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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
You're shopping in the mall with your young children, you turn the corner past KayBee Toys, and all of a sudden right in front of you... Judaism! Kids are singing or creating arts and crafts; adults are talking with one another and maybe even learning a little. It's a pleasant, positive encounter with the Jewish community--in a place where you'd least expect it. To a non-Jewish parent charged with raising Jewish kids or to the unaffiliated Jewish population in general, this kind of "Public Space Judaism" can serve as a welcoming portal into the community.
That's exactly what happens before major Jewish holidays at the North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Georgia. The Srochi Jewish Discovery Museum of the Marcus JCC of Atlanta brings its programming to public spaces, free for all participants thanks to a grant from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). "Of the hundreds of participants at each event," notes Suzanne Hurwitz, director of the museum, "we find an even split between affiliated and unaffiliated families. The affiliated come because they're proud to 'do Jewish' in the 'public square,' and because the events are simply fun. For the unaffiliated, it serves as a kind of first step into the community, and it works because we're providing a low-barrier, welcoming experience without first asking them to walk through our institutional doors."
These events are similar to the "celebrations" program run out of the Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services in Long Island, New York, which created such innovative events as "Sukkah-Building at Home Depot" and "Tu B'Shevat at Frank's Nursery." And of course, these programs have their precursor in the "mitzvah mobile" public outreach conducted by Chabbad Lubavitch--but without the obligatory, jarring first question of "Are you Jewish?" or the Orthodox religious agenda.
Setting up and running these programs is no easy task, and infusing them with real "outreach methodology" is even more difficult. Professionals must be trained and marketing and materials have to be inclusive and accessible for newcomers. Perhaps most difficult is securing institutional buy-in behind the program, because the "next step" for program participants is usually not joining a synagogue or JCC. In fact, it may take years of participation in low-threshold programs like public space events, Jewish film festivals, food fairs, and similar programs before a deeper commitment develops. One program that works this entire "outreach sequence" is called New Bridges, in Los Altos, California. New Bridges hosts a Jewish street festival that attracts tens of thousands of participants each year to its various booths containing arts, food, and representatives from every Jewish institution in the region. Afterwards, through email, personal contact and informal networking events, New Bridges hooks up unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families to the Jewish activities that best match their interests and level of participation, without pushing and--more importantly--without campaigning.
"It's about meeting people's needs, rather than expecting them to serve our institutions," explains JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. "Traditional outreach like synagogue-based Intro. to Judaism classes or JCC-based interfaith discussion groups are still essential elements in creating a more inclusive community, but if we want to reach the majority of Jews--intermarried or otherwise--we need to program out beyond our institutions' own four walls and make a long-term investment in the people, without sitting back and waiting for them to come to us."