November 2017 | Transcript, 0:00:00 to 0:42:27
Listen to the episode here.
[start at 00:00:00]
Michelle W. Malkin: Welcome to “It’s Who You Know! The Podcast.” This is your host, Michelle W. Malkin, and my guest today is Rachel Gildiner, who is the executive director of GatherDC. With over 15 years of professional experience in non-profit management, emerging adult identity development, and relationship building engagement, Rachel builds community through the power of personal connection.
She holds a B.A. in sociology and modern Jewish studies, an M.A. in higher education administration, as well as a certificate in experiential Jewish education. She has studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and is also trained as an Ayeka Soulful Jewish Education facilitator.
I’ve asked Rachel to come on the program today because I’m hearing a lot about the rise in individualism—how younger people don’t want to be quote unquote members of our institutions, that people don’t have the time any more for community, and that technology is hijacking our relationships.
And I don’t actually know if I believe all of this, so I’m excited to hear about the work of GatherDC and their approach to bringing Jews in their 20s and 30s together in a way that is meaningful, in an attempt to sustain adult Jewish identities. So welcome to the program, Rachel.
Rachel Gildiner: Thank you so much for having me, Michelle.
Michelle W. Malkin: So, start as we always do, just with your own story, and how you got into this position, and all of your wonderful formal education backgrounds, and I’m sure informal education as well.
Rachel Gildiner: Absolutely. I originally hail from Philadelphia, and grew up mostly in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. And a lot of my formative Jewish experiences were outside of the academic setting. So, Jewish summer camp, USY. And then as I got older, I realized I was missing some foundational elements of Judaism, and so I decided to study Jewish studies and go to a Jewish program for college, which I loved. It was great.
And then when I graduated, I pretty much decided I was not going to work in the Jewish world. I had two years working in development for a university. And after two years of just kind of being surrounded by Judaism and having taken everything for granted until then, I realized that I really missed this kind of Jewish part of myself.
And so, the next phase of my personal journey was in the Jewish world, and I had moved to Washington D.C. with my now-husband. Hillel International had a really exciting opportunity open. They were piloting a project at the time that was called CEI, or the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative. And it was about engaging Jewish students on campus who were just not going to come to Hillel, and that that was OK, but how can we still help them engage Jewishly?
It was so exciting and something totally different and out of the box. And so I started working for Hillel. I was there for seven years. And fast forward to today, I’ve been at GatherDC for three years, since 2014, and it has kind of been a natural evolution of my passion for Jewish life that’s a little bit outside of the box, and really just helping people connect.
Michelle W. Malkin: And so when you came to GatherDC, were you looking for a new opportunity? Did it come to you? I mean, that’s a lot of years to be at Hillel.
Rachel Gildiner: I loved my time at Hillel. I learned a lot. I went to Israel. I staffed trips. I had incredible colleagues and mentors. I had an international network of professionals who were colleagues but also friends. And essentially, what I loved about my time there is that it was a legacy institution – it was old and established – but it was innovating from within. And so that journey was really powerful for me.
And I guess I’m a cusp millennial, and so whether the rumor is true that we stay in places for a long time or not, after seven years, I started getting an itch of, “I’ve learned so much. I’ve gained so much. I feel like I’ve given so much. Let’s see what else is out there. Let’s try something new.” It seemed like a very kind of natural time for a next step also.
And this is just—a little funny tale is that my leaving Hillel coincided with the Shmita year. So, every seven years, you let the land lay fallow, and I literally was there for seven years, and it just kind of felt like, you know, we needed some fresh air or something new.
It was very sad to leave, but I had been approached by a friend and colleague who was in the field and said, “There’s this thing happening and it’s really exciting, and you should take a look.” And then with a little goading—it took me a few requests to apply—I put my hat in the ring, and a few months later, I was starting as the director.
Michelle W. Malkin: Excellent. So give us a little bit of history of the organization, how it came to be, and then you can launch a little bit into the work specifically and the operating philosophy and that good stuff.
Rachel Gildiner: GatherDC at the time that I started there was actually called Gather the Jews. I’m not the founder but…
Michelle W. Malkin: [laugh] Sorry!
Rachel Gildiner: …a good chuckle. Yeah. It was called Gather the Jews. I will say, your question about me starting—when I heard this name, I was actually kind of hesitant to look at this opportunity. And then I did a little bit more research, and I found out that in Washington D.C., Gather the Jews, which was—it was newly professionalized. There was one amazing professional, another Rachel G., actually, who I owe a lot of gratitude to. She was the first and only professional.
