More than welcome

More than welcome

Are you ready for the Big Tent? I mean, really ready?

Last month saw the launch of Big Tent Judaism, a rebranding of the former Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to making Jewish institutions welcoming for the unaffiliated, under-affiliated, Hebrew-curious, and just plain alienated. For much of JOI’s early life, the focus was on interfaith families; JOI deserves credit for goading synagogues and organizations into extending a welcome mat to the intermarried.

The new name reflects the idea that “outreach” does not just pertain to the intermarried, but to anyone who doesn’t feel welcomed by the Jewish mainstream. The BTJ web site also refers to Jews-by-choice, unaffiliated and unengaged Jews, Jews with disabilities, and Jews from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Those who sign up for the “Big Tent Judaism Coalition” pledge to, among others things, welcome all newcomers, offer free and low-cast “samples” of their services, and in general “lower barriers to participation.”

“There has to be a place for everyone in the community, including those with whom I may not agree, but I am prepared to defend their right to be there,” Kerry Olitzky, the New Brunswick rabbi who heads BTJ, told our reporter this week. (See related story.)

The “Big Tent” (the concept, not necessarily the organization) seemed very much on the minds of the XX,000 Jewish professionals and lay leaders attending this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. I’ve been in Washington this week attending the “GA,” which for Jewish fundraisers and programmers is one part trade show, one part pep rally, and a few dozen parts networking and schmoozing. It’s three days worth of what I call “in-laws moments”; that’s when you go to a session featuring bigwigs like Natan Sharansky or Debra Messing not because you expect themm to say anything newsworthy, but  because you can impress your in-laws by calling them and saying, “Guess who I saw today?”

This year’s theme was the Apple-esque “Think Forward.” A big part of that thinking involves “engaging” people who are not currently or no longer interested in the activities represented by organized Jewry. The federations worry that their base is shrinking. Various sessions were devoted to enticing Millennials to connect – someway – to Jewish life. On a “press stage” set up in the exhibition hall, journalist Peter Beinart suggested that the term “Jewish community” is a misnomer when applied to the American Jewish population. Instead, there is minority that is involved in “community” institutions like federations and synagogues, and a majority for whom the notion of community is “not relevant to their lives.” The former tend to be more religious, older, and wealthier than the minority, with Israel at the center of their identities.  

I sat on a panel on the future of Jewish journalism, where we discussed how, like the federations, Jewish media are struggling for relevancy beyond the traditional but aging cohort of even minimally connected Jews. I worried that I hadn’t done enough to reach out to younger, less-connected Jews – unlike, say, my colleagues at 70 Faces Media, whose popular Kveller blog for young mothers is bringing new audiences to a web consortium that includes the traditional Jewish news service JTA.

The GA showcased various federations and organizations doing similar work in expanding the tent, and speakers suggested that the field needs to embrace change or wither. Billionaire philanthropist Leslie Wexner, in a plenary talk, asked the audience to check their own priorities, saying, “Are we focused on the trains running on time, when we should have switched to an airline?”

But cultivating new audiences – new donors, new members, new readers – entails a level of risk-taking that isn’t always rewarded by the standard measures. And if we’re honest, we all have personal limits when it comes to deciding who belongs in the tent. Are non-Jewish spouses welcome in your synagogue? How about kids in your Hebrew or day school who are not Jewish according to halacha? Do you want college Hillels to make room for students who support the boycott of Israel in one way or another? And how do you feel about offering free admission to middle class people who could probably afford the programs you are offering (and paying for)?

And a lot of us equate Judaism with commitment. It says that you are welcome, but that you also have obligations – to learn, to care, to give back.  

Big Tent Judaism does not disagree, but says that the sense of obligation must be cultivated. First, by getting them in the door. Next, by demonstrating the benefits of belonging.

In an oped he wrote a few years back with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Olitzky acknowledged that many will embrace the big tent out of fear for their own survival. But they offer another, more inspiring, and more Jewish framework: “The Big Tent Judaism we are advocating emerges from the foundational value system of Judaism, which is not based in fear but rather in the joy of sharing what we find so wonderful about being Jewish.”

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