Save Reform Outreach Again

The Reform movement made a public announcement today that it is closing its regional offices and replacing existing program departments in its national office with teams of specialists. Everyone who cares about outreach to interfaith families should be deeply concerned about the implications of these developments on outreach to interfaith families, which the Reform movement pioneered and has led for more than 25 years.

Prior to 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ, the Reform movement) had a national outreach department and a part-time regional outreach director in each of its 14 regions around the country. Then the outreach department was combined with synagogue membership, and in 2003, because of stated budgetary concerns, most of the regional outreach positions were eliminated. At IFF we started a “Save Reform Outreach” campaign at the time, which some people say played a significant role in preserving some of the positions. Continue reading

Is Intermarriage Worse Than Bernie Madoff?

Jonathan Tobin is a fiercely intelligent, exceptionally eloquent Jewish journalist who was recently appointed editor of Commentary, an esteemed conservative (small-c) Jewish magazine. I would be a big fan, if it weren’t for his equally fierce, equally exceptional retrograde politics on Jewish issues. Intermarriage, unsurprisingly, is one of his favorite bugbears.

In his first op-ed as editor of Commentary, Tobin makes the remarkable argument that intermarriage and assimilation are bigger villains than Bernard Madoff. Moreover, he says, the whole notion of marketing Judaism to Jews “on the fringe”–the “outreach model”–has been a failure. Therefore, in this brave new world of shrunken philanthropic resources, Jewish givers should abandon outreach and focus only on inreach, like Jewish day camps, day schools and the like.

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Happy 2009?

Two weeks ago, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Levi Fishman of the Jewish Outreach Institute wrote an op-ed for The Jewish Week about how 2008 was a year of advances in the field of outreach. 2008 may have been a good year for outreach, but 2009 looks like it could be far different.

The big difference in 2009 will be funding–or rather, the lack of it. A number of financial supporters of outreach have been hurt by Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion investment fraud. One small foundation that focused on engaging the unaffiliated in Boston’s North Shore closed down in mid-December; more recently, the Picower Foundation, a much larger foundation that funded both us and JOI, closed its doors after its nearly billion-dollar endowment was wiped out. Because of the complexities of the investments involved, the full impact of the scandal on the Jewish non-profit world has yet to be determined.

Last night, on NECN (New England Cable News), our CEO, Ed Case, spoke about the impact of the Madoff scandal on IFF’s fortunes, and Jewish non-profits in general:
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Independent Minyan Conference

pomegranate groupLast Monday I went to Mechon Hadar’s Independent Minyan conference. Mechon Hadar is an organization dedicated to observant and egalitarian Judaism. They have a yeshiva in New York and also serve as consultants for independent minyanim around the country that share a belief in egalitarian Judaism. The independent minyan movement meets the needs of observant Jews who prefer a traditional prayer service, but feel the participation of women should be equal to that of men.

The conference was amazing because everyone who was there seemed to share the vision of being part of an active spiritual community. This movement is really new and most of the approximately 60 of these minyans have been founded within the last few years. These groups are still emerging and it did not seem that the needs of or outreach to interfaith families was even on the radar. Hopefully in time, interfaith families can find homes at these minyanim.

If you are part of a spiritual community that is welcoming to Interfaith families please drop me a line. As the network director at Interfaithfamily.com I would love to contact them and make sure they are part of the InterfaithFamily.com network.

“Code”: Read

As a member of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Big Tent Judaism, we recently received JOI’s newest outreach tool, a business-card sized glossary to common Jewish terms. This little pamphlet, called “Cracking the Code,” defines words familiar to insiders–like Shabbat, minyan, Reform Judaism, Hillel–but often bewildering to outsiders.

It’s a great little resource; I gave one to a non-Jewish woman who has been working for a Jewish organization for more than a year. “This is fantastic,” she practically squealed. She’s had to pick up the terminology as she’s gone, but never knew what Kabbalah was (“Something to do with Madonna?”) and had no clear idea about the differences between the major movements. She plans to put it up in her cubicle.

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Challenged, and Disturbed

Keeping with Wednesday’s theme, I’d like to write about two very different recently published articles.

In Thursday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Wiener writes about an organization that commits “the ultimate taboo”: teaching both Judaism and Christianity to the children of interfaith couples. Going to visit the Interfaith Community’s religious school in Long Island, she was skeptical, “expecting either Jews for Jesus or an all-religion-is-the-same, kumbaya-type gathering.” After all, by the orthodoxy of the progressive Jewish world, raising children in two religions is “naive,” “confusing to children” and “practically criminal.” But she came away from the experience “impressed by the group’s intelligence and seriousness.”

