Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Businesses That Ask for Customer Feedback MUST Respond to It: A Case Study from Insight Vacations

Caution to readers considering investing hard-earned money on a guided international tour: Consider alternatives to TTC brands like Insight Vacations, Trafalgar, and Contiki. 

* * * * * 

With Global travel and tourism levels topping pre-pandemic levels, guided tour companies are feasting on the "revenge travel" trend. My spouse and I are veteran international travelers; we recently completed a ten-day guided tour ("Amazing Spain and Portugal") offered by Insight Vacations (a TTC brand).

Having taken six trips over the past decade with Insight (spending more than $30,000), we know the brand and its (formerly) high standards. I sent Insight candid feedback
on July 24th covering most aspects of our trip. (You'll discover that below.)

A Guest Relations representative responded on July 25th, asking for four weeks to "look into" the issues I shared. Well, it's August 31st and Insight Vacations hasn't responded to my feedback. More on that in a moment. But first, some context about The Travel Corporation (TTC).

A privately owned company, TTC's roster features 40 travel brands including Contiki, Trafalgar, African Travel, Luxury Gold, and EduSport Travel and Tours. Each TTC brand operates independently, promoting its own identity and targeting specific demographics and income levels. The parent company has centralized common functions like HR, billing, and customer service.

With so many "unique" brands, TTC's centralized customer service representative lacked the knowledge and autonomy to respond to my feedback. She had to "forward it to our international team." It's been five weeks and I'm still waiting for a substantive response. 

Every day I wait erodes my loyalty to Insight Vacations and TTC's other brands. If TTC and Insight truly valued our feedback, they'd have responded quickly and point-by-point.
Two clear indications TTC seeks limited feedback:
1) character limit for Insight's "Contact Us" form
2) No "Contact Us" form on TTC's website 
Companies that don't respond to customer feedback risk losing customers. According to reviewtrackers63% of consumers say that a business has never responded to their review. 53% of customers expect businesses to respond to negative reviews within a week. Exceptional companies respond to customer feedback and engage loyal customers authentically.

This review compares promotional copy (promises) on Insight Vacations' website with specific examples of where and how service fell woefully short of our previous experiences with TTC. Many of the examples show the erosion of personalized service we've enjoyed on previous Insight tours and reveal glaring inconsistencies between what Insight promised and what in this case it actually delivered.
1) Seamless, Stress-Free Travel?: Our Travel Director (TD) kept our group of 37 people on time and on schedule. She was efficient but didn't (given the group size, she literally couldn't) attend to individual needs/requests. For example: Before the tour, my spouse emailed our TD about procuring distilled water for a CPAP machine. Our TD responded that distilled water was available at any local pharmacy; we could buy it after we arrived. Our proficiency in Spanish doesn't include 'distilled water' nor are we inclined to search for it after a long flight. To reflect Insight's commitment to "hassle-free" travel and "personal attention from our Travel Director", another TD would have bought a bottle of distilled water from her discretionary funds and offered it to guests who needed it. Our TD could have at least told us how to ask in Spanish for distilled water at a local pharmacy. Also note the "lost luggage" example (#3 below).
1A) Our Friend Overseas?: While TDs typically maintain some distance from their group members, ours was more a "shepherd' and "timekeeper" than "our friend overseas" (as claimed on the Insight website). Fortunately, the norms our group established organically ensured all guests were on time, polite, and respected others. Some Spanish speakers on the tour resolved simple needs (like getting distilled water, translating menu items, etc.). While our TD offered a few "flourishes" per the itinerary (Pasteis de Belem and a drink and tapas in Salamanca), the large group size necessitated a transactional relationship--belying Insight's pledge for a TD who "provides personal attention". 
    1B) Unusually Large Group Size: This was the largest group of any Insight Vacations tour in which we've participated. The large group size made it extremely challenging for our TD to "provide personal attention" to individual guests and accommodate individual requests, needs, or specific interests. Our relationship with the TD was almost purely transactional--a fact for which
Insight Vacations is directly responsible. During conversations with other guests, I learned they felt similarly and reflected those feelings in the gratuities they gave our TD. 
    1C) Passionate and Knowledgeable?: The knowledge, connections, and pride of local TDs have consistently been a top reason we choose to travel with Insight and evangelize the company amongst peers. Local TD's added meaningful and memorable perspectives and insights about their respective country's history, culture, traditions, sights, and sites off the beaten path. By contrast, the local guides were all excellent. 
    1D) Fluent in the Local Language?: In this tour, our TD was a British citizen (from Barbados) who lives in Florence, Italy. Not indigenous to Spain or Portugal, she was neither fluent in Spanish or Portuguese (I don't believe she was conversational in either). For example, rather than try to teach us words from "the local lingo" and interesting idioms (as pledged on the Insight website), our TD simply emailed us two photos of pages with words in Portuguese. This is another example of the transactional relationship described above.
    1E) Expertly Trained?: Several long stretches (60 minutes+) on the coach offered our TD opportunities to share insights about the history, culture, and significant sights and sites we passed. Whereas several of our previous TD's used the audiovisual tools on the coach (show videos or play local music) to complement their commentary; our TD did neither (despite a new coach equipped with cutting-edge A/V). Our TD spent the majority of the time on the bus doing paperwork. 

