Create an organizational theory of change. Similarly, organizations often facilitate interventions - ie do everyday business – with an air of immediacy. Once a program or start-up organization is established, take a step back to reflect, documenting intended outcomes and linking them to strategy.

3. Gather quick feedback through feedback forms. After every program, ask participants (through a written survey, for example, on chairs, or through individual surveys sent as soon as the program ends, or using tablets/phones at the event, or through text messages...) a quick series of questions, perhaps no more than three. Identify the most helpful indicator(s) of success or effectiveness, such as: Would you come back? Would you recommend this program to someone else? Did you think about something new tonight? (Make sure you ask questions that are usable and valuable to you!)

4. Create opportunities for long-time participants to reflect on their experience with your organization. Learn about the nuance of your influence through these conversations; use what you learn to expand your success.

5. Study targeted questions that will allow you to strengthen your work, such as who participates, or how they participate, or when in their lives they participate.

6. Study influence in a limited, specific way. Compare influence on a certain group of participants to your hoped-for outcomes. Reflect on why there might be a gap between the two.

Through evaluation research – or evaluative study, as I often call it – we can learn to ask a set of specific questions about the experience of the participants at this particular moment in time. We can develop a set of reflective practices that involves the systematic exploration of participants' experience, through participants' voices, not only from practitioners. We can learn about a program, helping to focus it and expand or deepen its potential influence, sharpening our strategy, even while we lack a definitive understanding of its potential impact on current and future participants.

True experimental evaluation research may require circumstances that do not reflect the real experience of most Jewish institutional leaders. But it can still be immensely useful, particularly when we can be clear about what we learn and about what we still wonder, even with the information we have.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Summer Spent Elsewhere

Beth Cousens Consulting will be up and running in the most professional sense in the coming months.
I'm working now on a different project, which you can read about here, and which I post about in the next pages.

Thoughts about Assisted Fertility

I met my husband a month shy of my 37th birthday. Four or so years before, I had made a decision that if I hit 37 without a partner, I would start looking into having a child by myself. In a way, I met J. at the worst possible time in that timeline: too late to let us have a baby during my (more) fertile 30s, too early to have begun the process of child-having by myself. So, we were stuck, fertility-wise. After dating for a while, and an engagement, we would end up thinking about child-having only when I was nearing 40.

We knew we could hit some bumps, or even were likely to hit some bumps. In the end, trying to have a child dominated the first years of our marriage. We were in pain often. With most of our friends either already parents or having children, we felt alone most of the time.

As we went through the process, I wished most for validation, information, and the opportunity for conversation. The web offered some of this, but it was also impersonal, hard to navigate, and overwhelming. I needed personal teachers and coaches. As the months went on and I talked more about this with people I often heard of different individuals who had similar experiences, and that was incredibly helpful, but a community and such individuals in the same place were also too hard to find and often without invitation to approach.

This, then, is a list of the decisions that we made, of what happened and what we did and why, and of how it felt, shared with deliberate hope that through social media, it is spread widely to the benefit of others. If anyone reading this wants to email or call to talk more, I (and we, with my husband) are happy to do that.

(Note: This is not to say that what we did was right and everyone else is wrong. This is simply one image of how all of this worked for one couple, meant as a source for information, not a set of recommendations.)