Gather the Jews really started as a grassroots movement. It was a project of the community. It was a bunch of friends who came together and said, “We need to organize how our people, how our friends, are connected to Jewish life. There’s no central place to go to find out what’s happening.” So, they started a website and a listserv and happy hours.
It was totally organic and really from the ground up, and so the name was really—there was like a cult following. People who were part of Gather the Jews—it was their people. It was a reclaiming of, “This is our Jewish connection, and we really want to own it.” And it was not something that people were open to changing. Gather the Jews was the name of a brand, and people loved it.
And so what I realized with time is that if we were going to change, it would just take some time, and we’d kind of have to do that from the grassroots. And so now, we’re GatherDC. So over three years, we did make that change. But we were very attuned to [the idea that] change takes time, and you really want to honor the people who got this off the ground and got it started.
And Gather the Jews, that name, it definitely was memorable, and it definitely got attention, and that’s what the organization needed to do as it was starting. So, it was really brilliant. It was so sustainable, because it was the people on the ground who made it exist and who got their friends involved.
And by the time I came on in 2014, people really knew of this brand. We would not be where we are today if it were not for that foundation, those first years of kind of building, and the entrepreneurship and the creativity that came behind creating what Gather the Jews is and was—this incredible network of people, and these online resources, and monthly gatherings.
And then I really had the opportunity to make change when I came to the helm. It was also a lot of pressure. My first thought was, “How do I help this grow and how do I not run this into the ground?”
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: And that was a real question. It was an opportunity, but also in the back of your head, I was nervous.
Michelle W. Malkin: So was it intentional to not have a Jewish component in the name?
Rachel Gildiner: This was something that we were asked when we changed the name. So visually, GatherDC, our logo is still a map pinpoint with a Jewish star cutout in the middle. And so we are absolutely identifiably a Jewish organization. The reason we took out “the Jews” was actually the opposite. We want to engage more Jews, and there was something about identifying Jewish people as “the Jews” that actually was kind of grating to some people…
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: …who identified as Jewish, and it just felt a little aggressive. They just weren’t interested because we were using that term. And so, we are proudly Jewish. Our goal and our mission is to connect people to Jewish life, and Jews to other Jews, and Jews to Jewish identity. But we want to engage as many people as we can, and when we found that there was a barrier to engaging with us because of our name, it was an important thing for us to consider.
And so that’s why we changed it, but we are just as Jewish, as committed to the Jewish mission. We just know that Jews have different ways that they hear the term “the Jews”…
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: …and a lot of people we work with are Jewish, and that is great, and wanted to honor that.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. I know it’s definitely a conversation that’s happening as far as, do we have Hebrew in our institutional names? Do we have something Jewishly identifiable? And I know in the Bay Area there’s, you know, UpStart, and I think it’s The Kitchen? These names that, maybe visually as you’re mentioning, have some Jewish components—the name itself—and what you hear about, how you hear about it, you’re like, “Oh, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.” And it’s not kind of as in your face as a Hebrew word, or as alienating, as you just mentioned.
Rachel Gildiner: Right.
Michelle W. Malkin: That’s great. So tell me a little bit about the work. What does the organization do?
Rachel Gildiner: GatherDC’s mission is to connect Jewish 20s and 30s in D.C. to each other, to Jewish life in D.C., and to sustaining adult Jewish identity. And the subtext to that is an adult Jewish identity that is outside of synagogues, marriage, traditional kind of Jewish established entities that a lot of us don’t experience for a long time, or just are not really into.
And the work that GatherDC does is grounded in a relational methodology. Part of the reason we can be successful is because we connect people to the Jewish offerings that are happening all around the city. We have incredible Jewish institutions here. If you don’t know of Sixth & I, it’s an amazing community center. They have cultural programs and book readings and services, and it’s a very vibrant community.
And if people find their event on our calendar and connect to Sixth & I, that is our success, and we are thrilled that they have found a Jewish community. The DCJCC. We have tons of synagogues that have young adult programs, and the people who connect to those places—we want to be a resource and a concierge to those amazing opportunities. That’s one of our goals.
