Nu?Detroit is excited to share a couple of excerpts from Rabbi Dan's new book. Get yourself a copy to read the footnotes (omitted here) and all the takeaways from the work of The Well. Note however that the book does not come with a sweater. - BF

Introduction: Liberal Judaism’s Tefillin Cart 

Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead. — Deuteronomy 6:8

In 2009 I had the privilege of staffing a Birthright Israel trip. After a handful of glorious days full of hummus and devoid of sleep, our bus of roughly 40 Millennials arrived at the Kotel — the Western Wall. For those who don’t know, the Kotel complex is divided like an Orthodox synagogue, with separate sections for men and women to congregate and pray. 

As I escorted the male Birthright participants to the men’s section, we were met by a Chabad emissary standing alongside a tefillin cart. The question the emissary asked when approaching each member of our group was: “Is your mother Jewish?” Those who answered yes were invited to wrap tefillin. Those who answered no were not invited to wrap tefillin, as they were not considered Jewish according to traditional interpretations of Jewish law. 

I saw the devastated look in the eyes of a number of young men on the trip whose fathers were Jewish but whose mothers were not, realizing for the first time that their Jewish status was perceived as lesser-than by some Jews. This interaction took place right before a moment they had been so looking forward to. Instead of excited, they approached the Kotel feeling rejected, all but eliminating the opportunity for a deep Jewish spiritual experience. 

In that moment, I wanted to scream: “Where is liberal Judaism’s tefillin cart?!” Obviously due to the monopoly over the site by the Rabbanut — the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate — space would never be created for a competing cart. But I couldn’t help but wonder and wish that the more liberal streams of Judaism would bring greater intention to reaching out and connecting with Jews wherever they may be on their journeys — with an expansive definition of who constitutes a Jew, and an embrace of the non-Jews who they love and who love them. 

The memory of that experience stayed with me, and a few years later, I put together a concept paper that laid out a vision of what a distinctly liberal Jewish outreach organization might look like. How could we take the best practices from the Jewish world, including techniques used by Synagogues, Federations, JCCs, Chabad, Hillel on Campus, Moishe House and more, and build an organization targeted to the needs of Millennials (who largely were not associating or affiliating with our community’s institutions), while embracing a radically inclusive posture? 

As with all things, timing is everything, and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it wasn’t right. But a few years later, thanks to a serious investment by a visionary donor, Lori Talsky, mentorship from one of the country’s leading rabbis, Paul Yedwab, and the backing of the largest Reform Temple in the world, Temple Israel, the stars aligned such that we were able to bring the concept paper to life.

Just Jewish - Ben Yehuda Press
“Why aren’t Millennials donating to or serving on the boards of Jewish organizations the way their parents and grandparents did?” “Why aren’t Millennials joining synagogues?” “Why aren’t my Millennial children doing Jewish the way I did Jewish?” “Are there any books that focus on Jewish Millennial engagement and education post-college, sharing strategies and best practices […]

Chapter 2: Your Teeth Are Stained 

He (Moses) burned it in fire, ground it to powder, strewed it upon the water, and made the Israelites drink it. — Exodus 32:20 

“Rabbi Dan, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your teeth are stained. Like, unbelievably stained. It took the hygienist twice as long to polish them as it would a normal person. How much coffee are you drinking?” 

These words, offered to me by my dentist at my annual cleaning, made me smile. A huge, stained-teeth smile. Little did he know that in the year leading up to that visit, I had been on over 300 one-on-one coffee dates with Jewish Millennials in Metro Detroit. Now, the truth is that I have never had a cup of coffee, except for one time as an undergraduate studying abroad in Jerusalem when I accidentally brewed an Israeli instant packet of “Nescafe” that I thought was hot chocolate. 

For some reason, coffee never clicked with me. It smells amazing, I’ll give you that. But the flavor is bitter and doesn’t match the smell, which I’ve always found odd. In any case, when it comes to how I prefer to consume my caffeine, I’m a tea drinker. When I shared that fun fact with my dentist, he laughed, and shared with me that tea stains teeth even worse than coffee! I thought back to an art project in elementary school where we used tea leaves to stain white parchment paper to make it look older, and it all began to make sense. For each of my annual cleanings thereafter we scheduled extra time with the hygienist, as coffee dating was a core pillar of our work at The Well. 

