How to establish an early Jewish Identity

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The Beginning Jewish Families Task Force, which operates under the auspices of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR), just released an extensive study on the Jewish family. Mark Rosen and a team of researchers conducted the study in five Jewish communities in the greater New York area. They found a common thread that ran through all of the communities: the anticipated growth of young Jewish families in the next few years. Click here to read the study.

The purpose of the study was to look at engagement among Jewish families with young children. The study’s findings offer us insight into how we can better reach these families and encourage their participation in the Jewish community. JOI’s mission is to promote a more welcoming and inclusive space for Jewish families, so understanding how and why families with young children make their Jewish choices can have long-term implications with regard to their connection to Jewish life.

According to the study, choosing whether or not to participate in the Jewish community is usually based on a number of factors, including cost, location, recommendations from peers, and perception of Jewish knowledge. But for many people, these same factors can also be seen as barriers. Because these barriers are lower in many secular institutions, the young families whom the researchers studied seemed to choose those institutions over Jewish institutions. So how can we encourage making Jewish organizations their first institutional choice? Take a look at your own institution and determine the real or perceived barriers to participation. That’s something we do at JOI all the time in the development of our programs. What more can we all do to lower barriers to participation? These recommendations emerge out of the study:

  1. Cost. Programs offered by Jewish institutions often cost more than in secular institutions. Can you lower those costs by charging fees for individual sessions rather than requiring attendance at all sessions and requiring individuals to pay for the entire program? At JOI, we have written extensively about the numerous creative ways institutions can lower cost barriers, such as offering free samples, a year of free membership or a sliding dues scale.
  2. Location. Families don’t want to travel very far from home. Collaborate with other Jewish institutions in your community to offer multiple locations for program implementation. Coordinate a large-scale community event in a secular location such as a park or bookstore. In fact, this is the principle behind our Public Space Judaism program model – go to where people are rather than wait for them to come to us. Families may find secular locations more comfortable for their first encounter and there are more of them available, often closer to home.
  3. Secular marketing. Understand where families get their information about programs. Is it in a local newspaper or parenting newsletter? Local parenting websites and listservs are a key resource, as are online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Make sure to designate a knowledgeable staff member or volunteer to coordinate the use these venues to communicate with parents.
  4. Volunteers. Don’t forget how valuable peers can be in reaching out to one another. Ask involved parents to “buddy” with or mentor a new family to help them navigate Jewish opportunities in your community.
  5. Jewish knowledge. Make sure it is clear that Jewish literacy is not required to participate in your program. And if it is, then build a supportive environment for those not yet literate.
  6. Relationships. It’s about relationship building, not programming. Although high quality programming is important, the study concludes that institutions do not establish relationships, people do. The appropriate program facilitator is key to building a connection with program participants.

Parents with young children already have many decisions to make. Organizations like The Alliance for Jewish Early Education offer great resources for parents with young children and the communal professionals who work with them, but those of us on the inside need to take the time to better understand the needs of our target audience before developing programs for them. If we do, and if we can find ways to help them make Jewish choices, at this critical stage in the life of their family, it will positively impact their connection to Jewish life in their future. Don’t miss this opportunity!

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