Designing For Social Workshop

May 8, 2014 by

Last week at our Connected Congregations workshop at UJA Federation of New York, the cohort of 6 New York congregations wove together our design thinking process and our focus on designing for social (as well as content), and applied the theories to real congregational settings.  In diverse teams (a mix of roles from different congregations, as diversity in a team is a principle of design thinking).  The following are snippets from each group’s process and design.

Tot Shabbat: This fictional synagogue has a strong but aging demographic, and thus are focusing on engaging and integrating young families into their community.   This team recognized the busy schedules of parents who are often juggling two careers and kids of various ages.  Their model focused on two key adaptations from a typical tot Shabbat. First, they created multi-age opportunities, and held the program twice a month, for more schedule-friendly choices to participate.  Second, they created opportunities with childcare for parents to explore their own Jewish journeys with one another.

Noting that tot Shabbat is more about parents and family journeys than content the young children absorb, this emerged as an important personal/familial experience, as well as a social/bonding experience.  Finally, the tot Shabbat group decided to experiment with 1 meeting a month with the tot+adult journey time, and the second meeting per month to have a more family group experience.  They’d collect anecdotal feedback each meeting, and do a deeper assessment after 2 months to determine what adjustments they should make.  They imagined that the program could evolve in various ways, e.g. a havurah in people’s homes either Saturday morning or for havdallah, etc.

One systemic issue raised was about the process of calendaring.  Because most congregations plan an annual calendar in advance, their agile approach to planning only 3 months ahead may be a challenge.  What institutional systems actually impede this iterative process?  Questions from the group included “how are you using food?”, and “could older silblings play a kind of leadership role in the group?”


Congregational Meeting:  This fictional synagogue has a classic once-a-year annual meeting which a small percentage of membership attends and kind of rubber stamps whatever plans the board has put forth.  Their challenge was to redesign the congregational meeting to actually build community.  They addressed several design elements in their plans:

  • Communication with the community needs to change in order to make social connections throughout the year, and inform individuals of the issues at hand in advance of the meeting.  They discussed board members (or maybe – especially – others) making phone calls to reach out to specific segments of the community.
  • They adding social time to the start of the meeting, offering drinks and food along with childcare to encourage participation and prioritize social connections in the community, and bookended the meeting with dinner or dessert afterwards to encourage further socializing.
  • After a short business section (minimal speeches, minimal explanation as people have received information in advance), the group would split into small working groups to discuss opportunities and issues in the community.  Facilitators listen carefully to learn about issues and identify people with ideas, energy and resources to make change.
  • The last formal section of the meeting would include honoring a “minyan of mensches” within the community.  These people would be nominated in advance, and those who nominated would present the award with a story of why this person is such an asset to the community.

Questions from the group included, “what facilitation skills or training or protocols would be needed to make the breakouts as successful as possible?” and “ how are youth involved – maybe have youth in each breakout group, or have a group specifically or their ideas too?”


Religious School: This fictional synagogue has a strong educational program which is attracting many families, but they have no culture of engagement.  Parents drop off kids and generally do not participate in any other aspect of synagogue life. The synagogue is seeking to strengthen individual relationships and the community as a whole to integrate these families and develop a more cohesive congregation.

This team focused on empathy – a critical step in the design thinking process.  What did these parents really need and want, and how could the synagogue design opportunities that helped achieve multiple goals.  They noticed many parents headed to the gym after dropping their kids. The 2 hour window was precious “me time”.  Thus, they developed a “Cardio, Coffee, Connect” approach to give parents options to stay while their kids were at religious school on Sunday mornings.  Their goal was to get parents out of their cars, not necessarily into the synagogue building.

They recruited volunteer organizers to lead run, walk and ‘schlep’ groups so people at any fitness level could participate.  Coffee at the building was available for those who just wanted to rest, and for exercisers when they returned. The team imagined various outgrowths from the groups, including a shared identity gift (water bottle, sunhat, etc.), or that a group of participants might for a team for a local fun run.

Questions for this team ranged from various adaptations for more urban or more suburban settings, and practical seasonal / weather considerations.  They brainstormed hiring a trainer for circuit training or doing yoga in the building on rainy or cold days instead.


Oneg Shabbat:   This fictional synagogue has good regular attendance at services, but few people who stay for the oneg and socialize on Shabbat.  Their task was to redesign the oneg to promote more connection and deeper conversation with a wider group of people in their community.  This group focused on three core elements of design:

  1. Culture.  The design needed to shift the culture of participation through messaging, personalization and warmth.  They suggested training ushers to play a more connecting role to encourage people to stay for the oneg, rabbinic invitation from the bima, and specific messaging through the week (phone calls, email, etc.) to invite people personally.
  2. Structure.  Large round tables which are hard to hear across, plus a buffet style which fragments conversations and encourages a lot of people to be in motion were impediments to the experience they wanted to create.  The groups explored different table configurations, even inviting people to sit on the floor to make it feel more cozy.  They also suggested family style serving and removing the buffet altogether to promote more focus and investment at each table.
  3. Scaffolding.  By designing table tents with topics, this group helped people interested in similar topics to find each other, rather than allowing people to rest on comfortable acquaintances.  Topics could include hobbies (golfers!), current events, and discussion of the parasha. Each table could have a host to kick off the conversation and make sure people got to know each other.  They also exploring “topics of the week” or having people bring an object from home to share personal stories.

This group decided to pilot the idea for 6 weeks and get feedback to learn what elements people liked, and what things could use further attention or experimentation.  One question that rose was how this plan would or would not easily integrate with b’nai mitzvah weeks when there were many out of town guests, or families wanted to design their own luncheon following services.


Very creative ideas in less than an hour of planning and employing design thinking processes and a commitment to “designing for social” with intention and purpose.  Where have you designed for social?

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