  • It took us about eight months to get pregnant the first time. We felt lucky that we could get pregnant. But when the pregnancy ended after ten days (3.5 weeks in pregnancy terms), our luck did not matter – getting pregnant and staying pregnant, we felt, were two different things.
  • That first miscarriage was shocking. It had occurred to me that I might not get pregnant but not that I would lose pregnancies. I didn't know very many people who had lost pregnancies (I thought). I was devastated for weeks and found it hard to be around couples with kids. I went to a baby naming of a dear friend and basically ran out after the ceremony, my husband screening me from well-meaning friends. I began therapy. I began yoga. I tried to find things to distract me.
  • It was a year of tracking ovulation and feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty and failure when we began to look at IVF. We went to the two primary clinics in San Francisco, the local teaching hospital and a clinic that reminded me of the office in the TV show Private Practice, with cucumber water and a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and Alcatraz. At the private clinic, we saw a doctor that my therapist recommended, who wanted to move immediately to IVF. We liked him; he was to-the-point and rooted his ideas in empirical data. But we were not sure that we wanted to move immediately to IVF and wanted to talk options. He was reluctant. I saw an acquaintance in a grocery store and spilled all of this to herdid we want to do IVF? Did we trust this doctor?and she reminded me that if we didn't feel comfortable with the doctor, we should go somewhere else. Also, I didn't need the cucumber water, and the other clinic was down the block from our house. It was just logistically easier to get to the teaching hospital, and this wasn't unimportant.
  • At the same time, we made phone appointments with everyone we knew who had challenges with unwanted fertility. We asked them to walk us through their stories and their decisions. Even once we knew what we would probably do, it was incredibly helpful. We began to understand the various routes through this maze, the extent to which there are different options, and how many stops there might be in this experience before we actually get to “baby,” to the real goal.
  • The phone appointments were helpful also because we got to spend time talking about this – and we needed time to talk, reflect, and process. We carried this story with us all the time, but interacted with most of our friends around regular life stuff. The details of what it felt like to be engaged in this project, or to carry pregnancy loss around – it didn't feel like anyone wanted to hear. Often I felt that I was living two lives, one in our apartment with my husband, and one public life with friends and colleagues.
  • During this process, I began to realize how tentatively I was making decisions. I looked frequently to others for information and validation. (When a story ran in the local Jewish paper about a memory garden for fetal loss, I called a few of the principals involved in the story to ask them how they chose their fertility clinic.) Perhaps my most significant lesson learned from all of this is that I was constantly looking for the best answer – which doctor to choose, which intervention to try – but I'm not sure there are any best answers, and I found few right answers. Given my temperament, this was incredibly hard for me to live with. (I knew it would continue to be hard through pregnancy and parenting, and sure enough, it has been.)
  • At the same time that we went to the private fertility clinic, we went to a public information session at the teaching hospital. This was an incredibly detailed introduction to IVF, meant more for individuals who were beginning the IVF process and less for those considering their options. It was cold and highly medicalized. I left terrified and strongly considering adoption. I could not imagine putting my body through the shots, the procedures, and the influx of drugs. Somehow, I accepted that if I wanted a biological child – and for whatever reason, I did, although I did some soul searching on this, too – this would be the path. It took a period of acceptance, though, that lasted, truthfully, until I was pregnant.
  • A first step in the IVF process is checking to see how many follicles a woman grows during a typical menstrual cycle. Just after we did that at the private clinic, I got pregnant a second time. I was terrified and also incredibly nauseated. I was pregnant for about ten weeks. I spent most of that time on my couch, trying to get work done, but mostly hiding. I was scared to be happy, scared to talk to friends because I didn't want to tell them I was pregnant (and then have to untell them), and physically ill.
  • We found out that the pregnancy wasn't viable when we went for a typical 10 week OB appointment and a kind midwife scheduled us for an ultrasound (medically unnecessary, but imperative to our sense of calm) the next day. Serendipitously, there was no heartbeat; the pregnancy had probably ended a few days before. I was turning 40 that weekend. On the way home from the ultrasound, my husband told me about the surprise party he had planned. We went for our annual birthday hike to the beach talking about our options, and I remember trying not to focus on the cells inside me that were no longer alive.  I had a D&E the following week rather than wait for them to leave spontaneously.
  • We immediately scheduled an appointment not at the private clinic but at the teaching hospital, with a doctor who friends were seeing who specialized in first trimester miscarriage. On the off-chance that this wasn't age-related, we wanted someone who could help us address other possible causes. We got an appointment for ten weeks after the miscarriage, which seemed a lifetime later. In retrospect, my body needed a chance to heal, but emotionally, those ten weeks were exhausting.
