Reaching a New Generation of Jews

CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership – has created an interesting new program, said a recent article in the New Jersey Jewish News. Called Rabbis Without Borders, the new project will “train religious leaders to speak in settings outside of familiar Jewish institutions, including mass media and places where transdenominational and interfaith audiences gather.”

Much like JOI’s Public Space Judaism, one of the goals of the project is to “reach Jews outside of traditional Jewish settings.” But the project also recognizes that there are a growing number of spouses of other religious backgrounds who are inside of traditional Jewish settings, and the rabbis involved will also learn how to speak to them. The project’s head, Rebecca Sibru, former director of JCC MetroWest’s Jewish Health and Healing Center, said:

On any given Shabbat morning when a rabbi comes on the bima, it could be that 40 percent of the people in the pews could be people who are not Jewish, whether due to the high rate of intermarriage, or a celebrant’s friends and family. If I know not everyone is Jewish, how I, as a rabbi, show the meaningfulness of a given ritual could affect how the whole rest of the service goes.”

We applaud any efforts to try and connect with Jews who are not affiliated with the mainstream Jewish community. Today’s generation is not as inclined to participate in a traditional manner – the rise in independent prayer groups speaks to that – so we have to come up with innovative methods of outreach. Reaching these folks has proven to be a challenge, so whether it’s through traditional or non-traditional means, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to encourage their participation in Jewish life.


  1. As President of CLAL I just want to clarify:
    Rabbis Without Borders(RWB) is explicitly not an attempt to connect Jews who are not affiliated with the mainstream Jewish community. It is not an out reach program nor is it an attempt to make rabbis better at outreach or to make “the Jewish community” more open and inviting - all of which are fine tasks but not our mission.

    In fact, one of the underlying premises of RWB is that distinctions such as affiliated /unaffiliated, connected/disconected, intermarried/non-intermarried, core/peripheral, enagaged/disaffected that define and frame the American communal policy debate while helpful in getting us to this point have now become ways of avoiding deep truths about the challenge of reimagining Judaisms for a globalized, interconnected, permeable boundaried world and are unhelpful and deflective labels/boxes that actually insure the staus quo and serve, unintentionally, to provide psychic gratification that help to maintain the very barriers those who make the distinctions are trying to bring down.
    RWB presumes no such lables. At its most intensive level RWB assumes that Judaism is not about being Jewish but a particular method/Way of being human and that rabbis need to teach Jewish wisdom and practice (Torah and Mitzvah) not to help make Jews more Jewish or more proud to be Jewish, or to get them to become affiliated, or to connect them to “the community”, or to keep them from intermarrying, or to get those who do intermarry to convert, rather simply as a particular technology/a Way to respond to human questions that can help any people seeking greater meaning and purpose, joy, compassion, and love.
    RWB assumes that the challenge in this next era, at least for rabbis, is not to open up “the community” or to reach out to “the intermarried”, or to “capture the unaffiated” or to “stop assimilation” rather it is to translate Jewish wisdom and practice into acccessible, usable, and simple contemporaray idioms so as to get the job religion is supposed to do get done: Help us,whatever our inherited backgrounds, become more Self-Aware (Tikun Hanefesh/yediat Hashem) and more compassionate and loving (Tikun Olam).

    Comment by irwin kula — April 21, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  2. YES. Beautiful. You get it! The discussion of who is in or out, who is a Jew, who is a rabbi, what is a Jew, how should we practice, who can convert, who we can marry, etc. perpetuates divisions that are not only counterproductive but completely beside the point.

    Which is to answer the question: Why are we here?

    What does it mean to be a good person? How do we find joy and meaning in life? What are our responsibilties to other human beings, to the planet, to ourselves?

    Religion at its best provides tools or guidelines for becoming our best selves. It helps to define what “best” looks like.

    Before exploring Judaism I was told life is inherently meaningless and it’s up to each of us to choose our own meaning. For some people that works, and that is fine. For me, it’s a dead end. I can’t live in an empty, indifferent universe in which nothing matters. I needed to hear our purpose is tikkun olam, to right injustice, to partner with God in perfecting the world. I need the container of ritual to tap into an awareness of God in my daily life - and a constructive agenda for using that energy. I need a reason to value life and to be amazed by it.

    One of my favorite Jewish ideas is that not only can we make a difference in the world - we MUST make a difference. It is not a question. It is not optional. It is nothing less than a sacred obligation. How beautiful is that?

