The Case for Jewish Community Development

Have you ever noticed how preoccupied Jewish organizations are with leadership development? Innumerable programs focus on giving potential leaders the skills and knowledge deemed to be essential for perpetuating the institutions that serve our communities.  In my experience, however, the problem isn’t that there are not enough people who want to be in charge (try attending any Jewish organization committee meeting and you’ll see what I mean). Our problem today is different, and here in the Bay Area, we are beginning to figure that out.

The latest demographic study published in 2018 by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marian and Sonoma Counties found that “a relatively small, highly engaged affiliated population is offset by a much larger unaffiliated population that is substantially less engaged.”

In other words, what we need today is not more leadership development. What we need now is community development.

Over the past decade, there has been an enormous investment here in physical infrastructure for the growing Jewish population, from day schools to seniors housing, JCCs, museums, summer camps and synagogues. Each of these projects represents a tremendous accomplishment by determined leaders supported by exceptional philanthropic commitment. We have learned how to design, fund and build new facilities to last for generations. Our knowledge of community building has not kept pace, however, as the demographic study shows.

In the late 1990s, I was part of a grass-roots Jewish community outreach effort that began by handing out surveys at Hillel High Holy Day services on the Stanford campus and then contacted some respondents, inviting them to attend small group conversations in private homes. We had no institutional sponsor, just a handful of committed, innovative volunteers. Not only did people respond to our invitations, they shared their innermost feelings and longings for Jewish connection. Some recalled negative experiences while others felt they didn’t “fit” the image of the Jewish family that is often held up as an ideal, and yet they still came to talk with us.

I heard similar themes in helping to start a group called “Parent Connection” at the Palo Alto School of Jewish Education, an alternative Sunday school not associated with a synagogue. It was fascinating to realize week after week that within even the most ambivalent and conflicted individuals, the inner Jewish spark still burned. Years later, I found the same was true in a decade of involvement with Jewish college students at Stanford and other leading universities.

These many conversations were like focus groups, educating and informing me about the perspective of those outside of mainstream Jewish institutions. I’ve taken that awareness forward into everything I’ve done since. Quantitative research such as the recent demographic study has great value, but needs to be matched by personal, qualitative listening that focuses on individual experiences, perceptions and motivations in order to move beyond the numbers.

Do we actually understand and empathize with those who do not check the survey boxes that represent the old paradigm of affiliation? Do we know them as individuals rather than statistics? Do we invest in proactive outreach and communications, or do we continue to rely on what worked in the past?

I have great confidence (and profound gratitude) that there will continue to be a small number of highly engaged Jewish leaders who make so much possible for others. Our challenge now is to gain a deeper understanding of the people who are the community. 

How would you approach Jewish community development? I welcome your thoughts and feedback on Facebook.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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