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Economic Downturn Puts Pinch on Interfaith Outreach Efforts

July 17, 2009

Outreach to interfaith families has historically received only a tiny fraction of the American Jewish community's multi-billion-dollar commitment to Jewish causes. But with the recession and Bernard Madoff's investment fraud leading to the closure of some programs and the trimming of many others, advocates for outreach to interfaith families are wondering just how many programs will be left standing?

Empty pockets "It is terribly short sighted to cut or eliminate outreach programs that have been proven successful in attracting interfaith families to Jewish life, something that is so essential to the Jewish future," said Ed Case, CEO of "In our recent user survey, more than a third of respondents said they were interested in classes and workshops for interfaith families--where are they going to go?"

Historically, the Reform movement has been the leader in outreach to interfaith families, founding the The William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach in the early '80s. But the number of dedicated outreach professionals at the Union for Reform Judaism continues to dwindle. In January, the URJ cut more than 60 jobs and consolidated 14 regional offices--historically home to regional outreach directors--into four "congregational support centers" around the country. But, says Kathy Kahn, director of the URJ's Commission on Outreach and Membership, "Our commitment to interfaith families is exactly the same as it was before ... There's no national way to really reach interfaith couples, so we have always relied on our congregations to connect families with resources." 

At the local level, the picture is gloomier. Late last year, the Robert I. Lappin Foundation, which provided an array of free programs for interfaith families and their children in communities north of Boston, abruptly closed when all of its $8 million in assets were frozen in the Madoff investigation (it has since reopened with a much smaller staff and started offering some programs again). Early last month, Genesis, an outreach program based at the JCC of Greater Kansas City, announced it was no longer able to employ a full-time coordinator due to a decrease in funding. In Seattle, Jewish Family Service of Seattle has pared down on workshops for interfaith couples in order to reallocate resources towards offering more sessions on résumé-writing and job interview skills for the entire Jewish community, said Adam Halpern, family life educator. "We have more pressing needs and less time to address them," he said. "But we're still happy to have our jobs."

Organizations are also cutting operating costs in less dramatic ways.The Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center of Milwaukee, for example, has adjusted the times of its events to encourage families to buy their own dinners, said outreach coordinator Dana Emold. In the past, the organization provided attendees dinner.

Jewish Family Service of Seattle has switched to providing snacks rather than meals at many events, Halpern said. The center also purchases less paid advertising in weekly newspapers and newsletters and holds more events on-site rather than renting space.

Elsewhere, those outreach providers that have not cut back are doing their best to tread water.

The URJ's Outreach Training Institute will continue to take place in the Boston area despite a reduction in funding from Boston's Jewish federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the closure of the URJ's regional office, explained director Paula Brody. This series of training modules teaches clergy, educators, Jewish professionals and lay leaders how to work with interfaith families and those who are exploring Judaism. "We've had very robust, well attended programming despite the economy, so we will keep going full speed ahead, just a little leaner," Brody said.

In New York, the Jewish Outreach Institute, a national developer of innovative outreach programs, had to freeze salaries at 2008 levels because of the challenging economy, and the loss of funding from the Picower Foundation because of the Madoff scam, said executive director Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky. "We have taken [other] specific steps to reduce our expenses," Olitzky said. These include "transferring our publications from print to electronic and discontinuing our director of development." cuts its annual budget by 14% in 2009, through a series of cost-cutting measures including not filling open positions, a voluntary pay cut for senior management and reduced editorial and conference spending--but has not, Case emphasized, pulled back on its offerings of resources for interfaith families.

As the recession drags on, it's possible that the worst is yet to come, as private foundations scale back their grant-making for 2010 and federations see their annual campaigns shrink. Private family foundations and federation donors heavily invested in the stockmarket have a long way to go to build back their assets to pre-fall 2008 levels.

"A lot of grant funders are honoring commitments they made [before the downturn], but they don't want to over-commit now," said Dawn Kepler, founding director of Building Jewish Bridges in Berkeley, Calif. "It's more common for funders to give out multiyear grants, but now they're giving out one-year grants. It's a tough time. Many organizations have the desire to do this kind of programming, but then they find it's hard to sustain the funding."

There are, however, a few bright spots.

InterFaithways: Interfaith Family Support Network in Elkins Park, Pa., recently received $75,000 from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to offer workshops for rabbis across denominations on reaching out to interfaith families, said managing director Gari Julius Weilbacher. "We're actually seeing a sea change with this type of recognition," Weilbacher said. "The fact that they funded us to this extent when other organizations have not been funded is really exciting."

In addition, Case said that Pathways: The Interfaith Family Network of Greater Atlanta is still operating under a three-year grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlantaand exceeding all benchmarks, and the Boston federation recently allocated over $300,000 to outreach programs.

While the supply of outreach programs has shrunk, the demand remains. This spring, Halpern saw a nearly 50 percent increase over last year in the number of attendees of a Passover planning event for interfaith families.

"The need is still there," he said. "I think the most important thing is having someone still working here so if someone calls, he has a real person to talk to, not just a list of resources. I still get many calls from interfaith couples and families and I'm still trying to connect them with resources in the community."

"People are under a lot of different stresses right now," he continued. "But that doesn't mean these issues aren't still affecting people's lives and relationships with their families. In some ways, outreach is all that much more important because of all the pressures families face."

Case says that the program closures and cuts of the past year have been part of a longer-term trend, which has seen outreach programs cut whenever funding gets squeezed, recession or none. In 2003, the URJ eliminated the outreach director position from its 14 regions and only restored five of them after an outcry from congregations and outreach advocates. Now the regions have been disbanded and outreach will be covered by a few "specialists." One of the outreach coordinators who wished to remain anonymous said the economy wasn't the only factor in the recent elimination of her position.

"The anxiety level in the community just isn't as high as it once was," she said, referring to the urgency to bring Jewish people who marry outside the faith back into the fold. "I believe that's a mistake because the issues are still there, and if we want to strengthen the Jewish community, as well as support interfaith families in making Jewish choices (or at least in making some choice for their children), the work needs to go on." 

The impact of these cuts on future generations remains to be measured.

"If it hadn't been for Pathways [a now-defunct outreach program in northern New Jersey], we wouldn't be raising our daughters as Jews," said Hedi Molnar of Verona, N.J. "It raised my husband's comfort level with Judaism, and we joined a synagogue. If it hadn't been for this program, I don't think we would have gotten that far."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach."
Cara Nissman

Cara Nissman is a journalist based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She has written articles about religion, education, parenting, health, travel and books for print and online publications, including Salon, The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Parenting. See her Web site at

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