This article is part of a special community services-themed section featured in this week’s paper.
Added to the full plate of job, home, and/or child (and possibly more than one child at that), finding the time and opportunities for new social connections can be challenging as a parent. Yet whether one is new to a community or new to parenting, finding that gem of a friend who is knowledgeable about schools, synagogues, and other Jewish community resources can have a huge positive impact on one’s entire family.
About three years ago, Lexi Bock-Robbins, assistant director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s strategic planning allocations department, was part of a task force to create programs for welcoming families with young children to the Jewish community.
The task force revealed that when families have young children, that is a critical time to engage them in their Jewish journey, said Bock-Robbins. “The relationships between parents to other parents are so critical and help them form their lifelong community.”
These relationships also have major impact on major choices related to Jewish life. “Decision-making is peer-led and community-based,” said Bock-Robbins.
Out of that task force came the first j.family Ambassadors Program, which was piloted out of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Northern Virginia through a two-year grant. Federation recently made the decision to expand this program to DC and Maryland as well.
The goal of the j.family Ambassadors Program is to connect families to Jewish programming, Jewish resources, and each other through a one-on-one connection with a local ambassador.
“We want to encourage people creating relationships with each other and then creating relationships with the Jewish community,” said Bock-Robbins.
This initiative to make connections — one family at a time — gave the JCCNV the opportunity to hire five part-time ambassadors, each assigned to a zone around Northern Virginia.
When people sign up to be connected with an ambassador, the perks are almost immediate. Parents receive a free j.baby bag (for kids 1 year old or younger) or j.toddler tote filled with goodies. Parents are scheduled for a coffee date with their neighborhood j.family ambassador and signed up for the monthly digital newsletter. They find out about nearby programs for babies and toddlers, meet other families raising Jewish children, and access fun Jewish community programs geared toward families with kids their children’s ages.
While the ambassadors model isn’t entirely new — other Jewish communities have similar programs branded under different names — the paradigm has been a good fit for the country’s third-largest Jewish community.
“We need programs that help connect people, knowing the geographic spread,” said Bock-Robbins. Most of the programming has been geared toward moms or families in general, but programming for dads has been added based on feedback from female participants that the men wanted opportunities to bond as well. From organizing mahjongg nights and beer-making classes, to recommending a preschool or play group, to providing information on the region’s Jewish social services, ambassadors are fostering connections between people as well as local institutions.
Kyla Hartunian has been the program manager for the JCCNV-based j.family Ambassadors Program for the past year and a half. She praised the knack her ambassadors show for putting new families at ease and forging new friendships. The feedback ambassadors provide about “real-life connectivity in our community” is invaluable as well, Hartunian said.
“I manage five ambassadors located throughout Northern Virginia. Ambassadors are distributed throughout the area so that we can quickly meet with new parents who sign up and also provide city- or neighborhood-specific info to families from these specific areas.”
According to Bock-Robbins and Hartunian, in the past year the program served 150 Virginia families across Ashburn, Herndon, Leesburg, Reston, and Sterling (Ambassador Julie Koppel); Chantilly, Centreville, Gainesville, Manassas, and South Riding (Ambassador Michelle Leichty); Annandale, Oakton, Vienna, and West Falls Church (Ambassador Rebecca Greene); Burke, Fairfax, Lorton, and Springfield (Ambassador Julie Rezmovic-Tonti); Falls Church, and Alexandria, Arlington, and McLean (Ambassador Melissa Weinstock).
“Based on the new family’s zip code, provided in a brief online survey found on the JCCNV’s website, I assign an ambassador to the new family,” said Hartunian. “They are usually able to meet fairly quickly — within a week or two — to get together for coffee, chat, and exchange information.”
Ambassadors also take this opportunity to get to know the family and what they are looking for in terms of connecting to the local Jewish community. “They are the ‘ears to the ground’ for our umbrella program, Growing Jewish Families, here at the J, and the feedback they get from parents helps us develop additional programming and family-friendly resources for the Northern Virginia area,” said Hartunian.
It was always a dream to bring the program to Maryland and DC, said Bock-Robbins. Federation will bring the program to Maryland through the Bender JCC in Rockville and Edlavtich DCJCC in the District and is currently seeking candidates to work as ambassadors.
While the issue of geographic spread might not be as big a challenge in this area as in Northern Virginia, Bock-Robbins is certain that the j.family Ambassadors Program will fill an important need.
“Families today don’t just meet on the playground like in generations before. People are so over-programmed and overbooked ... that finding the time and space to have these conversations happens less and less,” she said. The j.family Ambassadors Program also allows Federation to aid connections on a different scale than a digital newsletter reaching tens of thousands of PJ Library fans or a massive community event.
Hartunian finds herself sharing details of the program with new and expecting moms she meets at Jewish community events (a Shabbat retreat for military families, for instance) as well as in the course of day-to-day life (preschool pick-up anyone?).
“It’s a great icebreaker!” she said.
And breaking the ice is the first step in forging a new connection.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.