This past summer, we blogged about numerous articles in which it was evident the Conservative movement has started to shift their approach towards intermarriage within their synagogues and congregations. But after reading an article in this week’s Washington Jewish Week by Conservative rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Congregation, we’re even more confident that this shift towards welcoming and inclusion is here to stay.
Adapted from his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Steinlauf believes that we need to move beyond just “tolerating” those of other religious backgrounds in our midst to a “place of real acceptance.” He recognizes the challenge faced by balancing halacha (Jewish law) with the realities of intermarriage, but believes that we can – and should – do what we can to “joyfully welcome all” into our celebrations and community. He writes:
A new paradigm of Jewish life is not a weakening of the bonds that have held us together. It is not a free-for-all with no limits or respect for what we have always been. It is an affirmation of our strength. We have nothing to fear. We proudly stand for a 3,000 year old heritage; a rich universe unto itself of learning, of community, of connection, of wisdom, of culture, of music, of thought, of joy that we are strong enough to share with all human beings. The more we proudly open up to the world and celebrate who we are, the more we lovingly allow others into our celebration, the more we will be strengthened.
His words are quite moving and they demonstrate that there is ample room within our big tent to welcome and embrace all who approach. Preaching fear of intermarriage has been a demonstrable failure, leading to an exodus from Judaism those who didn’t marry a Jew. Rabbi Steinlauf believes each human being is “worthy of being welcomed into the joy, the holiness of am Yisrael, the Jewish people – in any way that they can be.” We couldn’t agree more, and we hope those who heard his sermon – and now those who have read it – come away with the same enthusiasm for promoting a warm and welcoming Jewish community.
We at the Jewish Outreach Institute recently learned about your possible impending nuptials to Marc Mezvinsky. We know the rumors circulating about your Martha’s Vineyard wedding are just rumors, but we wish Marc and you mazal tov (congratulations) should you wed in the future.
In case you haven’t heard of us, JOI is an organization that welcomes interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews into the Jewish community. If you decide you want to learn more about the Jewish community and the faith of your fiancé, we offer a variety of programs and services that might interest Marc and you:
The Mothers Circle provides mothers of other religious backgrounds with education and skills to raise Jewish children;
Empowering Ruth is a resource for women who have recently converted to Judaism;
How Should I Know is a brand new JOI program for men like Marc in committed interfaith relationships;
Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, begins on Sunday night. Traditionally the day is spent praying and fasting. While anyone can fast no matter where they are, what about those who live in an area with little or no Jewish community, or those who have difficulty making it to services?
While we think it’s great that they were able to lower barriers and reach so many people, we believe online services work best when they lead to further engagement offline. Free online services serve as a good entry point, and we hope those participating take the next step and begin to make real-life connections with the larger Jewish community.
To all those reading this blog, wherever you are in your Jewish journey and however you decide to celebrate, we at JOI hope you are able to find meaning and value in the redemptive nature of Yom Kippur.
Earlier this year, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill offered two parenting workshops at a local Barnes & Noble. One of the workshops focused on making Passover meaningful for young children, while the other looked at bedtime and the early morning through the lens of traditional Jewish prayer.
The two programs were part of a recent initiative called “Building Our Jewish Home” that was launched last year by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s New York Metropolitan Region. In a recent article in the (New York) Jewish Week, Rabbi Cara Rosenthal, the education coordinator for this two-year program, said the purpose of the program is “to reach people where they are and fill needs that are not being met.”
Rosenthal explained that one of the benefits of having programming outside the synagogue is that there may be people who are “intrigued by Jewish topics, but not comfortable with them.” This approach respects the various levels of affiliation among individuals and families in the area without pressuring them to join a congregation. Instead, the initiative helps encourage participation on a more personal level. She continued:
“A neutral location helps. These are bright and well-educated people who are used to feeling mastery. They’re not feeling that kind of mastery in the Jewish setting. We also want to make people feel comfortable with their level of Jewish knowledge, not like they’re behind the eight ball.”
Here at JOI, we couldn’t agree more. In our work with organizations around the country, we often advise holding programming in secular neutral spaces like bookstores, grocery stores, and community fairs - what we call Public Space Judaism. People may feel uncomfortable in a Jewish setting, and holding the program in a different space helps remove a potential barrier to participation: location. By addressing this issue, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill is trying to “lower barriers to participation,” one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. We look forward to hearing more about the programming that is a part of the “Building Our Jewish Home” initiative, and we hope that many of the events continue to remove barriers that prevent individuals from participating fully in Jewish life.
