The “Big Tent” in Baltimore

The term “General Assembly” can refer to a lot of different things. There’s the UN General Assembly, various state General Assemblies, and now even the General Assembly for the tech community. But to the Jewish communal professional world, the General Assembly refers to “the premier annual North American Jewish communal event, attracting Federation volunteer leaders and professionals, the leadership of our partner organizations and a range of national Jewish organizations,” as stated on the GA website.

Hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America, this year’s GA took place in Baltimore, MD, and I was lucky enough to attend for the first time. In a lot of ways, the GA looks like every other conference: a busy schedule of sessions and plenaries, a few notable speakers, and a marketplace of booths all clambering for your attention, many by giving out candy and reusable tote bags. While I definitely returned with plenty of chocolate and tote bags in tow, I also returned with an even deeper appreciation for the work we do here at JOI.

For this year’s marketplace, we chose to literally open the tent, as Chemi Shalev of Haaretz describes:

The Jewish Outreach [Institute] has set up a campaign entitled “Big Tent Judaism,” and just in case you miss the point, their booth is, indeed, a blue-topped tent.”

The tent featured testimonials from participants of The Mothers Circle, the Grandparents Circle, the Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates Program, and Passover in the Matzah AisleSM, one of our most popular Public Space JudaismSM programs. Several JOI staff and I spent the three-day conference literally inviting people into our tent to talk to them about Big Tent Judaism, and what it has to do with them and their community. We met with people from across world, including many from Israel and Canada, as well as many students there with their college Hillel programs.

Many people said they had heard of Big Tent Judaism, or at least the concept it conveys of opening the tent of the Jewish community, and were eager to know how they can get involved in this exciting initiative of inclusion. It would appear that the idea of the “Big Tent” has, as JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky puts it, entered the marketplace of ideas, as shown in Maayan Jaffe’s article for the Baltimore Jewish Times with an entire section entitled “The Big Tent.” Here at JOI, we want to make sure it’s more than just an idea—it’s also a practice.

At JOI’s session, co-led with staff of, the focus was on opening the tent to interfaith families, but also to any marginalized segment of the community. The Baltimore Jewish Times wrapped up the GA nicely by highlighting some of the session:

During a session entitled, “Engaging Interfaith Families: Strategies for Increased Community Involvement,” Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, said he believes through increased participation and deeper Jewish engagement there can be a more vibrant and meaningful community. This, he added, should be done through casting the widest net possible through “[Big Tent] Judaism.”

“Some people look at the issue of interfaith marriage as a problem or a challenge. We see it as a one of missed opportunities,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “This is a Jewish community that allows for the positions of people I don’t agree with. It allows for a community in which everybody is welcomed and feels embraced no matter what your specific subgroup might be.”

(To download a PDF of the session handout, Ten Outreach Best Practices, click here.)

And herein lies my pride for working at JOI. We seek to open the tent to anyone who wishes to enter it. This means interfaith families, of course, but so many other groups as well, such as multiracial Jews, Jews-by-choice, Jews with special needs and disabilities, and those who are less-engaged (a topic that particularly resonated with the many active Hillel students we spoke with.) Our big blue tent was abuzz with activity throughout the conference, and we hope that our lip balm not only helped sooth many a chapped lip, but that its message that “inclusion means more than lip service” will find its way back to all of the communities we reached.

As I say when prepping communities to implement our Public Space Judaism programs, now the real work begins. The event (in this case, the conference) is only the beginning of the process. We now look forward to following up with the many wonderful Jewish communal professionals and volunteers we spoke with in Baltimore, and to beginning many conversations about how we can help them to open the tents of their communities, which will in turn open the tent of the entire Jewish community.

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