  • I began also to look at other therapies, particularly at stories of individuals who became pregnant through non-medical means, using acupuncture, food, yoga, etc. And, I tried to learn about medical practitioners who work on fertility using means other than ART. Ultimately, I began acupuncture and tried to be careful about what I ate – no caffeine, alcohol, lots of vegetables – but I drew the line at wheatgrass and daily yoga for fertility. I was making myself crazy with the possibilities, that is, with all of the work I could be doing to strengthen the quality of my eggs. And, the unpredictability of it was hard: There was only vague research demonstrating the links between these therapies and fertility success, and even the practitioners themselves suggested that the therapies were not foolproof. When the therapies started to make me feel more bad than good, I started ignoring them.
  • We met with the doctor at the teaching hospital. We immediately felt comfortable with her and appreciated that she did not see us as having only one course of action but instead laid out options and related chances of success. By then, though, we felt that we would do anything to lower the chances of another miscarriage. After some thought, we decided to throw all the resources we could at having a healthy baby in as few tries as possible. This would be expensive – IVF with pre-screening of embryos – but it would buy our mental health in a way that an IUI cycle, with lower chances of success and higher chances of an embryo implanting that would be genetically non-survivable, would not.
  • In retrospect, the actual IVF cycle went quickly. At the time, particularly as we began the cycle, all I could feel was fear: at the shots, at building my work schedule around it, at it failing. I'm not sure that I ever got used to the entire effort of shots and daily ultrasounds.
  • In fact, I doubted the project the entire time, wondering if we were spending money needlessly, if we should have stuck with natural methods and been patient. I wish I could have been nicer to myself. We had made a decision that optimized our chances to have a baby. It was expensive and emotionally and physically challenging. It wasn't the only decision we could have made. But it wasn't the wrong decision, by any means.
  • We did two cycles of egg retrieval, one after the other, before we did any kind of embryo transfer. We decided that we wanted to optimize our chances for a baby and that we wanted as many embryos as possible when I was as young as possible. On the other hand, we didn't have unlimited resources and couldn't see doing more than two cycles. Both cycles together produced four healthy embryos. Many eggs (follicles) were retrieved, producing a total of 13 embryos with both cycles (My problem was not that I had very few eggs but that the egg quality was poor). Those 13 went to the screening clinic, and four were genetically stable. I felt incredibly blessed to have four but was also thrown by the number: With only four out of thirteen embryos being sound, it seemed validation that if we had tried to have a baby naturally, we would have likely had miscarriage after miscarriage.
  • We couldn't implant an embryo for another three months, until after I had a small procedure and healed. That was a bit of a surprise, and we felt that our clinic did not handle communication around this as well as they might have (this is an understatement). We didn't trust our nurse after that (and actually insisted on switching nurses) and I was miserable, bitter and resentful. We tried to distract ourselves during the three months. I declared it the “Summer of Food” and got reservations at good restaurants with lots of different girlfriends. We took vacations and tried to ignore the thing that seemed to be hanging over us.
  • When we started to get ready for the embryo transfer, taking the shots and so on, it seemed anti-climactic. The shots were more intense but fewer and there were many fewer office visits. The procedure itself was minor. I stressed repeatedly about all of it: How could I maximize this opportunity to get pregnant? What should I be eating, or doing, that day and the weeks before? When should I get acupuncture? How much bed rest should I plan for? Could I exercise? There were not straight answers to any of these questions and I obsessed and obsessed, searching the internet and calling friends. I finally realized that, again, there was no clear path and that, ultimately, I was trying to control something that was uncontrollable. I decided to pamper myself the day of the procedure, going to yoga, getting a facial, and going to a favorite restaurant with my husband. It was the right decision: Going into the procedure I was more relaxed than I had been in months.
  • The two-week-wait seems like a blur, a mix of activity – planned deliberately – and moments of anxiety and internet-googling to look for hints that I was pregnant. Ultimately, when I was told that I was pregnant (told, ha, I also took a pregnancy test in a coffee-shop bathroom, shaking when I saw that it was positive), I was surprised not to feel only joy, to feel that we still weren't at the end. There were more blood tests and a first trimester to get through, and even though we had screened the embryo for genetic abnormalities, the screening was not fool-proof. There was a chance the pregnancy could end. We waited to tell close friends until after the 20-week ultrasound and waited even longer to tell others, somewhat convinced that this wasn't really happening.
Ultimately, I was nervous for about thirty weeks, or maybe even until he was delivered, to the point where when I entered large rooms of colleagues and acquaintances, obviously pregnant, I was aware that in three months I might have to share bad news. I waited to write this piece, even, until after his delivery – the worst time to write! - because I was not convinced that this experience with infertility is over.

