The Power of Dairy Queen

Posted on July 15, 2022

Originally published by eJewish Philanthropy

For the first two years of my job as director of youth engagement, I had an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Having inherited a struggling youth program – which I was hired with the explicit expectation of resuscitating – I immediately poured my efforts into revamping all areas of teen synagogue offerings. Social action, youth group, you name it — I invented or reinvented it. I designed logos. I bought T-shirts. I created playlists. I made our programming seem as fresh, new and sexy as I could. But I still struggled with seeing the engagement and continuity I was working so hard to foster. Over the past three years, though, things have changed – and I think I know why.

The key to success is Dairy Queen.

To clarify, I mean Dairy Queen both metaphorically and literally. As of one year ago, I had never actually been to a Dairy Queen. (Symptom of growing up a New York suburbanite — shout out to Carvel.) It was COVID that eventually drew me there, in an attempt to reconnect with kids who I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. They had dropped off from our programming over our year and a half online, and, having known them in the past, I invited them to come to Dairy Queen for one-on-one meetings to catch up. And one by one, they came.

But why did they come? I had the answer spelled out for me at a recent youth event. Over an end-of-year pizza-making gathering with our sixth graders, a student named Harry, who hadn’t been at the synagogue since third grade, questioned why I called him by his first and last name. “Is there another Harry, or something?” he asked. Quickly, the other students chimed in. “No,” said the girl to my right, “she just does that. She calls me by my first and last name all the time.” The other students offered eager agreement. “It’s just a personality thing,” the girl concluded, before returning to her pizza. Harry nodded, satisfied.

And she’s right – without planning it, this has become a part of my persona in my role. In the sense of being a charismatic, memorable presence, it’s a “personality thing.” It also meets a much deeper, more important goal: Our kids know that I know who they are. And that makes all the difference.

Theo knows that I know where he goes to camp. Rachel knows that I know what sports she plays. Carly knows that I know which TV actor she adores. They all know that I know what pronouns they use, what books they’re reading, where they’ve been and where they want to go. They may not know that I can’t list the Hebrew calendar months by memory, or that I don’t know the technical names of the Hebrew vowels – but that’s not what they need me for. (Finally, after years of imposter syndrome, I have made peace with this.)

They need me for Dairy Queen.

Once the teens came to Dairy Queen, they came on our New York City trip. They rejoined our Wednesday night teen community. They volunteered over the summer to help us sort books. They came to Dairy Queen because I had already invested in those relationships – and they came back to the temple because they came to Dairy Queen.

They say – if you build it, they will come. I have finally learned what that means. It is not about our programs – it is about relationships.

I’ve learned that no program will ever be sexy enough to engage a kid on its own. Whatever the program is, if that kid does not feel safe, that kid will not come. If they do not feel like they have a person there – whether that person is a friend or is you, the trusted adult – they most likely will not take the leap. So how do we make our kids feel safe?

We make them feel known.

The power of Dairy Queen is the power of relationships. The power of this work is the power of relationships. The power of Judaism itself, inevitably, is relationships. (Our relationships with Gd, with each other, with our past and our descendants, with tikkun olam [repairing the world] and olam chesed yibaneh [the world we build together, from love].)

Of course, Dairy Queen has not always been, nor does it have to be, a Dairy Queen. In the past, my Dairy Queen has taken the forms of Panera, Dunkin’, Starbucks, OrangeLeaf (of blessed memory), or even a FaceTime or Zoom call. But it is those precious meetings in those liminal spaces that have defined the relationships I have made, and the program I have built. Where there is, blessedly, no expectation asked of our teens. Where all they have to do is be – and eat ice cream.

I encourage you to find your Dairy Queen – wherever that may be.