It’s surprisingly easy to identify unaffiliated Jews here in Baltimore. That said, there definitely are certain tactics I rely on to increase those moments in which someone realizes I am a rabbi and doing the work of community building; this is often the point at which someone’s interest is peaked and a conversation ensues. Here are a few examples from the field:
The Wing Man: When a person goes out looking to meet someone, he or she will often bring a “wing man,” whose role is to help find someone with whom to spark a conversation. As it pertains to engagement work, I depend on a “wing man” often. Recently while together at the local brewery, a friend pointed out two Hebrew words tattooed on another patron’s arm. My buddy sparked up a conversation with the patron by asking me if I could read the letters. We all joked for a few minutes before I translated the words am echad — one people. I joked that having a master’s degree in Hebrew Letters surely positioned me to translate two simple words.
My friend then chimed in: “She’s being modest, dangling her master’s in front of you. She’s really a rabbi.” Our conversation moved from tattoos to growing up Jewish in Pikesville and the Birthright trip he had gone on two years earlier. Jacob joined the Charm City Tribe mailing list that day and attended a recent Shabbat dinner and the Hannukah Brew Ha Ha since.
The Eavesdropper: A few weeks back, CCT’s Ellie Brown and I were sitting in the local coffee shop discussing the week’s order of business. As our meeting was winding down, a gentleman, who had been dining with his two grown children, stood up to leave. He turned to me and said, “I promise I wasn’t listening to your entire conversation, but I wanted to tell you that I think it’s really cool you’re a rabbi.”
People overhear that I am a rabbi all the time, but in this case, the gentleman went on to introduce me to his two children, both of whom had attended the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School. The man left. Ellie obtained contact info from both the man’s son and daughter. I met the daughter at the same coffee shop one week later to explore opportunities for her with Charm City Tribe.
Engagement professionals often say to “meet the people where they are” as a guideline for how to do outreach work. Rather than wait for potential participants to show up at a specific program, our job is to spend time in the places where these folks already frequent and, when the timing is right, extend an invitation to get involved in the community we seek to build. Ideally, that first spark of recognition when a person realizes she has something in common with the rabbi or the organization is just the beginning of a connection we aim to strengthen over time.
Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.