Leesburg is more than 35 miles from the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia building in Fairfax and with the region’s notorious traffic, can feel even farther.
How to welcome new Jewish families residing in the geographically wide western suburbs of Washington is a challenge that the JCCNV is taking on through a pilot program called j.family ambassadors.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington awarded a $106,000, two-year grant to the JCCNV that has allowed it to hire five part-time “ambassadors” who are each assigned to a “micro-community” where they will engage new parents by giving them gift bags, providing resources and connecting them with Jewish family programming. The ambassadors are going to reach out to parents with children up to the age of three and those expecting a child soon.
The ambassadors are undergoing training this week before going to work in their communities. The five areas they will fan out to are Northwest (Ashburn, Leesburg-Herndon, and Reston); Southwest (Chantilly/South Riding-Manassas/Gainesville); Central (Vienna/Oakton-Fairfax/Burke); Northeast (McLean/Falls Church-Arlington and parts of Alexandria); and Southeast (Annandale-Mt. Vernon).
“We have chosen ambassadors that know those areas really well,” said Eliza Berkon, j.family ambassador and community engagement coordinator. “They are just going to work within that neighborhood, meeting families and letting them know about area synagogues and area Jewish programming so that these families don’t feel lost in a sea of Northern Virginia.”
Laurie Albert, community engagement director at the JCCNV, said that she is excited about the initiative, which she said aligns with the center’s strategic plan to increase the involvement of Jewish families in the community through programs such as Growing Jewish Families.
The new program offers the opportunity to build on Growing Jewish Families, according to Albert, because while j.family ambassadors are one-on-one, Growing Jewish Families is programmed around groups of communities and could be the next progression of engagement.
“When the ambassadors reach out and speak one-on-one with the families with new kids, it’s natural to invite them to programs that are happening through the Growing Jewish Families program, which may or may not be at that moment taking place in their micro-community,” said Albert. “But the ambassador can help them along and say ‘Hey, why don’t you come with me, there’s this great program out in this area about Chanukah, come join me.’”
Marci Harris-Blumenthal, senior director of community and global impact at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said that the project came out of a regional planning task force that was created to engage families with young children.
The task force was made up of organizations and individuals from Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, including partner agencies and families with young children. They worked together for a year, researching and developing a program, according to Harris-Blumenthal.
“We know that Northern Virginia as a community is an area that is geographically spread out in terms of the Jewish community, so it’s more challenging for Jewish families to make social connections with other young Jewish families,” said Harris-Blumenthal.
The research the task force conducted concluded that social networks play an important role in making Jewish choices. If Jewish families can be reached early, the research shows that it can increase the likelihood of families getting involved in Jewish communal activities, whether it is choosing a Jewish preschool, joining the JCC or a congregation or sending their kids to Jewish day school.
If the pilot program is successful in Northern Virginia, the goal is to broaden its reach to Maryland and Washington.
Said Harris-Blumenthal: “We absolutely hope that we’ll learn from it, tweak the program and be able to expand it into D.C. and into Maryland as funding becomes available.”