2) Throughout our tour, our TD often mentioned the Northern Spain Guided Tour. These frequent referrals were at first interesting and even amusing; repeated mentions irked many guests. In addition to feeling like the poorer cousins of people on our tour who were continuing with the northern tour, we felt our TD was more looking ahead to that tour than fully invested in the current tour. This was awkwardly manifested on the last night of the tour when both groups overlapped. Not only did our TD travel to the restaurant with the northern tour group, she also ate with them. Our celebratory meal was good, but our send-off, sour. Overlapping the two tours on the final night certainly saved Insight some money and reflected issues in #5 below ("Nickel and Diming"). 


3) Lost Luggage: A guest in our group lost her luggage (the airline's fault). During the four days she tried to locate it and get it delivered, our TD was moderately helpful (she called the airline and offered the guest guidance and suggestions). A TD who really wanted to provide "stress-free travel" would have been more than moderately helpful. However, with 36 other guests to shepherd, resolving that problem should not be the Travel Director's responsibility. TTC should assign a specific staff member who is fluent in the local language to communicate with the guest and the appropriate airline and relentlessly resolve the matter. Our TD lacked the bandwidth and tools to help this guest. 


4) Accommodations: In general, the hotels were not "superior" as claimed on Insight's website. In at least two cities, our TD showed us the "Insight Luxury Gold" hotels and highlighted their benefits (closer to town/city center, more luxurious, better meals, etc.). While we know from previous Insight Vacations that TDs sometimes upsell Gold (and are encouraged to do so), my spouse and I felt as if we were less than (and certainly poorer than) Luxury Gold guests. Finally, three of our five hotels had lower limits on the AC temperature (!!!) and sporadic wi-fi. 


5) Optional excursions: Based on our positive optional excursions on previous tours, my spouse and I chose almost all the offerings on this tour (costing us more than $800USD). Our TD promoted the optional excursions but didn't offer or recommend alternatives to guests who chose not to join. For example, in Lisbon, there was a Banksy exhibit down the street from the Turim Saldanha Hotel. Our TD could have suggested this to guests not joining the Seafood Dinner by the Tagus River rather than offer unspecific suggestions for "local shopping" or "great restaurants". 


In terms of the optionals, we noticed there weren't as many (the "Lisbon by Night" tour was listed on the itinerary but not offered). In at least two cases the cost of the optional far exceeded the value. I understand hidden costs (e.g., coach travel, driver pay, local guides, fuel, parking, etc.) for which Insight must account and realize Insight has to make a profit. That said, the costs of the two optional excursions below seemed out of proportion with the value provided.


    5A) Seafood Dinner by the Tagus River: At a combined cost of 128E ($143), we took a coach to the pier, a ferry to the other side of the river, ate a large dinner, and took the coach back to the hotel. While the food was plentiful and the wine drinkable, we were packed into a loud pierside establishment that I hope did not represent Lisbon's "famous traditional restaurants." I was also surprised the restaurant charged 7E extra for local crab.

    5B) Fado Evening: We spent 74E each ($160) for dinner and a musical performance. We chose our dinner in advance (Sea Bass, Steak, Chicken, or Vegan); the food was ok but definitely not the "savory traditional Portuguese dinner" described on the itinerary. The prix fixe menu outside the restaurant showed 45E ($50). 

6) Tour Pace"Amazing Spain and Portugal" is mislabeled "Leisurely Pace" ("1.6 - 3.2km daily, on primarily flat surfaces and with some stairs"). Except for the two days we spent mostly on the coach (Madrid to Granada and Lisbon to Salamanca), I recorded an average 15,000 steps/day. Spain is Europe's second most mountainous country (not flat) and the daily temperatures in the South consistently exceeded 30C. I found the "leisurely pace" somewhat tiring--it was evidently exhausting for several older and less-physically fit tour members.    