The other work that we do is when we meet people, for one-on-one coffee dates, which is our primary methodology, and someone says either they’ve gone to something like that, and it just wasn’t their fit, or they’re not even sure where to start, we provide them with some personal resources. We’ll connect them with another person in the community who’s a part of one of those organizations, or who also wants to go to something for the first time. We’ll go with them sometimes.
We also host micro programs. We have small learning communities where people come in groups of 10 and 15. The purpose is for them to meet each other. They do some awesome learning with our rabbi. And it’s like a gateway into the larger community, but it allows them to do it in a more intimate setting. It kind of lowers the barrier to engagement.
It also lowers the pressure. You don’t have to be in a room of 100 people, and feel alone, or try and make everyone your best friend. It just facilitates these social connections that are so important to any community. And so, this kind of relational theme in everything that we do is what really makes us different, and it sets us apart.
Our staff spends the majority of our time meeting people one-on-one, and less of our time planning actual programs. Because as I mentioned, there are amazing programs in the city. We try and leverage those and connect people to what’s happening, and only plan programs where there’s a gap.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. I was looking on your website and I saw the all-day women’s retreat that you guys are doing, and I’m like, “That sounds amazing!” [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: That’s the thing—we’re not doing that. Someone else is doing that. What we get to do is tell our network about it. “If you’re out there and this speaks to you, you should do it, and we want to help you get there. And if this doesn’t speak to you, look at this other thing that’s happening across the Jewish community. Maybe that’s for you. And if none of this looks like it’s for you, come out for coffee with us, and we’ll figure out what your thing is, and we’ll help you connect.”
Michelle W. Malkin: So, what are the programs that you put on? What are those gaps that you’re seeing?
Rachel Gildiner: So again, a lot of it is just greasing the wheels. The programs that exist—and from my work at Hillel, this was something we really focused on, which is that the number one reason that people don’t go to something isn’t because the content isn’t amazing, or it sounds like it’s going to be awesome, or you really want to hear that speaker, but it’s because you don’t have anyone to walk in the door with.
What we try and do is give people their people to walk into any Jewish door with. And so, in that vein, we actually started a fellowship that’s based on what was happening on campus, but we wanted to pilot it and see what we could learn in a post-college city setting. It’s called the Open Doors Fellowship. And the purpose is to train young adults who themselves are trying to figure out where their Jewish connection is, to be ambassadors of Jewish life for their peers.
We train them how to approach someone who they don’t know, how to be an active listener, how to really understand what drives someone, not just in Judaism but in life, and then help them find their personal fit. So every year, we’ve trained 11 of these fellows, who now—they’re not tied to any organization. They’re not recruiting. They’re not recruiters. They’re really just out there trying to make any Jewish space more welcoming and more approachable.
And so, that’s one of the things that we offer to the city. It’s a service to the city, for us to train and invest in people who are going to kind of be greeters wherever they go. So that’s one project that we’ve launched, and it’s been very exciting.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. I was going to say that it seems like another barrier, even if you are someone who’s willing to walk in the door alone, is do you look into the crowd and see people you want to go talk to and hang out with, or not.
Rachel Gildiner: Exactly. It’s not the fault of any organization or institution. When someone holds a program, and it’s an amazing program, and 300 people come, that’s a huge success for that organization. But what that also means is that you probably have people who come into that space and experience exactly what you described.
They’re in a room with 300 people. They’re here to hear an amazing speaker. But they leave that room not having talked to anyone. Not having seen anyone they know. Not having had anyone to process that amazing speaker’s content with. And it’s just a missed opportunity.
And so knowing that it’s our partner organizations who are putting on these programs and putting so much thought into them, how can we kind of help enrich the relationships and the connections that are happening in those rooms?
Michelle W. Malkin: So do you help them with the planning of their program and kind of work with them at all? You just let them do it and you do your…?
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah. Because they’re experts at that. They’re amazing at that. They get the right speakers. They get the right people. They do that really well. And what we do really well is just this personal, individual connecting. And so when those powers combine, the D.C. Jewish community is so vibrant and so amazing, because there’s incredible content, and there’s incredible buildings and rabbis and staff and professionals, and also young adults who are looking for that person standing alone in the room, because they genuinely want to meet them and know who they are.
Michelle W. Malkin: I mentioned at the top of our conversation, when I introduced you, this is the all-elusive 20s and 30s millennial generation. Other than putting in a new line item for coffee, what kind of advice—what would you suggest to these older institutions that have people walking in their door, but then come to the speaker and leave and don’t really find those connections as easily?
