By Susan Holzman Wachsstock, Rebecca Ruberg and Melanie Schneider

Sometimes you roll out a project, look back, and think about all the things you now know – and how you would do it differently if given the opportunity to try again. For us, designing – a massive, searchable, filterable database for parents and teens in the Greater New York area to find Jewish summer experiences – has been one of those projects; one that we’d like to address publicly.

Professionals in the Jewish nonprofit sector embark on ambitious website projects all the time. They often collaborate with funders to build portals that drive traffic, create useful digital experiences, and ambitiously aim to measure and prove that these new offerings result in greater in-person Jewish engagement. In our case, was pitched as a cornerstone of the New York Teen Initiative, a grant-funded partnership designed to increase the number of teens enrolling in Jewish summer experiences, jointly supported by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Its lead operator is The Jewish Education Project. Through a candid behind-the-scenes look at our successes and challenges to date, we hope this debrief can inform thinking and approaches that others in the Jewish nonprofit sector might consider as they build platforms to reach and engage all kinds of Jewish families.

Consultants Need to Consult on More than Just Tech

We are working with our third consultant since the project launched about two years ago. Why? For many reasons.

For one thing, we experienced a learning curve on how to effectively communicate what we envisioned the website being, how we thought it should operate, and what it should look like. As program and planning professionals, communicating our vision to tech people proved challenging. For example, we tasked the consultants with building a calendar for the site. They built a lovely looking calendar. But it wasn’t functional in the way that takes into account something we learned about our target: teens and families piece their summers togetherwith a mix of many experiences. We expected a feature where parents could upload their existing summer schedule and map out and slot in the Jewish summer experiences that worked in specific timeframes. The calendar, which works in this way now, did not have this feature initially.

Today, our new consultants are more than just “tech implementers.” We sought out developers who could bridge our conceptual functional needs with a broader visionand ultimately build the site with both of these elements in mind. They are collaborative partners who help us think realistically about deadlines. Designing and branding a beautiful website is not enough for success. When dealing with a database that you want people to come to, and return to, it has to be extremely responsive to the audience’s needs and user-friendly. The right consultants bring that to bear.

Learn Directly from Audiences

Due to a 10 month time-frame to launch, and a budget to adhere to, we had to think creatively about how to quickly and efficiently garner suggestions from our target audience parents and teens and hear directly from them about how a site like this would be most helpful and usable. To gather feedback, we relied on two principles:

  • Carpool focus groups. These are exactly what they sound like. We used the opportunity of a captive audience of teens in a car to ask questions about the branding of the site. What kind of messages resonate with them? We shared initial branding ideas to see what people preferred; the feedback was very helpful.
  • Hearing from the Less Engaged. We really wanted feedback as well from less-engaged teens and families. This is a challenge since they are inherently not at as many events or often even as known in the community. We simply asked to be connected to friends of friends … of friends and jumped at the opportunities to get feedback.

Based on these methods, two points came across loud and clear:

  • Not too Jewish. What we learned from people informed much of what you see on the site. In particular, we were intentional about the site not feeling “too Jewish,” which may be a turn off for those less engaged in Jewish life through traditional institutions. The site name,, and the logo, for example are not explicitly “Jewish.” Even some of the search filters like “kosher friendly” and “Shabbat friendly” are somewhat understated.
  • Teens are global citizens. Teens have grown up in a time when boundaries and borders are not limiting. They don’t expect a website like this to be limiting either. Rather, the site is an opportunity to explore and discover programs that may not exist in a teen’s particular local universe.

Your End User May Be Someone Else

Research on Jewish teen experiences widely points to teens wanting to create and take ownership of their experiences. That said, our focus groups pointed to this being aspirational: when it comes to finding Jewish summer programs, parents often do the legwork. Initially, we envisioned the website would be for teens and that it would include Buzzfeed style quizzes that are popular among them, along with similar interactive features. When we learned that our core audience is parents, this “interactive play value” was ultimately not necessary; we pivoted and introduced alternate features that added utility. Our recently released Summer Planner feature allows the user to save experiences they are interested in and share them along with a customized message. This way a parent can scope out programs and send to their teens, and vice versa. The feature also allows the user to plot the dates for these programs on a calendar. Soon we will roll out a feature that allows users to directly communicate with the programs they are exploring or with which they intend to register.

Allow the Site to Grow and Change

Unlike a hard copy catalog of activities, a website is inherently a living, fluid platform. We gave ourselves the space to change elements of it as we learned what worked and what didn’t.

  • To loginor not to login. Initially we did not want the site to include a login portal, thinking that would be a barrier to easy use and access. But we found that a lot of people would simply visit the site, look, and leave. So, we decided to have a login feature with an incentive for the user: allowing visitors to save their favorite programs. In turn, the login allows us to better track our audience, follow-up with them, and understand how they are coming to the site and using it on a much deeper level.
  • Heavy Lifting Continues After Site Launch. For this type of website, “Day 1” in many respects is when the site launches. From then, new time-intensive concerns come into play – like keeping listings up-to-date and accurate. We reached out to all kinds of programs and providers of Jewish summer experiences, and certainly had to sell some of them on the value of being included on the site. Engaging local branches of national organizations can be particularly challenging; they have their own set of rules and restrictions. Through patience and willingness to “hold hands” with organizations as they first started posting their information onto the site, we have been able to populate the site with over 370 programs that represent a diverse variety of teen interests. Moreover, we created a login portal that allows organizations to enter and update their listings as often as they like.
  • Market to audiences. Without a dedicated user base, there’s no point in investing the significant time and resources it takes to develop a site like this. To best reach our audience of parents and teens looking for unique Jewish summer experiences, our marketing strategy includes Facebook, Instagram, and Google advertisements, organic social media posts, contests, digital and physical mailings, and seasonal print collateral.

Have a vision beyond the immediate need. While we designed the site with New York top of mind, we always understood that the site could grow to be something bigger. Certainly teens and families all over the country have a desire to “find their summer.” So while the site is now accessible to all, in the future, it could be customized with portals for communities way beyond a regional audience. One inquiry from France resulted in two siblings traveling abroad to participate in a Specialty Israel Program that they learned about through our website. We don’t use this analogy lightly, but creating took a lot of effort to bring to birth. Three and half years since we launched the New York Teen Initiative, we recognize the enormous progress we have made and how much we’ve learned about the value our perspective can lend to the design process. We hope other communities, too, can, look to the site as a model when designing websites or other portals for digital engagement. Creating a website is an empowering experience, but in this line of work, we all care enough to know that tools are a means to a greater, shared vision of meaningful engagement.

Susan Holzman Wachsstock is Director of the New York Teen Initiative at The Jewish Education Project. Rebecca Ruberg is Project Director of the New York Teen Initiative. Melanie L. Schneider is Senior Planning Executive, with the Department of Jewish Life at UJA-Federation of NY.

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