7) Recognizing Loyal Guests: On previous tours, Insight Vacations recognized loyal clients with a special reception, gift, or activity. The recognition made us feel special and built our loyalty to TTC and Insight. There was no such recognition on this tour. Our TD gave an Insight-branded bag to every guest but nothing exclusive for loyal clients. Given multitudinous tour and travel company options, I'm surprised Insight didn't seize every opportunity to thank and recognize loyal clients. 

    7A) Dedicated Contact for Loyal Guests: I accessed Insight's online customer service chat and requested the name and email address for someone in a senior leadership position to whom I could send my extended feedback. The agent with whom I communicated referred me to Guest Relations. My other frequent travel and credit card companies (Amtrak, Hilton Honors, AMEX Black, Chase Sapphire) have an exclusive line to call or email; Insight should do the same. Giving loyal clients a devoted Guest Relations group whom we can contact is a basic reward that increases customer service satisfaction and brand loyalty. 

My spouse and I will travel again; over our lifetimes we'll invest tens of thousands of dollars in group tours. But considering our experience on "Amazing Spain and Portugal" as well as the ensuing inexcusable delayed response from Insight Vacations, TTC can no long count on our loyalty.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

“Tikkun Olam”: Massachusetts & Oregon Jewish Nonprofits Construct Coast-to-Coast Partnership to Help Homeless

“Building houses for the homeless in Portland, Oregon sounds like a great way to teach teens from Russian speaking families about tikkun olam,” thought Jookender Executive Director Sasha Grebenyuk when she learned of the opportunity to partner with Portland-based nonprofit Tivnu: Building Justice. The Jookender and Tivnu partnership made sense considering the organizations’ similar missions: Engaging social-justice oriented teens in hands-on, interactive learning from a Jewish perspective. So, Sasha said yes.

In Portland, Executive Director Steven Eisenbach-Budner was thrilled by Tivnu’s first partnership with a New England nonprofit. Fueled by their shared passion for engaging teens in social justice pursuits, Sasha and Steve took less than six months to plan a robust four-day pilot program. Planning was easy once both Executive Directors realized they shared the common objective of engaging, energizing, and enlightening teens. In late August 2019, 11 teens and two adult chaperones (parents of participating teens) from Boston area Russian speaking families made the transcontinental journey to Portland.

Four days later, the unique partnership stimulated educational and engagement benefits that exceeded everyone’s expectations. “My experiences in Portland were eye-opening,” said Gal Goldfain, one of 11 students in the Jookender delegation. “Words can’t describe how much I learned and gained.”

Based in Portland, Tivnu—the Hebrew word means “building”—is a nonprofit organization that designs and delivers “gap year” programs for Jewish teens in a city that ranks among America’s top 10 nationally for rate of homelessness. While Portland’s Jewish community of some 35,000 is about 15% of Boston’s (227,000 in the metro area), each city has a vibrant Jewish nonprofit ecosystem.

Hands-on building 'tiny houses'
Steve founded Tivnu: Building Justice in 2012 to enable Portland Jews to integrate their Jewish identities with their commitments to create communities in which the basic needs of all people are met. One of Tivnu’s primary goals is addressing Portland’s chronic homeless problem. 

Jookender’s mission similarly draws from Jewish ethics and values to teach and demonstrate Jewish values and offer programs that help others find their way to the broader Jewish community. Like Tivnu, Jookender is relentlessly inclusive.

Explaining Tivnu’s mission, Steve says, “We act from the conviction that housing is a human right and a human need. Access to housing is a cornerstone for a stable life and it’s linked to issues such as food security, environmental justice, and the overall health of neighborhoods and communities.” 

These are fundamentally Jewish issues, he emphasizes: “We work with others to bring forth tikkun olam (ed. note: In Jewish teachings, tikkun olam means any activity that improves the world, bringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created). We create opportunities for Jewish youth to engage in social justice work not just as individuals, but as representatives of the Jewish community in partnership with other communities.”

Energetic, resourceful, and committed to evangelizing tikkun olam, Steve was raised in an affordable housing complex in New York City. “I know firsthand the centrality of housing to family and community stability and cohesion,” he says. A builder by trade, Steve is as zealous about Tivnu’s mission as he is generous with Jewish Carpenter jokes. 

Typically, Tivnu’s Gap Year program is nine months of hands-on social justice engagement in which pre-college Jewish teens explore the bonds between Jewish life and social justice while working with and in Portland’s cutting-edge grassroots organizations, Steve explained. “Like most youth today, Jewish youth are increasingly aware of and concerned about social justice issues. Tivnu puts their awareness and concern into action.” 

