The New York Times article “With Yoga, Comedy, and Parties Synagogues Entice Newcomers” suggests that the solution to attracting unaffiliated Jews and luring back Jews who have strayed from Jewish life is to become hip and trendy. While this may work for some urbanites who may be hungry for whatever is the latest thing, it implies that people have to come into the institution to participate in whatever it has to offer. For the vast majority of unaffiliated Jews out there who haven’t crossed the threshold of Jewish institutions, I wonder whether this is a workable model.
Perhaps those who are attracted to those synagogues and events described in the Times are not all that far away from the Jewish community to begin with, and that all they need is just a little nudge to get them to give the community a try. In the words of the author of the article, it is more about marketing than anything else. But there are still more who are on the periphery of the Jewish community, particularly interfaith families and their children—adult children too—who we need to find and nurture. This demands new strategies, and it requires us to take up the challenges that face American Jewry in the twenty-first century. First, we have to find these folks. Today these people are most likely to be found in the gathering places that our society has created—in the mall, at the supermarket, on campus, and at the soccer game—places where Jews mix with other Americans. It’s not always near the synagogue.
That is what JOI’s Public Space Judaism model is all about. By using it to find the people, institutions can build program bridges into the community—helping them to deliver on the promises that outreach programs make.