When Howard Gross moved to Seattle from Southern California, he began looking for Jewish connections in his new hometown. He wanted more than, “Hi, how’s it going?” transitory experiences. Instead, Gross sought opportunities for deeper engagement, “to get to know people and connect on a personal level.”
One such opportunity was the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s Pop-Up Passover Seder in Issaquah, one of three the Federation held throughout the Puget Sound region on April 24. More than 80 people attended the various seders.
Along with the Federation’s first Pop-Up Shabbat on April 15, which attracted 40 attendees, the Pop-Up events are among the ways the Federation is creating informal, welcoming, and close-to-home opportunities for people to build community as part of the Federation’s mission to create Jewish Connections for Life.
“We’re meeting people where they are,” says Heather Paul, the Federation’s Jewish engagement lead. Meeting people where they are means providing opportunities to connect Jewishly at small, intimate events, a preference documented by Federation research. “You can make the best connections when you can engage with someone one on one,” Gross says.
Steve Cohn, who attended the Pop-Up Seder at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, agrees. “There was a lot of give and take with the audience. It was helpful to be at smaller tables where you could interact with people,” Cohn recalls.
The events’ informality made for easy connections. “I love the word ‘pop-up,’” says Shelley Faden, who attended the Pop-Up Passover Seder in Ballard. “It’s so clever, so inviting, spontaneous, and fun.”
For the Puget Sound Jewish community, opportunities to connect in a secular space are important. Results of a Federation survey sent in March 2016 to 25,000 local email addresses showed 81 percent of respondents are interested in attending small, intimate Jewish events, and 88 percent prefer events that are culturally Jewish but not religious.
“For whatever reasons, Jewish spaces can be intimidating,” Paul says. “People may not feel that they’re Jewish enough, or they have a non-Jewish partner, or the program is too far away.” The “Seattle Freeze,” the belief that locals don’t warm up to newcomers right away, could be a factor as well. Paul adds, “Having Shabbat with neighbors is more convenient. It feels low-key, with less pressure.”
The Federation’s goal is to work collaboratively with other Jewish organizations to create more of the informal connection opportunities people want, as no one organization can foster lasting Jewish connections by itself.
“The synagogues want to be inclusive. They want to be partners,” Paul says. Temple B’nai Torah joined with the Federation to put on the April 15 Pop-Up Shabbat held at Gibson Hall in Issaquah. For the July 23 event at Matthews Beach in northeast Seattle, the Federation worked with Temple Beth Am, while the Federation is partnering with Kol HaNeshamah for the August 19 Pop-Up Shabbat at Alki Beach Park in West Seattle.
Rabbi David Lipper of Temple B’nai Torah says, “We realize that for many people, entering a synagogue can be a difficult first step. So it was perfect for us to help provide a worship experience in a neutral place that could create engagement for community-seeking Jews. The event was wonderful and the community of strangers quickly became a congregation of friends.”
“The Pop-Ups are the first in what will be regular opportunities to connect to Jewish life in underserved areas of the Puget Sound region. The outcome of our initial Pop-Ups was everything we hoped for, and we look forward to holding future events that help people build community,” says Keith Dvorchik, Federation president and CEO.
Pop-Up attendees had a few suggestions for making Pop-Up experiences even more engaging for a greater number of people. Use technology allowing people in more than one location to take part in the same event, says Cohn. Offer more opportunities for honest dialogue about serious issues like Israel, says Faden. Schedule events in people’s homes, an environment ideal for making one-on-one connections that build community, says Gross.
Meanwhile, however, the early signs for Pop-Ups’ efficacy in encouraging people to make Jewish connections are good. “I loved the moment when the phones came out and people swapped contact information,” says Paul. “It’s all about building relationships.”