Rachel Gildiner: It’s such an important question. I think there really is this misconception that this millennial generation, and now the generation following closely after them, is not interested in participating. And what I think is really true of humans is that everyone is looking to connect, and everyone is looking for meaning. It’s just the way that they find that is different.
One of the other criticisms of this generation is this technology piece. And what I think is so exciting is that technology is actually an asset. It’s an asset to help bring meaning and connection to this generation and to our communities. Not replace it, but to help facilitate it.
I think how we use technology, and kind of not poo-pooing it, but just understanding how it’s a tool that millennials are naturally using, and how it can help form connections that need to land in a personal place as well.
So, an example of that is sometimes I think institutions feel like to get young people, they have to do something sexy or have a fancy name, or have free food or free drink. And I think those things help. What people will pay is a big question, and we think about that too.
But at the end of the day, what are young adults who participate in one of your programs going to leave with? Are they going to leave with meaning? Are they going to leave having a new connection, a new friend? Something that actually impacts their lives, that they can kind of take with them?
I have a favorite story. It’s a Yiddish story where there’s a man who goes into the community square, and he’s surrounded by people, and he says, “Anyone in this square who loves jam, I want you to show up at my house tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m.” And then he walks away. And at 10:00 a.m., hundreds of people show up at his house. They show up, and they’re there, and they’re saying, “I love jam, and I’m here because you invited me to come.” And the man opens his door, and he says, “Wow, so many who love jam.” And then he goes back inside his house.
And I just—it’s just a silly story. It just rings so true to me because what we often care about in the Jewish world is getting people to show up and fill our seats and say, “Show that you love being Jewish, and come to this thing”—whatever that thing is—and then we don’t think about what is happening, and how we can facilitate the deepest meaning in that space.
And sometimes that’s not by having 100 people come. Sometimes it’s by having ten people come ten times. Everyone has their angle. For some people, it’s you need—what’s the content that’s going to speak to people? And that’s important. But the work that I do, the lens I see the world, it’s about the “who.” Who is there? Who are they going to talk to? How are they going to process whatever is happening? And how are you facilitating connections?
And I think this work—it takes a lot of time. This one-on-one coffees, listening, connecting—it’s really time-consuming. And so I think that it requires a different infrastructure to support. And so, a lot of institutions, for really good reasons, they fill their calendar with programs, and so it’s hard to figure out where the time for the individual people come.
And so GatherDC wants to be a voice in D.C. and beyond that says, “Let’s start with the who. Let’s start with what is the user experience of a program, and why would someone want to come?” Not just enough that they show up, but what are they going to get when they’re there? And I think that rings just as true for millennials as it does for any other generation.
Michelle W. Malkin: It sounds like you’re talking a lot about intentionality and planning. So if you’ve got a community of people that are like, “We need to get younger people involved. Let’s do it!” it’s not just magically going to happen because you want it to, or you recognize that your population is getting older. It really takes a lot of, not even just expertise, but like planning and thinking and being intentional about why and how these people are going to connect with your community, and to what end, and what does that look like. And do we need a coffee budget? Right? And who’s the person who’s having those coffees? Is it 65-year-old Larry that has been in the community for 30 years, or is it maybe somebody else that they identify?
And I think sometimes that intentionality and planning isn’t necessarily what people either know to do or really ever focus on doing before jumping into something that might seem flashy or exciting. Or, “Let’s do this thing,” and it doesn’t really seem to be working so well.
Rachel Gildiner: Or I would say that intentionality is just sometimes like misdirected. So, you can have a lot of intentionality about the logistics of something that doesn’t matter as much. I know in my event planning days, we would spend so much time going over the menu. And of course the menu matters. And of course it’s important. But if we spent as much time and intentionality—exactly what you’re saying—the food or even the decorations—there needs to be quality.
These things are all important, but if you think of the time that staff spends talking about the details and logistics and the door registration—all those things—and you switch the focus to the intentionality around the individual people—like, who’s going to get every single person’s name? Who’s going to talk to every face? What are we going to do when people leave? What’s the first way they’re going to hear from us after? Is it going to be to ask for a donation? Is it going to be to take a survey that helps us? What does that look like? If they spent as much time and intentionality on those pieces—it’s just asking different questions—I genuinely think it would yield a different result.
Michelle W. Malkin: And it’s even like who’s going to be there early to make sure there is somebody that greets somebody new and…
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah. Oh my gosh.