Tivnu was referred to Jookender by Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), which funded most of the program through an unrestricted grant to Jookender. The partnership was also supported by The Jewish Education Project, with generous funding from the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

“We planned the four-day pilot to start, rather than commit to Tivnu’s full gap year program,” said Sasha. Of the fifty students who applied, Jookender selected 11. The program—which combined travel, hands-on working experiences, and Jewish learning related to Tivnu’s work in Portland communities—cost Jookender $10,000 for the 11 student participants. Two adults—parents of participating students—chaperoned the group. 

Building "Tikkun Olam"
The Jookender delegation’s four days in Portland were carefully choreographed to expose participants to as many new experiences as possible: Teens met with local homeless people, toured “tiny house” villages in Portland (Hazelnut Grove and Dignity Village), helped build green, sustainable “tiny houses” at the Portland Jewish Community Center, worked at a farm to produce goods for “tiny house” villages, and sampled distinctive Pacific Northwest Latino dishes at the popular Portland Mercado “food cart pod” (a gathering of 10 or more food carts, unique to Portland).

“The exposure to homelessness resonated deeply among delegation members—both teens and chaperones,” reflected Sasha. “Remember, the older generations—the people who were raised in the former Soviet Union—aren’t as comfortable as their kids talking about social justice issues like homelessness. Growing up in Communist societies they didn’t see homelessness. Another benefit of the pilot program was that it helps the Russian speaking Jewish community become more familiar with social justice issues particularly as they intersect with Judaism and philanthropy.”

Steve echoes Sasha’s sentiment on the pilot program’s unanticipated cultural learning component: “The visit was somewhat challenging from a cultural perspective, because most American Jews who’ve grown up in liberal households have some intellectual understanding of the reasons behind homelessness. The RSJ (Russian speaking Jewish) community approaches some of these issues from a different cultural perspective. 
"From the survey results, we know that the teens on this tour were less familiar with issues related to homelessness, so they learned more. They became open to issues related to homelessness and developed some empathy and respect for people who are experiencing homelessness."
Though the Tivnu-Jookender pilot program was short in duration, testimonials from program participants indicate it was long on inspiration. More than 90% of respondents to a post-trip survey said they’d return to this or a similar program:
  • Jookender group enjoys a rare relaxing moment
    - “I learned a lot of interesting new things about homelessness. I didn’t know the different ways that people could become homeless including being sick and having to pay all their money to get better. I also learned about how Portland treats homeless people and the different laws Oregon has for them.”
  • - “I talked with a lot of people who are houseless. I was also presented with the term houseless by a houseless female whose nails I painted as part of the night strike. I really enjoyed the people and the little community we made. I enjoyed painting and building the tiny houses.”
  • - “I enjoyed this experience but I think it should have lasted longer. The people from Tivnu were very kind. The work we did was interesting and engaging.”
  • - “I now understand how fortunate I am to live in a home and now I want to help others.”

Describing the Jookender delegation as hard workers and fast learners, Steve says: “Most of them enjoyed the work. They certainly worked hard, but I’m not surprised given what I know about Russian speaking Jewish families. They stayed focused and were proud of what they accomplished.” He added, “next time, we’ll relate the learning experiences to their culture and their families’ histories of immigration.”

Jookender delegation members overwhelmingly expressed their desire to continue helping communities locally, nationally, and internationally—a yearning Sasha is positioning Jookender to fulfill. Sasha sees the success of the pilot program as a launching pad for increased engagement by American teens with underserved or underprivileged communities in Israel. “We know there are communities in Israel who could benefit from our ready, willing, and motivated teen workforce; in addition to offering help to local organizations, we’re seeking to partner with Russian community organizations in Israel.”

* * * 

Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Philanthropy & Education in RSJ Communities

Gap Years are atypical among the RSJ community because of the lingering fears among parents that a missed year could set a child back irreversibly. Sasha attributes the higher focus on completing education to memories of the USSR’s 5% quota for Jews to go to University.

“Our kids growing up now thankfully don’t have that sense of urgency, but the parents are afraid that if their kids take a gap year they won’t be as motivated to go to University and therefore, in the parents’ minds, they’ll be less likely to succeed.”

Sasha's own Gap Year heavily influences the value she places on these formative--and transformative--experiences. “I went to Israel and the experience affected me profoundly. Not only did I become more independent, but I also learned a lot about Israeli culture, history, and lifestyles. For certain kids, Gap Years can be transformational.”

The Tivnu-Jookender pilot program was especially effective because it overcame some of the older generations’ reticence about non-traditional education, she explained. “Parents who grew up thinking that the best education is in an actual classroom saw the impact of out-of-classroom education on their kids. They see how it’s increased their kids’ interest in education—especially Jewish education. We want our kids to be more involved in their communities and to experience different ways to help those communities. This is the kind of counterculture thinking Jookender brings to our programming.”

