Grassroots Family Engagement



A Conversation with Kyla Hartunian

As a military spouse, Kyla Hartunian and her family lived in Lawton, Oklahoma; Fairbanks, Alaska; Fort Campbell, Tennessee; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas before moving to Northern Virginia. There, for the first time in her life, Kyla found herself surrounded by an active Jewish community. With the MOMentum Year Long Journey as her launchpad, she dove headfirst into local Jewish life and soon became a community engagement professional. In our conversation, Kyla shares how both her work at the local JCC and her Momentum Fellowship Project, “Light Up the Circle” help Jewish families forge stronger connections with one another, as well as her tips for creating successful community engagement projects.

How has MOMentum impacted your own engagement in the Jewish community?

When I applied for MOMentum, my family had recently relocated to Northern Virginia, and I was excited to finally get involved in an active Jewish community. I wanted to connect with other Jewish women who could help me explore my Jewish identity and become the Jewish mother I always wanted to be. Soon after my MOMentum Trip, my husband and I enrolled our children in Gesher Jewish Day School, which was one of the Partner Organizations that hosted my MOMentum experience. I also started working at the JCC of Northern Virginia, which was the other Partner Organization that hosted my MOMentum experience! My family joined a synagogue and I soon became sisterhood president. MOMentum truly helped me find my purpose, making it possible for me to become part of something bigger than myself in a very meaningful way.

What inspired you to create “Light Up the Circle?”

During my MOMentum Trip to Israel, the JWRP created a sacred space for my JWRP sisters and me to step out of the current of our busy lives and make time for ourselves, Israel, and Judaism. When I returned home, I felt passionate about finding a way for Jewish families in Northern Virginia to have similar, meaningful experiences together. “Light Up the Circle” makes it possible for families to connect with one another on Shabbat and then inspires them to share their spark with other families. I’m excited to officially launch it this year!

How does “Light Up the Circle” work?

Light Up the Circle is a lot like a community group, with an added emphasis on training and engaging a grassroots leadership cadre. We make this leadership training educational and fun by creating a family retreat where the whole family can learn about the beauty of Shabbat, as well as how to bring this gift to other families in their community. After engaging and inspiring families during the retreat, we will continue to mentor and guide our leaders as they take home their passion and build their own circles in their neighborhoods. We want to teach families how to make Shabbat doable in any busy lifestyle and to encourage togetherness and social networking. Our ultimate goal is to forge stronger relationships with one another while connecting to Judaism in ways that resonate uniquely with each participating family.

What are the benefits of in-person engagement?

I grapple with this question all the time. At the JCCNV, we want to engage young families in a way that is convenient and fits into their lifestyle but that requires more commitment than simply interacting on social media. Through our Ambassador Program, we foster in-person interaction by connecting local parents to other local parents who have kids that are around the same age. That way, they can grow together in a real way. For example, parents of babies and toddlers both understand what it’s like to have Shabbat dinner at that stage. It may involve bouncing a baby while eating and supervising toddlers who are running around. In-person interaction means that you can take turns holding each other’s kids. It means taking a breath together, making a commitment to one another, and developing a strong friendship that’s very hard to replicate online.

What are some of your tips for running successful Jewish community engagement programs?

First, I recommend helping people with similar interests and needs connect to one another in ways that work best for them. Also, create programs that are friendly to all sorts of families — including single-parent families, families with adopted children, and interfaith families. Foster safe spaces, where people feel comfortable asking questions and create resources that help community members bring what they’ve learned back home and continue their growth. Find ways to weave Judaism into programming that people are already looking for, like music classes or Gymboree. Make accessibility and convenience a priority. Finally, work smarter, not harder by finding fellow passionate leaders and mobilizing them to create those safe, convenient spaces in your neighborhood where they can help inspire others.

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