Project Mishpacha

You know how it’s always the best TV shows that get cancelled?  Even though they may not be the most popular, they’re always the ones with the most compelling characters and the best writing, right?  Well, “Project Mishpacha” was kind of like that for me.

A couple years ago, when I was living in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, I was privileged to be a part of the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel community.  They started a program called “Project Mishpacha with the help of the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project back in 2009. No, it was not canceled.  In fact, it’s still going strong.  It was that I moved to Brooklyn, so it was canceled for me, which made me feel like I feel when my favorite TV show goes off the air.

Basically, here’s how to make your own Project Mishpacha in just 5 steps:

  1. Get yourself a diverse congregation.  I mean diverse in just about every sense of the word; age, Jewish background, hashkafa (worldview), race, you name it.  One suggestion for doing this is being a warm and welcoming shul.  Oh sure, we’re all “warm and welcoming” shuls, but no, I really mean it.  This is a group of people with stellar leadership who go out of their way to invite friends and strangers alike into their lives. I could tell some incredible stories about just this aspect of ASBI alone, but I don’t want to get off track.  Suffice it to say that the kindness of the rabbi and his family was enough to inspire an entire musical genre, but that’s a story for another time.
  2. Ask for volunteers to sign up for the program. For a truly warm and welcoming congregation, this should be easy. All you need to tell them is something along these lines:

    1. As is natural in any large group of people, cliques form.  That’s what’s happened in our shul.  Teens hang out with teens, family people hang out with family people, artists hang out with artists, empty-nesters hang out with empty-nesters, etc.  While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, we think it’d be neat for us to become a “connected congregation.” Not in the sense that we become interconnected with other congregations (because we are actually already doing a pretty good job of that), but in the sense that we become more INTRA-connected, and get to know the people in our own community even better than we already do. Let’s break open our cliques and see what happens.
  3. Get a shadchan (matchmaker).  Not the “find me a find, catch me a catch” kind of shadchan, but kind of.  At ASBI, it’s the rabbi’s wife.  She makes it her business to know every single member by name, what their likes and dislikes are, their marital status, occupation, and all information relevant to connecting a person to the community.  And if she’s reading this she might disagree, but believe me, it sure seems that way. Her job in “Project Mishpacha” is to help form the artificial family units, or Mishpachot.”  Depending upon the Mishpacha, the shadchan might need to find groups of people with similar interests, or specifically choose people who have very little or nothing in common at all.  The point is that while she does not need to necessarily be the rabbi’s wife, she does need to really know everyone. From what I’ve been told, it’s a lot like the job a network weaver does.
  4. Create opportunities for each Mishpacha to do things together.  Things like Shabbat potluck meals, Chanukah parties, and mitzvah projects.  Some Mishpachot were themed, like the one where playing board games was a common interest. I will add from personal experience that if your Mishpacha actually does hang out together, it accomplishes the main goal beautifully.
  5. Stand back and watch. Seriously. It’s important not to get too involved in the Mishpachot once they’re formed – kind of like how you’d treat the affairs of someone else’s family. I mean, be attentive to their needs and all, but one of the beautiful things about “Project Mishpacha” is that there is no one person who’s in charge. Being a part of a Mishpacha shouldn’t mean that you feel the need to answer to anyone. Sometimes the Mishpacha relationships don’t work out, and (here’s the tricky part:) that’s just fine –  it’s not a “real” family after all.  But when they do work out, it’s an awesome experience that enriches everyone.

“Project Mishpacha” is no metaphor.  It’s literally a project, an experiment in Jewish communal behavior.  Also, it requires the creation of artificial family units.  If you start with the premise that we’re all already family in the larger sense, being Jews and all, then take it to the next logical step which is acting like it and actually treating other Jews like family.  What’s the next step after that?  Well, let’s play it out, said the ASBI leadership.  That’s what “Project Mishpacha” is.

Not every congregation can do this; I hope I’ve made that clear.  For example, not every shul has a shadchan, and even though we all say we are, not every shul is warm and welcoming. And in the end, there are definitely reasons not every congregation should have a “Project Mishpacha.”  It was not 100% successful by any measure.  Some Mishpachot” didn’t get along very well.  Some got along, but chose not to participate in any of the activities.  All but one have chosen to dissolve their Mishpachot at the end of each year in favor of trying a new one (which, admittedly, could also be construed as a huge success if you think about it).  Many have tried it out and realized it’s not working for them, so they wind up leaving “Project Mishpacha” altogether.  But in the opinion of this emeritus of Mishpachat Ir HaRuach,” (“The City of Spirit Family” or “The Windy City Family”)  its pros way outweigh its cons. I now have relationships with people I probably would never have had were it not for “Project Mishpacha.” I probably would have just stayed with my little clique.  Not only did I feel more connected with my Mishpacha, but also with the ASBI congregation as a whole.

