New Research on High Holiday Participation Illuminates Critical Themes for Future Design
June 9th, 2021
Jewish communities are constantly changing, and in the U.S. we have had a few decades of creative entrepreneurship to build on during the pandemic.
Among the many ways that the pandemic profoundly changed Jewish engagement, the High Holidays of 2020 stands out as a particularly fascinating case study. It was a kind of controlled experiment; essentially no one was able to celebrate or observe the holidays in the ways they were used to, so everyone was doing something different than usual. Institutions of all kinds innovated to adapt to the restrictions, and new ways of engaging emerged and spread more broadly than could have been previously imagined.
In an effort to understand the ways in which people’s engagement with the High Holidays changed during this past year, and what it might reveal about Jewish engagement more broadly, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Jim Joseph Foundation and Aviv Foundation funded research through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) to illuminate new patterns of participation and motivations. In the winter of 2020-2021, Benenson Strategy Group surveyed 1,414 American Jews nationwide about their experiences of the High Holidays and the ways that those experiences compared to previous years. The research explored not only what people did in 2020, but also compared it to what they had been doing before and explored what they might do in the future. The results provide important insights that have meaningful design implications not only for the upcoming High Holidays, but also for engagement efforts much more broadly.
Infrequent vs. Regular High Holiday Observers
One of the most interesting findings focuses on those who are less consistent or comprehensive in their participation in a typical year (for example, participating sporadically or only in one of the holidays). This group, Infrequent High Holidays Observers, clearly have interest in participating in the High Holidays, but choose to not participate some of the time. This year, not only did they participate at high rates, they also had markedly different patterns of participation and motivations when compared to Regular Observers, who generally participate in both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and who this year largely tried to get as close as possible to “normal”). We want to highlight the findings about the Infrequent Observers as they have important implications beyond the pandemic. (A link to the full research report is available below.)
Remarkably, approximately half of the Infrequent Observers participated in High Holidays this year, when it would have been very easy to opt out. Furthermore, they were more likely than Regular Observers to report sharing their High Holidays experiences with others in their lives, more likely to be considering new ways to engage in the future, and they are looking differently at what Jewishness means to them. There are three major lessons from these positive experiences that can serve as building blocks as we plan for the future:
Implications for Design
Because these past High Holidays required nearly everyone to reengineer their experiences, they offered a controlled experiment to test new attributes of design and accessibility. Many of the insights this data offers are not radically new. Rather, the data validates theories and design criteria that have been widely known in other fields for years, confirming that these design principles are important for Jewish leaders and educators too. These include:
Embracing Productive Disruption
Nearly every industry in our economy has faced major disruption in the past few decades. While Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard of knowledge management for hundreds of years, the Wikipedia model disrupted it in the blink of an eye. Disruption is often a catalyst for a kind of systemic change that is hard to adopt voluntarily when you believe that the status quo is acceptable.
Jewish communities are constantly changing, and in the U.S. we have had a few decades of creative entrepreneurship to build on during the pandemic. But the pandemic affected everyone: it was a disruption that forced us all to design differently. In doing so, we were able to test theories and learn from the data. Now our challenge is to integrate these bold lessons into our future design, rather than returning passively to the comfortable (but not optimized) status quo. Listening empathetically and attentively to the feelings, attitudes, motivations and behaviors of Infrequent Observers will help us design effectively for greater engagement in the future.
It is hugely encouraging that half of those who haven’t been regularly participating in High Holidays are in fact seeking meaningful, well-calibrated experiences. It’s even more exciting that the vast majority of those who did participate this year want to do more, and that they are recommending their experiences to their friends. Many of these insights are also likely to apply to a subset of Regular Observers who may have the activation energy to participate every year, but for whom their experiences aren’t as positive. Let’s use this opportunity to build on this positive feedback loop.
These insights about Infrequent Observers are just one of many lessons that can be gleaned from this research effort. Curious to dive in further to the data report? The research is available at Collecting These Times: American Jewish experiences of the Pandemic.
Lisa Colton is the president of Darim Online, and a consultant working on this research and its implications. Tobin Marcus is a senior vice president at Benenson Strategy Group, which conducted the research. Felicia Herman is the director of the JCRIF Aligned Grant Program.
Source: eJewish Philanthropy