Chelsea Landry

Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters has guided The Well on how to host successful gatherings.

By Chelsea Landry

Meeting facilitator Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters is inspiring hosts across the globe, from C-suite retreat planners to novice book club hostesses.

The Well, a Jewish community-building organization for young families serving Metro Detroit, is also gleaning inspiration from the book and Parker’s “rules” for hosting successful gatherings.

Breaking traditions, confronting “FOMO” culture and combating millennial loneliness are just a few of the issues The Art of Gathering has helped The Well tackle, with an approach guided by a Jewish lens.

I recently interviewed Rabbi Dan Horwitz, founder and director of The Well, to find out more about his organization’s innovative gatherings, Parker’s influence on his work and how the book has subtly transformed the day-to-day experience of participants in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community.

The focus on bringing young Jews (and those who love them) together is an essential part of The Well’s success. While nationally, formal affiliation rates with traditional Jewish institutions is down, The Well has empowered Metro Detroit’s millennials to take a hands-on role in developing its gatherings.

“We aim to co-create and empower our people to play active roles in the planning and execution of our gatherings so that the up and coming generation of young adults will feel empowered to be architects of the Jewish future, prepared to invest their time, talent and treasure,” Horwitz wrote.

The Well’s gatherings avoid lectures and one-sided exchanges, instead favoring interactive experiences and mutual exchanges in their work. “All of our gatherings have substantive Jewish content built in, often in experiential fashion,” he said.

Many Jewish gatherings are “calendar-dependent,” following the annual cycle of holidays. For many, these gatherings are driven by a desire to mark the holidays and seasons of the year, sometimes with little further direction or inspiration. The Well is constantly re-imagining these traditional gathering opportunities with new energy, such as their Passover-inspired escape room and Sukkot-themed immersive dinner theater experience.

The organization’s monthly “Tot Shabbat” series, a Sabbath prayer experience designed for families with young children, creates opportunities for connection with the Jewish tradition, other young families, and exciting spaces in Metro Detroit, such as the Detroit Zoo, Third Man Records, the Detroit Institute for Music Education and more.

The theme and location change every month, challenging assumptions that Shabbat and other Jewish gatherings must take place in traditionally Jewish spaces such as synagogue structures and embracing Parker’s concept that one chooses a venue to meet a particular gathering’s objectives. So, for a Tot Shabbat celebrating the holiday of Tu b’Shevat (the Jewish Arbor Day), the Outdoor Adventure Center proved a powerful platform for the gathering.

Many of Parker’s other principles can be seen in approaches embraced by The Well — from “creating an alternate universe” and “establishing rules” to perfecting logistics like thoughtfully curating a guest list and fostering meaningful connections between each person gathered.

However, one suggested approach in Parker’s book seems to run counter to what The Well seeks to achieve.

The “Passover Principle,” explained in Parker’s book as a special invitation to a one-night-only gathering, might actually contribute to a heightened sense of millennial loneliness. Horwitz says: “It’s near impossible to truly build community — one that supports you day-to-day — with one-off gatherings, or gatherings that only take place once a year.”

The pressure of creating and attending a “one-time-only” opportunity does little to cultivate genuine, lasting relationships. Instead, The Well connects those who attend their gatherings to their larger network by facilitating introductions so that Metro Detroit’s Jewish young adult and young family population can build ongoing relationships of substance and meaning.

If The Well’s success is any indication, Parker’s book has many insights to offer Metro Detroit’s Jewish communal institutions as they seek to adapt to the 21st century and meet the needs of emerging generations.

Chelsea Landry is program partner at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation.

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