When creating programming for Jews in their 20s and 30s, it’s easy to reach for events that include socializing, drinking or volunteering opportunities. These activities are tried and true – they give people a fun excuse to get out there and meet other Jews. The “worst case scenario” is that attendees either talk to someone they didn’t know before, or do some good out in the community. But how do we, as the young professionals who plan events for our peers, put a little kavanah behind our events while still keeping them fun and engaging?
In the past couple of months, I have been approached by numerous young adults in the community about their desire for more meaningful Jewish discussions, specifically related to the topics of God and Israel. Since then, I have facilitated one or two discussions on both topics, but find that there is always a burning desire for more. People want more discussions, more ways to get involved, more people to participate in these conversations and more people who share similar ideas. A challenge, however, is that there is simply not enough time to facilitate all of the programming that we’d like.
Last month, I finally got some time to think creatively about what I could do to address the demands of my audience at a fantastic professional development opportunity – the NEXTwork Northeast Regional Convening in Washington, D.C. At the Convening, I connected with other Jewish professionals in the region to discuss relevant issues and challenges we face as “engagers” of young Jewish adults, including designing programs, reaching new audiences and facilitating conversations about Israel.
In D.C., many of us young professionals who work in Jewish institutions already know each other on some level, whether from schmoozing at community events or working together on a program. It’s not so often, however, that we come together professionally to discuss the ways in which we connect our constituencies to their Jewishness, and to explore how we can make our individual programs more meaningful for our community overall.
When we broke into our peer focus groups, I learned that many of my colleagues sift through the same questions: “I meet with someone who’s interested in learning more about Israel. They come to one event, then what’s the next step?” Or, “I met with someone new in the community who wants to meet people who love talking about Israeli politics. Where do I send them?” The truth is that the answer is quite simple, yet difficult at the same time. All of our organizations that design programs for young adults should and could be the perfect venues for these discussions. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to come together as a professional community to give our constituencies diversified, multifaceted opportunities to engage with their “Jewishness” and interests. See the struggle?
Coming together as a community at the Convening helped me understand that there just might be a way to fill these needs in our community – but it will take more of us working together to reach those goals. Throughout the day, I found that I share the D.C.-area Jewish world with incredibly bright, enthusiastic young professionals. Together, we can take the next step in designing a more dynamic, active and vocal Jewish community. Because of the differences in our organizations, we each bring different skill sets to the table. And these differences, along with the different needs of each organizations’ audiences, can catalyze program offerings that are both personally meaningful and engaging.
A wonderful takeaway from the Convening was my breakout session with Sheila Katz of Hillel International. She introduced Hillel’s concept of “Ask BIG questions,” in which the idea is to spark conversations that get people thinking beyond the scope of “what is” and more about “what can be.” She presented a lesson on Israel that focused on responsibility. For whom are we responsible? When things happen to our brothers and sisters in Diaspora communities around the world, how should we feel? When things happen in Israel, what is our responsibility to the nation in how we react? As a Jew, the answer might be complicated, but ultimately comes down to one core value: we are all responsible for each other. If we’re all collectively responsible for one another as it pertains to Israel, then why would it be different in our own communities?
It doesn’t have to be. I intend to take this inspiration into my community and to my colleagues to continue to build on what already is an amazing Jewish community with much light. It is my responsibility after all.
Rich Dinetz is the youth director at Adas Israel Congregation in the District. The NEXTwork Northeast Convening was hosted by NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, and part of its efforts to train, support, and resource “engagers” throughout the country.