people in costume sitting around a table eating
"Halloween Shabbat” at the S.F. North Beach Moishe House, Oct. 2016

Our federation is on a quest to develop more access points to Jewish life

Four years ago, “Natalya” arrived in San Francisco with her husband and two small children from Moscow. She knew nobody, and very little about her Jewish roots. Anxious to connect, she went on Facebook.

There she found other Jewish émigré moms, all going to a “Passover in the Desert” camping trip with a community engagement program called Russian-Speaking Jews and run by the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. Despite knowing nothing about Passover and feeling like an outsider, Natalya signed her family up.

On the first night, the adults were invited to sit in a circle and share their immigration stories. As each person talked, Natalya realized that her own story was both unique and universal. She moved from outsider to feeling like she belonged — that she mattered.

By the end of the weekend, Natalya had subscribed to PJ Library and made plans with families nearby for play dates and holiday celebrations. The event organizers noticed her talent for leading children’s activities, and asked her to help run the next year’s event, and the one after that.

Last year, through a family engagement grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Federation hired Natalya as one of three “RSJ Connectors” to organize homegrown Jewish family activities, from “hike and learn” events to museum visits that routinely attract 50-60 Russian-speaking Jews with young children.

Natalya’s experience underscores the importance and power of what may seem like a small moment: one purposely designed for people to be seen and heard in a personal and authentic way before they engage with program content. These small moments are the whole point — the secret sauce to human belonging that will transform our Jewish world. Yet, surprisingly, they rarely happen without regular intention and planning.

The Federation, along with a growing number of partner organizations and Jewish leaders in the Bay Area, has spent the last year on a learning journey to explore how intentional community-building practices and mindsets can transform our organizations as we create opportunities for people to find belonging and purpose through Jewish life.

Our organization’s journey began with one visionary leader of our community — Varda Rabin — who imagined a Jewish ecosystem organized around connecting and belonging, in which agency leaders actively collaborate with one another based on trust and personal relationships.

In 2016, Varda partnered with the Federation to bring leaders from 24 San Francisco Jewish organizations to Israel on the Irving Rabin Community Building Mission. The purpose of the trip was to explore Israel’s many successful experiments in intentional community building while creating a bonded team of Bay Area Jewish leaders.

When people feel an authentic sense of belonging, amazing things happen.

The trip transformed the way organizations in our community work together. Camp and Hillel directors, day school heads and rabbis now are collaborating with organizations focused on Jewish diversity, outdoor Jewish experiences, arts and culture, public affairs and social justice. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis are bringing their congregations together to connect and learn together. There are new levels of trust, reciprocity and shared purpose among organizations that have worked in silos for many years.

Our Federation is re-orienting everything we do around a single, unifying principle that we believe is the key to a vibrant Jewish future: Ensuring that every person who chooses Jewish life experiences a sense of purpose, belonging, safety and commitment within a Jewish community — whether that’s through a synagogue, a Moishe House, a day school, a new mother’s group or any gathering where people congregate to do Jewish stuff.

When people feel an authentic sense of belonging, amazing things happen. They take care of each other, they act like owners instead of consumers, they give more money, they bring others, they lead and take responsibility, they trust each other.

The human desire to belong to a community is powerful and fundamental — whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, inside or out. Creating a sense of belonging doesn’t just happen when you bring people together. It requires a shift in the way we structure our goals and activities — from delivering programs and products for “consumption” to focus instead on practices that forge human connection and generate feelings of belonging, ownership and responsibility.

Over the past year, the Federation has continued to partner with Varda Rabin to build “cultures of belonging” internally and among partner organizations through community building workshops and consultations, generating some exciting experiments. For example:

  • Several organizations have introduced a “you were missed” practice, with board members volunteering to call those absent to share meeting highlights and let them know they were missed.
  • A day school brought parents and staff together to pilot community building approaches in three targeted areas. One technique: open parent coffees at drop-off, facilitated by board members, to introduce parents to one another.
  • A synagogue canceled its order of mishloach manot (Purim baskets) for delivery to congregants and instead turned the mitzvah into an afternoon community building activity, with group hamantaschen baking and volunteers assembling boxes while getting to know one another.
  • An organization that cares for seniors is shifting its focus from asking clients what they need to what they can do for themselves and others.

These organizations now ask one question: “How can we structure this service or activity to ensure that everyone feels like they belong and are part of something greater?”

As Varda Rabin says, “Judaism is a religion of connectivity. You can’t be Jewish alone.”

Our tradition and our current Jewish ecosystem offer so many points of access for belonging and purpose, if only we learn to structure connection as intentionally and systematically as we do fundraising or event planning. The results will be stronger Jewish organizations, a vibrant Jewish community and a path to belonging for every person in the Jewish world.

Earlier versions of this piece appeared on jewishfederations.org and at eJewishPhilanthropy.

Wendy Verba
Wendy Verba

Wendy Verba is a Senior Program Officer at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, where she leads local impact strategy, organizational partnerships, community building and convening. Wendy manages seed funding and capital grantmaking, as well as a portfolio of agency relationships including Jewish overnight camps.