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The Term “Welcoming” — A Clarification

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.



8 Comments

  1. As someone who was intermarried for many years, and who along with my wife became a Jewish family, I completely disagree with this idea. Welcoming is important and necessary. But it is not enough - many groups, including my local Walmart, are very welcoming - the question is what am I being welcomed into, what substance is being offered that I can’t get elsewhere.

    It is also true that, while many Jewish institutions could be more welcoming, there are plenty that already are such that if an intermarried family truly wants to find a welcoming environment, they will have no problem doing so. That was certainly my wife’s and my experience. But having been a part of the intermarried community for so many years (and now part of a traditional Jewish in-married community), there is a much more important “inside/outside” dichotomy that is rarely mentioned. Many intermarrieds (including myself at one point in the past) feel outside the Jewish community because of what they feel internally - i.e. for many, the sense of being outside comes from their own feelings even when the community around them is welcoming, while for others who want to be a part of things, it’s possible to feel on the inside even if the community is not ideally welcoming. It’s easy to ignore this, but it’s a powerful part of the psychology of working with intermarried families, and the community ignores it at its peril.

    For a different perspective, please see my recent article in the Jewish Week:

    http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial_opinion/opinion/beyond_conversion_becoming_jewish_family

    and a very nice blog commentary on it:

    http://shimshonit.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/beyond-conversion/

    Comment by Harold — May 11, 2011 @ 7:00 am

  2. Hi Harold,

    Thanks for your comment. I think it’s a shame that our first contact is a point of disagreement when I think you’re misreading us. We’re not saying meaningful content isn’t important, because it is arguable THE most important part of Jewish engagement (others might have a good argument for “community” as the most important aspect). What we’re saying is that access to that deep and meaningful content, or community, is often and unnecessarily blocked and there are “welcoming” techniques to provide greater access, but that the welcoming comes first.

    I read your op-ed and it is really wonderful that you have become a Jewish family, but when we say “meeting people where they are,” we’re not saying that that we’re not also offering a journey into deeper Jewish engagement. In fact, it sounds like that is exactly what happened to you, and now you’re criticizing us for advocating that more Jewish institutions understand that welcoming process!

    If you had no unnecessary barriers thrown up for you, that’s wonderful, but it’s not the case for many if not most other intermarried couples. And please don’t confuse “unnecessary barriers” with the “defining boundaries” you write about because it’s different and I welcome you to become more familiar with our work to understand more of what we mean.

    I’d be very curious to understand what you mean at the end of your op-ed when you write “we ultimately let down intermarried families because instead of offering a Judaism that is life-transforming, we give them Judaism-lite in the hope that everyone will be happy and no one will be offended.” Can you provide specific examples? No community seder that I know of used Steve and Cokie’s hagaddah in order not to offend intermarried families.

    I’ve spent more than a decade working with dedicated Jewish communal professionals committed to providing deep and meaningful Jewish experiences for interfaith families, and I can’t think of one example of Judaism-lite, yet that continues to be the slander and it’s terribly damaging for a intermarried person (or formerly intermarried) to provide that fodder to detractors when at some point you may have been helped by such programming yourself. Our Mothers Circle course is eight months long; the Reform Movement’s Intro to Judaism is an equally intensive course, as is Derekh Torah from the 92nd St Y.

    If what you’re talking about is engagement programs, that seek to find intermarried families and other unengaged Jews so that they can be further served through increasingly deep and meaningful programming, then you don’t understand the process and I’d be happy to explain it to you. But by that measure you’d also have to agree that Chabadniks standing outside before Hanukkah handing out menorahs and candles is also “Judaism-lite.” But it’s not, it’s part of a process of “welcoming” and engagement that leads to something more, and I think you’re missing that point.

    Paul

    Comment by Paul Golin — May 11, 2011 @ 8:14 am

  3. Hi Paul,

    I agree that it’s a shame that our first contact has to be on a point of disagreement expressed in this way. It is not my intent to get into a back and forth, point-by-point type of discussion. So I’m just going to respond generally.

    Your post makes a lot of assumptions based on things I never said, and then concludes that I am “missing the point.” I did not in my post, or in my article, even mention JOI, much less criticize its work. I simply disagreed with some of the points in the post - I’m assuming that’s ok - none of us have all of the answers and healthy debate can be a good thing.