Because the philanthropic culture is new to the RSJ community, Sasha says organizations like Jookender face two challenges: The first is helping Russian speaking Jews understand the importance of philanthropy; the second is instilling a “culture of philanthropy” among a demographic for whom charitable giving remains unfamiliar. “The older generation recognizes that we have some old-fashioned ideas about community engagement, philanthropy, and even education. We don’t want to pass those ideas to our kids.”

Sunday, October 27, 2019

K9 Mission Application Video Earns Ghosting

In July I applied for a Senior Copywriter position at K9 Mission, a nonprofit based in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts that provides well-trained Service dogs to Veterans suffering from PTSS. I'm a veteran and familiar with PTSS.

The organization was advertising for a copywriter with 5+ years to create marketing materials, website copy, e-mail newsletters, sales presentations, press releases, media pitches and alerts, and brainstorm visual and copy ideas with creative team members.

I'm a copywriter and very familiar with these communications tools.

Krysta at K9 Mission responded quickly and enthusiastically with an email that requested I submit a 3-5 minute video about why I believe I'd be a "great asset" to their team and why they should hire me to join their mission. 

Hi Bruce, Thank you so much for your interest in joining our team and our mission! At K9 Mission our mission is to place as many K9s with Veterans who suffer from PTSD as possible, with the help of our donors, we are working towards this goal. The next step is to submit a 3-5-minute video about why you believe you would make a great asset to our team and why we should hire you to join our mission.
After researching the organization, I wrote a script; With some help from a friend who has professional video equipment, I recorded this video and sent it to Krysta on July 24th. The process of scripting, editing, and producing the video took a couple of hours.

Since sending the video, I've followed up with Krysta three times in August, four times in September, and three times in October. My follow-ups have been short inquiries about where the organization is in the hiring process and reiterating my interest in the position. 

As is increasingly common practice among employers, K9 Mission neither acknowledged receipt of my video nor responded to my subsequent queries. I got ghosted. Here's why this bothers me

Most likely there are perfectly reasonable explanations for K9 Mission's unresponsiveness; the organization is certainly not obliged to share any information with me, a mere applicant.

Here's something K9 Mission might consider: In many cases ghosting indicates future behavior (or is at least a sign that things would have eventually ended badly). So, shame on K9 Mission for ghosting me, but I'm counting my blessings and moving on to find a employer who appreciates what I offer.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Featured "Times of Israel" Blogger: Read My Premier Post!

This article was originally published by the Times of Israel, where I am a blogger. 

Massachusetts Nonprofit Jookender Connects & Educates Russian Speaking Jews

A new Tribe has emerged in Massachusetts, and—like the 12 of the Old Testament—this Tribe is sowing the seeds of Jewish identity and community engagement in a traditionally insular and insulated segment of American Jewry: Russian Speaking Jews (RSJs).

Numbering about 80,000 of Massachusetts’ approximately 293,000 Jews (Jewish Virtual Library), “most RSJs arrived here after 1985 with very little formal Jewish education,” says Sasha Grebenyuk, Executive Director of Jookender Community Initiatives. Jookender—a new 501(c)(3) organization based in Framingham, Massachusetts (a Boston suburb)—introduces secular Russian-Jewish families to Jewish heritage and culture and offers programs to rekindle their feelings of Jewish identity.

When these current parents were growing up in Russia, they weren’t exposed to Judaism,” Sasha explains, attributing the lack of Jewish knowledge, identity, and affiliation due to aggressive Soviet state-sponsored anti-religious programs and propaganda. 
Judaism and Jews were especially targeted: In 1919, Soviet authorities abolished Jewish community councils, which traditionally maintained local synagogues and were responsible for Jewish education. They created the Yevsektsiya (a Jewish section of the party), which generated and disseminated propaganda against Jewish clergy and religion. According to Wikipedia, 
“The training of rabbis became impossible until early 1940's, and until the late 1980s only one Yiddish periodical was published. Because of its identification with Zionism, Hebrew was taught only in schools for diplomats. Most of the 5,000 synagogues functioning prior to the Bolshevik Revolution were closed under Stalin, and others were closed under Khrushchev. The practice of Judaism became very difficult, intensifying the desire of Jews to leave the Soviet Union.”
After three generations of subjugation and marginalization, the results were predictable, says Sasha: “Most of the current RSJ parents have minimal personal experience and practical knowledge of Jewish ethics, rituals and traditions. When they emigrated to Israel or America in the 1990s, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. I created Jookender to fix that.” 

