By Cyd B. Weissman
Please join me in a Jewish communal shout-out to Ron Wolfson.
Together: “You were right, and the coronavirus pandemic has proven it.”
Normally when I’d quote from Ron’s book, “Relational Judaism, Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (2013), I would leaf through the pages to find exactly the right passage. But because my office, like yours, is locked up, and I can’t put my hands on my copy, the best I can do is reproduce a quote that Amazon highlights, which is fortunately apropos:
“What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”
Point made. People first. During the seven years since Wolfson published his book, the Jewish community has embraced the primacy of relationships. Today, we see this approach has enabled us to connect while physical distancing.
Across our community, rabbis, educators and Jewish organizational leaders are reporting record numbers of people engaging despite the limitations we all experience through Zoom and other computer bound connections.
“We’ve never had so many attend (Zoom) Friday night, week after week,” reported a rabbi in Philadelphia. Ritualwell, Reconstructing Judaism’s online hub for Jewish learning and ritual, has seen record numbers since the start of the pandemic with an increase of 15,000 unique visitors per month. We’ve also seen unprecedented engagement with our Virtual Shabbat Box, used by 5,000 people per week.
Attesting not only to an increase in the number of people engaging, but also to an increase in commitment, a New York City rabbi told me, “We are facing financial challenges, but I’m not calling my lead donors. They are calling me. ‘We’ve got it rabbi. Don’t worry.’”
The relationship building the Jewish community has invested in is showing unanticipated dividends. What can we learn from this?
For me, reflection on this uptick reveals something about relational Judaism that I never understood until now.
Until now, as a Jewish communal professional, I’ve thought about relationship building as a way for people to feel seen and cared about — meeting an existential yearning our community is uniquely poised to do. Until now, I’ve understood relationships as the building block of community — enabling essential connecting of individuals to one another. And when wearing my innovation hat, until now, I’ve thought of relationships as the means to uncover pains and gains — needs and desires — that directs creation of effective Jewish engagement. That’s all true. But there is more.
Crystal clear to me, now, is that all the coffees, the story sharing and listening, and the showing up, has resulted in the cultivation of a most rare commodity in our society: trust.
We all know that trust in the very foundations of society, government, media, business, and yes religion, has eroded through unending scandal and partisanship. Growing uncertainty of people’s and organizations’ motivations, intentions, values and future actions, has left us with few trustworthy places to turn in times of need.
Yet today, when human yearning has never been greater, large numbers of people are choosing to turn to Jewish community.
Network leaders who I meet with regularly, charged with the job of knitting the Jewish community together, Zoom-huddled this past week for a check-in. “People in my network are meeting more than ever,” one leader reported. And “they are sharing in ways I’ve never seen, bringing their truly vulnerable selves.” We all reported similar experiences.
Explaining this phenomena of increased engagement and commitment, Suri Jacknis, director of educator networks for the Jewish Education Project, often my teacher, said, “We’ve built a web of trusted relationships.”
From the first hello to the last time you followed up by doing what you said you would do, Jewish communal professionals have been building relationships that have resulted in that trust. Slowly. Slowly. Each cultivated relationship has moved people to take a risk, to share a little more, and to expect a little more from their religion–from their Jewish professionals and community.
Trust grows over time.
It also grows in a reciprocal fashion. In the years since taking on the charge in Wolfson’s book, Jewish professionals have learned to put more trust in those they serve. Shifting away from an “I know what’s best for you” approach, they have been adopting a toolkit that puts the voices and the creativity of those they wish to serve at the center. Learner centered education, co-created engagement, customer-discovery, and network weaving are just a few of the tools enabling professionals to trust people’s instincts and energy. Result: mutual trust.
Trust is also fragile. For all the hours it takes to build, trust can be quickly broken. As we feverishly try to discover how to offer emotional, spiritual and intellectual safety, nourishment and connection in disrupted times, let’s guard the trust. Keep listening, having virtual coffees, and putting the needs, voices and creativity of the people we wish to serve at the center.
Ron, you got us started. Together we honor your work with a big, “Thank-you.” Our charge now is to write a new chapter in the book on relationships: “Guarding and Growing Trust in the Time of Coronavirus.” Colleagues, how are you doing that? What might we all learn?
Cyd B. Weissman is vice president, innovation and impact, at Reconstructing Judaism. This piece first appeared on ejewishphilanthropy.com.