Michelle W. Malkin: …connects that person to somebody else.
Rachel Gildiner: Oh my gosh. We have—so we have these monthly happy hours at GatherDC, and we do them all over—like real cool bars in the city. I’m not cool, so I don’t know a lot of the bars until I show up, but you always see this thing happen, where it starts at 6:00, and someone shows up at 5:50. And they’re waiting really awkwardly and nervously like right outside of the registration table. And you can tell that they’re waiting for someone, but they are not going to come in. They are not going to talk to us. They are not going to enter the space until that person is there.
And so, we literally—everyone on our staff, if we see that happen, we just go up and we start talking with them. And we say, “Oh, here’s a free drink ticket. Go…” You know, just the awareness of the people in your space. Our backs weren’t turned to them, and we were like frantically making sure that the tables were set. The people. It’s the focus on the people that makes a difference.
Michelle W. Malkin: So what are some other barriers you can think of that keep people from focusing on that and being successful in—even just starting a 20s and 30s group at their synagogue. I think I also hear a lot of like, “Well, where do you find them? How do you find these people that want to come to your area?” Like do you go and knock on every door in your community and try to find new people? I think that’s something I hear a lot, of like, “Well, where are these people, and how do we find them, and how do we get to them?”
Rachel Gildiner: GatherDC believes in the networked approach to reaching people. So what that means is that instead of kind of hanging up a shingle and saying, like, “Everyone come to us,” we believe that relationships have value in and of themselves. But relationships also introduce you to their relationships and their friends. And word of mouth is a really big part of how we operate.
Something that is I think hard sometimes for synagogues or organizations or even us sometimes is that to be most successful, you actually have to be OK with success not necessarily benefiting your organization. And what I mean by that…
Michelle W. Malkin: What, Rachel? Heresy!
Rachel Gildiner: I know.
Michelle W. Malkin: I can’t believe this! [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: It is. Like this—if we could—my goal…
Michelle W. Malkin: …say such a thing!
My dream in the world is that the entire Jewish community could see that we are a larger ecosystem, and that I don’t have to make sure someone has the best time at my program. If they’re going to have the best time at another Jewish organization, or with another Jewish person, and that’s their right fit, I’m not losing someone. That’s a really positive thing.
And so one of the ways that that happens and what I hear a lot is like, Jewish institutions say, “We need to get people in our space. They need to see how cool our space is. They need to be in our walls. We need to count them as coming here.” And sometimes that works. And there are people who just need that invitation into the space.
But a lot of times, that is the barrier. People are not going to show up to the JCC or to the conservative synagogue, or to—they just want to be with their people in their kind of native state, whether that’s their living room or a bar. Which, you know, this Yom Kippur, we got a lot of interesting attention around doing something in a bar, because that’s where people are.
That’s so foreign that—what are the spaces where people are most comfortable, and just let them do Jewish there. So we definitely think that location can be a barrier. But again, if we look at it differently, it can also be an asset. Like how cool is it to think about doing Jewish things in coffee shops, or letting people do it in their backyard because they have a cool deck?
And that that’s still the success of the synagogue if they’re helping facilitate and make that happen. It doesn’t have to be in their space and in their walls. I think that’s just a different way of thinking, but when physically showing up somewhere is a barrier, let’s take that away.
Michelle W. Malkin: Or even whether or not the traditions you think are so important are carried through, right? So if you have people on Yom Kippur, during Yom Kippur, having coffee, but talking about and reflecting on their year and how they might have acted incorrectly, and how they can do better next year—that’s what you’re pushing, right? You’re not pushing the, “Well, why aren’t you fasting? Why aren’t you hearing these prayers? Why aren’t you doing it the way that we’re supposed to be doing it?” But you have the same kind of people underlining activities and thought and identity development, that that’s what you want to see.
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah, that’s our goal. And I really do—I understand that there are institutions who—right? Like it’s—this is also the “who.” There’s segments of the “who.” It’s really nice and romantic to think that there’s this one big Jewish community. We all observe the same way, and we all think the same things, and we all have the same theology, and your Yom Kippur looks like my Yom Kippur, and that unites us. There’s something really beautiful about that.
But there’s also this reality on the ground that that’s not at all the case. And instead of kind of pretending that that doesn’t exist, or pretending like everyone is in shul on Yom Kippur—no. Like, no. Not everyone is in shul or in synagogue. And if they are, they might be bored out of their minds.
