No More Outreach?


Why are programs and activities created especially for interfaith families called “outreach”? A blogger whom I’ve been following since I started my job here at referred to this rhetorical strategy as “symbolic violence”–a way of articulating the idea that good Jews are on the inside and interfaith relationships are on the outside. Why, she asks, are all the programs about the December Dilemma and conversion, with nothing acknowledging how much of the work of Jewish life is actually done by people in interfaith families? Why is the model to have people from in-married families doing outreach to intermarried families?

(Ah ha, I just finished an entire month of December Dilemma articles with a Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion. Nice timing, I now feel maximum defensiveness–though also an enhanced appreciation for January.)

Why do we call it outreach? The way the Jewish community has traditionally dealt with anything it finds scary is through ostracizing. When people talk about  outreach, or in Hebrew kiruv, the implication isn’t only that someone is on the outside and someone is inside, reaching. It’s also that we aren’t actively pushing people who are inside, away.

“We” shouldn’t only mean in-married Jews who are working with intermarried Jews, because in my experience, people in interfaith families, including non-Jewish partners, are in the Jewish community, making good things happen. But I’m afraid the vision is still as my original blogger indicates, in spite of all the Jewish educators, lay and professional community workers and voices of the Jewish community that are children of interfaith families or in interfaith relationships or marriages.

Lately, I’ve seen more use of the word “welcoming” to mean something comprehensive about what kinds of synagogues and Jewish communal institutions we’d like to have. Sometimes we make a list of the groups of people we are explicitly NOT excluding, and sometimes not.

At the same time, the Jewish community is still doing the push-away activities that outreach is supposed to oppose. Unfortunately we still need a good code to communicate to people who want open, friendly Jewish communities, “we aren’t mean rude jerks.”  Or at least, that we don’t mean to be–there are so many ways to fall short. I guess we have to keep listening if we want to achieve a Jewish community with no outreach because no one is out and it’s not a big reach for them to belong.


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6 thoughts on “No More Outreach?

  1. Someone in my circle suggested that a distinctive Ashkenazi subculture is what “insiders” are trying to preserve. Welcoming converts or interfaith families or descendants of interfaith marriages who grew up outside of that “insider” culture is, unavoidably, going to change the flavor of “insider” culture. Is the real issue primarily religious or theological, or does it have more to do with the fear of losing a particular cultural atmosphere?

  2. Having worked in this area as a lay person for the past 5 years, I have always struggled with this term.  But, What is a better term?  Open Reach? Inreach? All Reach? And, of course as has been mentioned, it is not just the interfaith families that need this programming, but also the in-marrieds.  I find more in-marrieds that know nothing about Judaism more prevalent than Interfaith families!

    This year we changed the name of an Interfaith program I have been facilitating to “Jewish Life Unplugged”.  The reason was to include any family in the community even though it was a program of the Outreach committee.

    Personally, I hate the name Outreach. PLease, somebody come up with a better name.

  3. Outreach doesn’t have to be only in-marrieds reaching out to inter-marrieds.  In our (albeit small) congregation, the people who run the Outreach programs include both.  Including inter-marrieds in the formation of goals and running of programs for inter-marrieds makes sense when you think about it, because who knows better than inter-marrieds what their needs are and what sorts of programs might be attractive to them?

    In a truly welcoming Jewish community, non-Jewish partners and other family members can and often do play integral roles both in community life and in supporting Jewish choices in their homes.  Our [i]Reaching Out [/i] program (the name is not coincidental) honors their contributions annually with a Shabbat Dinner Honoring Family Members of Other Faiths.  We do this because without the support of such family members, our community would simply not be the welcoming and somewhat diverse place it is today.

    Even with the greatest possible degrees of support and inclusion, however, the fact remains that there are certain ways in which family members not from the Jewish faith will have needs, issues and interests that can and should be addressed to maximize their comfort with and ability to participate in a community characterized by Jewish values.  So we “reach out” to those who feel that they are not included enough and, ideally, provide them with the means to be fulfilled and active partners in every way possible.

    There’s nothing wrong with opening doors and reaching out to people who aren’t yet comfortable walking through them, just like there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that in-married and inter-married families often have different needs.  The key is to make sure that once families have walked through the door, they are all valued equally.

  4. As an intermarried person for over 50 years, I have come to see myself as “a stranger within the gates,” to quote from the Haggudah.  It is a lovely concept, and one that allows me to feel at home in my marriage, but not intrusive in a community that identifies itself historically.  We have been fortunate to find a congregation that is welcoming and accepting, and we all value all that we have learned from each other.  I appreciate the generosity of wanting to “reach out,” but personally I am very happy with my special position “within the gates.”

  5. Dear Friends:

    The Half-Jewish Network (for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage) recently gave birth to a “parent” organization, the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition.

    We had had many discussions on “outreach,” and decided that the best way of using the word was to reinstate “outreach” to what it was in the Talmudic era — a mitzvah and a duty that was considered the positive obligation of every Jew:

    Robin Margolis

  6. When my then-fiancee, now-wife and I were shul shopping in NYC, I was very aware of a dividing line between congregations that “welcomed” as opposed to “were accepting of” interfaith couples.  At lease that’s the language I used to describe the diference.  It was a subtle ot clear distinction:  The way people’s expressions would slightly change — either positively or negatively — when I would tell them we were interfaith; the way that membership committee people who came up to us after services would say either “we have many interfaith couples on our congregation” as opposed to “we welcome interfaith couples in our congregation.”  And so on.  On paper it’s not so obvious, but in practice it was clear where we’d be more or less comfortable.

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