Last week, I attended a dinner given by a pharmaceutical company in New York City. During dinner, a physician presented a study which showed that the majority of patients only comply with their prescribed course of medication to the extent that they feel the effects of their symptoms, rather than following their “doctor’s orders” exactly. This news seems shocking but may offer important insight into the current mind-set of individuals in our society. People feel free to make choices about what they want to include in every aspect their lives, and they exercise this freedom in decisions about everything from their health to their religious and communal participation.
An understanding and acceptance of this widespread state of mind can be helpful in creating programs and measuring the value of our efforts in Jewish communal service. Just as physicians prescribe medications and develop treatment plans for their patients to have the best possible outcomes for healing, Jewish communal professionals offer a multitude of “elixirs” for spiritual direction and a complete Jewish life. Yet most people are still going to do what they feel is best for them.
If we “prescribe” the ingredients for a healthy Jewish community and offer only the programs that we deem important, we can expect participation only from those in our target audience who share our same vision for them. If our intended outcome, however, is to help ensure that all of our community members live meaningful and fulfilling Jewish lives, we may reach more people if we also listen to what they want, and cater a percentage of our services to what they will actually choose to include in their lives.
Representative community members can assist professionals in developing programs that meet their needs. At JOI, we recommend going out to meet people where they are. For example, if an organization wants to reach the young, unaffiliated segment of the population, they could consider going to a popular bar and conducting informal interviews about which programs would interest the Jewish patrons they meet there—with a promise of a free drink as a thank-you for their ten minutes of time. (Ideally, this kind of networking research is conducted by members of the target audience’s own peer group that may already be involved in your community.) Their program interests and suggestions may be considerably different than those of a sub-committee of current synagogue members. This wider communal outreach to key stakeholders may be the medicine we need to ensure the future vitality of the Jewish community.