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Reconstructing Judaism Funds Innovative Approach to Serving Unaffiliated in Atlanta

Reconstructing Judaism explores and funds innovative ideas for connecting with and serving unengaged and under-engaged populations — in new ways and spaces.

To that end, our 2018 Convention featured the program “Reconstructing Shark Tank,” inspired by the hit ABC series “Shark Tank” and its focus on entrepreneurism. With a total prize offer of $16,000, we solicited applications from Jewish communities looking to fund startup projects. Three finalists — Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Kehillat Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem and Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md. — pitched their ideas to a panel and convention audience, which awarded, respectively, $8,000, $5,000 and $3,000.

“We are proud to partner with communities that are reimagining — reconstructing — today’s synagogues to meet the changing needs of our community,” said Cyd Weissman, Reconstructing Judaism’s Vice President for Innovation and Impact.  “These experiments are part of a much bigger story. As our spiritual landscape continues to shift, a process that has been exacerbated to warp speed by COVID-19, synagogues are rethinking the role of clergy, their financial models and what it means to gather and cultivate community in the digital age.”

The audience awarded the top prize to Congregation Bet Haverim for its project Your Jewish Bridge. The initiative illustrates, in these uncertain, challenging times, that it is more important than ever for Jewish communities to take chances, try new ideas and strive to reach all those seeking Jewish meaning, learning and community. A year and a half into the endeavor, Amy Robertson, who created Your Jewish Bridge, and Rabbi Pamela Gottfried, who serves as its rabbinic presence, authored the following blog post, which outlines the thinking behind the idea, tangible results and lessons learned.

Your Jewish Bridge

It is such a joy to report on the initiative that Reconstructing Judaism helped to fund through the Innovation Shark Tank.  Our initiative, Your Jewish Bridge, connects Jews who don’t have a synagogue ‘home’ to the resources available in a synagogue – intermittently, as they feel they need them. There is no membership model; people simply pay for the services they are seeking. Rabbi Pamela Gottfried, who joined our team in August 2019, spends half of her time serving Your Jewish Bridge clients, and half of her time supporting Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH) members. Our program received two grants in its introductory year — first from Reconstructing Judaism, which we allocated toward marketing and advertising, and then from our local Federation’s Innovation program, which helped cover the rabbi’s salary and paid for a professional evaluator.

Program Overview and Launch

This program emerged as a practical response to the reality that there is a large and growing number of unaffiliated Jews in Atlanta (and nationally) who simply do not want to join a synagogue. Many of them are “friends” of CBH — they may attend High Holiday services or other special gatherings and may even make financial contributions. Because they have opted not to join any synagogue, they come to think of ours as “home,” and they call upon us in moments of need. We have struggled with how our mission directs us in this moment. Is there a way to serve these Jews in need while still honoring the covenantal relationship we have with our members? Your Jewish Bridge has given us a new path, allowing us to say yes to both our membership and our friends of CBH’s intermittent needs, serving people as they wish to be served.

The program launched in August 2019, and it has been a whirlwind year. Rabbi Gottfried already has  performed 15 lifecycle rituals for unaffiliated Jews in the first year, including two baby namings, six funerals and two weddings.  She is working with an additional six unaffiliated families who are preparing to celebrate b’nai mitzvah and eight candidates preparing for conversion that she will officiate over the next 18 months.  We’ve had more than 1,700 visits to our website (www.yourjewishbridge.com) with more than 4,100 page views and more than 40 unique inquiries.

With four months left to go in our first year, when we were forced to quarantine due to COVID-19, we were on track to meet our financial goal for the year. Nevertheless, we were delighted to exceed our financial goal in year one. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta Innovation recently renewed our grant for year two and awarded us additional funds to hire a part-time marketing/social media assistant. https://www.yourjewishbridge.com/mission

The marketing that Reconstructing Judaism funded was instrumental to our success. It is not easy to reach Jews in Atlanta who have opted not to connect to the organized Jewish community. So far, we are primarily using these funds online. We have a contractor who is developing and managing ads on Google (both search-term-based and display ads) and on Facebook, where we are targeting people who have shown interest in Jewish food or holidays, but not, for example, Federation or the JCC.

As we continue to explore and learn, we want to share with you some of our challenges and discoveries.

Learning #1: The challenges of reaching unaffiliated Jews

During the early months, we learned a lot about the most effective ways to reach people. While we had originally envisioned using program offerings as a means of outreach, we discovered that many unaffiliated folks need to have a sense of urgency/personal need for Jewish engagement to garner time on their busy schedule. We also learned that clients who needed a rabbi to officiate at a lifecycle were thrilled to be included in open synagogue events. In addition, Rabbi Gottfried engaged in a great deal of lifecycle-adjacent pastoral care. There were many inquiries for conversion to Judaism, and those who engaged in a course of study with Rabbi Gottfried were eager to participate in CBH services and Torah study, as well as holiday programs.

Impacted by Covid-19

During quarantine, when our CBH services and classes went virtual, we found even more people were eager to engage with us online. Despite having to postpone life cycle celebrations, such as b’nai mitzvah and mikvah immersions, many existing clients participated in online programs. We received enough new inquiries for conversion that we were able to offer an online Judaism 101 summer course, with eight students enrolled.

While in the early months we were successful in attracting clients from among the High Holiday attendees and friends of CBH who knew about Your Jewish Bridge, during the last months of year one, when COVID forced the Jewish community to go virtual, we found that Your Jewish Bridge became borderless.

Learning #2: Pricing models and personalization

Another thing we learned in the first year is that our pricing model needed a lot of updating. Because each lifecycle inquiry was for a unique, personally designed event, intake meetings took longer than we’d imagined. Sometimes this was because of pastoral issues that became entangled in the lifecycle, and sometimes it was unnamed/unrealized pastoral issues Rabbi Gottfried responded to simply as a trusted presence in someone’s life.  This proved particularly true of, but not limited to, bereavement services.

B’nai mitzvah are a very popular offering, with clients seeking everything from a backyard bar mitzvah, to older teens seeking some relationship to Torah before leaving home, to a traditional sanctuary service. We did not account for just how much pre-simcha education people would want. It’s wonderful, but also a little overwhelming, for our one half-time rabbi! We discovered in the first four to five months that we could hire a Hebrew tutor to meet with 10- or 11- year-old students and reserve Rabbi Gottfried’s time for working with the students who were ready to learn Torah reading and write a d’var Torah, as well as with the families to plan their lifecycle event. As we begin year two, we have engaged a tutor who can also teach Torah trope (virtually) to provide more infrastructure to support the b’nai mitzvah students.

Our hypothesis that there are many unaffiliated Jews in Atlanta who are interested in intermittent rabbinic support — and willing to pay for it — appears to be true. We look forward to another year of growth, connection, and learning.

The Reconstructionist Network

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Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

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The Reconstructionist Network