    Comment by Sara — April 21, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

  3. Irwin,
    We dont disagree. That is why we are delighted that you will be presenting these ideas at our upcoming conference in Philadelphia. But we would like to argue that JOI’s tactics will help those rabbis navigate their path to your vision. We have to segment the community in order to reach people. Even your recent book had a marketing plan.

    What say you?

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 22, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  4. I think the conversation about the relationship between the “tactics… and path to your vision” is exactly what I hope to have and though my tone may be assertive I believe this is a conversation that we need to have with great sobriety, and patience and delicateness which is why I am so excited about participating in JOI. JOI has been at the cutting edge of the modern Jewish question of openness and rights for intermarried(a job I know is not done yet) but it is therefore the best place, positioned most interestingly, to start the conversation of what post-modern Jewish life will look like - which paradoxically will probably not include many of the institutions and structures that we have worked so hard to open up as well as many of the ways we have framed things regarding Jewish identity of being Jewish.

    Interesting question about the marketing plan for my book Yearnings…First, I decided not to write a book about Judaism but a book about love, happiness, creativity, truth, being good, Self-awareness, connection - yearnings that are not Jewish yearnings but the sort of yearnings every human being has - and offer (hopefully) wisdom drawn from Jewish sources (the sources of wisdom I know best) to these human questions. The book is not about trying to make Jews Jewish but simply uses Jewish wisdom and practice to help people have better lives. It assumes there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews, in-married or intermarried, affiliated-unaffiliated, in regard to what they want and need in life. It assumes that the animating question/anxiety/concern about Jewish identity (either its erosion or its renaissance) and Jewish community (either its closeness or openness) is actually experienced by very few people (whatever sort of Jews they are) when they wake up in the morning.

    Second, we specifically marketed Yearnings not as Jewish book as while Jews buy about 20% of all the hard covers in the country the Jewish shelf in book stores is one of the least foot traffic - an interesting fact in and of itself. Third, rabbi was not on the front cover but on the inside the cover bio as we have discovered that “rabbi” automatically means for most people (Jews and non-Jews)tribal leader i.e. someone who teaches Jews how to be more Jewish rather than a teacher of wisdom and practice that can help anyone in their life.
    There was much more regarding marketing but suffice to say it assumed that the issue of boundaries and borders were no longer the central questions for most Americans who lived outside of traditional communities. People simply want wisdom that works wherever it comes from (though Jewish is chic these days) and increasingly did not need affirmation from some authority figure or communal institution to feel and call themselves anything they want- including Jewish.
    Mixtures upon mixtures with no “official” boundaries, with fluid and permeable and variety of different lasting/enduring sorts of communities is what is coming down for the vast majority of people yet alone Jews in America. The issue will be far less trying to break down the walls to get into someone else’s community then finding the resources(financial, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual) within and with like-minded people to create one’s own communities and sacred spaces. And yes, I know that the implications of this(confirmed by recent studies by Pew and ARIS) are very radical for what we mean by Judaism, Jewish community, Jewish communal life, and Jewish identity…I imagine it will look as different as rabbinic Judaism looks from Biblical Judaism.
    That you Kerry and the JOI staff and the JOI community is interested in this conversation is both humbling to me and incredibly exciting. I look forward to being in Philadelphia

    Comment by irwin kula — April 22, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  5. We agree about many things. For sure we know–and hope–that the community of the future will neither look like the past nor the present. As my bubbe of blessed memory once told me, we left Russia because it was terrible. It was something that she wanted to forget and wanted me to do so as well–even as the rest of the community was tripping down memory lane. Ironically, the downturn in the economy is forcing a paradigm shift on us. I only hope that we are able to navigate it from a position of strength, vision and openness–rather than a hunkering down survivalist mentality.

    The sacredness is indeed in the dialogue–which I look forward to continuing with you at the JOI conference and beyond.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 22, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  6. When there are no boundaries, what’s left, and what you do you do? Without structure, what contains the values we consider important? When does Judaism stop being Judaism and become something else? If it is all fluid and all wisdom traditions are available to anyone, buffet-style, what is left to be preserved and who is going to do that and why? What truths are cross-cultural or universal? I don’t know; these are just questions. But I feel an existential crisis coming on. It would be crummy to work hard to get somewhere and then find out Somewhere no longer exists.

    Comment by Sara — April 22, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

  7. I believe in boundaries. But they are not to be used as fences to keep people out. Rather they help us to find anchors (to mix metaphors) in the chaotic world in which we live. While I beleive that Jewish wisdom needs to be out there, it is because the Jewish community needs to bring it out to where people are. It makes it easy for people, especially those on the periphery, to access it. That is what our public space Judaism model is all about.

