Guest Blog

A Fellowship as a Building Block: The Jewish Emergent Network Today

– by Jessica Emerson McCormick

January 26th, 2021

As the Jewish Emergent Network processes the learnings from our rabbinic fellowship and recent holiday and social justice programs—and looks towards future projects—our leadership has taken a moment to breathe, apply gained wisdom to our view of the field, and assess our goals and value proposition. We are taking everything we’ve learned over the past five years and asking ourselves challenging questions to make sure our work together continues to be intentional and valuable. How might we take advantage of the ripeness of this moment to make real change in the Jewish landscape? How might we continue to understand belonging, community, covenant and how to design for it? How might we identify and develop the fluencies needed for Jewish sacred community in a post-pandemic world? We are thinking about identifying touchpoints to lean into momentum in the field, and looking for ways to share and elevate some of our common operating values. We are considering our role as translators: from tradition to modernity, from consumer to covenantal community, from values to action. And, as always, we are thinking about what’s sacred and what can be adapted and reimagined.

Early Learnings: Fellows’ Career-Long Potential Impact & Network Weaving
From the outset, our rabbinic fellowship, which concluded in June of 2020, was designed to impact (1) individual early-career rabbis, (2) the Network organizations, and (3) the field.

We currently have alumni Fellows in Seattle, Bellevue, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit, New York City, and Washington DC. Two remain at Network organizations, four are head rabbis on pulpits across the country, four are at major Jewish organizations, two have recently founded or are working on founding organizations, and five are in education ranging from day school to camp to Hillel. The distribution across sectors aligns with our initial goal of placing fellows roughly equally into changemaking positions at Jewish organizations, in existing/legacy Jewish communities, and as founders of new communities within 5-8 years of finishing our fellowship. Longitudinal tracking will help us understand how our alumni fellows’ careers continue to thrive. Already we are gaining some initial learnings in this regard:

  • Geographically, although we have fellows in four non-Network markets, our alumni still tend to cluster around our cities and all are in or near major metropolitan areas.
  • Our relationships have diversified: we have worked with our alumni fellows on projects such as a year-long climate challenge and the upcoming Big Bold Jewish Climate Festival.
  • Our relationships are mutually beneficial: our alumni fellows have used our holiday programming with their own constituencies, and returned to our communities as beloved guest teachers and speakers.

During the fellowship, fellows had direct and varied impact on the Network organizations—the effects of which live on in programs, new ways of thinking, and expanded clergy positions at most of our communities. Importantly, the fellowship also knitted the Network together in ways that were unexpected:

  • The connections between the Network organizations deepened at every level, with micro-communities forming among rabbis, CEOs and EDs, and across staff in collegial working groups organized across development, communications, programming, and education.
  • Although the Network was founded on the strong relationships between a group of rabbis, we discovered that the relationships at other staff levels were perhaps strengthened even more by the shared work of the fellowship.
  • The fellowship also allowed many of the Network orgs to expand and enhance their own adult education offerings—either through the direct work of fellows or by freeing up time among senior clergy and staff—and we learned where there were natural overlap points as well as where there was beautiful diversity of offerings and approach.

These new connections and relationships among the Network primed us to be ready to meet the pandemic with new collaborations.

New Experiments and Collaborations
The pandemic arrived a few months before the fellowship ended. Along with the endless challenges, we also had the unexpected gift of JCRIF funds that allowed us to problem-solve as a group. Then Reboot approached us about helping relaunch their Shavuot DAWN festival.  Structuring our co-teaching for DAWN became a test case for how the Jewish Emergent Network might work together on holiday, social justice, and adult education programming in this new environment. At a moment when chaos reigned in the field, we had the unique experience of coming together to support each other—nearly the full 25-person group of Network leaders met weekly via Zoom for the first eight weeks of the pandemic—and to come up with programming that raised all ships.

Some of our work included deep and varied touchpoints—such as Confessions of the Heart, our month-long racial justice equity challenge with Yavilah McCoy—and all of our programming connected with folks in multiple ways. At Simhat Torah Coast to Coast or Hanukkah at Home people could start learning in advance with thoughtful resources, recipes, and musical offerings, join for the main program, and then opt-into live dance parties. At our For the Sin Of… Yom Kippur afternoon program, people could choose from an array of modalities and engage with the holiday and liturgy through text study, major conversations with guest speakers, meditation, movement, music, and more.

Although this programming was much more ad hoc, as with the fellowship we wanted anything we produced to impact Jewish leaders, our own organizations, and the field. From Shavuot to Hanukkah, our joint holiday programming reached over 45,000 people in every US state, in 20+ countries around the world, and in markets ranging from cities to tiny towns. Anecdotal data suggests that our programming reached many rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators external to the Network. In most cases, it took a major burden off Network organizations and their staff members, with central Network operations able to handle quite a bit of the administrative work and the programs themselves replacing or significantly enhancing what each of our organizations would have otherwise produced.

An Experimental Approach to Future Projects
As we move forward beyond the single-project model of the fellowship, we are grappling with multiple questions, and searching for answers by attempting multiple experiments. Nearly a year into the pandemic, we’re shifting to a strategic approach to joint holiday and social justice programming, finding places to lean into momentum in the field. Critically, we continue to work together across the Network to augment our own professional development and growth—including at the board level—mixing hard-skill development with soft opportunities to commune, share, and dream. And, as a group, we are looking at the ripeness of this moment with an eye towards making Jewish ideas more convenient, enthralling, and accessible to the widest possible demographic and geographic range of Jews and Jewish-adjacent folks: a forthcoming major project will aim to identify and develop the fluencies we need to create modern Jewish sacred community that meets the needs of a dramatically changed field. We will continue to ask ourselves tough questions and to be bound by core shared approaches—agility, quality, and intentional design—as we move forward together.

Jessica Emerson McCormick is Director of the Jewish Emergent Network.