There was a short but significant news item in the JTA today about a Rosh Hashanah service in the Baltimore area. They reported that “at least 5,000 people attended a free Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars service” this past weekend at Oregon Ridge Park, just north of the city. Hosted by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, it was the third time the congregation held a public Rosh Hashanah service, and they are hoping to repeat the outcome of the last two years – namely getting families to join the congregation and become enterprising members of the community.
While we would not encourage BHC to immediately pitch membership since we believe affiliation comes from engagement, we are excited to see how the congregation is trying to maximize the impact of the High Holidays to create lasting and meaningful relationships.
This demonstrates once again that following a few tried and true inclusive strategies – such as lowering or eliminating cost and location barriers – can help us attract unaffiliated members of the community and give us a wonderful opportunity for engagement. But it doesn’t have to happen only around holidays. Hopefully the more we hear about people creating these opportunities for engagement, the more we’ll hear about communities experimenting with a variety of innovative outreach techniques that encourage all underserved populations to do more Jewish activities and become more involved in Jewish life.
In a provocative piece in Tablet, an online Jewish magazine, contributing editor Marjorie Ingall uses, of all things, Patrick Swayze’s character from the film “Dirty Dancing” to explore issues of Jewish identity and acculturation. But she does so by employing a shock-value technique of using the slur sheygets to make her point that such a term – as well as Swayze’s role of the “tantalizing, non-Hebraic Other – is a thing of the past.
Ingall believes there has been a major shift in representations of Jewish identity in film and pop culture. “Jewish men are leads, not nebbishy sidekicks,” she writes. The Woody Allen image has also given way to a tougher looking Jewish hero – the ones found in “Munich” or “Defiance.” “What’s true in life is true in film,” she says, namely that the differences between Jews and everyone else is disappearing. Is that what we really want, she wonders, to become just like everyone else?
Obviously not, and we understand her argument that differences are important and help define who we are as a people. Which brings us back to her use of the slur sheygets. Ingall tries to use the word, which literally means “unclean,” with a heavy dose of irony and satire to parallel pop-culture’s “current irony-saturated moment.” We have to wonder though if an over-reliance on irony is enough to justify such a freewheeling use of a slur.
Ultimately she says that shedding our more uniquely derogatory practices – like using the slur in question – is a good thing, and we agree. Yes, we need to recognize and celebrate the things about being Jewish that make us different. But we’re not sure if using stereotypes and slurs to highlight those differences is the best way to achieve that goal.
There’s been a lot of talk in the Jewish community about how we need to do more for our men. JOI even hosted a session at our conference this past June that addressed men’s engagement (and disengagement) in Jewish life. I agree that the Jewish community needs to do more to reach out to men, but I also think it can do so without reducing the great work we’re doing to reach women.
There has also been a growing and vocal concern that men and boys are disappearing from Jewish life, but two recent op-eds counter that perspective. JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin writes in the New Jersey Jewish News that “we need to provide more options for men to engage with the Jewish community and identify personal meaning in the traditions. Gender-specific programming may be one way to determine what men want and need from the Jewish community.” He explains that the men are here; they just may not be engaging with our current programs and services.
Jewish education is almost always based upon the needs and desires of adults rather than kids. Adult fears about assimilation, anti-Semitism and intermarriage lead to programs designed and funded by adults that impose rigid definitions of Jewish identity and learning on kids.
Paul and Adam propose that the Jewish community should appeal to the interests of those whom we wish to reach. Golin suggests that one way to do this is through gender-segregated programs. He writes:
JOI will be piloting two programs in Bergen County this fall. The first is for Jewish men with partners of other religious backgrounds. We’ll help them strategize how to create a Jewish household when they themselves might not be deeply engaged. The second is for intermarried/interpartnered men of other religious backgrounds. We’ll help them answer their Jewish children’s questions.
Adam recommends that we meet Jewish kids “where they are physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially.” He continues, “Jewish learning should be similarly complex in order to help teenagers make sense of the complex world in which they live.”
At Rosh Hashanah services this year, do as Paul suggests and “look around at those in attendance.” And if as Paul suspects you see “an even split between men and women, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters,” consider rethinking any concerns about why men and boys are disappearing from Jewish life. Instead, think about how we can provide meaningful and relevant offerings for these boys and men all year round. Let’s not wait until Rosh Hashanah 5771 before seeing them again!
