May 2013

Going Undercover

Conversations among Wexner alumni almost inevitably include discussion of our work as leaders in the Jewish community.  When that topic comes up, I feel somewhat abashed.  The truth is that I committed a huge amount of my time and energy to leadership roles before I entered the Wexner Heritage program.  I don’t think I ever said no to a committee membership, a chair position or a board seat, and I served as president of our synagogue.  But at the moment, I am deliberately not engaged in any official leadership role.  Am I a Wexner failure?  I hope not – – I prefer to think that I’m on an undercover leadership mission.  (Thanks, Angie, for coining that term!)

At Wexner and our favorite Jewish institutions, we spend a lot of time with other people who care deeply about the Jewish community, and it’s wonderful, but are we focusing too much on “preaching to the choir”?  So I made a somewhat counter-intuitive decision.  I decided to step outside of Jewish leadership and look at the issues from the other end of the telescope…what’s it like to be someone who has just begun to connect?  What inspires someone to explore involvement with a Jewish organization? What can the organization do to attract, support, recognize and develop the involvement?  What works and what can we do better?  I resolved to make myself a guinea pig and find out.

So I decided to find some “foot solider” volunteer work and I deliberately looked for something that appealed to me aside from my Jewish identity.  I’ve always been interested in literacy, and it didn’t take much Googling to find a terrific Jewish literacy organization.  Interestingly, I had never heard of it! I went to the website to sign up for a tutor training, only to find that the dates all conflicted with my crazy work schedule.  After I finally made it to the training, and filled out the paperwork for a background check and FBI fingerprinting (really!), I thought I was ready to begin.  I was delighted to be assigned to an elementary school in my neighborhood, but when I arrived for my first shift, I found that the school personnel weren’t at all clear on why I was there or what my training covered.  There was considerable confusion about whether I would be tutoring for math and how much I could assist students who aren’t English speakers. I didn’t know the school schedule, so I found myself standing at a locked gate on Chinese New Year and on parent-teacher conference day.  I am happy to say that after several months, these issues have been largely worked out and I am working with an adorable group of five year olds.  And I just received a lovely invitation to an event for the volunteer tutors, which will be an opportunity to celebrate and exchange ideas.  Overall, it has been a very worthwhile experience and several important points have been underscored for me:

We cannot take visibility for granted.  We need to make our organizations and their important work known, especially in the wider, less-affiliated world.

In particular, we should make sure that our Jewish work is described in ways people can connect with even if they don’t know a word of Hebrew and never dreamed of joining a synagogue.

The easier we make it for volunteers (especially at the outset of their involvement), the better.  People are incredibly busy with work and family; we should focus on fitting our work into their schedules.

Both the volunteers and the beneficiaries of the volunteer work need complete information about goals, expectations and timing.

With our intense levels of commitment, it’s important to remember that even an hour a week is a lot for an entry level participant in the volunteer world.  And a positive experience with a limited commitment is the first step to deeper involvement.

When I am ready to come out again as a Jewish leader, I hope the lessons I’ve learned on my undercover mission will help me make the Jewish volunteer world more attractive and compelling to an even broader community.

Julie Matlof Kennedy (WHA, East Bay 10) develops and implements the litigation training curriculum for all of Morrison & Foerster’s offices, including in-house courses for attorneys on writing, oral advocacy, and litigation and trial skills. She has served on the faculty of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and is currently teaching a clinical course on negotiation skills at Stanford Law School. At the moment, her primary volunteer project is with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which aims to fight illiteracy by mobilizing reading tutors and advocating for public education.  She is tutoring in a transitional kindergarten classroom with four and five year old students.  Because her “day job” involves teaching adults, the contrast is pretty remarkable!  Julie can be reached at