Hashtag outreach: JFSA council gets update on attracting millennials

(L-R) Rachel Davenport, Max Baruch, Alyssa Silva, Julie Zorn and Avi Erbst at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona council meeting March 29 at Temple Emanu-El. (Karen Schaffner/AJP)

For local Jewish community organizations to reach and attract new members, specifically young Jewish adults, leaders must learn to use the tools of social media, such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

That was the message of “A Whole New World … Engagement of Young Adults and Young Families,” a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona council meeting held March 29 at Temple Emanu-El. A panel of six young representatives from five successful projects reported on their efforts to attract “millennials,” those born between 1982 and 2000.

Kathryn Unger, the immediate past president of the JFSA board, led the meeting. She said that after attending a seminar held by the Jewish Federations of North America, she is helping the council look to the future by eyeing how to reach millennials.

“The theory is we must learn from our successors,” she says.

Rabbi Samuel Cohon reminded the council that every person has something to contribute, even if it doesn’t seem important.

“You might think that only the most powerful and important offerings are the ones that matter to God and that only the best offerings will be accepted,” Cohon says. “The truth is the lesson that’s given again and again in (the Book of) Leviticus is that there’s an offering from everyone that matters and that what causes God to be present is not the quality of the greatest gifts but the fact that every individual has a gift that he or she can bring … that everyone can give something to create holiness.”

Following Cohon was a video produced specifically for the JFNA featuring Jacki Karsch, a 24-year-old journalist who uses social media to grow her presence on the internet. Social media is how millennials communicate, she stressed, explaining that millennials take a mention of an event on Twitter, for example, as an implied recommendation.

“Millennials are captivated by technology, especially for recording and sharing moments,” she says in her video. “You all know the saying, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ Well, in millennial speak, it goes a little something like this. ‘If you go to an event but you don’t post a picture of it on Facebook or hashtag it on Instagram or record it on Snapchat, did the event even happen?’ Millenials respond to meaningful and engaging experiences, but only if those experiences can be shared with others.

“Rules that apply to previous generations do not apply to millennials,” she says. “A cocktail party with a pledge envelope stuck in a dinner bowl is not going to work.”

The first panelist to present after the video was Alyssa Silva, a University of Arizona graduate who continues to work with the UA Hillel Foundation. Her program is Moishe House Without Walls, which is “an initiative that targets 22- to 32-year old young adults with the idea that this demographic is a little bit lost. It’s post-college so you don’t really have that Hillel anymore and you don’t necessarily have a family quite yet so joining a synagogue may be a little intimidating. So what do you do to keep your Jewish life and find your Jewish community?” she asks.

Unlike the original Moishe House model, anyone can be an MHWOW host with the proper training. There are monthly Shabbat dinners, gatherings at downtown bars like Ermano’s (owned by Jewish brothers Mark and Eric Erman) and other social events. Generally, Silva says, MHWOW sees between 20 to 30 people at each event; it has connected with more than 130. The fact that the programs are free helps with attendance, says Silva.

“The format we have here is working because it invokes individual leadership with those young Jewish adults,” Silva says. “It allows each one to become a leader within the Jewish community. All they have to do is send in an event request and they receive funding to make it a reality.”

It turns out that most of those who attend are single and Tucson is not their final stop. Still, Silva says she has seen many relationships develop at the events.

High School freshman Rachel Davenport and sophomore Max Baruch work with the Tracing Roots and Building Trees program. It partners students at Tucson Hebrew High with residents of Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. Ten teens are paired with a dozen residents based on personality, hobbies and career interests; the idea is to get to know each other. Although they began as strangers, “we are definitely strangers no more,” Davenport says. “And I can guarantee that.”

The program meets monthly. After discussion with their Handmaker partners, the teens meet as a group with one of their leaders: Sharon Glassberg, vice president for programming and organizational development at the JFSA, or Brian Litwak, a resident at Handmaker who is a former educator. They help the teens understand issues specific to the elderly, such as loneliness, depression and memory loss. The teens stay for lunch with their partners.

Baruch has been paired with 94-year-old Helen.

“It’s great to have an insight into her life,” he says. “It’s also really great to see so many memories coming back to her from her childhood, such as emigrating and being married.”

Avi Erbst is active in the Federation’s Young Men’s Group, a sponsor of the annual Hava Tequila party, which he believes is a “fantastic opportunity” for young adults to get together for an event that people will talk about for months after. The event is really a way to start a conversation with someone new and possibly draw him or her into a more active role in the Jewish community.

“Once they have a taste of all the Federation has to offer, they are surprised because they didn’t know about it,” Erbst says. “They are surprised at how easy it is, how convenient it is because there are programs going on throughout the year. There are multiple ways for them to get involved.”

The Mega Challah Bake, sponsored by Chabad and the Jewish Community Center, came to Tucson in 2014. This year the bake was led by Julie Zorn, the Tucson J’s Jewish living and learning specialist, who says it was “hands-on, experiential learning not just for children, not just for adults, but it really engaged a wider audience.”

“I think the real beauty of the challah bake is it’s passing on these traditions from generation to generation,” Zorn says.

Finally, Lindsey O’Shea, a singer, discussed Temple Emanu-El’s Downtown Shabbat. The monthly service begins at 9:30 p.m. at the Jewish History Museum on Stone Avenue and features original music to a rock beat. O’Shea sings with the Armon Bizman (A Castle in Time) Band.

“What’s really unique about this program is that it is a traditional Shabbat service,” O’Shea says. “However the melodies of traditional prayers you know well are different. [Sam Golden and Bob Hanshaw] composed these beautiful contemporary melodies set to traditional prayers and it’s really invigorated new life into our service.”

The goal of the service is to connect with millennials who live downtown, although it turns out that all ages are attending. In addition, the group took this musical Shabbat service to Phoenix in January.

After the panelists presented their programs, members of the audience had an opportunity to voice their opinions.

“We cannot be so bound to our tradition trying to get the same results,” says Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the J. “Membership is important but engagement and relationships are far more important.”

Matt Landau, 26, director of leadership development and public relations at the Federation, says, “The more opportunity we’re presenting in our community, the more return we’ll see.”

The meeting concluded with a performance by the Armon Bizman Band with Sam Golden and soloist O’Shea.