ReachOut! is A Project of the JCRC of Boston

I.     Introduction: A New Program for Engaging Jewish Young Adults in Community Service

ReachOut! is a program created by the Jewish Community Relations Council (“JCRC”) of Boston in 2010 for the purpose of engaging Jewish young adults in their 20’s and 30’s in meaningful community service.  The JCRC believed that participation in such service could become a transformative rite of passage for an age cohort that had been difficult to connect with the organized Jewish community by providing them with the opportunity to participate in intensive periods of significant ongoing volunteering and learning through the Jewish community which would encourage each participant to form a lifelong commitment to community service that is integrally connected with their Jewish identity.  The program was developed by the Young Adult Social Justice Program of JCRC, now coordinated by Shoshana Edelson.

II.    Background:  The Boston JCRC and the landscape of social justice opportunities for young adult volunteers

Founded in 1944, the Boston JCRC was the first Jewish community relations organization in the United States.  It currently serves as the umbrella for 42 of the most significant membership organizations operating in the Greater Boston area with a staff of 19 professionals and a budget of approximately $3 million per year. The Boston JCRC’s purpose is to define and advance the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square.  To achieve their shared values effectively, the JCRC and the Greater Boston Jewish community work toward a strong infrastructure of community relations, articulated through building the community’s connection and commitment to civil society, developing the next generation of Jewish leaders, weaving a strong network of Jewish organizations, and investing in deep ties with actors in the public square.
For over 15 years the JCRC of Boston had been engaged in introducing Jewish young adults to social justice work through a number of different programs and partnerships. For the most part these opportunities consisted of one-time events (e.g. service days) or required on-going, long term commitments, often in projects that were not created specifically for young adults or geared to meet their particular interests or needs.
In the spring of 2009 the JCRC did an assessment of their existing programs and concluded that the models did not maximize potential to provide a wide array of young adults with meaningful social justice opportunities.  In particular, the existing programs were not successfully retaining existing participants or recruiting new, unaffiliated members of the community for sustained, long term commitments to social justice engagement. 
In particular, the assessment suggested that young adults were interested in participating in meaningful work that required a commitment greater than one event but was flexible enough so that it would not lock them in for indeterminate periods of time.  They also sought access to a variety of different geographic and subject matter areas in which they might serve.  Finally, they were attracted not only to an appreciation for the value of the services to be provided but in the chance to make friends and create community through the shared experience of performing those services as a team.   
III.   Researching, Piloting, and Establishing a New Way to Provide Meaningful Social Justice Opportunities for Young Adults
A.    Engaging the target population in deciding what was needed
As a result, a steering committee consisting of JCRC young adult leaders and professional staff was created to engage in over fifty conversations with young adults as well as with professionals in the field.  Based on this research and their findings, the steering committee ultimately adopted a set of goals for a program that would reflect the landscape of what social justice opportunities already existed in the community, recognized the gaps people had identified and constructively offered means by which the JCRC could fill in those gaps.

  • To engage Jewish young adults in the life of the broader Greater Boston community and build their connection and commitment to that community by providing diverse, accessible, life-stage appropriate opportunities for Jewish young adults to engage in meaningful community service that requires different amounts of time and levels of commitment.
  • To build strong, ongoing relationships with a diverse group of partner organizations both in the Jewish community and beyond, and to engage in community service work which adds value to those partner organizations.
  • To build community with among Jewish young adult peers through collective engagement in service that offer opportunities for them to get better acquainted to form lasting friendships and to foster a community of Jews who care deeply about improving our community and building relationships with each other by creating an open, welcoming culture in which we are united by these shared values.
  • To provide participants with educational experiences that reinforce our core values of social justice and service, that teach participants about the Jewish community and provide opportunities for leadership development and ownership over the program and its direction.
  • To serve as a gateway for young adults with little or no prior involvement in Boston’s organized Jewish community by providing easy access for those with little Jewish background or volunteer experience. 

B.   The ReachOut! Pilot Program, Fall 2010

The pilot program was developed and implemented by a diverse lay committee of 10-15 young adults who ultimately would participate in the program themselves working with the JCRC staff.  In addition to providing input on final program design and serving as leaders in the program, these lay committee members served as liaisons between their networks and the program and were the primary channel for recruiting participants.

The development committee concluded that in order for community service experiences for young adults to succeed five features were critical: 

  1. Time frame.  The opportunities needed to be short enough to be feasible for young busy adults to commit to but also long enough to develop relationships with individuals at partner organizations, have a material impact in the field and develop a volunteer practice.
  2. Placement partners. Selection of partner organization placements needed to be diverse in order to offer options based on time, tasks, population served and geographic location.
  3. Stable teams.  It was preferable to work with a stable team of your peers in small groups rather than alone or in larger groups where it might be difficult to create meaningful relationships.
  4. Jewish learning component.  There was a real interest in combining the performance of community service with learning more about Jewish values and traditions concerning such responsibilities.
  5. Integrated social events. Social events presented in the context of shared community service would be more desirable, and successful, than stand-alone social events. 
    Based on these decisions, the preliminary parameters of the pilot program created by the development committee consisted of the following key components:
  • 12 weeks of weekly volunteer service, approximately 2 hours per week, with a strong organization-based framing and ongoing engagement in issues related to the theme and site.
  • 3-6 theme-focused tracks, each at a designated volunteer site (i.e. focusing on homelessness, aging, education, etc.) in small groups of 5-15 people.
  • Additional large group social and learning sessions, including Shabbat dinners, for volunteers from all tracks.

