“Go west, young woman,” they said, and so I did. To the San Francisco Bay Area, where I met with a group of committed and inspiring outreach professionals gathered for JOI’s first Outreach Professional’s Network (OPeN) workshop on Lowering Barriers to Participation held in the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center on June 22. We discussed some of the barriers that exist in the organized Jewish community that we need to overcome in order to welcome, invite and engage the diverse population of independent Jews and their families — the Jewish majority today.
Some of the barriers to Jewish engagement that we discussed included the relatively high cost of “doing Jewish,” the use of inaccessible language in marketing programs (such as Hebrew or Yiddish), and the holding of programs in Jewish institutions (and sometimes only marketing within those institutions, meaning that the wealth of programming remains the Bay Area’s best kept secret). So, what did we resolve?
Well, cost barriers can be diminished. In fact, some outreach professionals have already made strides to reduce the cost barrier, such as the courses offered by Project Welcome, which are free and low-threshold educational experiences for anyone interested in finding out more about Judaism. Intercultural couples and all individuals are welcome (and Karen Kushner at Project Welcome is a great person to contact if you’re interested in participating).
To reduce the language barrier, we joked (but with a kernel of seriousness) that if a Hebrew or Yiddish word hasn’t been used on Seinfeld, then America doesn’t know it. And if America doesn’t know it, we can’t assume that Jewish Americans will either. Also, if we want to reach out and invite everyone to join us, then we should use those exact words and not put the burden of interpretation on individuals to come to us and ask us if they’re welcome. As one participant noted, “it’s easier to ‘welcome in the stranger’ than it is for ‘the stranger’ to initiate a welcome themselves.”
To address the location barrier, we talked about holding programs outside of our institutional walls, to show a vibrant, positive and diverse face to the unengaged Jewish community. In fact, reaching out in public secular venues helps us to welcome in, and to share our resources with the community at large. It’s a first step to embracing all who might connect with us, and inviting them to yet more programming which is relevant to them, their friends, and their families.
It’s always inspiring to meet with outreach professionals and take a moment to celebrate the work we’re doing to bring the wealth of Jewish entertainment, education and social networking to everyone who might be interested. JOI will continue working in the Bay Area to help existing organizations and programs refine their approach to reaching out to unengaged Jews (be they single individuals, intermarried, single parents, multiracial, lesbian or gay, straight, and so on) where they are, outside of the walls of our Jewish organizations.
I’m looking forward to going back to the San Francisco Bay Area (and I’ll be back in the Peninsula and downtown San Francisco in September, so if you’re interested in attending a workshop, let me know!), and not just for the nifty car I got to drive. Next time, though, someone needs to remind me which way to point my wheels when parking on an incline!
(Actual model of my unexpected rental upgrade! ;)