A Russian Jew who grew up in the grasp of Communism and moved to America in 1994, Sasha is among a handful of RSJ community leaders who have the contacts, credentials, and credibility to engage Jews from the former Soviet Union. Operating Jookender on a shoestring budget, Sasha and her small team of volunteers provide programs and services that achieve outcomes far exceeding the nonprofit’s income. 

Julia Atkin—a fervent Jookender booster—shared Sasha’s experience. Ms. Atkin, who grew up in the Ukraine, feels deeply connected to Judaism but eschews the ‘religious’ label. She and her family have engaged in several Jookender programs (including participating in The Tribe pilot) create a warm, welcoming environment in which she and people like her can rekindle their Jewish kavanah (intention).

“I have blurry memories of my grandparents lighting candles and going to shul but as a child, I had no connection to Judaism. In my teenage years, when Communism started to erode, I got reintroduced to and reconnected with Jewish rituals and traditions. That inspired me to spend a year in Israel studying in a religious program. 

"When we moved to the U.S. in 1999, my husband (a Russian Jew) and I wanted to expose our children to Jewish rituals, traditions, and values. We were referred to Jookender, whose programs have increased our knowledge of and appreciation for Judaism and Israel."

Kira Shandalov, a senior at Reading High School who is also enrolled as a Freshman at Middlesex Community College, has been involved with Sasha and the Jookender team for two years. A native Israeli, Ms. Shandalov moved to the U.S. in 2015. Fluent in Russian, Hebrew, and English, Ms. Shandalov is a popular teacher in The Tribe and a regular participant in Jookender’s programs. “I worked with about 30 kids; they were very enthusiastic. The Tribe is a great program for kids, especially around the holidays.”

Like many Russians and Israelis, Ms. Shandalov also hesitates to describe herself as ‘religious’. “I have some religious knowledge from my upbringing. In Israel, you live it. But in America, it’s not as omnipresent. That’s why I love being involved in The Tribe: I feel connected to my roots and to this community.”

A 2015 study of the RSJ community provides hard numbers supporting these personal observations and experiences. 

Commissioned by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP, Boston’s Jewish Federation), the study reported that 10% of Jewish households in the Greater Boston area included a Russian-speaking Jew or someone who was born or raised in Russia or the former Soviet Union. 

Nineteen percent of these Russian speakers reported being interested in Religious Services and only 21% were involved with synagogues. While the study’s results suggested the contemporaneous system wasn’t adequately serving Boston’s RSJ’s educational needs, it highlighted the need for grassroots organizations like Jookender to fill in those gaps.

What is The Tribe?

Jookender was one of two organizations (the other was the Worcester Jewish Community Center) to pilot The Tribe’s first year. Funded by the Gemunder Family Foundation, the Armonia Foundation, The Adam and Gila Milstein Foundation, The Lesser Family, and The Frieze Family, The Tribe is a pluralistic program designed to educate, engage, and energize Jewish families.

Conceived and developed by Jewish communal service veteran Arinne Braverman, The Tribe engaged about 100 families in Boston and Central Massachusetts. From October 2017 through June 2018, tribes of eight to 10 families met monthly in members’ homes or community centers.

As Jews increasingly migrate from strict religious affiliations to a more pluralistic approach, Ms. Braverman says The Tribe offers an inclusive roadmap. Intentionally pluralistic, Ms. Braverman calls The Tribe “a values-based program that welcomes everyone who is the parent or guardian of a Jewish child—whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Tribe members journey together to gain a general understanding of Jewish values.”

Describing The Tribe’s curriculum as “approachable, flexible, and fun”, Ms. Braverman explains the modules correspond to Jewish holidays and each month covers certain Jewish values and ethics.

“This flow builds parents’ knowledge about Jewish history, culture, and traditions and inspires their kids to learn more about Jewish values and ethics such as honoring parents and teachers, performing deeds of loving kindness, peace in the home, positive speech, and welcoming guests/providing hospitality.

The Tribe was created to highlight Jewish values and to be accessible to families who did not previously connect with Judaism through religious ritual,” she says. “We selected Jookender because we thought niche populations would be best served by the small group model and we wanted to prioritize engaging currently underserved and marginally affiliated Jews,” she adds. 

Seventy-seven families with children from kindergarten to 3rd grade participated in The Tribe pilot. From these, Sasha and her team created nine tribes, each with nine to 12 families and a leader. Although some of the families knew each other before being invited to join The Tribe, most met during the program.

While most families used The Tribe’s curriculum, Sasha explains, some innovated and created additional lessons based on the provided pedagogy. Most popular among all the tribes were holiday traditions. Sharing the story of a family who knew nothing about Jewish holiday cuisine so they made dishes to share with tribe members, Sasha says such lessons resonated because they brought tribe members together—especially around food.