In many ways, though, it is over, and that feels incredibly strange. We were very lucky in that our experience was relatively short and resulted in the goal: a baby. The pain of the miscarriages and the uncertainty of the process are paled by the joy I now feel at holding my baby in my arms. At the same time, the pain hasn't gone away. This is part of me, part of our story and of our child's story. I feel acutely aware that if we go for #2, we will enter this project and its uncertainty and physical stress again.  And I know that we were lucky much more than we were unlucky.

A friend shared his own mantra in the middle of this project: It will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end. (He added – It's not a competition, and, It won't end how you think it will.) It kept me going, often. We would find our “okay,” somehow. And we did, in our healthy baby, but also in that I'm almost okay with this being part of our story. I've almost accepted that this is where we've been, where we are, and I get now that time will continue to help and heal.  

A Communal Emphasis on Child-Having

Spring 2013

My husband and I are trying to conceive. It's been several years and has included the ups and downs of miscarriage and medical intervention. When relevant, when speaking to someone newly married and under 35, or with children or grandchildren in that situation, or who asks me about my child-having journey and what they can do to help, I want to scream, "DO NOT WAIT. IF YOU WANT CHILDREN, HAVE THEM NOW."

I turned 40 in the days after we found out about our second miscarriage. It is not unlikely that we will have a child; in fact, I feel optimistic. But the three children that were my intent as a younger woman seem impossible, now. And, our pregnancy journey is already long, exhausting, medically invasive and genuinely expensive. We may use an egg donor or adopt, each of which I feel lucky to even be able to consider, but each of which are options to grow accustomed to. And, we may choose between owning a house and having a child.

I have had a lot of "what if" kinds of thoughts: What if I had frozen my eggs? What if I had worked harder to marry younger? What if we were certain we could afford IVF and the rest of our dreams? In any of these cases, would I have more children? Would I have them at a younger age? Would I be less tired and more healthy when I eventually become a parent?

Marriage and childbirth are loaded in many communities, no less so within Jewish life. Not all have the freedom to marry legally. Not all want children. Communities are not always welcoming to "non-typical" families, including single adults or couples without children. Jewish law, halacha, and assisted reproductive technologies are not always in harmony.

These are truly complicated issues, and while they deserve full attention, I want to focus on other ideas related to child-having.

Because when people ask what they can do (after my miscarriages), or they ask how I am, I don't scream, or even say matter-of-factly, Please start having children now. I keep silent. Our society is structured so that it is essentially not my business who has children, when they have children, and how they have children. The taboos of talking about how people had children, if they miscarried, why they might have had only one child - these taboos are deep. They are also genuine roadblocks to the spread of information.

I always wanted kids and imagined my life with them. If I had thought about it at all, I would have imagined the actual having of the children as something that would happen easily, not something that I needed to pay attention to. But I didn't think about it; my mind was elsewhere and I was unprepared. When I was 30 and perhaps should have frozen my eggs, I was in graduate school, pasting together a living from part-time jobs, having come to school after earning an entry-level salary. If it had occurred to me to freeze my eggs, I would not have had the thousands of dollars needed. I had no understanding of a future. Freezing eggs asks that we pay an annual storage fee, possibly for dozens of years into the future. At 30, I could see months, not years ahead.