And so, to just kind of name and acknowledge that we can all be Jewish, and we can all share this wisdom and heritage and tradition—we just express it differently—is like a first step.
And then how do we actually facilitate experiences that help bring this meaning? We were in a beer garden literally having people write their own eulogies. I mean, it was radical, but also, that’s what Yom Kippur is about.
Michelle W. Malkin: Right.
Rachel Gildiner: We had 130 people there, and we had a wait list. This was an experiment, and we were totally prepared for this to fail. Our hypothesis was that there are going to be people who aren’t going to go synagogue on Yom Kippur. Where are they? What if they would come to a beer garden?
In our conversations, we said, “It might be ten people, and then we’ll know, ‘OK, this isn’t the way to reach folks.’” But we hit on something. And so again, I think we really would have been OK if that failed. We would have learned, and we would have tried something new.
And so I think it would just be really cool if every kind of Jewish organization was like, “What’s the most radical thing we could imagine, and let’s just see if it works. And if it doesn’t, we’ll move on with our lives and find the next place where we know the Jews are hanging out.”
But yeah, just making it a priority to try different things and try and reach different segments of this broader Jewish community—that excites me a lot.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. And it goes back to what you were talking about being people-focused.
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah.
Michelle W. Malkin: What do the people need? And to think about this demographic as not wanting that, right? As like, “Oh, well, they don’t go to temple on Yom Kippur.” To be like, “Well, why don’t they want to go to temple on Yom Kippur?” And why are you then assuming that they don’t want anything during this time? Why are you assuming that there’s no connection that they have to their Jewish traditions or wanting to have these conversations?
And maybe they had grown up in NFTY or USY or camps that are completely lacking [laugh] once you become an adult. Like I want to write my own eulogy, but I’m not going to do it sitting in my apartment by myself, because I think that’s interesting, right? And that’s also not something I’m going to do at a Yom Kippur service. As things are evolving and we are kind of trying to think more about the people and not the demographic or the age or their technological savviness or how they interact with the world, to try and figure out what it is that they want out of a Jewish experience.
Rachel Gildiner: Absolutely.
Michelle W. Malkin: Wonderful. So what’s the future for the organization? What’s the kind of next step for you guys?
Rachel Gildiner: The exciting thing about D.C. is that we have new young adults who move here, if not every day, every month, every year. There’s just this constant influx of young adults who come to the city for jobs or relationships or fellowships, and all of those exciting things.
And so, what we really want to do is figure out how we can continue to be the first stop that just kind of helps them navigate everything that’s out there, before they either opt out or kind of get lost or they fall off the map for us.
And so what that looks like is we are going to continue to hone and develop this engagement methodology, this kind of what does it look like to function in a relational way. How do you build infrastructure around that? How do you operationalize in a way that allows you to be lean and meet people where they are, but also continue to provide meaning and Jewish connection in a sustainable and compelling way?
And so we are creating trainings where we can help other organizations think through and apply this methodology to their own work. We are continuing to employ engagers on the ground—people who again spend almost zero of their time planning programs, and more of their time just listening to people. That’s really kind of where we see ourselves growing.
And look, I think we really believe in the ability and the power of organizing. Helping organize communities, where they already have incredible assets and programs, but kind of creating a central hub that helps people find out about those opportunities.
And so if there’s a GatherChicago or a GatherAtlanta, or a GatherDenver, or whatever that looks like, we see this really being a replicable and exciting model for other cities down the road. And yeah, I think there’s a lot of potential for where we are, but we’re just really grateful for the community we’re a part of, for the adults that we meet and get to talk to every day.
I’ll also say, just what you were talking about before—this idea of being able to take yourself outside of your own Jewish experience and actually empathize with the fact that someone else will experience their Judaism differently. A lot of the training we do with our fellows is about, you’re going to meet people who have a very different Jewish experience than you do, and how do you kind of engage with them without judgment? Without making anyone feel badly about where they’re coming from, but actually have empathy for someone else’s Jewish connection and put yourself in their shoes. Like you might love talking about Israel, and this person just might not. So don’t invite them to an Israel program.
And so I think this understanding of empathy in the Jewish community in general is something that we want to be a champion of as well.
Michelle W. Malkin: And you’re not getting the information by having them fill out a survey.
