With a new local representative in place, the national Jewish Outreach Institute has launched a pilot outreach program in Middlesex County to draw unengaged and intermarried Jews and their families into community life.
Caren Heller began Aug. 12 as the Middlesex County Big Tent Concierge, the liaison between religious, professional, and lay leaders, to connect newcomers to the community.
As a hallmark of the Big Tent initiative, Heller will engage people in settings such as shopping malls, parks, and sporting events, often around the holidays, rather than in synagogues or other Jewish setting,.
“I will be working to strengthen the Jewish community,” Heller told NJJN in a phone interview.
The first initiative undertaken by JOI was A Spoonful of Honey: Rosh Hashana Gourmet Apple and Honey Tasting, held Sept. 12 at the Route One ShopRite in Edison.
Heller and three JOI staff members greeted customers and also offered copies of “Color Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year,” which includes information about events and programs to be held with partnering Jewish organizations in the area. The program is being repeated Sept. 29 at the Raritan River Festival in New Brunswick.
JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick said efforts to engage under-affiliated Jews must move “from inside to the outside” — that is, from Jewish institutions to public settings. “Our public-space Judaism programs will be a critical step toward doing so,” he said.
Similarly, JOI associate executive director Paul Golin said the Big Tent approach to connecting with those with few ties to the Jewish community is to “go where they are.”
“This makes a physical statement as well as has psychological meaning,” he explained. “We want to make sure Caren is the face of the Jewish community. We want to be wherever they go in their lives, recognizing many don’t go to synagogue. The apples and honey program is an example of a low-barrier setting, a supermarket, where we meet and engage people in the course of their everyday lives.”
An effort is then made to match them with an activity or program that meets their needs.
“That’s why we call Caren a concierge,” said Golin. “Think about a concierge at a hotel who helps people by matching them up with their interests and needs. It’s very personalized.”
Golin said it is currently in discussions with malls and stores to arrange a Hanukka program in November.
As part of its program, JOI is also training religious and lay leaders and professionals in Middlesex County. One of those who has completed the two-month course is Heath Watenmaker, Reform Outreach Initiative rabbi at Rutgers Hillel.
The program, he said, got him thinking “about how to go beyond the four walls of the institution to work with the community.
“One of the great things was that in my group there were 13 folks, most of whom were not rabbis,” said Watenmaker. “It was great to hear the different approaches from different people with different job descriptions. Some were focused on young families, some on young adults, some on older people, and I was focused on college.” Taking the course “was like stepping into a laboratory of outreach-based programming.”
As a result, he said, Hillel brought in a local beekeeper as part of its own honey-tasting event around Rosh Hashana, and now plans to offer many more drop-in activities to attract students throughout the year.
Family fun day
Funded in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, the Big Tent initiative is part of federation’s ambitious multi-pronged effort to increase participation in the area’s Jewish community and create what could be a national model of collaborative “engagement.”
As part of that effort, the federation, Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, and Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen will cohost a free family fun day open to the community on Sunday, Sept. 29, at Donaldson Park in Highland Park, featuring kosher food, music, and games.
“We are excited to have Caren in our community and look forward to working together to enrich the vibrancy of our Jewish community,” said federation community engagement coordinator Michal Greenbaum. “We believe this partnership will ultimately help every member of our Jewish community to find a personal connection, and in turn help our Jewish organizations to better accommodate their needs.”
Heller is a native of Fair Lawn and graduated from Rutgers University, where she was active in Hillel and remains an active alumna. She holds a master’s degree from Teachers College of Columbia University. She lived for eight years in Los Angeles, where she was director of student life at Milken Community High School. She also worked part-time at schools and Jewish organizations in New York while teaching dance.
Heller now lives in Cranford, where her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein, is religious leader at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim; they have a son and a daughter. She dances with Parparim Dance Ensemble, a troupe performing Israeli dance, and teaches dance to children.