In late 1999, I was appointed Director of Beit Danny, the educational wing of Kehillat Moriah, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, and was charged with maintaining and improving the adult Jewish education program it provides for the community. My personal ATID project provided me an excellent framework within which to take a slightly more academic approach to this new responsibility.
Unlike creating a curriculum for a school, where students are a relatively captive audience, creating an educational program for adults, who are free to choose to attend or not to attend its extra-"curricular" activities, has an additional challenge beyond the educational design: ensuring attendance. Even the best-designed adult education program will not be a success unless people show up.
In order to understand how to build the educational portion of the program to meet the community's needs and how to get more people to come, I decided to approach community members to find out their preferences. Before doing this research, however, I looked to set up a committee of volunteers to help me implement the concurrent programming. This would provide me with assistance in arranging technical details such as publicity, and more importantly, it would co-opt them into the program and give them a sense of ownership in it.
Recognizing this second purpose of mobilizing volunteers triggered a further thought about their participation. Though they would not be directly studying Torah by performing the aforementioned tasks, would these volunteers be participating any less in the harbatzat Torah process? They certainly were going to make a contribution – in this case taking an active role in running a community Beit Midrash – which, similar to what Zevulun did for Yissachar, would enable many others to learn Torah. This, in and of itself, is a noble goal as well. If Beit Danny can marshal people into taking part in organizing a Torah-study program, even on a technical-organizational level, it has involved them in Torah learning in a very important way.
My attempt to recruit volunteers was not as successful as I would have liked. In retrospect it occurred to me that the difficulty I experienced in obtaining volunteers paralleled the overall challenge in adult Jewish education of ensuring attendance. Getting volunteers, just like drawing attendees, is a problem at many adult education institutions, because people have to give of their precious free time to do it. At the same time, however, this parallel strengthens the argument that participation in organizing a Torah-study program may be nearly as valuable as doing the actual learning. A commitment to contribute, in whatever form, should be regarded as a sacrifice made in the pursuit of furthering limmud Torah.
This experience with volunteers led me to re-characterize Beit Danny's goals in general. Originally, I had thought the focus should be increasing Torah study. Now, I defined it to include increasing Torah participation as well. Beit Danny wants to reach and involve not just attendees and volunteers, but sponsors, program designers, and speakers as well. All these people participate in the process, and contribute in a valuable and meaningful way. On a secondary level, I also hoped that those participating in ways other than attendance, just by being involved, would be motivated to increase their attendance as well – and, consequently, their direct Torah study.
This modified approach to Beit Danny's goal also suggested that its events should not be limited simply to shiurim and mini-series on halacha and the like, but rather ought to cover a broader range of events, presenters and topics. If they can draw people that otherwise would not have attended, such events, though not consisting exclusively of Torah study in the classic sense, would serve an important purpose for Beit Danny and the community as a whole.
Much of the rest of the paper is devoted to the feedback I got from the community, and the principal method I used to obtain it, called a focus group. Focus groups involve bringing together a small number of people, discussing issues with them, in order to learn their opinions about various issues. I chose this method of data collection instead of some of the standard methods, like questionnaires, in part because focus groups have a social element to them. Enabling participants to hear other people express their opinions provides them an opportunity to react to ideas they might not have considered, and may trigger their own imaginations, leading to subsequent suggestions and further reactions by their counterparts.
Recognizing the importance of the social aspect to the process of understanding community opinion led me to think about its place in the substantive discussion as well. Consequently, the significance of the social aspect in Beit Danny events played a central role in the focus groups I ran, especially in the search for creative ways to overcome the most common reasons for non-attendance, such as scheduling conflicts. If a Beit Danny event is seen as a "place to be", for example, people will make sure their calendars are free for it.
In addition to addressing the attendance problem, the focus groups also concentrated on the factors involved in building the educational element of the program, such as the topic, type of event, speaker and length of event. The participants had some creative thoughts in these areas as well, and some of the best ideas are discussed in the paper.
Since the last of the focus groups, I have had a chance to digest some of the information they provided, and on further reflection, I noticed that, under the new definition of Beit Danny's goals, the focus groups themselves were, in fact, Beit Danny events. Participants got involved in Beit Danny by volunteering to attend an interactive event devoted to increasing Torah participation in the community. The overall success of the focus groups – chosen in particular because of their social aspect – indicates that they might be used as models for designing future events.
Armed with the community feedback from the focus groups, and with the focus groups themselves as a prototype for Beit Danny events, my next challenge is to experiment with these ideas to see if implementing them will actually draw a larger crowd.