A resource for Jewish communal professionals engaged in outreach to those on the periphery of Jewish life.
Below are some of JOI's most recent thoughts on current issues about creating a more welcoming Jewish community. What do YOU think? Please feel free to leave comments.
It can be difficult to look in the mirror, and often we Jewish communal professionals are so busy that we legitimately don’t have time to do so. But what happens is that the world around us changes, and we become complacent—so much so that we forget that not everyone knows what a chavurah (fellowship group) is, or that Shabbat services are free, or that when answering the phone at our institutions, the person on the other line may need some assistance in articulating the questions they are really trying to ask. We can lose sight of the increasing diversity of the Jewish community around, and walk around with assumptions about what a Jewish family “looks like” that are simply outdated.
JOI’s environmental outreach scans help busy, over-programmed Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders to look into that (sometimes scary) mirror, but we don’t just stop there. We show the community where they are succeeding and where there is room for improvement, and then we help them open their tent and ensure that all four flaps are open, just like Abraham and Sarah’s.
On Monday evening, March 10th at the Rosenthal Jewish Community Center in Pleasantville, NY, we will be presenting our findings to the Jewish community of Northern Westchester and the River Towns, which will serve as the kick-off to our Big Tent Judaism Initiative for this region. The presentation, made possible by a generous grant from UJA-Federation of New York, will explain the process by which we scanned each institution, share our overall findings, and offer general recommendations to the community. This particular scan focused on the needs of interfaith couples and their families.
I believe in what I like to call institutional Darwinism. In other words, only the fittest Jewish communal institutions will survive this period of transition, the name I have given this period of American Jewish history. We all know which institutions are at risk, which have outlived their original raison d’etre and been unable to reimagine themselves. Consider the Jewish hospital as a prime example. It served two major purposes: to provide care for individual Jews, especially when they were refused care by other hospitals; and it provided a place for Jewish physicians to serve their internships and residencies. Neither of these are relevant any longer and so Jewish hospitals are disappearing from the American Jewish institutional landscape.
The Jewish Community Center is at risk, as well. Originally designed to help Americanize immigrants, they thrived during the post World War Two baby boom with its concomitant flight to the suburbs. They sought to reposition themselves around several core businesses, most notably the fitness center. However, in many cases they are unable to compete in the free marketplace.
I recently returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. It is clear to me that the exciting things going on in the JCC movement are indeed happening outside the United States, particularly in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and those countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. As I have seen in other countries during other such missions, the JCC in Tbilisi and Gorre really are Jewish Community Centers, serving the entire Jewish community and offering complementary services to the local synagogues (which seem focused almost entirely on providing worship services). I wonder what we can learn from them?
I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. This has become the largest gathering of the organized Jewish community in North America—and includes a large number of people outside of the Jewish community. Without addressing the various positions taken by AIPAC, below I simply address some of the lessons learned which can and should be applied to other institutions and organizations inside the Jewish community.
- Audacious hospitality, radical hospitality, proactive hospitality, assertive hospitality, aggressive hospitality. It doesn’t matter what specific term is applied. AIPAC understands what it takes to make conference participants feel at home, welcomed, treasured, and supported. Every step along the way, people reached out and welcomed participants, making sure that they knew where they were going and how to get there.
- Competing in the free market economy. Whereas some institutions think that they are competing inside the Jewish community, AIPAC understands that it competes with many organizations and institutions inside and outside of the Jewish community. Thus, the production quality of its conference is unparalleled—inside and outside of the community.
- Mission driven. The mission of AIPAC is quite clear: security for the state of Israel. There is no evident mission drift anywhere.
- Dispelling myths. There are those who argue that millenials are not interested in the organized Jewish community nor in Israel. The large number of young persons in attendance undermines that myth entirely. It further suggests that when there is a mission with which people resonate, they will support it.
- Big Tent Judaism. Pluralism. Just as AIPAC demonstrates that there can be bipartisan support for the state of Israel in Congress, the AIPAC Policy Conference that demonstrates that pluralism still exists in the American Jewish community in isolated areas, such as support for Israel. There were 600 rabbis in attendance, representing a cross-section of the various streams in American Jewish religious life.
- The marketplace of ideas. The fact that there were people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds presenting and participating at the AIPAC policy conference affirms that various aspects of Jewish civilization—in particular, support for the state of Israel—are attractive to people outside of the Jewish community.
- Walk the talk—Combine deed and creed. The AIPAC Policy Conference combines the best of good pedagogy. It provides the transmission of cognitive knowledge. It touches the heart and lifts the spirit. And then it puts it all into the action of lobbying, demonstrating the power of “We the people.”
- Communication. Before, during, and after the conference, AIPAC regularly communicated with its participants, using the various options that technology has to offer, in addition to providing print materials for those who desire them.
- Rabbinic leadership. While AIPAC might be considered a secular organization, it celebrates rabbinic leadership and provides incentives for rabbis to participate. It understands how to leverage support on the inside of the organized Jewish community.
- Provides multiple points of entry. AIPAC encourages those who have never attended a policy conference as well as those who have attended numerous times in the past. It provides easy access for newcomers—and support through help desks and the like. It also provides more “immersive experiences” for those who are well-schooled.