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah. Like surveys are important—oh my gosh. If the Jewish world has got anything, it’s data. We love data. It’s amazing. Data drives us forward and it’s great, but there’s also something about a human one-on-one conversation where you can get so much valuable information that’s going to help you help someone else in a way that a survey just doesn’t do.
Michelle W. Malkin: So what does your funding structure look like at the moment? Do you have foundation funding? Are you individually cultivating funding? How do you keep your feet on the ground? [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah, it’s a great question. Again, as an organization, GatherDC is still really in its infancy. We’ve been funded as an organization, with full-time, senior-level staff, for three years. And so we’re very lucky and fortunate to be funded by three local foundations, who have helped us get our feet off the ground. And we are continuing to engage new donors, both individuals and foundations who believe in this work, who are excited by different aspects of what we’re trying to do.
And so, my role in the coming year will be to increase our fundraising as we also try to increase our staff and our impact in the city. But we are very fortunate we have a board and funders who believe in our mission wholeheartedly. They want to see us try new things. They see the value in us as an asset to the city overall and have been able to really help us kind of become established as this new entity. As GatherDC. And we’ll continue to kind of hit the pavement and try and get more people involved with supporting us financially.
Michelle W. Malkin: And do you have people in their 20s and 30s on your board?
Rachel Gildiner: So, we don’t. What we do have—and this is really exciting, and something that has kind of been a dream of mine since I started—is that we have what’s called an Innovator’s Advisory Network. And this is a group of 20s and 30s. They’re not the people who use our calendar every day. They’re a little bit kind of more established in the community, but they are advisors. They provide guidance.
They have been kind of behind the scenes with us in terms of how we are thinking about growing, and how we operate. And this group of 11 20s and 30s kind of works in tandem with our board, which is a governance body, and also provides incredible expertise and insight and support.
And so the two of these bodies together, they are our lay leaders who kind of help pave our direction and who help guide us, again both financially and in terms of the audience that we’re serving. And so it has been a really cool project.
We’re a few months into the advisory network, and we have amazing people who have brought amazing expertise to bear on our work, and we’re really grateful for this kind of robust network that we’ve launched.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah, that’s excellent. Good job! Because [laugh] it’s definitely something I’ve touched upon in this program, just really thinking about the diversity of your board and is it representative of those that you are serving, and having different generational conversations.
Because if you have people in their 50s and 60s, or 60s and 70s, who happen to be big donors, who are making these decisions about how do we engage 20s and 30s, without people in their 20s and 30s kind of around that table or involved in that conversation—and it seems like this also—how much are you developing your future leaders? And so it seems like this is a great way for you guys to do that, and really invest in those that you’re serving. That’s fantastic.
Rachel Gildiner: And something else I’ll share—again, we think a lot about the user experience, and the experience of the people we’re trying to engage. And something that I’m just very aware of is on one hand—and boards are all different, but in the past. I have heard about experiences trying to get that young voice on the board. And it is really helpful for all of the more established and kind of older individuals who are around that table, but for that young adult, it’s like not a super positive experience. I hope it’s OK to say that.
But again, I think that our hope, and in line with our mission, is that everything that people do with us, we want them to connect with other people, with other young adults through engaging with us. And so the idea of putting together a whole group of young adults that are actually a body, a functioning body themselves, as opposed to kind of taking two representative young adults and saying, “OK, now you’re going to be in a room with these really powerful, impressive, established funders and lawyers, and we want you to speak for the entire young adult community…”
Michelle W. Malkin: Right, right. Yeah.
Rachel Gildiner: You know, it’s overwhelming. It’s intimidating. And half the meeting is about governance and things that they might be bored out of their mind about. So again, this idea that we want people to have a positive experience, but we also really want their expertise. And so by putting it in kind of these two separate bodies, and identifying their different needs—it has been more to manage, but the impact has been tenfold.
Michelle W. Malkin: So I know we talked a little bit about advice. Do you have other advice for Jewish professionals out there? Maybe those that are focused on this cohort, aren’t focused on this cohort, just trying to do the work of Jewish professional-ness? [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: Yes. So what I would say to everyone is, always take advice with a grain of salt. Right?