At the same time, I did not really understand the ramifications of trying to bear children as an older woman. When I was younger, I had plenty of mentoring opportunities. I went to sessions at conferences for young professionals, was matched one-on-one. I had close colleagues, sometimes decades older than me, who were plenty concerned about my romantic life. But no one ever talked about how to have children. As a result, I'm not sure that, when it was biologically or medically relevant to me, I knew the possibilities that were open to me.

We should strive to make it as easy, easy, easy as possible for women and individuals in any situation – in their late thirties and forties, gay and single – to have children, thereby building the Jewish community in imperative ways.

Four calls for action

Offer financial assistance for assisted reproductive technologies

In most states, health insurance does not cover assisted reproductive technologies (ART), particularly the more expensive technologies. Sometimes, couples try less expensive but less successful technologies, because they can afford them or because their insurance covers them; these less successful technologies might work but they might not, and they can postpone the women's age of childbirth and exhaust potential parents, exacerbating the problem. Like me, many twenty- or thirty-somethings do not even consider freezing their eggs because the cost is prohibitive within the context of their day-to-day expenses. In the 1970s, Jewish Family Services in a variety of communities launched adoption services, opening up the black box of adoption for families, helping families find Jewish-born babies when possible, providing a trusted service in-community, and subsidizing the cost. Similarly, a few Jewish Family Services are beginning to work in the area of infertility. Too few, though, have the resources to offer financial support. The costs of ART can be significant, but Jewish life holds significant philanthropic dollars, particularly for the purposes of Jewish continuity. By offering financial support of any size, Jewish organizations would subsidize Jewish communal growth and validate infertile adults' incredibly challenging journey.

Make talking about fertility a priority

Medical professionals own the complicated web of facts and figures that is the field of ART. This is reasonable; the information is multi-faceted and driven by complex scientific research. But, particularly because most medical offices work independently, this means that each medical professional can offer a different opinion, and individuals need to swim through the complexity,playing detective, identifying different sources, putting together facts and ideas, trying to determine what is best for them, and usually doing this analysis in their own living rooms, away from the bias – but also away from the expertise – of professionals. Sometimes, potential parents' analysis moves onto web sites and into chat rooms, but these virtual resources are often not a satisfactory replacement for a confusing, lonely, and emotionally fraught process.

Well-networked, Jewish organizations can collect and present information about fertility, amassing experts with different ideas, putting together information evenings that allow interested potential parents to explore options without the pressures of shopping for “right” decisions. More than information, such evenings and workshops can offer ideas embedded among the riches that Jewish community offers: a larger communal, spiritual, and emotional context of support.

Talking about fertility needs to happen with those seeking parenthood immediately and also with those who want one day to be parents. Information sessions about ART can also be offered for younger individuals, particularly women in their twenties who have eventual marriage but not immediate parenthood on their minds. Jewish organizations should put such information in front of individuals' minds and hearts, again, making it easy for women to see their options early, at the right time.

Some Jewish Family Services offer support groups for infertile adults; more should, and these support groups should be well advertised and linked to fertility clinics so that they are easy to find. has a series on infertility, and this is helpful, but internet support can be – literally – cold comfort. This conversation cannot be kept in the medical and therapeutic realm, and it needs to be personal. Rabbis and Jewish educators seem rarely to approach this issue in public and outside of pastoral relationships, particularly from the bimah. Those who interact with twenty- and thirty-somethings and with parents – rabbis of synagogue young adult groups and early childhood educators, for example – need to be able to talk openly about resources for primary and secondary fertility, to make it easy for those suffering to approach them and ask for guidance and support.

