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JOI Op-Ed: Let’s Create a Big Tent Judaism

In anticipation of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Third Annual Conference beginning this coming Sunday October 14, 2007—and the launch during its opening session of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition—JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has co-authored along with Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the American Jewish University an opinion piece carried in today’s Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch called “Like Abraham and Sarah, Jewish World Should Welcome All into a ‘Big Tent’.” Here is the original full text:

All are Welcome into a “Big Tent Judaism”
By Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Imagine you are trekking through town on a scorching hot summer day when you pass by a man sitting at the entrance to his home, which happens to have all of its doors open. The man and his wife, whom you have never met, invite you into their home, provide you with water to drink, food to eat, a refreshing cool shower, and even rest in their den or guest room.

While this may not seem plausible to most of us—city dweller or suburbanite—it is familiar to readers of the Bible. This is an updated version of the well-known story of Abraham and Sarah, Jewish ancestors who modeled a variety of important values and behaviors for us. Long before the Rabbis began to codify actions in Jewish law, Abraham and Sarah innocently modeled simple welcoming Jewish behavior. They did not just invite guests into their home; they served them. They offered them water with which to wash. And they provided them with physical and spiritual sustenance. Their actions actively communicated one message to their guests: All are welcome in our tent.

Certainly this story of Abraham and Sarah’s tent (as described in Genesis 18 and explicated in the midrash) is particularly timely as we begin the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Even more so, the story of Abraham and Sarah is directly relevant to what the Jewish community has become and where it wants to be.

The Jewish community today has the opportunity to realize its potential as one “Big Tent.” We have the opportunity, like Abraham and Sarah, to open our doors on all sides; to welcome, include and serve all who would enter, regardless of where they may be on their religious journeys, their choices of life partners, their race, and anything else that has the potential to contribute to the beautiful diversity that has become the Jewish community.

“But Rabbis,” those who are reading these words might respond, “My Jewish institution already is welcoming.” We have no doubt your institution is welcoming—to you. For those of us on the “inside” (and we happily count ourselves among them), it is difficult to imagine our beloved Jewish homes, synagogues and organizations as potentially cold and unwelcoming places. But we are insiders. Those who have not yet ventured into our homes, synagogues and community centers may not have experienced that sense of community. Perhaps they’ve never been invited. Or maybe they ventured in but we on the inside did not rush to greet an unfamiliar face, instead expecting that job to fall to someone else. The tension between how we feel about our institutions and how newcomers perceive them is one with which we must grapple.

It is why we have chosen to together issue a challenge to everyone involved in the Jewish community: We must look at our institutions from the outside. We need to evaluate how our institutions can best welcome in all newcomers, those who have not yet stepped over the threshold. It’s time to put out our welcome mats. Let’s post signs that say “All are Welcome,” and state it in all of our institutions’ marketing materials and on our websites.

To truly welcome all, we must look at why newcomers are choosing not to engage with the Jewish community and address those reasons head on. For example, cost of membership and programming can often stand in the way of those who would like to engage in our institutions. By giving newcomers “free samples” of our offerings, we can lower their barriers to participation and provide access to Jewish community programming.

We can make our institutions more welcoming by posting signs outside and within our buildings clearly indicating entrances and program locations. Let’s station greeters at our entrances before all events, like services at synagogue or book fairs at JCCs. We can even enlist active members in the mitzvah of outreach by encouraging them to invite newcomers to meals after such events, or simply introducing those with common interests to create more of a social connection (a “buddy system”). We can offer a personal welcome by providing real names of our organizations’ contact people (and being responsive) rather than a general information number or “info@” email address. And let’s make sure we have some basic yet enticing information available about what our organizations offer to newcomers, so the onus is not on them to navigate their way in by themselves.

Rabbis and lay leaders can lower literacy barriers by being more aware of their diverse populations; by creating a supportive environment for Hebrew and Yiddish translation and avoiding other forms of “in-speak.” Have programs specifically directed to different populations, including young adults, single parents, empty-nesters and young couples with and without children. Lay leaders and Jewish professionals can work together to plan programming outside of their institutional buildings to expand their reach to those who are not yet comfortable entering a Jewish building.

The fear of a shrinking and increasingly-unengaged Jewish population seems to pervade the thoughts of Jewish community leaders and philanthropists and provides the motivation for many of our current communal programs and structures. But the Big Tent Judaism for which we are advocating emerges from the foundational value system of Judaism, which is not based in fear but rather in the joy of sharing what we find so wonderful about being Jewish.

It is time for the Jewish community to rally together around the issue of welcoming newcomers. No mitzvah is repeated more often in the Torah than to “Welcome the Stranger.” (“Stranger” is not our preferred translation because of its sometimes-negative connotations in English, so we say “newcomer.”) Welcoming newcomers is not the domain of just one movement or institution; we must coordinate across denominational and organizational lines to determine: What works best in finding and reaching people? How can we on the inside engage those still on the outside? What are the messages of meaning and value that will draw them in?

If we are to carry Abraham and Sarah’s message forward, then we are obligated to join our voices together to advocate for a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community. Together, we can form a tent like Abraham and Sarah’s and grow an inclusive and welcoming Jewish community. Together, we can transform the Jewish community into a “Big Tent.”

