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.