Counting Connections: The Future of Jewish Engagement

“Our goal is to build small communities that are self-sufficient, where people are doing Jewish in ways that are meaningful to them,” said Joel Abramovitz, Senior Family Educator at The Kitchen. “And Culture of Belonging (CB) approaches have played a huge role in that effort.”

Culture of Belonging is the Federation’s core framework for building community in our diverse Jewish population. Joel is a member of Federation’s CB Practice Group and has been applying CB principles every day at The Kitchen, a practice that has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when people are unable to gather in person and are looking for creative solutions to ensure that everyone is seen, heard and valued.

More than tactical, or an organizational to-do list, CB approaches offer a means to structure organizations and things that they do Jewishly to cultivate belonging, commitment, and shared purpose for all.

A perfect example of CB in action at the Kitchen occurred last summer when several parents with young families inquired about the possibility of organizing a camping trip. With a huge load already on his plate, Joel shifted a great deal of the organizational tasks over to the participants. “And they completely owned it! They booked the campsite, did the recruitment work, the grunt work, you name it. Every parent that came contributed in some way. Some parents cooked meals, others led Havdalah, a few led part of a hike. There were small fixed groups where everyone did something to make it special and personal.” But the true impact of that experience actually occurred several months later. When Rosh Hashanah arrived, every family that came to the camping trip sat together. “And it was a beautiful moment of seeing these relationships that were built in one moment play out in another in a totally decontextualized setting.”

Building a Culture of Belonging is about designing Jewish life with intention so that everyone can feel connected and part of something bigger.

Though its principles are universal, Bay Area Jewish leaders like Joel are utilizing them primarily to engage more people in Jewish life and address isolation and loneliness during the COVID pandemic.

“To be honest,” said Joel, “the CB work is not so much about the relationship between Kitchen members and me, but rather between Kitchen members and other Kitchen members.”

“The irony of having a waitlist for a belonging conference is not lost on me,” said Wendy Verba, Managing Director of Community Impact for the Federation who led 473K: A Belonging Experience. The February event, named after the number of individuals in Bay Area Jewish households, attracted nearly 200 professionals representing 65 Jewish organizations throughout Northern California. Its standing-room-only crowd came together in search of ways to create a culture of inclusivity within the organizations they lead.

Jewish professionals at 473K: A Belonging Experience

“We had no idea it would be so popular, but it really is a testament to the need for this,” she said.

Gayle Effron, Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement at the JCC of San Francisco, has also been utilizing CB principles with extraordinary results.

“One example of our use of Culture of Belonging that comes to mind was our virtual Seder,” she said. “We had 238 computers logged in and over 400 people joining us!... It was amazing!” But still, with any group that size, not to mention a virtual Zoom group, it’s easy to feel small and not part of the experience in a personally meaningful way. That’s where the Culture of Belonging principles come into play. And in Gayle’s case, quite creatively.

“So obviously you are lost in a sea of people. But with the strategies under our belt, we had something to look to in order to help us figure out how this very technology-heavy experience in a very crazy time could feel warm and meaningful.” Accordingly, the Seder organizers set up smaller online subgroups where members spent a few minutes discussing some core questions related to the holiday and their own experiences. “And a ton of people told us that that was the highlight of the Seder… People wanted to be a part of the conversation. It wasn’t just going through rituals, though of course, those were incredibly important. It was finding places for people to speak up and connect with each other… It was truly impactful to be able to prioritize relationships and to use the Culture of Belonging principles to set new standards for what amazing programming is and engagement can look like.”

JCCSF Zoom Seder, via Facebook

Ultimately, according to Wendy Verba, the metric for measuring belonging at a Jewish gathering is “not about counting tushies in the seats” but rather, “counting personal connections made by participants, the quality of those connections, and what people did with those connections afterward."

The more meaningful our Jewish experiences can be, the more likely they are to make the lasting connections that are so vital to the future of our community.

Read more about Culture of Belonging and access resources.

Categories: Community


August 03, 2020


Jon Moskin