“The Tribe inspires curiosity and a yearning for learning, especially for Jews who may not have been exposed to the richness of our heritage and traditions. It offers a step-by-step framework within which families can experience those things together,” Ms. Braverman says. “Inclusive and intergenerational, The Tribe is an engaging point of entry or re-entry into Jewish life.”

Stories and Statistics Show Success

Where many point to declining Jewish identity and engagement as existential threats to American Jewry’s future, the success of both Tribe pilots shows that creative, inclusive, and pluralistic programming can produce positive outcomes in the RSJ community.

In addition to post-participant surveys that reveal measurable program engagement milestones, participants’ personal stories describe the life-altering impact of reconnecting with long-forgotten (or never learned) Jewish rituals, ethics, and traditions. Sasha says, “The Tribe’s family orientation actually strengthens religious affiliation by exposing Jewish liturgy, rituals, and traditions to previously disengaged families.”

In terms of measurable impact, Ms. Braverman highlights Jookender’s 333% increase in connection to the Jewish community. “I was surprised by the results of Jookender's participation. Sasha had a 50-family waitlist of families eager to participate in the program's first year.”

Ms. Atkin shares the joy of seeing her children discover Judaism like she did: “The Tribe and Jookender’s other programs give my kids the childhood I dreamed for them—to learn, embrace, and practice Judaism with people who are like them, in an environment free of fear.” Sasha cites an unanticipated community benefit of The Tribe’s structure and programming: “Some tribes grew very close socially in addition to learning from the curriculum.

Program satisfaction isn’t limited to parents. Kira Shandalov says the kids she taught were curious and hungry to learn more. “At all ages, I’ve discovered a deep desire among this community to know more about Jewish heritage, ritual, and tradition.” The Tribe kids are engaged not just by fun and games, but also by teen madrichot (counselors/teachers) whom Sasha and the Jookender team actively recruit and train. Of Ms. Shandalov, Mrs. Atkin says: “Kira was amazing. Her energy and passion really connect with the kids. They look at her and see a model of what they could be.”

Sasha highlights Jookender’s training of teen volunteers and mentors like Kira. “The training we give our teen volunteers has a ripple effect,” she explains. “First we make sure these young men and women acquire and retain Jewish historic and cultural knowledge. Second, we equip them to go to tribes and teach. Third, teen teachers make it more affordable for families with young kids to participate in Jookender’s programs.”

Count Worcester Jewish Community Center Executive Director Emily Rosenbaum as a fan of The Tribe. With her 10-year-old daughter, Ms. Rosenbaum was a member of the Northern Worcester County Tribe.

From a professional and personal perspective, Ms. Rosenbaum says that The Tribe makes it easier for unaffiliated Jews to access comfortable and convenient Jewish fellowship: “The pedagogy is thoughtfully and sensitively constructed to connect Jewish education with practical Jewish values. It shares vital lessons about valuing, maintaining, and manifesting Judaism in our daily lives.”

She believes The Tribe’s non-intimidating, haimish engagement style and flexible, approachable curriculum is appealing because it “caters to people in their comfort zones, involves families, builds community connections, and ultimately enhances Jewish learning."

Following Pilot Program Success, an Uncertain Future

Pointing to overwhelmingly positive objective and subjective feedback, Sasha and the Jookender team are actively seeking funds to grow The Tribe’s reach and impact. Normally calm and unassuming, Sasha lights up when sharing The Tribe’s impact in the community her team serves: “I’m thrilled The Tribe appears to strengthen connections to our faith, especially among the RSJ community. It fulfills our cravings to be more connected with our faith and fellow Jews.”

Although The Tribe pilot was fully funded, Sasha says the budget-conscious nonprofit lacks the resources to conduct as robust a program as in the first year. Reluctantly conceding that philanthropic support to expand Jookender’s other programming remains a question mark, Sasha and the Jookender team are optimistic donors will realize the importance, value, and impact of Jookender’s programming in the RSJ community, and respond accordingly.

With so many Jewish education and outreach programs in Massachusetts, Jookender’s outsized impacts have gone largely unnoticed. “We prefer to have our results speak for our organization instead of slick marketing materials,” says Sasha. “But more support could help us achieve much, much more.” Specifically, she mentions growing the number of tribes and expanding the number of people who can participate in Jookender’s popular Teens4Teens program and Family Camps.

Discover more about Jookender.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How to Prepare Week-by-Week for #GivingTuesday on December 3, 2019

This article was originally published in Massnonprofit news' "Wednesday Report" on September 19, 2019. 