C. ReachOut! ongoing program success

ReachOut! is governed by a steering committee working with staff at the JCRC to grow, direct and evaluate the program.  Team site captains serve as liaisons between JCRC staff, the volunteers and the site contacts at each site.  They also facilitate discussions and work to ensure a positive volunteer experience for all participants.  Site captains usually are recruited from prior location volunteers and often follow a leadership development track by becoming members of the steering committee.

ReachOut! has expanded from its 5 original sites to on-going relationships with over 12 partner organization around the Greater Boston area (including three of the five original sites).  The options provided allow the volunteers to choose to work with groups committed to creating connections with youth, seniors or members of the disabilities community, eradicating hunger and homelessness, providing access to adult education or raising environmental awareness.  Each seasonal cycle has seen 40-70 volunteers participating at the available sites. Over 66% of ReachOut volunteers return for multiple cycle placements at their chosen partner sites.

In addition to the Fall and Spring 12 week cycles, a summer cycle was added that offers placements for 4, 6 or 8 weeks. Each full cycle includes orientations, a team Shabbat dinner at the home of one of the participants and a convening of all of the session volunteers at a closing Shabbat dinner with nearly a 100% attendance record.   ReachOut! also offers one-time events as an introduction to the organization including Christmas holiday season volunteering through VolunCHEER and Summer of Service programs.

ReachOut! volunteers fall within the ages of 21 to 39 years old, with a median in the 21 to 26 year old cohort. There consistently has been a 2:1 ratio between female and male participants. Over 60% of the volunteers are recruited by word of mouth from friends and personal contacts.   Additional recruitment is provided through the one-time events, social media campaigns and partnerships with other young adult programs like Birthright and local havurah’s. Nearly 30% of ReachOut! volunteers were not involved with other Jewish organizations or activities in the Greater Boston area before joining the program.

IV. Analysis: The ReachOut! Success and Challenges

ReachOut! quickly has become a recognized, sustainable project within the Boston JCRC’s overall service initiatives and, particularly, its young adult social justice program.  It has met and exceeded its hoped for goals of attracting, engaging and retaining Jewish Young Adults as increasingly important participants in the organized Jewish community and its potential future leadership. It also has provided valuable new resources for the community at large. 

ReachOut! successfully provided a way for young adult Jews to incorporate volunteerism and social justice into their lives in a long-term, sustainable and meaningful way by creating opportunities for service especially tailored to their interests.  Participants are invited to experience their Judaism both by making a meaningful contribution to society and building their own Jewish community with peers who share their values. Through ongoing community service, participants have built relationships with people across Greater Boston, learned the variety of ways that community based organizations are addressing social and economic challenges and deepened their commitment to civic engagement.

The program has learned that the success of the site partnerships depends on a number of factors including: (1) finding the right person at the organization to partner with; (2) desirable locations; (3) meaningful experiences including interactions with staff and clients at the site; (4) flexibility in accommodating professional schedules with time constraints and changing availabilities (e.g. it is difficult to arrange for youth programming when the sessions takes place after work hours).

For purposes of funding and support in the Jewish community, the ReachOut! coordinators primarily focus their analyses on the ability of the program to attract and engage young Jewish volunteers and on the impact of the program on its participants.  Nonetheless, they also care about measuring the impact of the program on the community.  Thus, they are extremely proud that in the 2015-2016 program year ReachOut!’s participants provided over 5500 hours of volunteer time with an equivalent value of $160,000 of financial donations.  The qualitative feedback received from site contacts confirms that the services provided by the ReachOut! volunteers made a real difference for the people served.

Challenges for the future of the ReachOut! program include:

  • Creation of an alumni network.
  • Continuing to listen to and learn from the volunteer participants so that the program continues to grow and adapt to meet the target audiences’ interests and needs as they change and evolve over time.
  • Developing new opportunities for recruitment that not only will increase the number of overall participants but also will reduce the gender and age gaps in the volunteer population.
  • Creating new placements with partnership sites that provide a variety of choices for the volunteer population based on location, time and date, different types of services and communities served and length of commitment required.
  • Fostering strong, lasting relationships with partnership organizations that are based on institutional ties as well as on personal connections.
  • Maintaining retention rates and leadership development track successes.

V.   Conclusion: Key Takeaways for Developing Future Young Leadership Programming
The development of  ReachOut! revealed two critical, generally applicable insights into the creation of viable young leadership programming. 

  • First, taking the time to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers before coming to any conclusions or relying upon predetermined assumptions will lead to more effective results. 
  • Second, when developing any such program, the target community to be engaged in the project should be directly involved with professional staff at the sponsoring organization from the inception so that they have a direct investment stake in its success.

For more information about the ReachOut! program, please contact Shoshana Edelson, Young Adult Social Justice Programs Coordinator at the JCRC of Greater Boston, at (617)-457-8671