Judaism Must Embrace Its “Outsiders”

We were thrilled to see that Adam Bronfman’s Op/Ed entitled “Let’s Put Out A Communal Welcome Mat” was published in today’s Forward Jewish newspaper. In it, he champions the various positions shared by JOI, including and most prominently Big Tent Judaism:

I believe in the concept of big-tent Judaism, one in which anyone interested in learning about and expressing Judaism is welcome. I also believe that a majority of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders share this vision…. The challenge is to put this ideal into practical application across a wider segment of the community.

Since the Forward chose to edit the Op/Ed, we wanted to include the full text here, especially including where Adam mentions that JOI will be launching the Big Tent Judaism advocacy campaign and Coalition for an Inclusive Jewish Community at our upcoming national conference in Washington, DC next month—for which we are grateful to have Adam as co-chair. If you are interested in learning more about Big Tent Judaism, let us know. You will be hearing much more about it soon!

Here’s the original text of Adam Bronfman’s Op/Ed:

Judaism Must Embrace Its “Outsiders”

By Adam Bronfman

I am both an insider and an outsider in the Jewish world. Because of my name, Jews accept me warmly around the world and across the Jewish spectrum. But I am also an outsider. My Jewish education was limited as a child. I did not participate in communal or institutional Jewish life. The concept that I would need to “marry in” to be accepted was never discussed. I married the woman I fell in love with as a teenager who was not Jewish, and we have raised 4 wonderful children. We have enjoyed an exclusively Jewish home for the better part of the last 18 years. If not for my status as “Bronfman,” my connection to the Jewish world would be much more tenuous. Where do I fit in? What is my place in the Jewish world and in my Jewish community?

In speaking with young Jews around the country I am convinced that my status as both “Jew” and “outsider” is not unique but increasingly the norm. How do we embrace this growing population? What benefits will accrue to both the institutions and those they might embrace who are currently uninvolved in Jewish life but also craving deeper spiritual meaning and communal involvement?

Our institutions must cease placing conditions on our acceptance of our people. Welcoming and embracing intermarried and unengaged Jews will strengthen and enrich Jewish life. Diversity of people and the ideas that naturally follow allow for the greatest and most open of Jewish communities. Jews with differing ideas can and should engage in an exploration of learning and exchange ideas and ideologies. The result of such a dialogue surely will be a greater respect and acceptance of all our people.

For too long, Jewish institutions have treated the intermarried, the less educated or the less observant Jews as “less than.” We have created “outsiders” and “insiders,” an “us” and a “them,” and risk a catastrophic exodus from our people. Our classic texts teach that we all have a place at Sinai, that we are all equal in the eyes of our Creator. This group includes my wife, not born a Jew or a convert when our children were born. Still, we found rabbis and communities that welcomed us and we were able to learn about Jewish life and how to raise our children as Jews.

I believe in the concept of a “big tent” Judaism, where anyone interested in learning about and expressing Judaism is welcome. I also believe that a majority of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders share this vision. The challenge is to put the ideal into practical application across a wider segment of the community. Like a corporate culture, the insular nature of much of the Jewish community has been built up over many years and cannot be changed overnight. Many of the institutions that feel the warmest to those already on the inside are the chilliest to newcomers, without the insiders ever realizing. Yet each of those insiders has friends and relatives that are not connecting to the Jewish community.

We must therefore be much more vocal about wanting an inclusive Jewish community. The conversation must be amplified, and more stake-holders involved. A number of high-level conferences have already taken place, including one I hosted to grapple with the question of “Why be Jewish?” We must provide compelling answers for our next generations, not with a single answer—because there isn’t just one—but with a plurality of articulations. It won’t come from one conference of great thinkers or even ten. We must instead foster an ongoing dialog to address this, as it is the great challenge facing American Judaism in the 21st Century.

Of course, there are many Jewish organizations and leaders working on the grassroots level to expand the reach of our community. Hillel, for example, is increasingly looking to find and serve those Jewish college students not yet comfortable walking through the doors of its Hillel houses. The Curriculum Initiative takes Jewish learning to students in secular private schools. puts it online where anyone can access it.

The goal is not to bring Judaism down to the lowest common denominator, but rather to build gradual ramps up into Judaism and Jewish meaning for newcomers at every age, regardless of background or Jewish literacy levels.

But the chorus must get louder, and it will. In October, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and his colleagues at the Jewish Outreach Institute will announce a Big Tent Judaism Coalition, inviting local communal organizations—synagogues, JCCs, federations, JFCS, and others—to come together across institutional and denominational lines to advocate for and implement a number of clearly articulated principles of welcoming and inclusion. On all levels, we must put out the welcome mats and post the signs that read “All Are Welcome.” And we must mean it.

Because my wife and I were embraced, our children also have the distinction of being at Sinai. They are proud and engaged Jews. If we exclude those who would invigorate and make us greater, what are we? If we embrace them, open our doors, and lower our thresholds, we may find our greatest era is yet ahead of us.

Adam Bronfman is the Managing Director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and is Co-Chair of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Annual Conference that will take place in Washington, DC from October 14-16, 2007.

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