Create public ceremonies for mourning fetal loss

Mourning fetal loss within a Jewish context is challenging. Jewish law, halacha, does not acknowledge fetal loss as death, which I appreciate. At the same time, recognizing the gray in this part of life, for hundreds of years Jewish women have acknowledged that even without official death there is room for grief. Private rituals for women or, now, families to mark loss are collected in Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality1 and on

But what about public conversation? I recently was invited to a ceremony in a church, sponsored by home-birth midwives, to honor the "unborn." I was compelled by the concept but also wanting it to be in a such a different form: I wanted to have this conversation and ceremony in my space, in a Jewish space, with community members whom I see every Shabbat, with people with whom I have an ongoing spiritual relationship, using Jewish symbols and ideas. Religion is exactly about each of these things: using the familiar space, symbols, and community or family to mark, celebrate, or mourn time. Our communities could develop space to hold and manage these rituals and ceremonies, acknowledging that fetal loss is a part of life and that we - as a community - are in the work of building families together. Rabbis can talk of fetal loss from the bimah, making it safe to acknowledge out loud, even if – according to Jewish law – kaddish is not said for these losses.
Progress is this area is beginning. In San Francisco, a Memory Garden for fetal loss is held at a local Jewish cemetery, creating the space for families to honor and mourn their loss. Abby Michelson Porth, one of the founders of the Garden, discusses the importance of this Garden as linking emotional loss, which might happen in Jewish space, and the physical or medical loss that typically happens within the medical realm. Media coverage of the Garden has stressed the extent to which Jewish women have felt silenced about their fetal loss.2 By creating public spaces and opportunities for mourning, we invite possibilities of conversation. We begin to break down taboos around infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy loss.

Build an Institute for the Jewish Family

As described, the “family” as an issue of conversation and investment is inherently political. This, perhaps, is less about Judaism and more about America, or maybe it is just part of being human.
Still, this investment is no longer something to set aside as too controversial or too difficult to measure. Caryn Aviv recently wrote an impassioned letter to Jewish communal mega-philanthropists; no one, perhaps, could say or has said it better. She called for a “Jewish National Reproductive Fund” as “an act of Jewish vision and courage.”3 Indeed, it is. Let's put our stakes in the ground and say, We believe in Jewish children. Let's not put pressure on those who are reluctant to have children, and let's continue to make sure that single adults are as welcome in Jewish life as families of any size are. But let's also recognize that Jewish children will create Jewish community, and that Jewish adults need help having Jewish children.

The Hasidah Foundation4 launched over a year ago with the goal of supporting adults' use of ART. We need even more than that. We also need thought leaders around the Jewish family, those who are advocating for local conversation and work related to family growth, fertility, and family loss. We need someone to consolidate smart practices among Jewish Family Services and synagogues, to write and teach curricula for Jewish fertility/unwanted infertility support groups, to keep this on the agenda of these organizations. We need articles in newspapers and uncomfortable but safe conversations in 20- and 30-something spaces. We need Jewish men and women to know about their options, and we need their options to be easier.

Jewish community has many moments when it is at its best. Right now, to be blunt, some of its weakest moments coincide with the worst moments in some of our lives. Like a journey through infertility, this effort can seem overwhelming. Yet, it begins in conversation, in individual leadership, by reaching out. It needs financial investment, but it begins with awareness, with Jewish communal professionals and leaders learning about the issues and then making space for conversation and program. Start by asking friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about their own experiences with infertility. Open up questions. What would they have wanted? Needed? What did they look for that they could not find? Begin by talking. See what ideas grow, and the pain won't go away, but it might be easier to take.

1 Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton, eds (Massachusetts: Brandeis University, 1992)
2 “Memory Garden: Soon, a Place for Parents to Reflect and Meditate” j Weekly November 8 2012 retrieved May 30 2014.
3 "Abandon Hope? A Polemic and a Plea” retrieved May 29, 2014.
4 "An Organization to Help Those Struggling with Infertility” May 29, 2014. Kayama Moms is another advocacy organization (, focusing on Israel-based single mothers by choice.