Because all Jewish Communal Professionals are outreach workers

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.


Although I am often loathe to identify myself as a millennial, I enjoyed reading “Millennials in Adulthood,” the recent Pew report on the lives and values of my generation. Unlike the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that took the Jewish communal world by storm last fall, this Pew study has made no discernable splash in the same waters. For those concerned about the Jewish future though, I think the findings from this new Pew study are just as important.

So, what does the research tell us? First, that young adults—the researchers surveyed a national sample of adults ages 18-33—are increasingly detached from institutions, be they religious or political. About three in ten, or 29%, of millennials are religiously unaffiliated, and half (50%) identify themselves as political independents (with a margin of error of 2.6%). The movement from institutional membership toward what JOI’s Executive Director Kerry Olitzky has coined as “playlist Judaism,” which is reflective of more than just Judaism; rather, it reflects the new ways my peers and I relate to the world.


Posted by Brenna Kearns | April 18, 2014 | Comments (0)

Every aspect of the Passover seder is infused with meaning, connecting Jews across the world in a celebration of liberation. One such event takes place toward the end of the seder, when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet, hoping that he will grace the seder with his presence and herald the arrival of the Messiah. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we view an inclusive community that welcomes everyone who would cast their lot with the Jewish people as a positive step toward that messianic age.

JOI created “Welcoming Elijah the Prophet,” a Passover haggadah supplement that promotes the message of LGBT inclusion and supporting LGBT interfaith families as valued members of the Jewish community. This haggadah supplement emerges from the LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle, our program for LGBT interfaith couples who are raising or considering raising Jewish children. The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle is currently being piloted in Los Angeles, and we hope to expand the program over the coming years.

As you embark on your Passover celebrations, we encourage you to share this supplement with the people gathered around your seder table, as well as anyone else who may benefit from this resource.

Posted by Sarah Sechan | April 11, 2014 | Comments (0)

Posted by Amanda Kaletsky | April 9, 2014 | Comments (0)

Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999. Since ordination, he has served as an assistant rabbi in Toronto and Cincinnati. In 2005, he became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey, where he has started an annual Jewish film festival, organized communal Passover seders, and taught popular adult education courses. In November 2013, Rabbi Garfinkel also became a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate, working with JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County Caren Heller to open the tent of the Middlesex County Jewish community.

He is the author of three books that are used throughout the Ramah network of Jewish summer camps: Mikraot Ramah, a commentary on the summertime Torah portions, Dim’ot Ramah, a commentary on Lamentations that is read on the fast day of Tisha b’Av, and a commentary for younger campers entitled Torat Ramah. He is also the developer of several apps for the iPhone and iPad, including two that help users how to read Torah and Haftarah readings. Rabbi Garfinkel lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Naomi Lasky, and their twins, Sari and Josh.


Posted by Caren Heller | March 26, 2014 | Comments (1)

The debate over the effects of intermarriage on the future of the American Jewish community has frequently returned to one question: does outreach to the intermarried work? Most in the organized Jewish community would agree that the future we want is one where our ranks are numerous, Jewish life is vibrant, and Jewish institutions are valued for the purpose they serve. Many also believe that reaching out to intermarried couples, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them into our folds would result in larger, more vibrant Jewish communities. But does it?

What do we really know about the effects of outreach to the intermarried? To date, the evidence we have has been lacking. Most of what we know about the Jewish engagement of intermarried families comes from large, general population studies such as the National Jewish Population Study and the more recent study by the Pew Research Center. While both are obviously extremely valuable in understanding overall patterns of Jewish engagement, we have little data on the effects of specific programmatic interventions. What are the best ways to support intermarried families and encourage their participation in Jewish life? And what are the results we can reasonably expect? The latest study by Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) provides some answers.

Over the past decade, JOI has been implementing The Mothers Circle – one of our flagship programs which serves mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage/interpartnership. The program combines basic Jewish education with exposure to Jewish community resource and a supportive network of other women in a similar situation. From graduates of the program, we hear that creating this warm and nonjudgmental space in which to explore the various challenges of raising children in a religion they are unfamiliar with was the most impactful element of this program.

