By Listening to Our Members, We Created More Meaningful Jewish Experiences

August 2, 2019Susan Ellenby

We do a lot of listening at North Shore Congregation Israel (NSCI), and not just the kind where you nod your head and smile. We listen to understand, we listen to improve, and we listen to co-construct our offerings with our members.

As a large congregation located in the north suburbs of Chicago, we have members and friends of many backgrounds, perspectives, and expectations. We listen to our folks. And then we take action.

How does that work? Here are some examples:

1. Partnering with a non-denominational preschool to “meet families where they are”

At the conclusion of a successful series of parent-and-tot drop-ins, we sought a way to continue the Jewish experience of the participating families. We knew our first step was to listen.

This same group of families had chosen to send their children to a non-denominational preschool, but despite the fact that these children would all be in the same class, their parents mentioned they would miss the warmth of a Jewish connection in their children’s educational experience.

After exploring a variety of avenues to help them achieve this goal, we decided to lease space in the building where their children’s preschool was located and offer a Shabbat enrichment class there. This enabled our teachers to walk the children to our Shabbat class at the end of their preschool day.

We experimented with different activities in this Shabbat class, including holiday-based crafts, songs, stories, and games. Our congregation’s clergy team supported this endeavor and agreed to visit the Shabbat class regularly to lead blessings, sing songs, and tell stories. As the semester went on, the students loved playing the guessing game of which clergy member was coming that week for the visit.

When word spread about how valuable our class was in these families’ lives, the families of students one year older asked us to create a similar experience for them. Again, we listened and learned about their preschool schedule, then made a special arrangement for an enrichment class before their school day started.

At the end of the spring semester, our graduating students were offered the opportunity to enroll in NSCI’s Kindergarten Sunday School Program at a significantly discounted rate, with no obligation of membership for the year. This effort was led by our director of education and supported by our encouraging board of trustees and clergy team. Everyone recognized the power of community connections.

Our Shabbat enrichment class has been a great success. Now in its fifth year, it has engaged a total of more than 100 students, and eight families have continued on to learn in our synagogue classes.

2. Meeting the needs of grandparents

A group of suburban-based grandparents approached us for help in introducing positive Jewish experiences to their young grandchildren, who all live in the city of Chicago. We listened – and learned that many of these grandparents go into the city on Saturday afternoons to provide childcare and a break to the parents.

As a result, we partnered with Chicago Sinai Congregation under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Chicago and created Saturday afternoon programming for these grandparents and their grandchildren in Chicago. Such opportunities helped these families make connections to other Chicago-based families and Jewish opportunities they hadn’t been aware of.

Now, we’re looking into offering similar programming for Hanukkah and Passover, based on participants’ requests, and NSCI has become a resource for the parents of these young children, some of whom are considering moving to the suburbs.

3. Connecting with unaffiliated parents

Leading up to the High Holidays, we receive many questions from unaffiliated parents who are looking for a place to expose their young children to Judaism. We have in-person conversations with every family who expresses interest in attending Tot High Holiday services – a time when we get to know the families, what they seek, and what’s missing in their daily Jewish lives.

We use this information to follow up with those families not only during the High Holidays but throughout the year when we host programming and opportunities that match what they’re seeking. We also take the time to introduce these families to one another and to other resources in the Jewish community, which magnifies the power of one-on-one relationships throughout the community.

Our days of listening are not over. Our teachers listen when they meet folks at the local grocery store; our clergy listen when they interact with a family; our board members listen when they speak to congregants. We continue to listen to understand and record the vision people seek – and we have to listen because doing so creates powerful one-on-one relationships and conversations.

NSCI promotes a culture of “yes” and “let’s try.” Because of this mentality, we know we can continuously encourage and empower families with young children to have meaningful and impactful Jewish experiences, both in our synagogue building and beyond its walls.

Susan Ellenby is the engagement manager at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL.

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