Help, My Program Draws Too Many People!

The Jewish community’s concern about numbers is not a modern phenomenon: it’s been around for thousands of years - in fact, the fourth book of the Bible is called Numbers because it begins with a census count of the Israelites.

Most often, of course, our concern is that the numbers are too few: What can we do about the dwindling Jewish population? How many people will come to the synagogue’s Purim carnival? How can I reach more people this year than last year?

But for some institutions, keeping their community at a manageable size is the fundamental nature of the institution itself. These institutions seek to foster a tight-knit community; a 500-person event can run counter to this goal. They’re delighted that people are interested, but want to maintain the kind of small, intimate environment that drew people there to begin with.

While this is not the problem that most outreach workers are dealing with, it’s still an important question to address considering how critical personal contact is in reaching out to new people. What options are there for people in this enviable predicament? The first thing that leapt to my mind was worms. Allow me to explain…

My brother and I used to scan the driveway in search of worms to cut in half — we wanted to test the theory that each half would become its own worm. Likewise, my first thought was that popular groups or institutions should consider splitting into two — the split could be based on geography, making the group even more accessible. But I must admit that after the splice, as each worm piece slithered its way to the grass, I would fret for the one left without its brain.

One concern about splitting a group into two is that one half will end up with the ‘brains’—that is, those strong personalities, or teachers, or leaders, or energizers—that are the glue of the group. But there a lot of energizing people out there, and surprising candidates might step up to the plate given the opportunity. It would be important that the leaders invest extra time and energy in the upstart process of the second group, but over time the second group would mutate into its own thing with its own personality and its own set of loveable idiosyncrasies — a unique, intimate group in the same way that the first group was unique and intimate. Numbers aside, it is a shame that people interested in participating in Judaism would be turned away. Are there other ideas out there for how to deal with this ‘problem’?


  1. The concern you voiced about splitting a group, and having one half end up with the more dynamic personalities, or the “brains” is an interesting idea. There is most certainly a value to forming smaller and more intimate groups, in terms of creating community. Malcom Gladwell talks about the idea of, “The Magic Number of 150″ and, “The Law of the Few.” He explains that there is a maximum size that a group can reach before its members cease to have a genuinely social relationship with each other. That number is around 150 people. On the other hand, from an organizational/marketing standpoint, (which in many ways is what we do as Jewish professionals) the larger our numbers the better. There are also people, particularly young adults who look for a large organization to join, associating this with the broadest possible range of services, as well as those who shy away from larger groups, preferring a smaller more intimate and less threatening gathering. Simply put, we are constantly wrestling with the issues of quantity and quality. Also “The Law of the Few” suggests that certain personalities will be more successful in bringing people together and planning the kinds of activities others want to participate in. I think the answer, as usual lies somewhere in the combination of the two.

    There have been numerous studies on young adults, Gen Y, the ipod generation, or whatever moniker you prefer, to describe adults in their 20’s and 30’s. The few things all of them seem to agree with are:
    1. Young Adults do not like to become members of things.
    2. Young adults tend to be very mobile, changing address and even cities, often.
    3. Young adult are used to a huge variety of options and the ability to personalize virtually everything, from music to clothing and even the environments they occupy.

    How then do you create a program that will serve this ridiculously complex group? I work for the JCC Association, and our Young Adult Initiative, GesherCity is aimed at resolving this exact issue. The program is built on the idea of creating smaller social networks, within the framework of a larger, continental program. Each city has its own section of the continental website, and users (not members) are allowed free access to a variety of services including a calendar, bulletin board and community resources. The truly innovative aspect of the program however are the “cluster groups” clusters are interest based activity groups, run by a member of the community, and can be based on virtually any interest. The groups meet at least once a month and can be as small or as large as the Cluster Coordinator chooses. These groups solve both the issue of wanting to belong to a large and varied community while at the same time, participating in small and intimate activities. Additionally, because each group is run by one or two “social entrepreneurs,” and they always have the option of dissolving the group after a set period of time, or passing the torch to another, there will always be some dynamic personalities working within the groups. They will change groups as their interests change, and no one group will have all the “Brains.” Most important of all, is the opportunity for those who are interested in becoming leaders to experiment with ‘bite sized’ leadership rolls, and they are supported by the local staff. The local staff can then help them develop the necessary skills to become a strong leader. If you would like more information about GesherCity and the Young Adult Initiative at the JCC Association please check out the website at, or feel free to contact me at

    Comment by Adam Courtney — March 31, 2006 @ 3:56 pm

  2. It’s interesting that you mention The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s fascinating that this principle of 150 is found throughout history, from religious communities to sneaker companies. One example that stands out in my mind is Gore Associates, the company that makes Gore-Tex, which builds a new office space (even if it’s just across a parking lot) once the team reaches 150 people. So, while there are definitely smaller teams where individuals know each other on a personal level, they still identify as part of a larger whole. Likewise, I think that this is what we strive for in our Jewish communities. The smaller, more intimate groups should still have the sense that they belong to a larger Jewish community within their city, and that there is a connection between what they do and what Jewish communities around the world are doing (and indeed strengthened by the range of Jewish customs and practice).
    An additional aspect of the challenges that the young adult population presents is how to nurture small, interest-based groups while still maintaining a sense of connection to the larger whole.

    Comment by Julie Seltzer — April 3, 2006 @ 11:13 am

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