The end of the story is that I now live in Brooklyn, which while very Jewish in some ways, can sometimes be culturally light years away from the warmth  I’ve come to associate with what’s truly Jewish.  I hope my fellow Brooklynites don’t take offense to that; it’s just that we Midwesterners take great pride in our hospitality.  I miss that about the Midwest, and I still keep in touch with my friends and some of my old Mishpacha from ASBI.  And I’m happy to report that I’ve found an incredibly (and truly) warm and welcoming congregation or two in my neck of the woods.  I haven’t found another “Project Mishpacha” out here, but I’m okay with that – for now.  New York City is monstrously (even sometimes overwhelmingly) large in terms of the Jewish options available to someone like me, and right now I’m enjoying the experience of exploring what it is that gives the East Coast its own flavor of “warm and welcoming.”  The Chabad community in Crown Heights is just as supportive and nurturing as the Jewish Renewal community I met at the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center, and everyone in between.  It’s just different from the Midwest is all.

So leaving the Midwest and “Project Mishpacha” was for me kind of like when “Firefly” was canceled, and moving to Brooklyn’s myriad Jewish communities is like when “Jericho” started.  I guess sometimes the good shows need to end in order to make room for great new ones. It’s good to be that kind of excited again.

Alan Sufrin is a musician, producer and Jewish educator. He is half of the 'biblegum pop' duo Stereo Sinai, and has previously worked at the Chicago Coalition of InterReligious Leanring, the Boar dof Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel synagogue, and the University of Chicago HillelHe has, if you hadn't guessed, recently moved from Chicago to Brooklyn, NY.

This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work.  


New Pew Study Shows Importance of Internet/Cell Phone Use in Families

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has released a new study titled “Networked Families”. The report paints a picture of how “parents and spouses are using the internet and cell phones to create a new connectedness that builds on remote connections and shared internet experiences”. The majority of American families now are empowered with multiple tools, including desktop and laptop computers, cell phones, and broadband internet, which make possible a new type of connectedness. These patterns of connection within the family shed light on how families prioritize time, seek out and experience meaningful activities, and relate to both people and institutions.

Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Networked Families"
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Networked Families"

One interesting finding is that the majority of adults say that technology has enabled their family life today to be as close or closer than they remember their families being when they were growing up. While the technologies have perhaps increased time that adults spend at the office and/or working from home, the study reports that they have not had a negative impact on family closeness.

In fact, people say these new communication tools help them stay more connected to family and friends throughout the day, not just during “leisure” time. And approximately 25% of online adults report watching less TV as a result of their internet use. This is an important statistic, as internet use is more likely to be characterized by interaction (email, blogging or microblogging, recommending resources to others, signing up for events or purchasing goods, etc.) rather than passive observation (TV).

“There had been some fears that the Internet had been taking people away from each other,” said Barry Wellman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and one of the authors of the report, published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “We found just the opposite.” Wellman said families appreciated the innovations because “they know what each other is doing during the day.” This, he said, comports with his other research, which shows that technology “doesn’t cut back on their physical presence with each other. It has not cut down on their face time.

The report finds that “some 52% of internet users who live with a spouse and one or more children go online with another person at least a few times a week. Another 34% of such families have shared screen moments at least occasionally,” and “more than half of the parents (54%) who use the internet go online with another person a few times a week or more.”

These findings are important for our understanding of technology in Jewish life as well. Our missions are not just about getting people into the building or attending programs, they are also about impacting individuals and families, bringing (and strengthening) Jewish knowledge and practice in the home and the family. Thus, it’s critical that we understand how families are using technology, and that we are “there” when they are sharing information with one another, planning activities, and discussing important family matters.

How do you take advantage of this level of connectivity to bring your message and offering into the homes of your constituents? How have you observed the impact of such “connectivity” on your work?

I’ll leave you with two examples from my own life:

Story #1: Our 4 yr old son attends the synagogue’s preschool. The preschool has a blog (private, for parents only) and posts photos, stories and curricular info there. I read it in my Google Reader, and when there is something important (photo of our kid, a great story, request for volunteers for a field trip), I forward the link to my husband, and we often end up discussing it with our kids at the dinner table. This level of insight into our son’s experience would not be possible without the blog, and without both parents having connected on XYZ topic mid-afternoon, our dinner table conversation may not have been about the preschool, synagogue or Judaic content

Story #2: I’m on the AJWS email list. Prior to Passover, I received an email about a publication drawing connections between the conflict in Darfur and the Exodus story. I downloaded the PDF, emailed it to my husband and friends with whom we were having seder. We exchanged emails about how we would include it our seder. I then uploaded the PDF to the Kinkos website, ordered color print outs, picked them up on my way home, and included this valuable resource in our seder.

What are examples from your personal and/or professional life?