****

Rabbi Elliot Dorff is the Rector, Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy and the Co-Chair Bioethics Department at the American Jewish University and is on the Big Tent Judaism Advisory Board.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which coordinates the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.

The Big Tent Judaism Coalition (www.BigTentJudaism.org) will be launched on October 14 in Washington DC, at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Third Annual Conference, “Opening the Tent: Visions and Practices for a More Inclusive Jewish Community.”



6 Comments

  1. Drs. Dorff and Olitzky:

    Your article really hit home for me. It is everything I have been saying for years. I turned my words into action last July when I created Shalom Jacksonville, the official Jewish Welcome Wagon of Northeast Florida. Subsidized by a grant to the Jacksonville Jewish Federation, Shalom Jax has touched over 300 new families through its varied programs, mostly in public spaces.

    Newcomers as well as long time members of the community are attending our programs and as a result they are becoming more engaged in our Jewish community.

    I thank the Jewish Outreach Institute for its encouragement and for working to make our Jewish institutions more aware of this most important mitzvah in Judaism.

    I believe I am doing God’s work on earth and thereby making a difference in my community. I look forward to meeting Eva Stern and Kerry Olitzky at the Conference this weekend. I will be bringing some samples of my work with me.

    Be well and thank you for this wonderful article.
    Isabel Balotin, Coordinator
    Shalom Jacksonville
    Jacksonville Jewish Federation
    8505 San Jose Blvd
    Jacksonville, FL 32217

    (904)448-5000

    jewishnewish@comcast.net

    Comment by Isabel Balotin — October 11, 2007 @ 2:26 pm

  2. Thank you. We look forward to greeting you and working with you further.
    Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

    Comment by Kerry Olitzky — October 11, 2007 @ 3:26 pm

  3. This is what I really dislike about the kiddie version of Judaism taught by the Reform. Oh, isn’t it wonderful that Abraham and Sarah invited all into their tent. Oh wonderful wonderful. Let’s all sing Kumbaya.

    The adult version of Judaism points out that among the people who entered the tent was Hagar (and didn’t that turn out well-even to this day) as well as the first Philistines mentioned in the Bible.

    Furthermore ’stranger’ is a much better translation (’sojourner’ or ‘visitor’ would do, too) than ‘newcomer’.

    Comment by Dave — October 14, 2007 @ 10:12 am

  4. Dave’s position is that which we fear. My wife and I converted. I was a Lutheran pastor. So far, very few seem interested in us. I am not asked to speak or teach. We do not get invited to much. We stay away from services more and more, because we are avoiding the Daves more and more. When I was a Lutheran pastor, I had the same problem from the other end. Lutheranism, by history, is a ethnically parochial culture. No matter how hard I worked at inviting new non-Lutherans into our congregation, my people worked against me. They wanted the money of the new members, but not the HUMAN newness that comes with the reality. So I don’t think it’s a Jewish thing or a Lutheran thing. It’s a human thing. And, ultimately…not a very smart thing. Kind of waste of time. Good luck to the Big Tent. It is needed.

    Comment by Dan — October 14, 2007 @ 10:49 pm

  5. Dan, if you and your wife had a halachic conversion then there is simply no excuse for you not being welcomed with open arms into the community. Here in St. Louis we have a community with many converts through our Orthodox rabbis and they are never made to feel second class in any way…to the contrary we go out of our way to find them spouses (if needed) in the community and invite them to meals…fullfilling the special mitzvah of loving the convert. I encourage you to visit.

    I don’t think Dave’s position is meant to refer to Jews (a halachic convert is a full Jew), but to non-Jews. It is worthy of pointing out that while travelling for business once I was in the Cincinnati airport and next to me was seated a Priest or Minister of some kind (I apologize for not remembering what denomination). He explained to me that the obligation to seek converts (which Jews do not do) comes from Abraham and Sarah opening up their tent to all comers and wondered why Jews do not proselytize as an official policy.

    I pointed out that “all the souls” Avraham and Sarah made were people who became monotheists…something Jews should strive to help non-Jews with. BUT, none of them were considered part of the family such that Israelite lineage would be passed onto and through them (Hence Jacob goes down to Egypt with only 70 family memebrs who become the progenitors of the Jewish people).

    Our tent should always be big enough to welcome all Jews and those already on the conversion path into Judaism. Regarding all others, however, our tent should welcome them to the world of true monotheism as outlined by the Torah and the commandments given to Noah for the non-Jewish nations. We need not make them Jews in order for them to connect with their Creator…to assume we do is to demean them and to go down the dangerous path of proselytizing which the rabbis forbade long ago.

    Where I part company with Dave is that I do not believe our Sages fault Avraham for inviting in polytheists into the tent to teach them monotheism, and so neither will I, so long as we do not confuse this with trying to dub them Jews or proselytize Judaism.

    Comment by marc — October 15, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  6. May the success of the Big Tent Judaism initiative exceed even your wildest expectations! In linking to this item in my blog, I mentioned that I hope it will not just be limited to progressive congregations in the US or in the English-speaking Jewish world, but will strike a chord with all the progressive streams of Judaism worldwide.

    Altneuland: Big Tent Judaism: Do the mystery shopper test
    http://blog.altneuland.info/2007/11/big-tent-judaism-do-mystery-shopper.html

    Comment by Maskil — November 19, 2007 @ 4:21 am

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