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.

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