    Having said that, I have seen many good outreach programs out there and many that, yes, do qualify as “Judaism-lite” (which is not to say that they aren’t meaningful to some, but that there’s a lot more that we could give to intermarried as well as in-married families that we often don’t that would show the beauty of Judaism - I have sat through many an event, Torah study, class, etc. and wondered why any of the participants who were not so familiar with Judaism would come away wanting more or would be inspired enough to come back again; and I’ve sat through others where any enjoyment was derived from the entertainment value and not the substance - and by the way, in terms of courses that span months, duration should not always be equated with content or even intensity of experience).

    I’m not going to give extremely specific examples because it is not at all my intention to malign specific movements or organizations. I will say, however, that I think it’s a bit presumptous for you to assume that I don’t understand what JOI is trying to do, or that I don’t understand about barriers, etc. We are now an Orthodox family - but before we got there, we spent serious time in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal settings. We’ve been to institutions and events of all types over many years. And as a Federation director, I had the chance to discuss these issues on an ongoing basis with people throughout the Jewish communal world. I had the opportunity to counsel intermarrieds, and parents and grandparents of intermarrieds who came into my office regularly to share their stories and ask for advice. And I got to see a number of approaches (including JOI’s) played out in my own community as well as others. And I’ve interacted with hundreds of intermarrieds who are all over the map.

    No, I’m not the missing the point. I don’t need the process “explained” to me. I understand the issues very well. I am saying that I don’t agree with your premise that “the welcoming comes first” - at least in terms of the institution’s orientation. I believe the substance comes first. The welcoming, as you say, is a series of “techniques to provide greater access.” Once an institution understands what it’s about, who they are, what they stand for, etc., then they should (must!) figure out how to be welcoming, how to engage people, etc. But until they do that (and, at least in my experience, many institutions really haven’t), the welcoming becomes simply a series of techniques (Steven Covey, although talking about time management, by analogy makes this point very well in “First things First”).

    I may not have been sufficiently clear when I discussed the notion of barriers, because you didn’t address my main point. It is true that “defining boundaries” is not the same as “creating unecessary barriers.” However, they are often conflated in the perception of an intermarried person (and sometimes an inmarried person as well) because of the barrier they may have internally. I have met many intermarrieds who talk about being “outsiders” etc. even when they are in an environment that is incredibly welcoming. In their case, the barrier is on the inside, not in the external environment. This is a very real phenomenon, and as I said, it’s important for the Jewish community to be able to recognize and address it.

    It is not at all the case, as you suggested, that we had no unecessary barriers. We had many - some that were “defining boundaries” and some that were truly unecessary. My point is that, because the content was there, we were able to work through the barriers, both internal and external. Had we not hit upon something truly deep, however, all the welcoming in the world wouldn’t have mattered.

    Comment by Harold — May 15, 2011 @ 7:44 am

  4. Look, some of this disagreement is semantics. When I say “welcoming comes first,” I of course mean chronologically, not in the Covey way, and helping institutions recognize that they haven’t defined their mission or are not providing meaningful content is a large and important part of our work that many Jewish communal professionals can attest to. The internal barriers to participation — the perception that “I will not be accepted,” for example — is also something we often address and encourage the community to address, though I still think addressing that is as much about communication as it is about “content.”

    All of that said, your comments about giving more “to intermarried as well as in-married” confirm a piece of what I was initially reacting to, which is that in some ways the intermarried are a prop for your Judaism-lite argument. The content you’re really talking about is Orthodox Judaism, right? You’ve found the right way, and the path you took is the path the Jewish community should encourage others to take? Or can you point me to which parts of Reform Judaism you don’t find “lite”?

    You bio line mentions you now live in Israel, but why not also explain in your piece that your family is now Orthodox? Wouldn’t your readers have found that relevant, in helping to determine how you formed your criticism? I think it changes the whole tone of any conversation that uses the phrase “Judaism-lite.”

    Or are you saying that the Reform movement is not doing a good enough job helping intermarried families access the deep and meaningful content of Reform Judaism?

