Agencies, synagogues learn they can be more welcoming

You’re new to the Silicon Valley. You want to get involved in the Jewish community, but you’re not sure how, so you make a phone call a local Jewish organization.

You leave a message — but will you get called back?

In a recent study, five out of eight phone messages left at various Silicon Valley Jewish organizations were not returned, a statistic that delivered a somewhat harsh message to local Jewish officials.

“We can be more inviting,” concluded Jyl Jurman, director of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. “We’re not as welcoming to new people as we could be.”

This summer, the Los Gatos-based federation commissioned the Jewish Outreach Institute to investigate whether or not 10 Silicon Valley Jewish organizations — ranging from the federation itself to Saratoga’s Congregation Beth David to the local Hillel chapter — succeed in welcoming people who are making their first stab at connecting to the Jewish community.

JOI calls the process an “environmental outreach scan,” which means its staff members pose as newcomers so that they can assess an organization’s Web site, e-mail response rate and telephone conduct. The scan does not include any face-to-face encounters.

JOI staff looked at the organizations’ Web sites: Was it clear whom a newcomer should contact? Was the organization’s e-mail or phone number clearly and correctly displayed? Did the Web site explicitly welcome visitors?

They looked at the organizations’ e-mail response rates: Did they respond to queries? What was the content? Was the e-mail used as an opportunity to make a newcomer feel welcomed and enticed?

Lastly, they analyzed how agencies responded to phone inquiries.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said a phone call is an oft-missed opportunity to engage a newcomer.

“If I call a synagogue, and ask the receptionist, ‘What time are services?’ and she tells me politely, ‘8 o’clock,’ and then hangs up the phone, it’s a completely missed opportunity [for the synagogue],” he said. “I wasn’t asked who I was or why I was calling in a tactful, unobtrusive way. I may have been new in town, I may have wanted to say Kaddish — and that person missed an opportunity to engage me.”

The scan, according to JOI staffer Eva Stern, found that “compared to response rates in other communities,’ the San Jose area “did a great job.” Still, she said, “there is tremendous potential for growth.”

Just four out of the 10 Web sites analyzed “explicitly” welcomed visitors. Of the 10 e-mail queries to agencies, just seven received responses.

Of the 10 phone calls JOI staff made to the organizations, seven led directly to a person, while three reached an answering machine or voicemail.

JOI staff left a total of eight messages, either because they were not immediately connected with a person or because the person who answered could not fully answer the questions.

Of those eight messages, three calls were returned.

“This is catching a community at one moment in time, but really, you have to look at the entire picture of an institution or community,” Olitzky said. “[The scan] points out that there are some gaps in the way the front line handles inquiries, but it doesn’t mean the institutions don’t have potential; otherwise, why bother to point out their flaws?”

After getting the results of the study Dec. 3, leaders from the 10 agencies met with two JOI staff members to discuss ways to be better at working with newcomers to the community. In February, JOI will follow up with additional training sessions.

Nine other communities have hired JOI, including the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance in Los Angeles and the Goldman Fund in San Francisco.

Three years ago, JOI helped the Valley Alliance federation find many ways in which local organizations could improve. For instance, the federation learned it had one faulty e-mail address listed on its Web site. It quickly fixed that, and also made numerous other changes.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.