The Economics of Interfaith Outreach

This month, Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the magazine Commentary, wrote a lengthy piece discussing the Bernie Madoff scandal and its effect on the future of the Jewish community. Towards the end of the piece, after spending 2200 words dissecting the minutia of who lost what and how, he gets to his point – intermarriage is the real problem for both Jewish philanthropy and our long-term survival.

We had decided not to respond, but Julie Wiener, who writes the monthly column for the New York Jewish Week called “In the Mix” about her life in an interfaith marriage, was “taken aback” by Tobin’s piece. She wrote in an editorial that “through confusing twists of logic,” Tobin believes outreach to the intermarried has been “a failure,” and he argues that “with resources scarce, the Jewish community needs to focus on ensuring Judaism’s long-term survival.”

So what exactly does that involve, she asks? And what does he even mean by outreach? “Does he refer only to programs that specifically target interfaith families” like our Mothers Circle program, or our Public Space JudaismSM programs that attract both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, or something like Birthright Israel, those free trips to Israel for Jewish youth?

Either way, Wiener writes, “Anti-outreach views like Tobin’s did not hold sway while the economy was good.” She sites the fact that both JOI and have expanded, and the Mothers Circle is in almost 40 communities (actually, it’s in 55!)

This is evidence that investment in outreach has a positive impact. Attracting those on the periphery – including interfaith families - can enrich their lives and “add to the vibrancy of the Jewish community.” She said that Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco, three communities that have invested heavily in outreach to interfaith, “are continuing with their commitments for now.” And she spoke with JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky who said despite being hit by the Madoff debacle, we plan to continue expanding our network of programs (including Grandparents Circle and Empowering Ruth).

Kerry says at the end of the piece that “we’re dealing with a population that’s not engaged by the core community — and it’s the largest and fastest-growing segment of the community.” Yes, outreach organizations will have to spend more time fundraising then ever before if we want to be able to continue to reach these folks. But it’s worth it. The investment in outreach has paid off, and the absolute wrong thing to do now is stop our efforts to welcome all the intermarried families and unaffiliated Jews in our midst.

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