Michelle W. Malkin: [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: You know your authentic self, and sometimes advice hits home, and sometimes you’re like, “Nope, that’s not advice for me.” What I would kind of encourage Jewish professionals to think about in our work is, a lot of times in the Jewish world, I see this model of advocacy. In the adaptive leadership model, there’s two ways—advocacy and inquiry. And a lot of times, in a Jewish world, there are a lot of people who advocate. Like, “We’ve found the right way. This is how you do it. We’re the right cause. We’re the right mission.” And they lead with advocacy.
And I think that there’s something really beautiful and really refreshing about taking a first approach of inquiry. Right? Like if someone isn’t coming to you, it’s an opportunity and an invitation for you to inquire. To genuinely inquire, “What is it that drives you? Where are you looking to find your Jewish connection? What are the ways that you are looking to be Jewish in your own life?”
And I also think that goes across organizations. We all need to learn from one another. We need to be open and asking questions about what is your model, and what can we learn from that, and how does that work? And instead, we often kind of come out of the gates advocating for ourselves or our organization.
I have kind of tried to navigate that in my own professional life, and I think if we can be building an army of people who inquire before they advocate, that we would learn a lot more about the people that we’re trying to reach, and about how to best do that. So that’s something that I just—it’s on my mind right now, and I think it’s just kind of a cool paradigm to think about as we do our work.
Michelle W. Malkin: Yeah. And those are also really great skills in conflict management, right?
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah.
Michelle W. Malkin: And it seems like conflict management doesn’t necessarily just have to be between two people. Obviously we have lots of conflict management between organizations, especially when you’re competing, or seemingly competing.
And you mentioned this before—rising tides lift all boats. That whether they’re going to engage with you in the long terms or they’re going to engage with Sixth and I, or they’re going to engage with some synagogue, that is good for everybody.
And whether you get the $100 donation or they get the $100 donation, right? Maybe you get a $100 donation that they didn’t get, right? So it’s something that’s good. That’s why it’s called the community, right?
Rachel Gildiner: Yeah.
Michelle W. Malkin: Things that are good for everybody. But sometimes it’s really hard when you have your laser focus on your organization and your work, to kind of see the bigger picture. Wonderful. So how do you do it, Rachel? I know you have kids, a husband. I see Hungry, Hungry Hippos in the background. [laugh]
Rachel Gildiner: [laugh] That’s so funny.
Michelle W. Malkin: So how do you keep it all together? How do you keep some balance and sanity in your life, assuming you do?
Rachel Gildiner: Oh my gosh. Yeah. It’s a big assumption. That is the million dollar question. I think the first answer is that I’ve just learned to be really patient with myself. There’s this self-love and self-appreciation of like, some days you’re going to have it all together, and some days, you’re just not. And that doesn’t mean you’re a bad professional, and that doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom, and that doesn’t mean you’re a bad friend. It’s just this like cosmic balance of life.
I think I actually have on my desk a postcard that says, like, “Be patient with yourself. You are but a…”—I don’t know—something in the universe. Like we just have to let ourselves be all of these things at once. And on days where you do it all, I feel like superwoman, like I can take on the world. And days where one child is sick, or one deadline is missed, or one team meeting doesn’t go well, it’s really hard. Those days are really hard.
And I think that naming that this is hard, whether you have a family, or other relationships, or all of the commitments in your life, it’s really hard to fit in all of those big rocks. And so, patience with yourself is just kind of the bottom line.
And I think the other thing is you need to surround yourself by cheerleaders. Right? I spend my day at work cheerleading everyone—my staff, the community, the individuals I talk to, our partner organizations. And sometimes you just need to pick up the phone and have someone say, “You’re doing great. You’re killing it. You’ve got this. Keep it up. I’m here. I’m sorry you had a bad day and you need to cry right now.” Whatever that is.
Just finding those cheerleaders in your life—professional, personal—they’ve just got your back—it’s so important. And I am so grateful. All you cheerleaders who are listening right now—I’m here because of them. So yeah, I would say patience and finding the people who really can lift you up and hold you when you’re down.
Michelle W. Malkin: Wonderful. Any last thoughts or comments that you can think of? Things we didn’t touch upon?
Rachel Gildiner: Really, I’m grateful for the chance to be on this. I think this is such an awesome idea. I’m so excited about all of the work that’s happening in and across the Jewish world. I’m grateful to be a student of it. I’ve listened to your other podcasts. I’m so grateful for the wisdom that is out there.
And I just really hope that we can continue to share what we’re learning and share the questions that we’re asking. And at the end of the day, we’re all going to be a lot better off because of it. So thank you.
[End of recording]