With #GivingTuesday on Dec. 3 only 10 weeks away, now is the time to prepare your nonprofit to succeed on the calendar year’s biggest—and most competitive—charitable fundraising day.

Since its 2012 launch, #GivingTuesday has been celebrated in the U.S. on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to benefit any registered charity or any type of 501(c) organization. Last year, #GivingTuesday campaigns nationally raised more than $400 million from 3.6 million donors, with an average online donation of $105.

Because most Americans—65% according to PayPal—plan to donate more this holiday season over last year, #GivingTuesday can supercharge your annual fundraising and end the year positively.

#GivingTuesday is an opportunity to broadcast the stories that define your organization, educate and cultivate donors who are interested and moved by those stories, and build awareness of your mission, messages, programs, and priorities.

Consider these tips to help your organization plan in the 10 weeks leading up to #GivingTuesday.

  • Register your organization. Whether you plan to go “all in” or pass on #GivingTuesday, you should at least “join the movement.” (As of this publication date, more than 62,000 organizations have registered). Register here.

  • Research and discuss #GivingTuesday ideas/options. For the next nine weeks, add #GivingTuesday to the agendas for your board, staff, and donor meetings. At the first meeting, solicit suggestions for potential #GivingTuesday fundraising initiatives and determine SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound).
  • Engage your board. When you feel you have a viable #GivingTuesday plan with SMART goals, share it with your board for feedback, input, and approval. You might invite the most vociferous participant to champion the short campaign. Consider soliciting seed money or a board commitment to matching funds so your campaign doesn’t start at $0.
  • Finalize & share the plan. Consider sharing your final #GivingTuesday plan with board members, staff, volunteers, and top donors.
  • Designate a “staff champion”: If no one volunteers, assign an ambitious mid-level manager or consider hiring a digital marketing/fundraising consultant to help plan, implement, and evaluate the 10- to 12-week project.

  • “Staff champion” duties: Weekly updates at meetings; collaborate with peers to prepare and share social media content and calendar; manage/monitor social media engagement on Dec. 3; prepare and present a final report including data on donations, social media engagement, and suggested improvements.
  • Solicit & store #GivingTuesday content. Ask board members, staff, and donors why they support your organization and get their written permission to share their stories. Create and share a secure folder (either on your internal server or Google Drive or DropBox) that includes #GivingTuesday content (photos, videos, and testimonials of your organizations’ projects/successes). Use the content to fill in your social media calendar (Week 3).

  • Brainstorm & aggregate #GivingTuesday hashtags. Because social media is key to the success of #GivingTuesday, create three or four unique hashtags for your donors, staff, and stakeholders to include in their respective social media posts. (This also simplifies tracking engagement!)
  • Create online donation form. Brand the form “#GivingTuesday”. Keep it simple: Prominently offer four or five suggested donation amounts (explaining the specific impact of each amount); less prominently offer a “fill-in-the-blank” option. Optimize the form for mobile users (on #GivingTuesday 2016, 45% of donations were made via mobile devices). The most prominent link to your online donation form should be on your homepage above the fold. Wherever you link from , make the form one-click accessible.

  • Test links to form. Test the form several times for mobile and desktop UX.
  • #GivingTuesday social media content and calendar. Have your “staff champion” prepare a spreadsheet with unique daily content for your social media platforms promoting your #GivingTuesday initiative. The content should include photos, videos, testimonials, and the hashtags you created in Weeks 6 and 5. Every social media post pertaining to #GivingTuesday should include a link to the online donation form.
  • Finalize & share social media content Internally. Remind stakeholders to include the unique hashtags in their social media posts.

  • Social media promotion. Encourage board, staff, and donors to use their personal social media to promote your #GivingTuesday campaign.

  • Prepare & schedule solicitation emails. Use your email platform (e.g., Constant Contact) to craft and schedule solicitation emails a week before #GivingTuesday and twice on Dec. 3 ”“morning and evening (peak social media engagement times). Include content from your social media calendar, hashtags, and highlight the link to your online donation form.
  • Activate online donation form. Make sure it works.

  • Increase social media engagement. Multiple daily posts using your unique hashtags will build excitement and awareness of your #GivingTuesday initiatives.

  • Prepare staff: Make sure staff know your organization’s #GivingTuesday goals, where they can find content to share, and who’s in charge of social media engagement (staff champion).
DEC. 3 ”“ #GivingTuesday
  • Stay active on social media: Thank donors on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Provide hourly fundraising updates. Post content from donors (you’ve gotten their permission!). Challenge your followers to donate. Be sure every post links to your online donation form.
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