    Comment by Paul Golin — May 15, 2011 @ 10:43 am

  5. Paul - I find it offensive that you say I am somehow using the intermarried as a “prop” for my “Judaism-lite” argument. I advocate for more substantive Jewish content for the intermarried because I believe it will enrich their lives in profound ways - period. I believe that at least some of the experiences the Jewish community offers the intermarried (and the inmarried) are not nearly as enriching as they could be. And I believe these things, not because of some hidden, pre-determined agenda as you seem to suggest, but based on my own life experiences, and having observed the life experiences of many others similarly situated. I know it’s easy to dismiss any suggestion of a wider application of these experiences with “Well, I’m glad it worked for you in your particular situation” etc. - but I’ve met too many intermarrieds who’ve been enriched by similar paths, and too many intermarrieds who have felt let down by the Jewish community at the level of content rather then simply the level of welcoming to think the same way.

    Bottom line - my concerns are not about how to “push” traditional Judaism on the intermarried, but rather how (some of) the intermarried’s lives might be enriched by Jewish experiences that aren’t typically made available to them. If anything, I am using traditional Judaism as a prop to serve the intermarried, not the intermarried as a prop to push traditional Judaism.

    I’m also surprised by your insinuation that I am somehow hiding the fact that my “family is now Orthodox.” Let me be clear: in the article I originally submitted to the Jewish Week, I stated this fact very openly and even talked about how there are many more families who have traveled the same road than the Jewish community is aware of. Unfortunately (from my perspective), the Jewish Week edited those portions out. When Interfaithfamily.com ran my article on their site (and although I’m pretty sure Ed Case’s philosophy differs in key ways from what I wrote, he is open and pluralistic enough to have published it), I also offered the original version, but they chose to publish the Jewish Week version. A blogger (and Orthodox convert) did discuss the uncut version on her blog - I posted the link in my first comment, above, and also in the comments to the interfaithfamily version of the article. Also, my wife has been very open about being an Orthodox convert (see http://www.aish.com/jw/s/100466579.html ). So, no, I’m not trying to hide anything from readers.

    But you bring up a good point. What do I mean by substantive and by Judaism-lite? As a beginning, middle and end, I define those terms by content, not by denominational labels. The term, “Orthodox,” as you may know, was borrowed from Christianity by the early Reform movement as an epithet against their more traditional co-religionists. I’m frankly amazed it stuck, as it’s neither particularly descriptive nor helpful. Orthodoxy is not a movement at all in the sense that the Reform and Conservative use it. There is no central body, no statement of principles binding on all member congregations, etc. (the OU, which is about as centralized a body as exists in American Orthodoxy, claims the membership of all of 23% of Orthodox congregations). Rather, what all Orthodox groups share across a pretty wide spectrum of Orthodoxy (Orthodoxy by itself represents a pretty big tent) is a certain outlook on the Torah, the binding nature of the mitzvot, etc. Within that, there is much room for discussion and disagreement.

    I say all that because my modus operandi has always been to find meaningful Jewish practice and meaningful Jewish community, not to subscribe to this or that movement. My wife and I are Orthodox today, not because I am a member of any movement, but because I have tended to find those experiences most in Orthodox settings. There are also non-Orthodox settings that provide meaningful experiences, and I have personally learned valuable things from Rabbis across the spectrum. I think the intermarried should find deep and meaningful content wherever they can access it - under which denominational label (which are fading fast anyway) they find it really doesn’t interest me very much. My own experience, as I said, has led me to find that content most readily within Orthodoxy, and less so in Reform settings (in which I grew up). For example, because a 25-hour Shabbat is so built in to Orthodox communal life, it is pretty easy to tap into it in an Orthodox setting, harder in a Reform setting for the simple reason that it’s less common to find hundreds of families who are coming to shul, inviting you for lunch, etc. But where those experiences are made available in a Reform or any other setting, that’s great.