Carefully sidestepping endorsement of the group’s methods (Wiener does work for The Jewish Week after all), she acknowledges that the children weened in its school are better prepared for Jewish engagement than children raised with no religion at all.

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Outreach Pros and Cons

While I was at the Reform movement’s biennial last week, Anthony Weiss suggested in the Forward (Intermarriage Study Muddies Waters, December 12) that Boston’s figure of 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews may not be the result of its CJP-funded outreach programs, contrary to a Forward op-ed I co-wrote last year.

Weiss first argues that because other cities without outreach programs report similar rates, Boston’s rate cannot be tied to its outreach programs. But whether those rates are comparable is open to question. I am familiar with and confident in the survey methods (sampling and questions form) and results of the Boston survey; I don’t know the methods used in the other cities surveys and, as Ira Sheskin, the demographer who did those surveys, apparently told Weiss, “differing survey methods make it impossible to make precise comparisons between cities.” Continue reading

JOI Announces Outreach Coalition

At its oversubscribed conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, the Jewish Outreach Institute announced the creation of a national directory of Jewish organizations committed to reaching out to the unaffiliated, including the intermarried, gays and lesbians and converts. Called “The Big Tent Coalition,” the online directory will list organizations that are friendly to the unaffiliated as well as provide a space for organizations to share resources, provide organizations with a “stamp of approval” from JOI and give individuals a place to find outreach-friendly organizations.

Much of this is similar to our own Connections in Your Area system, which also allows interfaith-friendly organizations to sign up and individuals to search for organizations. But the addition of JOI’s coalition to the field is laudable nonetheless.

I unfortunately had to back out of the conference at the last minute because we are putting the finishing touches on a redesigned website that will launch on Thursday, Oct. 25. That’s why I’ve been MIA from blogging the last few weeks, and why I will probably blog little again until the relaunch. There will be some exciting new features of the site as it rolls out, and I will keep you updated.

Embracing Intermarriage?

Noam Shpancer, the always controversial columnist for The (Columbus, Ohio) New Standard, an undiscovered gem of a Jewish newspaper, has written a new essay sure to stir up the paper’s more traditional readers. It’s titled Nu’ Ma? Let’s embrace intermarriage.

He is for welcoming interfaith families, but for a slightly different, and more radical, reason than typical outreach advocates. He notes that both sides of the intermarriage debate in the Jewish community “agree that protecting Judaism is the superseding goal.” For Shpancer, the value of that goal deserves “critical scrutiny.”

Promoting Judaism is not superior, as a value, to advancing the cause of humanity as a whole. Being a good person is more important then being a good Jew. And it’s hard to deny that intermarriages, with their tendency to foster the intimate knowledge and full humanization of the “other,” embody a more promising future strategy for humanity than the bitter historical legacy of tribal separatism and animosity.

In Shpancer’s eyes, outreach advocates’ rationale is wrong even if their tactics are right. He sees the value of the continuity of any particular culture as ultimately contingent on its serving the greater purpose of bettering humanity. In Shpancer’s view, intermarried couples should be embraced because they promote humanity, not just Judaism. Moreover, the very phenomenon of intermarriage itself–not just already intermarried couples–should be promoted as a way to improve humanity.

If you accept Shpancer’s assumption that the ever-greater intermingling of races, religions and cultures will lead to greater peace and harmony, then his argument is rock-solid. But his universalist humanistic ethics are an ideal, not a reality.

While every religion or ideology may start out innocently as a system of universalist ethics, ultimately that belief system must gain cultural trappings to maintain group cohesion. And group cohesion is not merely a way of sustaining power and excluding the “other” to make insiders feel safe; group cohesion and discipline can help enforce sound moral codes. For all the faults of Islamist regimes, a widespread sense of moral responsibility (both self-enforced and state-enforced) keeps crime low. For whatever reason, humans have yet to be able to embrace a non-exclusive universalist system of ethics. We need cultural specificity and defined boundaries. To promote behaviors that don’t recognize this reality is naive at best and irresponsible at worst.

The “Communal Welcome Mat”

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Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation (one of our funders), has written an important essay for The Forward titled “Let’s Put Out a Communal Welcome Mat.”

Adam, grandson of Samuel, founder of the Seagram’s liquor conglomerate, considers himself both an “insider” and an “outsider” in the Jewish world:

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 non-Jewish woman I fell in love with as a teenager, and we have raised four wonderful children. We have enjoyed an exclusively Jewish home for the better part of the last 18 years.

If not for my status as a “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?

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