New community connector tasked with connecting young Jews to each other and wider community
- Published: Thursday, 15 December 2016 10:00
- Written by Barbara Bayer, Editor
We live in an age where people often sit in coffee shops checking their phones instead of talking with an actual person. Even as the Kansas City Jewish community continues to beef up its presence on social media to stay relevant and current, it has also hired an individual to have face-to-face conversations with people — young Jews to be exact — and help them connect with one another.
Molly Hess started working in the Jewish community in September as its community connector. She has been charged with helping young Jewish adults in the Kansas City area between the ages of 22 and 35ish to connect with the community, connect the community with them and connect Jews with other Jews.
“When you move to a new city and feel lost it’s really helpful to have a person you can call and rely on. That’s a big part of my job,” Hess explained.
WHAT IS A COMMUNTITY CONNECTOR?
The Jewish community connector works under the auspices of KU Hillel, Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. It is funded for three years by the Jewish Federation, Menorah Heritage Foundation, Irv Robinson and the Jewish Community Foundation. Hess works closely with KU Hillel’s Executive Director Jay Lewis and soon will have an office in Brookside when JFS opens its new Missouri offices in January.
“We will reassess this program every step of the away,” said Lewis. “And we also want to make sure that we have enough years to give this a chance and put our hypothesis into action.”
The hypothesis, Lewis explained, is Kansas City has emerged as a hot place for young people. He noted young Jewish adults are moving to the Crossroads, Westport and the Plaza and are attracted to the art and music scenes here as well as jobs with corporations such as Cerner and Sprint.
“Over the past five years at KU Hillel, we’ve seen Kansas City become a destination city and not a fallback. Our juniors and seniors are now talking about Kansas City being their first choice when they are looking for jobs,” he said.
Because so many young Jews are now moving to Kansas City, Lewis said Jewish communal executives believe the “Jewish community needs to evolve and adapt and figure out how to meet the needs of Jews this age and connect them to our existing Jewish community and at the same time evolve our existing Jewish community.”
After Lewis found out through JFS Executive Director Don Goldman that JFS was also looking at engaging young adults, they decided to work together as well as seek a partnership with Jewish Federation. It took about 18 months to get the ball rolling and during that time the lead organizations determined that they needed to hire a person who was not responsible for planning programs. Instead, that person’s sole responsibility would be to seek out people as well as connect with those who reach out to the connector wanting assistance.
“It is important that this plan is not just simply hiring someone to plan more programming. It’s about people and relationships and community,” Lewis explained.
It was also determined that a digital platform was necessary so young adults in the Kansas City Jewish community could easily find programs, events and activities that are relevant to them. Under the name Tribe KC, the community connector already has a presence on Facebook (facebook.com/JTribeKC) and Instagram (@tribekc).
Hess explained that the name Tribe KC comes from the tongue and cheek term “Member of the Tribe.”
“A tribe is a community of people that have a common thread and look out for one another. It is an extension of family, and you don’t have to do anything to be a ‘member,’ ” she said.
WHO IS MOLLY HESS?
The 29-year-old Hess grew up in San Diego and knows a bit about moving to a new Jewish community.
“I am what we lovingly refer to as a transplant. When I moved to Kansas City I had to make a strong effort to find friends and find people. I think having that skill set in my wheelhouse makes me really great at my job. I feel like I’ve paved the way already. I know where to go for High Holidays and how to get tickets. I know how to find people within niches of other people,” she said.
Before becoming the Jewish community connector, Hess worked at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and comes from a family of Jewish communal professionals.
“I’ve been in Kansas City for almost seven years and fallen in love with the city,” she said.
Having moved to a new city by herself multiple times, Hess said, “You quickly learn what your key identifier is and to me, that’s being Jewish.”
“Whenever I’ve moved to a new city I tried to find out where the Jewish people were because whether or not I like them, I have something in common with them. So, I think, especially when you’re in your early 20s and it’s a very formative time to being adult, your initial reaction is to find people like you and it’s nice to have a point person in the Jewish community to reach out to and make that happen. Will I be their lifelong friend? Maybe. But will I help them find lifelong friends that aren’t me? Probably. That’s more of the goal. It’s about creating community and whatever that means to people. For some people it’s two or three amazing friends and for others it’s 20 people that they can get together with. For others it will be connecting to volunteer activities through JFS,” she said.
Hess is “on the ground” in different areas of the city almost every day, using the “coffee, lunch, coffee” networking strategy popularized by the book of the same name written by Alana Muller, an active member of the Jewish community.
“There are some days I don’t step in the office at all and other days when I am in the office doing research and connecting with people,” Hess explained.
Between Sept. 5 and Dec. 12, Hess has met individually with 55 people and had seven appointments set for this week. She also meets people at events sponsored by Moishe House, YourKC, Plaza Chabad and JFS Ambassadors. Most of her connections have been made so far just by getting the word out that she is here to help. She also plans to tap into lists created by Moishe House and the Jewish Federation to connect with people.
“Very seldom does somebody not know any other Jews here. So with every meeting she’s asked who else is here, who else do you know,” Lewis said.
Hess plans to reach out to those they know have been to one or two events in the Jewish community. Because program planners have other responsibilities, Hess will fill that gap and follow-up and see what in the Jewish community might interest these individuals. For instance, some individuals may be more interested in volunteer opportunities within the community rather than social activities.
“I always start the conversation with ‘tell me your story. How did you get to Kansas City? What was your Jewish life like before you got here? What are you looking for from the Jewish community? What do you feel like you need from the Jewish community?’ ” Hess said.
“I try to really listen to what they are saying and then the big goal is for me to think of the next step. For example, you really love X. I’m going to do my best to find another person who connects to that same ideal or that same whatever. I help people connect with people and I help people connect with organizations as well.”
Lewis said once this really gets rolling they hope to take what they have learned from these young adults — and this group includes natives as well as newcomers — and inform and advise the existing structures in the Jewish community — congregations, agencies and organizations — how best to service young adults and how they can evolve.
“We have a lot of assumptions about this population,” he said. “We are learning that it’s not a homogenous population. … There are a variety of different stories and there is not a one-size-fits-all answer for the community.”
Lewis said engaging this population is a high priority in the Jewish community.
“There are a lot of people who move here in their 20s that will be here the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years and this will be the future lifeblood of our community,” he said.
So far Hess thinks it’s going well.
A lot of the people I’ve met with are new or newish to Kansas City or have returned after years away and are looking for someone to talk to, are in need of a friend or someone who knows what’s going on. I think that has been really successful. I met with someone who said, ‘I’m just happy to have coffee with someone because I really don’t know anyone in the city. I’m really grateful to do something besides work.’ ”