Jewish institutions need to get with the (new) program

My father is a baby boomer. He was raised in a kosher home in Teaneck, N.J., in the 1950s. He owned two full sets of dishes — with a third set for Pesach — and played pickup basketball at the JCC six days a week. (He didn’t roll on Shabbos.)

I am a Gen-Xer and was raised in a “kosher-style” home in Claremont, just outside Los Angeles, in the 1980s. That meant no pepperoni pizza in the house, but moo shu pork at the local Chinese restaurant was OK. After my bar mitzvah when it came time to choose between confirmation class and soccer … well, let’s just say that I do roll on Shabbos.

I’m raising my kids in Silicon Valley in the 21st century. They go to Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, but when they visit their half-Jewish cousins for the holidays, they’re nonplussed by the Christmas stockings, and their favorite activity is the family Texas Hold ’Em Dreidel Tournament.

Just like my family, most families today aren’t “doing Jewish” like families of yesterday. Which means our Jewish institutions can no longer offer only the Jewish experiences of yesterday. We must offer opportunities to “do Jewish” for tomorrow.

Those of us in leadership positions in the Jewish community need to turn our agencies into incubators for dynamic, new expressions of Jewish identity. We must be willing to encourage everyone to come and connect with Jewish life in relevant, meaningful ways. And that means we must innovate, experiment and take big risks. We must adopt the fearless Silicon Valley model of rapid prototyping and beta testing of new ideas. Some will fail, but simply continuing to do the same things that aren’t working won’t bring about a better future.

There are two ingredients to the Jewish incubator model. The first is to make the space where we convene — whether it is a JCC, a synagogue, a camp, a campus, a house, an urban garden, a bike trail or a forest — a place where people can truly connect.

Ron Wolfson, in his latest book “Relational Judaism,” says, “People will come … for programs, but they will stay for relationships.” As Jewish agency executives, fundraisers, programmers and marketers, we need to think in terms of building relationships and creating real community, not just filling seats at events. And it starts with creating welcoming spaces.

Our Jewish spaces can become those traditional “third places” — not home or work, but those places where, in the words of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, we provide the “core setting of informal public life.”

Our Jewish places need to provide a home away from home. Starbucks gets that part. It’s not just about the coffee, it’s about the experience: the informal, comfy seating, the free Wi-Fi and, yes, the food that make them a place where people stay. We must become places where people come for the Jewish and stay for the relationships.

The second ingredient in our incubator model is to empower people to be part of a Jewish community without requiring them to show up at your door. We need to go where they are.

I know a young family who moved here from New York last year and were not able to attend High Holy Day services. So they turned on their computer, ported-in to Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun and davened from their living room. Jewish life came to them!

Another family whose child graduated from our preschool missed our JCC Shabbat experience. So we became a resource, inspiring them to have a home Shabbat experience with other families on their block.

Many Jewish startups have figured out this new model of engagement; organizations like Hazon, Wilderness Torah and Urban Adamah go to their audience. UpStart has given birth to innovative approaches to Judaism outside the institutional model. Slingshot is funding others to do the same thing. Those of us running more traditional Jewish agencies can become their collaborators and outreach magnifiers. That’s part of our role as incubators — to shepherd new ideas and help them flourish. And to connect our own members to these new forms of Jewish expression.

Whether you have 15,000 visitors coming through your doors each week, like the OFJCC, or a few hundred for services, we all have the opportunity to make our spaces more creatively Jewish, and to partner with emerging Jewish organizations that inspire new models and programs.

Together, traditional Jewish institutions and new Jewish ventures can help a new generation find identity, meaning and relevance in Jewish life. Together, we can ensure that Jews of today love being Jewish tomorrow.

Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.


Zack Bodner

Zack Bodner is Chief Executive Officer of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.