Act 1
In the beginning
In the early 2000s many Jewish professionals were experimenting with ways to move beyond programming and into community building.

Dan Smokler had just come out of years working as a labor union organizer, where he spent his days building networks through one-on-one and small group conversations.

At the same time, Graham Hoffman was a management consultant who was learning the power of social networks in the private sector

Beth Cousens was a newly minted PhD who had studied social networks in community building among young Jews in their 20s.

Together, these three developed a model of building Jewish community on campus that was eventually called “Relationship Based Engagement.”

That model argued that community building needed one-on-one relationships to build thick ties between participants; spiritual leadership from a rabbi or someone like that; deep content from the Jewish textual, ritual, and calendar tradition; and a constant process of iterating and learning to grow. Putting these pieces together yielded thick, powerful communities.
Act 2
Field testing and refining
Teaching this idea could not happen in a classroom, but had to be learned on the field.

Hillel’s Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative and Senior Jewish Educator project, both initially funded with the vision of the Jim Joseph Foundation, were the first attempt at this work.

And many, many more

Colleagues at Hillel like Jennifer Zwilling, Rachel Gildiner, and many, many more, would go on to systemize, refine and expand the model.

By 2010, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, of NYU’s Bronfman Center, had launched a new model of building such relationships not just in coffee dates, but in a 10-week seminar setting, called the Jewish Learning Fellowship or JLF.

Through JLF we learned the importance of cohorts as a method to engage whole groups of people. JLF also taught us about the importance of Torah study not only as a means to acquire knowledge, but as a practice that builds community.

Erica Frankel, working at NYU at that time along with Rebekah Tokatlilar, Arielle Krule, and others would grow this model exponentially on campus at NYU.

Act 3
Putting organization
behind it

At the same time, Dan Smokler had gone to launch an innovation center (OOI) at Hillel under the leadership of Eric Fingerhut and Adam Lehman.

There, Dan hired the NYU team to grow this approach to other campuses. With the partnership and vision of Amy Marks, Mosaic United, and other philanthropists, JLF spread throughout the Hillel movement under the leadership of Erica Frankel, Leah Kahn, Arielle Krule, and others.

JLF became a kind of second-wave attempt at relationship based work, with a deeper focus on content.

Concurrent with this success on campus, the nascent innovation center, OOI, tried to build new forms of community for young adults in their 20s and 30s by focusing on rabbinic couples and their home as a base of operation.

Launched by two rabbinic couples— Faith Leener and Jon Leener, and Yael Kornfeld and Avram Mlotek—this became the Base movement, which spread to more than 15 sites and is now a critical part of the Moishe House infrastructure.

OOI continued to experiment with community building in other settings.

Some, like the Civic Spirit project launched by Tamara Tweel as an OOI team member, work in earlier age ranges, like the high school setting.


Some, like our project “Blue”, which was an App we tried to launch, were failures and lessons learned.

Some like Atra and IYUN became flourishing organizations that continue to grow their impact.

Atra provides rabbis of all denominations and roles with ongoing professional support and training. Atra conducts research on rabbinic leadership, supports entrepreneurial rabbis to build new communities, and provides training to allow all rabbis to grow and adapt their leadership for our ever-changing world.


IYUN facilitates eclectic groups of young adults to boldly ask big, messy human questions and build community through deep, personal engagement with Jewish texts and practices.

Act 4
Evolving with our mission
After two decades of work, we have seen that our end goal has always been to build the vibrant Jewish communities of tomorrow.
The components of these communities always involved:
A focus on relationships at the core
Spiritual leadership from Rabbis
Deep content from our texts, rituals and calendars
A desire to iterate, learn and grow
We have learned a lot over the years, and now as we enter our next chapter we want to share our learnings with others.  
To make a bigger impact, we can do more than “just” start our own projects. We can collaborate with others to catalyze the Jewish communities of tomorrow. 

This is why we are changing our name to Assembly, which means both a gathering of people and a process of building — two of our basic ideas.

Assembly is also the English translation for Edah/עֵדָה - the fullest expression of Jewish communal life. And, we are refining our mission to community building.

We do it by partnering with organizations to help them build their communities better, by launching our own experiments, and by supporting entrepreneurs who do the same.