Local planners aim to reduce barriers to Jewish engagement

How do you break into the circle? A concierge service to help people navigate the Jewish community is one of several new initiatives to come out of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s strategic planning process. (Photo: Allegro Photography - http://allegrophotography.com)
How do you break into the circle? A concierge service to help people navigate the Jewish community is one of several new initiatives to come out of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s strategic planning process. (Photo: Allegro Photography – http://allegrophotography.com)

Looking for a way to jump into a Jewish community “can be a very lonely place,” says Liz Kanter Groskind, a member of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona strategic planning steering committee.

That’s why a “concierge” service to help people at various stages of life find Jewish community programs, events and services to suit their needs — whether they want to take a class, volunteer or just meet new people — will be one of the first three initiatives identified through the strategic planning process to be implemented.

The process, a collaborative effort among the Federation, Jewish Community Foundation, Jewish History Museum and Southern Arizona Jewish agencies and synagogues, was launched last May with Think Tank 2020, which brought together more than 100 community members to begin discussing a vision for the community’s future. At that meeting, the concept of engagement was identified as the central focus for the first phase of planning, says Terry Perl, chair of the planning process.

Over the last year, task forces representing various age groups —children, youth and teens; college students; young adults and families; baby boomers and older adults — have been meeting to gather more information, discuss goals and brainstorm initiatives for a strategic engagement plan. Ideas range from a community-wide teen alliance to baby swim classes to “senior university” programs.

“We were very flexible in how we gathered our input,” says Perl. JFSA released a community survey that had more than 500 respondents. Focus groups were held for young adults and families, while one- on-one and group interviews were conducted with seniors. A teen engagement initiative was already underway in collaboration with JESNA, a national Jewish education organization, and the University of Arizona Hillel was in the midst of its own strategic planning process, so JFSA was able to piggyback onto those endeavors.

“The pleasant surprise was that there was a great deal of consensus” about issues that cut across all age groups, says Perl. Communication was recognized as critical to the issue of engagement, although he notes that different age groups seek that communication in different forms, whether it’s e-mails, texts, a print newspaper or a website.

In January, another task force was added: a Tucson Jewish leadership workgroup made up of rabbis, synagogue and agency executives, lay leaders and key Federation staff, which gave rise to another initiative slated for rapid implementation: an ongoing Jewish Community Roundtable.

“What surprised me,” says Rabbi Jason Holtz, who co-chaired the leadership workgroup with Perl, “was really how easy it was to get all the institutions around town together. I think some people have this opinion that the Jewish organizations around town don’t work together all that much … but really when invited to come sit around the table and talk about Jewish life in Arizona, everyone was really eager to do that.”

Throughout the first phase of the planning process, members have been “mindful of the transitions in people’s lives,” with the goal of creating smooth passages in Jewish community experiences, such as from high school to college, or from college to life after graduation, says Holtz.

The concierge approach is designed to help address those transitions, say Brenda Landau, JFSA vice president for community planning and women’s philanthropy. A few other Jewish communities, such as Los Angeles, have created versions of the concierge service, she says.

“Most of these things that we’ll be doing won’t be reinventing the wheel, but it’ll be refitting it to our community,” Landau explains.

Among other goals, the strategic engagement plan also aims to expand programming for teens and young adults and to lower financial and geographic barriers for all ages.

While there’s now a range of events and classes taking place at the Jewish Federation-Northwest, says Groskind, people would be interested “if we did something every so often on the far east side.”

To enhance communication, the third initiative that will be implemented in the coming year is a comprehensive website or technology hub.

The aim is to create a portal that is really user-friendly for each age group, says Groskind, where, for example, “young adults can go and find stuff that would be good for them — for singles, for young families.” Each age group may have a specific web address, though the details haven’t been worked out yet, she says.

Conversations held over the past year point to the fact that many people want to make social connections with other Jews, says Groskind. Some would love a Shabbat dinner, others would like to hear a great speaker and still others might prefer something “truly plain and social.”

One concept to facilitate connections is “Tables of Eight.” When tables at a dinner event have more than eight people, Groskind explains, “You can’t really have a conversation. You are really only talking to the people to your immediate right or left.”

The Tables of Eight approach “has been proven to work to work in other communities,” she says, adding that an event might have several tables of eight, with an opportunity after dinner to mingle with some of the other people in the room.

Other initiatives outlined in the strategic engagement plan, to be implemented over a three-year period, include a comprehensive volunteer strategy and a “Passport to Jewish Life” that would institute scholarships for various Jewish educational experiences, including preschool, childcare, day school, supplemental school and camp. The plan calls for a range of formal and informal opportunities to connect with the Jewish community, with easier access to multiple synagogues and agencies.

The strategic engagement draft plan was presented and approved at the May 1 Federation board meeting. The plan notes that the Federation may need to “modify the allocation of human and financial resources” to support the initiatives outlined.

“The most important thing we can ask ourselves is what kind of community does each of us want,” says Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Federation. “We’ve received those answers from hundreds of people and we’re very excited about the vision that emerged. We know that our congregations and agencies are offering a broad array of dynamic programs. Now our challenge is to help people make more connections — to each other, and to all our community has to offer.”