Lowering Barriers Around Portland

With affiliation rates low and intermarriage rates high, many cities are finding that successful outreach programs are essential to a vibrant Jewish community. Now that the majority of the Jewish population spends more time outside the walls of the community’s institutions, however, the task of reaching the unengaged and unaffiliated has become more difficult.

In light of this fact, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland (JFGP) invited JOI’s Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky to give presentations both to the JFGP Leadership Council and at the JFGP annual meeting on June 11th so that he could provide assistance to outreach efforts that Portland had already initiated.

Rabbi Olitzky stressed the importance of effective “gatekeepers,” the people with whom newcomers have first contact. Friendly and welcoming gatekeepers can make an institution seem less imposing and allow people who might initially be uncomfortable in the setting of a Jewish communal institution to feel more at home. Rather than serving a sentinel who tries to keep people out, gatekeepers for synagogues and JCCs should help to bring people in. Rabbi Olitzky suggested other ways to lower the barriers that impede engagement:

Take a program you are already doing and take it out into the community. If we wait inside the walls of our institutions, we are going to wait an awfully long time.

Location and time barriers can be circumvented by making effective use of JOI’s Public Space JudaismSM model , which stresses “unplanned participation” in public venues. Ideally, the target audience will come across the event and use it as a springboard into greater engagement (and possibly affiliation) with the Jewish community. Rabbi Olitzky also discussed lowering prices for non-members who wish to attend synagogue and JCC-run events in an effort to raze the ever-present cost barrier that many people face. “If you are (already) committed to an institution, you are willing to pay for it,” he said, stressing the need to win over those who might not be inclined to participate in such events to begin with and might be further turned off by high ticket prices.

The City of Portland has show in recent years that they can develop innovative solutions to complex problems using methods other towns might not have considered. With the progress made at the JFGP’s annual conference, Portland’s Jewish community appears to poised reap similar rewards and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to creative programming techniques and outreach to the intermarried and unengaged.

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