Jewish Outreach In Lean Times

By Julie Wiener


Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

Feb. 25, 2009

I’ve grown accustomed to interfaith marriage being the scapegoat for all that is wrong with American Jewish life.

A few years ago sociologist Steven M. Cohen called intermarriage “the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity.”

the light turns red and greenAnd it’s of course become something of a cliché to call intermarriage a “silent Holocaust.”

Nonetheless, I was still taken aback when the Bernard Madoff scandal–the Ponzi scheme bilking individuals, charitable institutions and foundations, many of them Jewish, out of $50 billion–was used as a springboard for slamming intermarriage and outreach to the intermarried.

In the February issue of the Jewish neocon journal Commentary, Executive Editor Jonathan Tobin claims that intermarriage, not Madoff or the global recession, is Jewish philanthropy’s real problem. Through confusing twists of logic, Tobin then deems Jewish outreach to the intermarried “a failure” (apparently because giving to Jewish federations has declined and because studies he declines to cite “indicate that [outreach] efforts have done little to renew the commitment of Jews on the margins”). He goes on to argue that, with resources scarce, the Jewish community needs to focus on ensuring Judaism’s long-term survival. It’s not clear how he thinks this should be done–but, presumably, given his “failure” comment, it won’t involve any Jewish outreach.

Frankly, I’m not even sure what Tobin means by “outreach.” Does he refer only to programs that specifically target interfaith families, such as the Jewish Outreach Institute’s groups for non-Jewish moms raising Jewish children or for Jewish parents of interfaith couples?

What about Public Space Judaism, accessible and free Jewish holiday celebrations that attract affiliated, as well as unaffiliated Jews (and non-Jews)? Or Birthright Israel, the free Israel trip that has attracted tens of thousands of unaffiliated Jewish youth, many of them the products of intermarriage? (In the Commentary article, Tobin actually praises Birthright as “reinforcing the core population” and thus good.)

Even if one defines outreach solely as targeted programming for interfaith families, such efforts have never represented more than a fractional percentage of Jewish communal spending and, as Ed Case, the CEO of, notes in a letter to Commentary, outreach “cannot be deemed a failure because it has never been implemented on a national scale.”

Anti-outreach views like Tobin’s did not hold sway while the economy was good. In fact, both the Jewish Outreach Institute and–the two major champions for a more inclusive community–have grown and expanded tremendously in the past decade, attracting the support of major and respected Jewish philanthropists such as the Bronfman family. JOI’s Mothers Circle is now in almost 40 communities.

Nonetheless, now that portfolios are down by 40 percent and social service needs are up tremendously, I do worry that the old “inreach over outreach” (as if the two were mutually exclusive) attitude could influence federations and foundations looking for things to cut.

Now that I am a board member of a fledgling synagogue, I am learning just how expensive it is to serve folks who are open to Judaism, but not yet psychologically ready to make it a financial priority (and may never be).

Nonetheless, welcoming and seeking to accommodate people from the fringes of Jewish life is an important investment–both because it can enrich their individual lives and because newcomers add to the vibrancy of the Jewish community.

JOI, despite losing a major donor to the Madoff debacle (the Picower Foundation, which contributed 12 percent of operating costs), plans to continue expanding its network of programs and Mothers Circle groups and has experienced no decline in requests for its services yet. “In many cases, the programs we’re running in the communities are run by people already on payroll, so they create little added expense,” Executive Director Kerry Olitzky explains. “The challenge is, whether in fact all those people will [continue to] be on payroll” if Jewish agencies slash their budgets. was also hurt by the demise of the Picower Foundation and several other Madoff-affected donors. That’s left CEO Case working overtime on fundraising. “Ever since the Madoff news broke, we’ve been totally organized around raising funds and figuring out what cuts we have to make or may have to make,” he says, although he adds that “even in hard times our field is going to rise to the surface as a priority,” to philanthropists.

The three communities that have invested the most in outreach to interfaith and other unaffiliated families–Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco–are continuing with their commitments for now.

But program providers are, understandably, nervous about the future.

San Francisco’s Project Welcome, funded primarily by two local foundations, works with area synagogues and agencies of all denominations to help them become more “open, warm and welcoming.”

“I have a meeting set for next week with one funder and, yes, I am worried,” writes Karen Kushner, the project’s executive director, in an e-mail interview.

Debbie Antonoff, director of Pathways: The Interfaith Jewish Family Network in Atlanta, says she had been optimistic about prospects for cultivating new sources of funding once her program’s three-year startup grant from the local federation expires.

Now, in the second year of the grant, she recognizes that it’s “going to be more difficult.”

Still, JOI’s Olitzky says he is confident that outreach, while never as high a priority as urgent social service needs, will be a close second for triage-minded Jewish philanthropists.

“Outreach is indispensable to the growth and survival of the community,” he says. “We’re dealing with a population that’s not engaged by the core community–and it’s the largest and fastest-growing segment of the community.”


About Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at