    Incidentally, I’m a bit surprised you chose to set up this Orthodox/Reform dichotomy in critiquing my article, since the basis of my article was the Roberts Hagaddah. The Roberts, to my knowledge, are not affiliated with the Reform or any other movement. Their embrace of two faiths does not fit within accepted Reform practice, nor would the Roberts’ children as they were raised fit within the Reform patrilineal definition (i.e. born to a Jewish mother or father and raised Jewish). Several aspects of the Hagaddah do not fit within Reform Judaism (and, for example, replacing “Next year in Jerusalem” with “Next year in Bethesda” because it doesn’t speak to them is a classic lost opportunity to grapple with a Jewish text and derive meaning from the grappling rather than just ignoring it or dumbing it down).

    Anyway, I think there’s more room in the tent than you are giving my article.

    Comment by Harold — May 17, 2011 @ 5:45 am

  6. I appreciate hearing your full perspective and I’m sorry that the Jewish Week (and IFF) chose to cut the part about how you currently identify because I think it is relevant. I’m using Orthodox and Reform as shorthand for observant and non-observant, recognizing that’s not a direct translation.

    I’m not going to defend the Roberts Hagaddah because I haven’t read it but what I understand of it, it sounds like it verges on syncretism, which I don’t think works for monotheistic religions. But that’s not even “Judaism-lite”! It’s certainly not a program of outreach by a Jewish organization. To suggest that’s in any way representative of what the Jewish community is offering interfaith families is just not true. What are other examples?

    Anyway, my point is I feel that it’s a false dichotomy to set up an either-or scenario between an emphasis on “welcoming” versus an emphasis on content. I don’t know anyone who’s saying that content doesn’t matter or isn’t just as important if not the most important piece. Why do we need to push content as something that’s in opposition to welcoming? Why can’t the angle be that welcoming plus compelling content is the key? Which is what we’ve been saying all along.

    Finally, I would suggest that the reason you’ve “met too many intermarrieds who’ve been enriched by similar paths, and too many intermarrieds who have felt let down by the Jewish community at the level of content” is because that’s the path you’ve been on! You are inevitably going to meet more fellow travelers on whatever path you take. The overall trends don’t back up your anecdotal evidence. Intermarried families (and in-married, and single Jews) all understand that observance is an option — a good percentage of families served by Chabad are intermarried — yet only 10-15% of ALL Jews ever take up an observant lifestyle for themselves, for lots of good reasons. Getting those who are inclined toward being fully observant is actually in some ways much easier because the rules and “boundaries” ARE so clear; it’s creating meaningful content around only periodic (or no) observance that the community should rightly be struggling with, because it’s already been demonstrated for 100+ years that when there’s the option not to be observant, the majority of Jews take that option. So for many intermarried families that I’VE met (and this is the path I’M on, though I think demographics back me up), when the only answer the community provides is that they should deepen their observance, it feels like they are really being given no option at all. That, to me, is the bigger challenge around creating compelling Jewish content.

    Comment by Paul Golin — May 19, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  7. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think there are actually many points where we agree (e.g. 100% that welcoming and content are not mutually exclusive - there may be differences of emphasis or order, but I agree neither works too well without the other), and a few where we may have different outlooks (the potential role of observance, the extent to which many intermarried families are familiar or given the tools to feel comfortable with it [and despite being on the Orthodox “path” now, I have met many who aren’t, since the path I was on until just a few years ago was not Orthodox at all - before I even went the Reform and Conservative route, I spent many years on the path with those intermarrieds who never see the door of a Jewish institution], etc. - incidentally, I agree with you that the Roberts Hagaddah is not, by itself, representative of what the Jewish community is offering intermarried families - my article was spurred more by the response of parts of the Jewish community to the Hagaddah rather than the Haggadah itself).

    Unfortunately, as I’m sure you know, back-and-forths via blog comment postings are not the best mode for carrying on conversations about nuanced issues such as these, and too often result in more heat than light. I apologize if I contributed to that dynamic.

    It would be great if someday we can speak in person because, as I said, regardless of our differences, I think we do hold some views in common and certainly are on the same page in terms of the general goal to engage interfaith families. If you visit Israel at any point, please let me know and I’d be happy to connect (I assume you have my e-mail in the system from my postings).

    Shabbat Shalom.

    Comment by Harold — May 20, 2011 @ 5:53 am

  8. Harold, amen about blog comments as not the best forum, would definitely like to connect in person one day, thanks.
    Paul

    Comment by Paul Golin — July 5, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

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