At the beginning of the New Year, we have a wonderful opportunity to both reflect upon and look ahead to the work we do in creating a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community to intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews. In a year filled with ups and downs, we are grateful to have the support of many individuals and foundations who share the belief that we are making a real difference in the lives those who have traditionally been on the outside of the organized Jewish community.
It is with deep appreciation that we will honor five outstanding couples who have dedicated themselves to the cause of engaging unaffiliated and interfaith families in the Jewish community: Elinor Bashe and Gil Bashe, Debra J. Poul and Leonard P. Goldberger, Arline J. Kane and Alan B. Kane, Betsy Miller Landis and Donald Landis, and Joyce Rappeport and Michael Rappeport. They will be honored at our Tribute Evening on November 16, 2009 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
The evening will include a silent auction full of wonderful items, terrific food, and a special performance by Michelle Citrin, an amazingly talented and popular young musician. Her songs about Jewish holidays, including the YouTube hit “I Gotta’ Love You Rosh Hashana”, have created unique entry points into the Jewish community for audiences of all ages, and we are thrilled to showcase her music.
We hope you can join us on November 16 for what we are sure will be a meaningful and lively program! Your contribution to the Jewish Outreach Institute will make certain that we will continue to make enormous strides to meet the needs of underserved populations in the Jewish community.
As synagogues prepare for the High Holidays, many face challenges that come from the large number of people who walk through their doors. They have to balance accessibility with security, space, and cost. But are those the only areas to look at?
Bnai Keshet, a congregation in Montclair, NJ, is addressing accessibility from another angle – they are offering High Holiday services that are accessible to individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing impaired. According to an article in the New Jersey Jewish News, the Reconstructionist synagogue will use an open captioning system known as Communication Access Real-Time Translation (or CART) which translates (via a stenographer) the spoken word into text on a screen.
The assistant rabbi, Rabbi Darby Leigh, said the decision to offer services that are accessible to the deaf is about becoming a “whole community.”
“The mainstream Jewish community is not whole, full or complete, if we do not give every Jew who wants to be here the ability to be here,” he said. “While we say we want to have an open door, we do not have it if we are not making it possible for Jews of varying abilities and disabilities to come” to services.
Rabbi Darby’s comments fit nicely within the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. Big Tent Judaism organizations, of which Bnai Keshet is a member, strive to remove any barriers that prevent individuals from participating fully in Jewish life. For some organizations, that could be offering open captioning. For others, that might be something different. What are you doing to help make sure your institution is open and accessible for all who approach?
Every year there is a big debate as to whether or not people should have to buy advance tickets to attend High Holiday services. Known as “pay to pray,” this practice, while beneficial from a financial standpoint, can also be seen as a cost barrier for people who want to attend synagogue on what many consider the holiest days of the year.
JOI weighed in on the matter with an op-ed in the daily Metro newspaper, which is published in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. We believe people shouldn’t have to pay to pray, especially this year when we have such high unemployment and a sour economy. Giving someone the opportunity to experience the High Holidays for free might encourage them to come back and even pay annual dues.
Nationally, Chabad also offers an easy and accessible online search for free High Holiday services everywhere from “Alabama to Wisconsin.” And as they did last year, Nashuva is working with JewishTVnetwork.com to stream its Yom Kippur services. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to participate. Last year the service drew an estimated audience of 200,000 from all over the world.
We urge you to contact your local Jewish federations to find out if there are any free High Holiday services being offered in your area, or if any congregations offer reduced cost tickets for non-members. No one should be shut out on these holidays. And if you know of free services in your area, we invite you to leave comments on this blog with information!
To read the article in its entirety, click the link below.
There is a great article on the website JewishinStLouis.org by Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis (whose writings can also be found at www.morethodoxy.org). As an Orthodox rabbi, he understands the need for maintaining tradition and that Orthodoxy “is by definition something that has walls and limits.” The walls, he says, are supposed to protect them from potential evil from without, but “what happens when those walls keep out important Jewish values such as Jewish unity, loving the Jewish people and one’s neighbors, and engaging all the Jewish people in Jewish life?”
He uses the example of an intermarried family. What rituals can the spouse of another background partake in during services? Can the family even become members? When and intermarried family – or LGBT Jews, or Jews who don’t keep kosher – approaches and wants to become involved, what do you do?
