We at the Jewish Outreach Institute have argued for the past decade that there is a divide in the Jewish community. While some may argue that the divide is between those who are intermarried and those who are in-married, and would expect us to agree with that bifurcation given our sensitivities and many of our programs, we actually don’t agree. Actually, we argue that the big divide is between those on the inside and those on the outside of the organized Jewish community and its institutions. (And, by the way, we fear that as the divide grows larger, it becomes less relevant to both groups.) Moreover, we argue that one of the things that keeps outsiders from entering the inside is what we call “welcoming.” In other words, our institutions have not been sufficiently welcoming. And if they were, more people might enter them—and want to return after their first visit.
Now some will mistakenly conclude that “welcoming” is all about a pretty smile and an embrace, encouraging people to enter an institution or be affirmed for doing so. At JOI, welcoming begins way before a person even sets foot in a Jewish communal institution and concludes after a path has been charted for that person to fully engage with it. Welcoming includes an inviting attitude but is not limited to it. It is perhaps best described as a process of positive engagement: meeting people where they are; accepting them for who they are; and assisting them in determining who they might become, by providing the deep and meaningful Jewish content that can only be received when a newcomer is not just accepted but embraced. That’s why we at JOI spend a lot of time helping institutions to understand the broad scope of what it means to be welcoming and what changes may need to be made in order to be so. That was one of the motivations behind the establishment of a Big Tent Judaism coalition, which now numbers over 450 member institutions, and the 10 principles to which its members ascribe to implement in their institutions.
So for those who think that welcoming is limited to the intermarried, or for those who think that the term itself is limiting, I would welcome you to broaden your perspective as we have and introduce such an approach to the Jewish community you most care about. After all, even if we are successful in motivating those on the outside to enter into the institutions in our community, if they don’t find a welcoming presence, they—and the institution—won’t be there much longer.
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