    I think that this is the area in which Irwin and I really need to talk through and invite those who come to our conference to enter into the dialogue.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 22, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  8. Would you be willing to write about what comes of that discussion and post it on the website so We Dwellers of the Periphery can hear about it? It’s interesting - also challenging. Thank you for your patience & generosity.

    Comment by Sara — April 23, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  9. Sara, I love your honesty and genuineness…think about it this way…it is not that there are no boundaries it is that we are always “boundarying” and “deboundarying” and always preserving and letting go and are always both particularizing and universalizing…and the drama, the human adventure, is knowing who and where you are in this ongoing process never imagining that your or your community’s particular line is Absolute but the place where you are for many reasons…and then trying to understand where other people and groups are in the same drama…and when you are really lucky or blessed and have worked really really hard you realize that rather than “crummy” it is a/maze of grace that we find ourselves in and that yes, YES, the t/Truth is the somewhere we were trying to get to is not the (S)omewhere we were seeking but just (s)omewhere because that (S)omewhere we sought is everywhere always…
    Kerry, Believe in boundaries? What does that mean? Boundaries are facts and that boundaries dissolve are facts. So believing them does not really mean anything. Boundaries are a given and the fact that boundaries dissolve are a given whether you believe in them or not. We need “anchors” and we need to lift anchors and Jewish wisdom and practice should not only do both but help us (as individuals and as communities) know when we ought to do which. And there is no “Jewish community” that is an abstraction. There are many many different Jewish communities with many many different takes and perspectives and sense of where they situate themselves in this human/Jewish adventure. And finally we all on the periphery and the center it is just for some people their center is being on the periphery and from some people their escape from realizing how peripheral they are (from themselves) is to pretend and build elaborate constructions where they can feel they are at the center…but the center of what exactly! Periphery/center is sort of like somewhere/Somewhere…

    Comment by irwin kula — April 23, 2009 @ 3:15 pm


    Comment by irwin kula — April 23, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  11. I think we agree. You are just more poetic than I am.
    So let’s try this one.
    It is not about getting there. The joy is in the journey.

    Sara, I am not sure who you are asking to write it up. Let’s see what emerges and then we can see what we will do. In the meantime, why not come to our conference?

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — April 23, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  12. It is strange to listen to multiple points of view and to feel on some level - even when those views are diametrically opposed - they are equally correct. (Did anyone see the debate between David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens on the existence of God? My reaction: They were both right.)

    Where it gets dicey is when I build a construct for how I am going to access a state of god-consciousness, and someone with a different idea about how this should be done mucks up my process with their opinion. Most Jews probably agree about the goal if not the methods - I wish we didn’t have to fight about how to get there. Torah is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Right?

    Faith needs a safe place where it can be nurtured and protected. I don’t want my garden bulldozed - no one does. And by “faith” I mean not a belief in God - which to me is obvious, it’s a given - the universe exists, which is proof enough - plus I have stumbled into God’s living room by accident a few times - but rather how to relate to God. To stay in a constructive frame of mind about how to do that. To remember Him/It/She/HaShem, and to attempt to remain in dialogue with Ein Sof.

    Gradually I am coming to appreciate that there is, as you say Irwin, no such thing as “the Jewish community.” There are only people who may share a preferred approach and gravitate toward one another. And these preferred groupings often shift over the course of a lifetime.

    I’m interested in what works. Far be it from me to dictate what ought to work for someone else. Nor do I want to - that is not my chosen role in life.

    Thanks for your insightful comments.

    Comment by Sara — April 23, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  13. Yes, I meant you, Rabbi Olitzsky, either write about it or get someone else to report on it, so we can all hear what happens.

    Comment by Sara — April 23, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  14. Sara…you are eloquent…thank you for your beautiful formulation and insight…don’t let people muck up the process as the mucking up is simply part of the process. I call this sacred messiness.
    “There are only people who may share a preferred approach and gravitate toward one another. And these preferred groupings often shift over the course of a lifetime.” I could not say it better and in fact I am going to say it your way from now on!!!!!

    I just want Jewish wisdom and practice to work too and I want to share with other Jews how Jewing works for them and I want to understand how particular wisdom and practices of people who are not Jewish works to improve their lives and to deepen their capacity to know the Unknowable/Self and to be compassionate.
    Keep trusting yourself…you get it! Thanks for sharing your wisdom! Shabbat Shalom, Irwin

    Comment by irwin kula — April 23, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

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