Cultivating relationships one-on-one is the first core step in meaningfully connecting with Millennials (and frankly, with anyone). As my teacher Dr. Ron Wolfson writes: 

"It’s not about programs. It’s not about marketing. It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, website or smartphone apps. It’s not even about institutions. It’s about relationships."

Relationships are everything. A recent Harvard University study concluded that personal connections are the most important factor in long-term health and happiness. The best way to start building a personal relationship with someone is by spending quality time with them. According to social psychologist Harry T. Reis, the central organizing principle of cultivating enduring relationships is “perceived partner responsiveness.” That is, “our relationships are stronger when we perceive that our partners are responsive to us.” 

And as Rabbi Lydia Medwin teaches, “there’s actually not a more efficient way to help people feel seen and heard and known than having a one-on-one conversation with them.” There is tremendous power in being with another person, making them feel like they’re the most important person in the world to you at that moment, and using the connection to begin building a relationship of trust. What better way to do that than over a cup of coffee (or tea)?

We took coffee dating so seriously that written on the back of my business card was: “Redeem this card for a coffee with Rabbi Dan!” and The Well’s alternate logo featured the Spirit of Detroit statue wearing one of our t-shirts, holding a menorah in one hand and a coffee cup in the other. 

Marisa Meyerson, The Well’s Director of Operations, shares that “[t]aking the time to hold these one-on-one conversations and develop relationships with the people in our community is absolutely vital to the success of The Well — I’d say it’s part of our secret sauce. For us, these coffee dates are simply a part of our daily work routines; I couldn’t imagine working for The Well without doing them.”

Coffee dating was a team effort — something everyone was expected to do as part of their jobs. We even provided a budget for our board members to go on coffee dates, empowering them to represent us in the community, and having them play a significant role in our outreach efforts. Over the course of more than 5 years, I went on well over 1,500 coffee dates. Add in the hundreds and hundreds more each year facilitated by my teammates and board members, and we easily topped 2,500 coffee dates over 5 years. We even considered investing in a coffee shop at one point, as it may have been more economical and might have provided a meaningful revenue stream for the organization!

Why Coffee Dates are Amazing 

So, what is it about one-on-one coffee dates that make them such an impactful engagement tool? First, they’re low pressure. The meeting takes place in public, alleviating any fears the person you’re meeting might have about being alone with someone they don’t know — because they’re not alone! Even if there are no other customers in the shop, the barista is there. And if the meeting ever feels uncomfortable, they can simply stand up and leave. Second, coffee shops are well-suited for relaxed conversations. The music isn’t particularly loud and the people aren’t particularly rowdy, especially when compared to a bar. There are many Jewish organizations that use the lure of “free alcohol” to try to attract people to their events. 

From the beginnings of The Well, we intentionally embraced coffee shops — both for one-on-one coffee dates and as venues we’d rent out to host larger gatherings. We did this for two reasons: we didn’t want to make assumptions about peoples’ relationships with alcohol (that is, we wanted to be sensitive to anyone who might be struggling with addiction); and because alcohol consumption often clouds judgement, we wanted to protect our representatives and those they were engaging from any inappropriate (or perceived as inappropriate) boundary crossings. For many years, The Well didn’t rent office space, so coffee shops served as our offices too! 

Third, for most people, the topic they most enjoy talking about is themselves! This is especially true when they feel someone is actively listening to them. So, when peppered with questions about their lives, interests, Jewish journeys and more, most Millennials are more than happy to share about themselves with you. The adage that “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason” is incredibly important advice when coffee dating. Listening more than speaking creates space for the person across the table from you to speak at length about themselves and feel a sense of connection with you. 

Our organizational coffee dates were scheduled to last 45 minutes. If they weren’t going well for some reason, we could cut them short to a half hour. If they were flowing, we could extend them to an hour. The goal was to never have the time together feel rushed; we wanted to make it clear that we didn’t have anywhere more important to be in that moment than with that person, learning as much about them as we possibly could and beginning to build a personal relationship. After a quality coffee date, personal outreach and invitations became possible, and the potential participant now had an anchor person at gatherings, even if they didn’t have other friends to attend with just yet.

Just Jewish - Ben Yehuda Press
“Why aren’t Millennials donating to or serving on the boards of Jewish organizations the way their parents and grandparents did?” “Why aren’t Millennials joining synagogues?” “Why aren’t my Millennial children doing Jewish the way I did Jewish?” “Are there any books that focus on Jewish Millennial engagement and education post-college, sharing strategies and best practices […]