JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Initiative in Middlesex County, NJ

Middlesex County, New Jersey - a Jewish community like many others - familiar, yet unique.

Familiar because they have the same strengths of many communities: diversity of institutions, committed leaders, and a desire to keep Judaism alive. Familiar also because they have the same issues many Jewish communities face: declining affiliation, apathy among members, lack of engagement. And familiar because the volunteer and professional leadership truly care about ensuring the future of the community and are searching for ways to help their institutions and individuals. And, like all communities, they are also unique: they have their own culture, history, specific successes, and particular challenges.

Middlesex County, however, is also unique in that they have committed to doing the hard work involved for true and lasting change. Through local individual and foundation support, JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge will work closely and collaboratively with professionals and volunteers to identify newcomers and use each institution’s strengths to ensure those individuals and families are guided on a Jewish journey that is distinctively theirs.

The Big Tent Judaism Concierge is an employee of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) whose sole task is to identify unengaged individuals and, based on information gleaned through a personally built relationship, guide that individual toward participation in the Jewish community. S/he works with Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates (those Jewish communal professionals in a community who have signed on to a formal training program as well as committed to hold events that use specific techniques that are proven successful in engagement) and Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors (volunteer leaders who work together and singly to advocate for change in the community around these issues) to ensure collaboration and success.

Last night, a group of 35 committed volunteers and professionals met to discuss ways that the community could be more welcoming and engaging. As one cantor put it, “There isn’t a synagogue out there that doesn’t think they are welcoming.” And yet, participation is declining. JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky talked about “institutional Darwinism,” a term he coined to point out that institutions not mission-driven will, ultimately, be replaced or subsumed with institutions that are.

These volunteers and professionals became excited about the idea that they could look at the work they do differently. For example: How is a table set up at a street fair? What kinds of materials are displayed? Are there engaging activities? How does the table represent engagement and not recruitment? Eva Stern, JOI’s Senior Director of Training talked about the Big Tent Judaism initiative as one that is focused both on “reaching out” and “welcoming in.” They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, both are necessary to ensure a healthy institution.

Those in attendance were also eager to hear what they might be doing that was an unintentional barrier to engagement – Hebrew words that weren’t translated, “welcoming” language that was insulting, trying to reach the unaffiliated through their synagogue newsletter, etc.

This community is using the systems approach – a systematic way of building the foundation needed to change the direction of the community to ensure that it not only survives, but thrives. When one leader voiced, “If we are to thrive, institutions must collaborate!” he was met with nods and murmurs of approval. As Rabbi Olitzky stated, “We need to stop promoting our individual institutions and start showing the value in participating in the Jewish community.”

We applaud Middlesex County for taking on this challenge!

So, can your institution say this to a newcomer?

1. You will not receive a solicitation for fundraising or membership before you are fully engaged with our institution/organization for at lest a year and see the value in participating.
2. You will see people just like you who actively participate in our institution/organization.
3. You will never hear a disparaging remark about your religious background, the color of your skin, your country of origin, or the lifestyle you lead.

Jewish organizations that are part of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition will be discussing these topics and more with Rabbi Olitzky during a free webinar later this month. To see if your institution is a member of the Coalition, or to join, please click here.

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