Seeking an antidote to ‘drop-off Judaism’

Seeking an antidote to ‘drop-off Judaism’

Amy Dorsch is helping families start their own Jewish traditions

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Amy Dorsch, director of empowerment for families with school-age children at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, prefers “empowerment” to “engagement” in Jewish life.
Amy Dorsch, director of empowerment for families with school-age children at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, prefers “empowerment” to “engagement” in Jewish life.

Amy Dorsch believes “empowering” Jewish families is smarter than just “engaging” them. 

“Engagement means you show up, you do something interactive, and you leave; the Judaism does not go with you,” she told NJJN. “Empowerment means you put Jewish content and learning in the hands of the participants, and they will make it theirs.” 

Engagement, she explains, is a buzz word in the Jewish world meaning the degree to which Jewish families or individuals take part in Jewish programming or activities.

“The idea is that you are connecting someone to Judaism intellectually, socially, and emotionally, and that leaves an impact,” she said. “But I believe empowerment goes one step further.”

Dorsch is trying to take that step as the director of empowerment for families with school-age children at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life in Whippany, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. In May, she came to the Partnership after seven years as the education director of United Synagogue Youth and Kadima at United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. 

She quips that her job is “to crash people’s Shabbat dinners.” By that she means she will come to someone’s home and set up a Shabbat dinner, providing people with the tools to start their own family traditions.

Her focus is on parents, not children. “We’re not doing drop-off Judaism, where someone else is responsible for imparting Judaism,” she said. Instead, she wants to engage the whole family.

Her approach is that people’s Jewish lives are constantly shifting and changing depending on the rest of their lives. But sometimes, people get stuck. If she can reach a few families who are moved to do new things Jewishly, even five families, she said, “That’s five families who weren’t doing anything before.”

She added, “I’m not expecting huge numbers. Super-programs don’t necessarily make a difference in people’s lives or change their Jewish practices in their homes.”

The position reflects the results of the 2012 MetroWest Jewish Population Update Study, the information from a survey conducted in 1998. According to the study — of the areas of Essex, Morris, Sussex, Union, and Somerset counties serviced by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — while the number of Jewish households remained stable from 2008 to 2012, the number of households with synagogue memberships declined by 3 percent in the same period. Total Jewish day school enrollment dropped by 17 percent from 1998 to 2012.

The Partnership is the Jewish identity-building organization of the federation and a beneficiary of its UJA campaign.

Dorsch said she plans to use a combination of programming and “family connectors” to start identifying people who might benefit from what she has to offer.

“Family connectors” are people with large social networks and enough Jewish knowledge to get their peers interested in thinking more creatively about Judaism. They have been used in other regions as well as by Dorsch’s colleague, Leemor Ellman, director of engagement for families with young children at the Partnership. Dorsch herself was a family connector for Ellman, she said. 

“It comes naturally to me because Judaism is in my bones and in my blood. I’d walk into ShopRite and talk to strangers who I thought might be Jewish. I’d pull out a box of quinoa in March and mention, ‘Oh I have a great quinoa recipe for Passover.’” 

If a person showed interest in the conversation, she would identify herself and talk more about various offerings, perhaps a Shabbat experience much like the recent PJ Library Popsicles in the Park sponsored by the Partnership.

A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Dorsch earned a BA in sociology from the University of Manitoba and an MA in Jewish experiential education from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Graduate Jewish Education. She worked as outreach and engagement coordinator for Hillel of Greater Toronto. 

She said she is contemplating a variety of public space programs — going where people are and giving them a taste of Judaism. It could be a Havdala ceremony in a nearby planetarium, or an apples and honey craft activity outside of an area supermarket before Rosh Hashana. She’s much more interested in having those activities lead to home-based activities, “like getting five women together on a Wednesday night to discuss, say, parenting challenges through a Jewish lens, if that’s what they want,” she said. “It’s all about putting it in their hands.” 

What she isn’t doing, she is quick to point out, is replacing existing institutions or synagogues. Her husband, Daniel Dorsch, is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, where they live — with their toddler, Zev — and the last thing on her agenda is to put him or any other Jewish professional out of a job. 

“But the reality is, not everyone is coming [to synagogue]. We acknowledge that institutions are not the answer for all people. We are creating another entry point, and we hope people will be inspired to turn toward the Jewish community and its institutions” through the Partnership programs.

Dorsch, who started the job May 14, is looking for two people to serve as family connectors, a job that requires a commitment of eight to ten hours per month.

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