Reposted with thanks to the JFNA blog, where Wendy Verba offered a case study and take away: “The Power of Belonging:  Creating a Culture of Connection in the Bay Area Jewish World”

“In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our biggest opportunities, comes down to this — your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose.”

– Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO 

As it happens, our story begins with a Facebook post. Four years ago, “Natalya” arrived in San Francisco with her husband and two small children from Moscow via Tel Aviv. She knew nobody.  Like many Russian-speaking Jews, she had grown up with no Jewish education and only the vaguest notion of her Jewish roots.  But she was alone and anxious to connect, so she went on Facebook.

There she found other local Russian-speaking Jewish moms, who all seemed to be going to a “Passover in the Desert” camping trip with the Russian-Speaking Jews (RSJ) program of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.  Despite knowing nothing about Passover and feeling like an outsider, Natalya signed her family up. 

On the first night, instead of a seder, workshop or lecture, the adults were invited to sit in a circle and simply share their immigration stories.  As each person talked, Natalya realized that her own story was both unique and universal.  She moved from outsider to feeling that she belonged — that she mattered and was valued as a unique individual yet part of something bigger.

By the end of the weekend, Natalya had signed up for PJ Library, offered to help organize the next year’s event, and made plans with families nearby for play dates and holiday celebrations.  Last year, through a family engagement grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Federation hired Natalya as one of three “RSJ Connectors” to organize home-grown Jewish family activities, from “hike and learns” to museum visits that routinely attract 50-60 Russian-speaking Jews with young children.

Natalya’s experience underscores the importance and power of what may seem like a small moment: one purposely designed for people to be seen and heard in a personal and authentic way before they engage with program content.  These small moments are the whole point – the secret sauce to human belonging that will transform our Jewish world.  And it is our job to structure those moments.

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Wendy Verba, an alum of the Heritage Program (SF ’14), is a senior program officer at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, where she leads partner relations, community building and convening; facilitates strategic grantmaking; and manages a portfolio of agency relationships. Prior to that, she worked as an independent consultant with foundations and community organizations to help them design, fund, and launch programs that improve life in the Bay Area. Working with clients like the Jewish Community Federation, Jewish Vocational Service, the San Francisco Foundation and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Wendy developed new funding guidelines, managed grantmaking, planned and executed marketing and fundraising strategies, launched new programs and transformed existing ones. Wendy has served on the boards of UpStart, the Peninsula Jewish Community Center and the Berger Institute for Work Family and Children, and on UpStart’s CEO search committee. Wendy can be reached at