Rabbi Shafner’s response is simple, and one we wholeheartedly agree with: “I believe we must err, in an extreme way, on the side of welcoming.” He writes that when there seems to be a conflict between the “realm of laws between us and others than between us and G-d,” we must be stricter in the laws between us and others. For example, he recounts the tale of Abraham greeting the strangers. Abraham left God’s presence to greet idol worshipers because being welcoming is paramount.
Abraham’s actions should serve as a blueprint for how we act towards anyone who approaches the Jewish community, regardless of background (and it’s this episode that inspired us to create the Big Tent Judaism Coalition). The barriers we have erected over the years may have kept out some evils, but at what cost? We know what happens when these walls keep out important Jewish values – we end up with shrinking affiliation rates and less Jewish participation.
In this upcoming New Year, let’s all strive to remove those barriers that keep unaffiliated individuals and families from finding a deeper connection to Judaism. The warmth with which we welcome all those who approach will lead to a more engaged and dynamic Jewish community.
Grandparents Day is on Sunday, and here at JOI we would like to take a moment to acknowledge the important role grandparents can play in nurturing the Jewish identity of their grandchildren, including grandchildren that are being raised in intermarried/interpartnered households. Whether it’s hosting a festive meal for the Jewish New Year, sending grandchildren current events about Israel, helping grandchildren build a Hanukkah menorah, or any other Jewish activity, we created an e-card to say “Thank you” for all that you do to help strengthen the Jewish community.
Please feel free to pass the card along to any grandparents that you think might enjoy it. Happy Grandparents Day!
Conservative Judaism, the journal of the Conservative movement, has a fascinating article on why Ruth is often referred to as the first true Jew-by-Choice. Robert Goldenberg, professor of History and Judaic studies at Stony Brook University, wonders what about Ruth’s story makes her stand out when compared to others in our history that preceded Ruth in their affirmations of Judaism.
He focuses on two people: Rahab and Naaman. Rahab was an innkeeper who shelters two Jewish spies in Jericho. Rahab explains her willingness to help these two despite punishment if discovered by acknowledging “the ability of Israel’s god to dominate the present situation.” Her affirmation was for self preservation.
Naaman, an Aramean general, came down with leprosy and was cured by listening to the prophet Elisha, who told him to bathe in the Jordan River. He too acknowledges the power of the god of Israel, but “reserves the right to go on worshipping his own god Rimmon.”
Which brings us to Ruth. Why is she the “model convert?” Why did we name our program for women Jews-by-choice Empowering Ruth? Goldenberg offers a couple of theories, such as how her lineage leads to King David, or how her “character is immensely appealing.” But most importantly, she chose Judaism for nothing more than a deep sense of loyalty to the Jewish people. Rahab feared for her life, Naaman didn’t give up his other God. Of the three, only Ruth did so voluntarily.
This is why Ruth’s story abides. “Ruth is the model of a modern convert, someone for whom becoming a Jew means joining a nation or a people more than acknowledging a god,” Goldenberg writes. She left her own people to become part of a new community, and “modern readers know what it must have meant for Ruth to leave a family behind and adopt the heritage of stranger.” We look to Ruth because she made a tremendous sacrifice, and through her example we should always make sure our doors are open for everyone who seeks to become part of our community.
For many young Jews entering the dating world, especially those living in areas without a large Jewish population, they end up wrestling with issues of continuity long before they’re ready to pop the question. If Judaism is important to them, do they date only Jews, or do they date anyone and try to maintain Judaism in an interfaith home?
On the blog Jewschool.com, these are the questions raised by an author going by the name Renaissanceboy. He writes:
Ultimately, this is the struggle of being a modernized Jew; how do you maintain the practice of a religion while simultaneously subscribing to ideas of universal religious equality? They’re not mutually exclusive by any means, but you can’t just sit back and expect them to coexist. You have to self-define and expand your boundaries constantly.
He’s right, and while the road for an interfaith relationship might be difficult at times, it’s certainly one that many have successfully traversed before. But one of the folks who commented on Renaissanceboy’s blog post, Rachel Barenblat, thought the questions he posed didn’t get to the heart of the matter. The fact that he wrote this blog shows that Judaism is important, so she had a different approach:
The real question may be: how (my emphasis) important is Judaism in your daily life? If it’s a part of your life, then it’s a natural thing for you to bring to your dating life, your partnership and marriage, your childrearing — everything that you do — and anyone with whom you would partner will know that about you from the get-go.