I have just returned from a JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to the Republic of Georgia and Israel. There are many things to share—from lessons learned—from this trip, but there was one overriding message to which I want to call attention.
When in college, studying the equivalent of Psychology 101, many became familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lowest level of these needs is personal security (food, clothing, shelter). The other (higher) levels, such as self-actualization, cannot be met unless these basic needs are assured. While many of the programs in the US and Canada are focused on the higher levels of needs, it is clear that the work of the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and JAFI (the Jewish Agency for Israel) is focused on meeting important basic needs. (Were some of these needs not met, the consequences would be more dire than they already are.) Thus, when faced with the question, “Why be Jewish?” in Tbilisi, the answer is quite obvious.
An elderly Holocaust survivor was asked this question in the local Tbilisi JCC: “Are your neighbors who are not Jewish envious of the special treatment you receive as a member of the Jewish community?” The answer: “Yes, but they understand that is what it means to be a Jew.” When you are in a place like Tblisi, where the answer to the question of “Why be Jewish?” is simple, it is probably because the community around you provides the basic care you need. However, this is not always the case, particularly here in the United States, making the question harder to answer. Yet, while this may not be the answer we need to provide our community in the US, it is quite clear that the question remains the same.
Here at JOI, I am privileged to manage our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program, through which we help Jewish communal professionals from across North America connect to all those on the periphery of Jewish life in their communities. Almost two years since we launched our pilot cohort, we have built a network of more than 200 Jewish communal professionals committed to outreach and engagement, who share ideas from Winnipeg to Miami to Albuquerque, and many communities in between. Last month saw the beginning of our sixth North American cohort, the largest ever at 23 Professional Affiliates. It has been an exciting time of growth both for the program and for the professionals with whom we work, making our latest cohorts that much more thrilling.
While most of our trainings are offered as webinars, we have also been able to bring in-person training to Professional Affiliates cohorts in select communities through the generous support of foundations and federations in these communities. This deep investment, often coupled with the invaluable support of a Big Tent Judaism Concierge, allows us to together really make an impact in a community.
Most membership organizations in the organized Jewish community are vulnerable and at risk. The membership model is in decline. Few are willing to admit it. Even fewer are willing to do anything about it. Most of the reluctance is because of what might be described as low risk tolerance. So only a few institutions have been willing to take any significant risks to change the model. It’s important to remember that the membership model was itself an innovation only about 100 years ago. It was risky then to introduce the model. Institutions didn’t know whether people would “join” institutions and make financial commitments to them.
Here is what I advise Jewish Community Centers. Determine the catchment area for your institution. This is admittedly easier for institutions that are community-wide rather than for those whose communities are served by numerous Jewish Community Centers. Determine what entry level membership should look like. Then provide free membership to everyone in the area—automatically as an entitlement. Promote it. Welcome everyone in. Make sure you provide a quality experience for everyone who enters the doors.
You will then be in a position to offer membership upgrades or premium membership, particularly for specific program areas, such as preschool or summer camp or the fitness center—but only once you have demonstrated the value of membership. This approach forces the institution to lead with value rather than cost, an approach that the Jewish community has not been undertaking. It assists in meeting the challenging of getting people inside the institution. Then it’s all up to you—and your institution to deliver on the promises of outreach.
Pat Nisenholz has always been a searcher. Her openness, her eagerness to learn, and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others brought her from an early career in interior design to her current position as Early Childhood Family Engagement Educator at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Chicago. After completing a degree in Art Therapy through the Barat College Psychology School, Pat furthered her Jewish journey by enrolling in the Melton program for teachers. Through a chance meeting with the Director of the Bernard Weinger JCC while working out at the JCC gym, Pat’s career with the JCC took off.
Pat embodies the JCC mission of bringing Jewish values to life. “My job is to raise awareness,” she says. “I want people to be action-oriented. I don’t want to just talk about being kind, I want us to go out there and show how to be kind. I want to model for my directors and model for my parents.”
Pat’s training as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate has helped her to refocus and reassess the kinds of experiences provided by the JCC. She is JOI’s first “Jewish Pro You Should Know,” and she answers The Four Questions below.
The language we use when talking about inclusion, or to those we wish to include, is delicate. Instead of “non-Jewish mother,” we prefer to say “woman of another background raising Jewish children” (see this recent blog about being a “non”). Instead of “convert,” we prefer to say “Jew-by-choice.” Some phrases and words, however, are much more subtle.
Take for example the following sentences:
“My daughter is raising her children Jewish but her husband is Protestant.”
“My son is dating a Muslim girl, but she’s very nice.”
At first glance, these phrases seem harmless and perhaps even appropriate. The daughter is raising her children Jewish; the son is dating a nice girl. However, the common thread is the use of the conjunction “but,” which gives a decidedly negative flavor to an otherwise innocuous phrase. Many times when I come across phrases like the one above, the speaker or writer has no idea they’ve said something negative. To a trained ear or eye, the negativity is all too apparent, and sometimes that eye is the person about who you are speaking. To say something like what is said above is to say that there is something amiss, something wrong with the person. It’s as if someone were to say “he’s Jewish, but he’s a nice person”—as if Jews aren’t inherently nice.