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Educators, clergy grapple with ways to meet and greet
Marla Cohen

Aaron Bisman of JDub and a Joshua Venture fellow, gave the keynote at the Federation Education Centers professional development day.
From providing free Wi-Fi in a synagogue lobby so it’s a comfortable place to hang out, to synagogue pricing, to using YouTube in the classroom, area educators, clergy and lay people got an earful on just ways they could change to meet the demands of a generation a Jews who aren’t even really shopping for their product.

Aaron Bisman, founder of the now defunct JDub, which produced music and events aimed at creating hip, happening Jewish music – including that of the rapper sensation Matisyahu -- for gen next, gave his own personal spin on things synagogues should be considering. With a rapid pitch, Bisman spoke of ways to try to reach out, from using G-dcasts to teach the weekly parsha to students, to creating programs that are “loss leaders,” meant to lure people in with an attractive program at a very low price.

The keynote address was part of the Jewish Federation Education Center’s first professional development day for the fall school year. Usually open to only educators, the program’s doors were flung wide, and Juliet Barr, the Federation’s new educational director, invited rabbis, board members, students teachers, teen madrichim and pretty much anyone who was interested in hearing about and discussing ways to attract and retain members at a time when connecting to Jewish institutions has become less urgent and meaningful to younger Jews. Nearly 100 attended the event, which later broke into smaller, breakout sessions so that participants could focus more narrowly.

Bisman’s own story stood in sharp contrast, however, to that of the generation to which he belongs. Having founded JDub, which produced 150,000 events in 472 cities, released 35 albums including two gold records, and was funded with input from 26 foundations and federations, he and his partners chose to close it down “appropriately” after nearly nine years of business while they could still pay severance. The son of a Conservative rabbi, who attended Camp Ramah Ojai and attended a Jewish day school, he was cleary the product of Jewish engagement. And clearly, he was furthering the quest – and raising the bar – having started Altshul, an egalitarian, traditional minyan within a Park Slope synagogue that has grown to a community of about 100 regular worshippers, who also commit to social activities and social action projects.

He spoke about a survey that Jewish Federation’s of North America, the umbrella organization for 157 federations across the continent, released “very quietly” that shoed the 80 percent of those 18-39 had no clue what a federation is. “People say this means they don’t like Jewish institutions,” Bisman, who is also a Joshua Venture fellow. “That’s not ture. They have no clue. Their needs are uniquely Jewish.”

He said the trick is to find them, lure them in and convince they that they will be heard and that your community is a caring one. Such basics and focus groups, marketing and using technology are essential. He reiterated throughout the talk that people had to be asked what they think. He suggested that teens be allowed to create their own programs and to think creatively about when programs were offered, such as Hebrew school during Shabbat services, so that people don’t feel stressed about “giving up their Sundays.”

There were six breakout sessions following Bisman’s talk: one for educators and school directors led by Sharon Halper, a regional educator for the Union of Reform Judaism; a clergy session led by Rabbi Jeni Friedman, a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar; another for early childhood, led by Sara Losch, director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J.; a session for teachers of older students, led by Rabbi Molly Karp, the religious school principal at Temple Israel in New Rochelle; one for teen madrichim, led by Barr; and another for lay leaders, led by Bisman.

In that session, one woman vented her frustration with parents who were more focused on soccer practice than Hebrew school.

“If we could hold class on the soccer field, we’d have kids,” said Susan Duttiger, of Temple Beth Sholom in New City.

Bisman, suggested holding class during soccer practice. He was only half-joking, trying to impress on the group that to reach people, you had to go to them, and not wait for them to come to institutions they feel compete with their other interests.

The program was well received by attendees, who felt that the program was a good kickoff for the Education Center’s year. Tamar Luscher, educational director at Nanuet Hebrew Center, a Conservative synagogue, appreciated that the breakout sessions were focused on participant’s area of exertise. During those sessions, rabbis met with one facilitator, while lay leaders, upper, lower and teen teachers met with others.

“I think it’s wonderful in one respect to give us a forum to come together,” said Luscher, who likes how the Federation programs brings together educators from the liberal streams of Judaism  “I think it’s important as colleagues and being part of the community And not all the time do you need to have earth shattering. We learn from each other, we hear each other.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, who was recently hired at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, felt the program confirmed he was starting off on the right foot, with such changes as easy-tor-read signage and programming aimed at young parents. The breakout session allowed rabbis to focus on things they could do to create a welcoming community.

“I thought she was wonderful in really bringing this to the largr synagogue leverl and not making it just about school,” he said. “That was the focus, but thinking about it in the borader scheme of how to make the service and liturgy more welcoming as well.”

Barr was please with the turnout and the evaluations that participants turned in. Scores were high for both the breakout and keynote sessions, and the most often heard comments were “they wished they had more time and the’d like to continue the conversation.”

The will likely get a chance to do so in the spring, when the Federation brings back its annual Night of Jewish Learning. As Barr begins planning that, she’s looking for ways to build on the success of this first program.

“I’m not sure if this will be the theme of the program, but we will certainly have some sessions that will follow up on it,” she said.

December 2011