She makes a great point. If Judaism is part of what defines your core identity, it won’t matter who you marry because they will understand what the future holds. Therefore intermarriage isn’t the end of the Jewish line; not “doing Jewish” is what leads to a loss of Jewish identity. Just look at the number of unaffiliated Jews who came from a home with two Jewish parents. We have survived for thousands of years – and through millions of intermarriages – because of our ability to adapt and our desire to pass on Jewish ritual and belief. Asking these kinds of questions early shows a level of dedication to Judaism, and that’s the most important factor of all.
Last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretzreported on a new ad campaign by MASA, an organization that helps finance and market both semester and year-length Israel programs for Diaspora Jews. The ad campaign, which cost an estimated $800,000, warns that more than half of American Jews are “assimilating” and by encouraging these Jews to participate with MASA programs, they can help them from becoming “lost.”
While the ad never used the word “intermarriage,” the statistic they use of “more than half” seems to many a direct inference. Some had taken the ad to mean that MASA, a joint operation of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, is overtly insulting the heritage and choices American Jews have made in terms of family and Jewish life. Whatever the intention, most agreed the ad was a misfire and would not do anything to engage unaffiliated American Jews.
Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, called the campaign “utterly counter-prodcutive.” JJ Goldberg, a contributing editor at the Forward, said it was “one of the most spectacularly knuckle-headed advertising campaigns in modern Jewish history.” eJewishPhilanthropy.com, an “on-line publisher and a facilitator of resource mobilization serving the Jewish communal world,” put out a special edition of their newsletter devoted to just the MASA campaign. We at JOI think the ad was misguided, but more importantly the money could have been better spent. The ad’s budget could have brought 320 kids to Israel through Birthright, or paid for synagogue membership for around 400 families. These would have a far better chance of engaging unaffiliated members of the community.
Reactions have been so swift and strong that MASA just announced they are dropping the campaign. In a press release, they said “this campaign has highlighted the critical need for all Jews, whether living in Israel or outside of Israel, to develop an ongoing dialogue and greater understanding around key areas of sensitivity for Jews in all communities.”
This is certainly true. An episode like this demonstrates just how wide the gap is between outreach in Israel and America. But it’s also an opportunity to address issues of affiliation among Jews worldwide and create methods of engagement that work for both communities. Let’s hope the campaign will be remembered for beginning conversations that help close the gap between Israeli and American views on assimilation and continuity, and not as an $800,000 mistake.
No matter how long someone has been disengaged from the Jewish community, it’s never too late to reconnect. Whether it’s something as small as attending a Friday night service or taking part in a major life-cycle event, Jews of all backgrounds and observance levels have an eternal opportunity to become a part of the community – even if their methods are a little unorthodox.
A story in the J, San Francisco’s Jewish weekly, featured just that kind of reconnection with a very unique b’nai mitzvah ceremony. A 75-year-old father and his 50-year-old daughter were both recently called to the Torah and jointly celebrated their spiritual coming-of-age. After following their own paths back to the Jewish community, both felt that “something was missing from their lives,” so they decided that a b’nai mitzvah was the best way to share their flourishing Jewish identity with the community and each other.
This amazing story is a reminder that connections or reconnections can happen at any time for those in the Jewish community. Synagogues and institutions need to make sure that if someone makes the effort to reach out to us, our doors will be open. This could be our only chance to connect this person to the values and meaning of the Jewish community, so we need to seize the opportunity. If properly welcomed and given the resources they are looking for, they have the potential to grow our community and add to the rich tapestry of the Jewish people.
Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to Israel for diaspora Jews aged 18-26, will be celebrating their 10 year anniversary this winter. In that time they have taken over 200,000 participants to Israel. An increasing number of those who take advantage of the trip come from an interfaith home, according to Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the (New York) Jewish Week. After talking with many children of intermarriage during a recent Birthright trip, Rosenblatt believes this is one of the best ways for the Jewish community to engage this population. He writes:
I have come to believe that for all its flaws, including a “party” atmosphere for some, a decidedly low-key approach to Zionism and Judaism per se, and a lack of in-depth follow-up after the trips, Birthright is the most ambitious, exciting and successful of Jewish educational/identity projects.
