Within the Jewish community, outreach has been a buzzword for quite a while. The term initially meant outreach to the intermarried, as first suggested by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the late former President of the Union for American Hebrew Congregations. Yet, over the past number of years the definition of outreach has grown to include Jews of color, those in their 20s and 30s; the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender (LGBT) community; the unaffiliated; as well as intermarried families.
Recently, I experienced the true diversity of the Jewish community. The choir of Congregation Bethel, an African-American synagogue, in Philadelphia, Pa, was featured at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s (JOI) National Conference. Led by Rabbi Debra Bowen, their music and spirit was simply uplifting, as they had over 200 participants on their feet, clapping, dancing, and singing. She explained that they bring the love of Judaism and their African-American culture to their worship. The choir sang some familiar melodies and also shared with us their melodies for the centuries-old liturgy we all share. At that moment, our physical differences and musical differences did not matter; rather we were all Jews joyfully singing together.
We had gathered together, participants from all walks of Jewish life, to discuss outreach and what it means for the Jewish community of the present and future. There were a variety of workshops ranging from the “how to’s” of innovative outreach methods, to understanding how we can be inclusive of the LGBT Jews in our communities, to hearing first-hand accounts from those who are Jews by Choice, those who are intermarried but raising Jewish families, and those who are intermarried and raising interfaith families. Following every workshop session there was a “buzz,” as conference participants discussed what they just learned and how these outreach opportunities might work within their own communities. There certainly were a wide variety of responses with regard to how outreach works within the various Jewish communities that were represented. While all communities saw themselves as open to all Jews, many still face the issue of doing outreach through the lens of halacha, Jewish law, and/or their movement affiliations.
I attended the conference with the hope of learning more about how Jewish professionals, like myself, can be more welcoming and how our St. Louis Jewish community might continue to make its outreach programming even better. Already, our St. Louis community is engaged in one JOI program, Mother’s Circle, which is an incredible learning and support program for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children. I learned of other programs, such as the Grandparent’s Circle, for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in interfaith homes, and Empowering Ruth, a phenomenal support and identity-building program, for women who have converted to Judaism, which I hope we will bring to St. Louis.
According to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, of the Jewish Outreach Institute, 60% of the Jewish population in the United States is unaffiliated, this means that they do not belong to a congregation, a JCC, or give to a local Federation campaign. Of the 40 percent who are affiliated, Rabbi Olitzky suggests that only 20 percent are actually engaged in the community. The numbers are even higher among the intermarried families in our community, with an 80 percent unaffiliation rate.
At the conference, a new initiative was unveiled: Big Tent Judaism, Coalition for an Inclusive Jewish Community. According to JOI, “Big Tent Judaism takes its lead from the values and visions of Biblical forbears Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which was open on four sides to welcome all who approach. The idea is that individuals and organizations that practice Big Tent Judaism seek to engage, support and advocate for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior knowledge.” One of the goals of the Big Tent Judaism program is to provide professionals and lay leaders at Jewish institutions a unified voice across organizational and denominational lines to advocate for greater inclusiveness, while disseminating the skills and sensitivities needed to become a more welcoming community. As such JOI will help to provide outreach consultation and national networking opportunities for Jewish institutions. There is no cost to becoming a member organization of the coalition, which is open to Jewish communal organizations and congregations.
Members will have access to outreach resources, such as best practices and fundraising assistance for inclusive programming from the Jewish Outreach Institute.
More information on Big Tent Judaism can be found at www.BigTentJudaism.org.
Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation resides in the St. Louis area.