The Jewish community that makes up Owings Mills, MD (a suburb of Baltimore) is experiencing an interesting challenge, not unlike other Jewish communities elsewhere. From 1985 to 1999, the Jewish community in Owings Mills grew by 171 percent, at the expense of older, traditionally-Jewish neighborhoods closer to the city core. But a sizable number of the families that make up this growing community are unaffiliated. So the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore is asking, how do you reach these folks and encourage them to participate in Jewish life? An article in the Baltimore Jewish Times took a look at what the Associated—and other institutions in the area—are doing to answer that question.
One high profile change came with the recent decision to open the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center on Saturday afternoon. Heavily debated, it was not an easy decision. But the prospect of creating more points of access for unaffiliated families eventually won out. In the Baltimore Sun, JCC President Louis “Buddy” Sapolsky said:
“The decision will give the JCC more of an opportunity to serve Jewish people in the Owings Mills area who…do not automatically affiliate with Jewish organizations. The more opportunities we have to touch Jewish people, the better off we’re going to be.”
Along with the new Saturday afternoon opening, the Jewish Times notes that the JCC is facilitating the Mothers Circle, JOI’s program for women of another religious background who are raising Jewish children. Not mentioned is that the JCC is also sponsoring JOI’s Grandparents Circle program, for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren.
Congregations have also found ways to move with the population they hope to serve. Some organizations had the foresight to relocate to the area years ago, and while they have seen their membership grow, the community is still mostly unaffiliated. According to the article, a few congregations have opened branches in Owings Mills to increase accessibility. Congregation Beth El holds weekday Hebrew school classes and Shabbat dinners in people’s homes so folks don’t have to drive the 15-20 miles to Beth El’s main campus in Pikesville. Congregation Etz Chaim of Owings Mills made a similar move, opening up in a storefront so people wouldn’t have to commute to the Etz Chaim Center in Baltimore.
But we recommend the Jewish community go even further to serve people where they are through Public Space Judaism programs, like JOI’s Passover in the Matzah Aisle or High Holiday Honey Tasting. These are programs that find Jewish families and individuals at grocery stores or shopping malls, and engage them in friendly, low-barrier activities that may also alert them to other options in their community. Not mentioned in the article is whether any Jewish organizations are partnering with secular programs, which is another way to serve folks who may be affiliated with the Jewish community. We encourage the entire organized Jewish community in Owings Mills to think outside their own four walls when trying to serve the less affiliated.