Growing the NEXTwork in Cincinnati

Yoni Sarason, Midwest Regional Director, NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation

January 8, 2013

I started working in the Jewish community mostly by accident. Sure, I had a great Jewish upbringing in Cincinnati, raised as a part of an independent Jewish spiritual community (a chavurah); managed a few years of Jewish day school, Jewish Sunday school, summer camp, youth group and a Workum internship; experienced Birthright Israel, a semester in Israel and a few things I’m sure I’m forgetting. But building vibrant Jewish community as a profession hadn’t really been on my radar.

That’s why, after spending several years in St. Louis and founding a few projects focused on creating community for my Jewish young adult peers, it was interesting to come back to Cincinnati to spend a day with people who, like myself, are working to help young adults find Jewish community.

My day in Cincinnati is part of the work I now do for “NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation,” where I help Jewish organizations become more effective at building community for young adults. I travel to cities around the Midwest, meet with professionals tasked with young adult engagement and hear about the great work they do and the challenges they face. After hearing a number of these challenges, it became apparent that not everyone has the same access to Jewish ideas, networks and resources as I do.

That’s how I found myself in a room with 25 professional “engagers” from organizations like Jewish Federations, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, synagogues and more this past week, facilitating presentations and workshops and building a network of support that we call the NEXTwork. Back when I lived and worked in St. Louis, I always had a group of people I could call to work through certain issues from program ideas to how to measure success to free web apps for getting things done. If our NEXTwork is successful, it will help create these relationships of practice, which can help people do their work more effectively.

The convening also served another purpose. So many of us get caught up in the day-to-day actions of our work that we sometimes need an excuse to think about bigger ideas—like why we do what we do, or why we often feel like we don’t have enough time or money to be successful. I’ve often found that a day to talk about big ideas can help me refocus and realign with my mission and values.

Our big idea was that, without knowing it, we are often stuck in a mindset of scarcity. This mindset makes us think that we are constantly in competition with everyone else and that for us to gain, someone else has to lose. The opposite of this is a mindset of abundance, which is characterized by a willingness to collaborate, share and work toward a greater goal.

My goal was to help all the professional engagers in Cincinnati I met to understand that so many of the headaches we find in trying to build community could be eased if we flipped our perceptions around. We started by looking at the Jewish roots of this idea, how our tradition encourages us to believe that by giving away our resources, we create a better and more collaborative community. We examined a way to measure how attached people feel to their communities as a way of knowing if we are making an impact. And we thought about how this approach of abundance can impact how we interact with our participants, our stakeholders and other community organizations.

At the end of the day, though, what I think everyone found most valuable was the chance to meet each other, share stories and form relationships. So frequently, young adult engagement professionals end up being the ones who plan community events, stay up late and worry about the small details. To have the chance to share our frustrations, hopes, challenges and ideas proved very powerful.

I’m hopeful that the NEXTwork will serve as a jumping-off point for relationships, ideas and community-building among professionals in Cincinnati and across the Midwest. On a personal level, this day was just as much about giving back to a community that has given me so much. Our work will continue and can only grow from here.