He came to this conclusion because all the participants he talked to on the trip “spoke of the experience in glowing terms: awesome, amazing, eye-opening, life changing.” Citing surveys, Gary writes that the trip does lead to a stronger Jewish identity and deeper connection with the Jewish community. Though he mentions the lack of in-depth follow up, Birthright NEXT (the trip’s alumni arm) has helped participants stay connected in creative and meaningful ways.
We have long been promoting Birthright Israel as a program that successfully utilizes outreach methodology, but we would now like to see more of the Jewish community follow their lead. Why should young adults only experience an open-minded, non-judgmental Jewish environment during their brief sequestering in Israel? Birthright has done an amazing job of welcoming anyone who says their Jewish. They don’t expect prior Jewish knowledge. And most famously, they don’t expect the unaffiliated to pay. A free 10-day trip to Israel – with opportunities to bond and network with peers and experience a sense of Jewish community – is just a taste of what we have to offer upon their return. The same idea can and should be applied to synagogues and Jewish institutions across North America. All Jews on the periphery – whether intermarried/interpartnered couples, adult children of intermarriage, or LGBT – deserve to have a chance to explore and connect to their heritage. And they shouldn’t have to pay for that opportunity.
These outreach methodologies work, but to welcome the literally millions of unengaged Jews currently on the periphery, the rest of the Jewish community has to buy into outreach on the same massive scale that they’ve bought into Birthright Israel.
The San Diego Jewish Journal has a great feature story this month on the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, our advocacy platform which calls on synagogues and Jewish institutions to engage and support all those seeking a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.
Just over two years old, Big Tent Judaism already has 300 members who have made the pledge to follow our framework of 10 Principles that facilitate a more open and welcoming community. These include: Welcome All Newcomers; Celebrate Diversity; Offer “Free Samples”; Deepen Jewish Engagement; Provide Quality “Customer Service”; Lower Barriers to Participation; Increase Points of Access; Create Partnerships; Enlist Active Members for Outreach; and Better Best Practices.
While we’re delighted with the growth and the enthusiasm for the coalition, the article notes we still have a lot of work to do – especially on the West coast. Paul Golin, JOI’s associate executive director, said despite our success we’re still in the recruitment stage, but as the Coalition continues to attract more institutions word will spread.
This is true, especially with the High Holidays right around the corner. We know this is the one of the few times of year when unaffiliated folks willingly walk through our doors, so we have an amazing opportunity to engage with them. Now is a good time for synagogues to take a look at Big Tent Judaism to discover what we have to offer. “The principles of Big Tent Judaism are intended to help remove the unnecessary barriers we’ve erected that keep many people from participating in communal life,” Paul said. Let’s start the Jewish New Year off right by making sure our doors are open and we are doing everything we can to get people excited about being a part of the Jewish community.
If you would like to be counted among those who are working to shape a more inclusive Jewish community, join the big tent coalition by signing up or contacting Paul Golin at PGolin@JOI.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
Last July, we blogged about an article in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle highlighting a synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, and their offer of “one year of free religious school to all new students enrolling this coming year.”
Not too far away in Philadelphia, a synagogue has gone even further. Ohev Shalom, according to the Jewish Exponent, is offering “several years of free membership and religious-school tuition” to families who enroll their children in the synagogue’s preschool.
The efforts by these synagogues – and many others around the country – are sending a signal to unaffiliated families that the Jewish community wants them to get involved. Free membership and other benefits that reduce costs show willingness on the synagogue’s behalf to do what it takes to get families to walk through their doors. Already 20 families have taken advantage of Ohev Shalom’s offer, and Congregation B’nai Jacob, another Philadelphia area synagogue which has an offer similar to Ohev Shalom, has “enticed 15 new families” to join.
These are great steps to grow membership, but that’s only the first step. Retention and continued participation is the goal. Once through the doors, what are the synagogue’s doing to keep people involved past the expiration date of their free membership or school enrollment? Kathy Kahn, membership specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, recognizes this challenge. She said:
“If all of your attention is given to recruitment, then all you will do is have an impressive list for one year… If members see your congregation as a fee for service — you pay the dues, we educate your kids — they will never feel a covenant. We must show them what community can be.”
That’s the trickiest part, and it gets to the heart of what we do at JOI. Outreach should be about more than just getting people to enter our institutions. Once they’re inside, we need to help people discover why they should continue to invest in the Jewish community. As Rabbi Philip Warmflash of the Jewish Outreach Partnership says in the article, free memberships will get people interested, but it’s up to us to “do the work that is going to engage people for the long-term.”