To date, The Mothers Circle has been offered in over 150 communities across North America and served over 2,100 mothers. What happens to these mothers after they graduate from The Mothers Circle? More specifically, to what extent has The Mothers Circle helped them take the journey toward greater Jewish engagement, making Jewish homes, and raising Jewish children? To answer these questions, JOI launched a survey this past October to 775 mothers who have taken the course between one and seven years ago; we collected 148 complete responses.


Posted by Zohar Rotem | March 20, 2014 | Comments (0)

This is for synagogue and Jewish Community Center staff members and volunteer leaders.

While the High Holidays present us with an opportunity to greet large numbers of people in the synagogue, the Purim festival presents us with a prime program for reaching families with young children, especially given the way many—if not most—celebrations are designed as child-centered experiences. In particular, the Purim carnival is very low barrier for folks who might otherwise not cross the threshold of our synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. While it may be too late to plan for this year, here are some of the things to think about—and plan for—as you make review what just took place and make notes of what to do next year.

  • Did you assign volunteers or staff members to unobtrusively collect contact information (perhaps only names and email addresses for a raffle of a desirable prize)?
  • Was the space set up to accommodate such a collection? (Controlling the flow of entry traffic allows for such a collection to take place.)
  • Were there greeters on hand to welcome newcomers and guide them throughout the day? (Newcomers want to feel welcomed. Weather-permitting, the welcome should begin in the parking lot and at least at the front door rather than at the entry to the event space.)
  • Was your front line staff trained to greet people and welcome them in anticipation of the event? (Often we encounter entry-level personnel more often than everyone else and they are often not included in such training.)
  • Did you develop any plans for follow-up and follow-through with those who attended who were previously not part of your community? (Avoid the inclination to do a “data dump” so that attendees get general mailings rather than targeted mailings that include programs in which they may be specifically interested.)
  • Did you plan a subsequent low-barrier, kid-friendly program to which attendees could be invited (such as for the upcoming Passover holiday)? (You have an opportunity to invite people to similar events once they have taken the risk and crossed your threshold.)
  • With Passover just around the corner, are you planning an event for your community that could have the practices above applied? Contact Amanda for ideas and tips on how to make every event an outreach event.

    Posted by Kerry Olitzky | March 17, 2014 | Comments (0)

    So your synagogue or JCC or other local Jewish organization wants to engage more families with young kids. Purim looks like an easy opportunity, right? It is easy to assume that Purim is a low-barrier holiday: It’s a fun holiday. There’s the silly spiel, a Purim carnival, kids get to dress—and perhaps adults too. Yes, for these reasons and others, it is low-barrier—but only for those who already walk through our doors on a regular basis.

    Unfortunately, if we fail to recognize the basic barriers inherent in all Jewish holidays and other Jewish communal events, Purim will remain just as inaccessible as any other Jewish holiday to the unaffiliated—and the holiday’s great potential to reach newcomers will remain untapped. If we don’t take steps to make Purim more accessible to more people, we will be left scratching our heads for yet another year, wondering why our Purim programming didn’t attract more newcomers.

    Consider one of the most common Purim events: the Purim carnival. Surely, a carnival is kid-friendly bait for families with young children, right? If marketed, framed, and staged appropriately, it can be.


    Posted by David A.M. Wilensky | March 13, 2014 | Comments (0)

    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.


    Posted by Amanda Kaletsky | March 7, 2014 | Comments (0)

    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?

    Posted by Kerry Olitzky | March 6, 2014 | Comments (1)

    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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. Mission driven. The mission of AIPAC is quite clear: security for the state of Israel. There is no evident mission drift anywhere.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.”
    8. 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.
    9. 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.
    10. 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.
    Posted by Kerry Olitzky | March 5, 2014 | Comments (1)

    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.

    Posted by Kerry Olitzky | February 27, 2014 | Comments (0)

    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.


    Posted by Brenna Kearns | February 26, 2014 | Comments (0)

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