Opening the ‘tent’ to Jews of all stripes

Opening the ‘tent’ to Jews of all stripes

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

At the rebranding party for Big Tent Judaism are its new president, Lee Livingston, right, and its founder and executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky.
At the rebranding party for Big Tent Judaism are its new president, Lee Livingston, right, and its founder and executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky.

An organization devoted to engaging unaffiliated and intermarried Jews is entering a new era with a new name and two New Jersey leaders in its top executive and lay leadership positions.

Just in time for the official launch of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s rebranding as Big Tent Judaism, Lee Livingston of East Brunswick became president of the organization. He took the helm on Oct. 26, the same day as the kickoff party for the new moniker, which has been in use unofficially for several years.

Founded in 1988, the former JOI focused primarily on research, and particularly among intermarried couples, and became one of the most influential voices in organized Jewish life for welcoming interfaith couples.

But as founder and executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick told NJJN, “As our work and mission expanded, the name no longer made sense.” He added, “We wanted the name to reflect the values of the organization.”

The mission hasn’t exactly changed — but it has broadened to focus on engagement rather than intermarriage, on unaffiliated/unengaged Jews who may or may not be in interfaith relationships. The goal is to bring those “outside” the tent inside.

Big Tent Judaism intends to be a clearinghouse and think tank for ideas in welcoming and engaging Jews who may be overlooked by synagogues and other institutions, including interfaith families, Jews of color, Jews without a strong religious or cultural background, and those with physical or mental disabilities.

It sponsors surveys — including a recent one finding that a majority of Conservative rabbis are inclined to perform intermarriages — provides training, and shares “best practices” for institutions interested in welcoming newcomers. 

The “Big Tent” idea is one of inclusion — on the right, on the left and in the middle. “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,” Olitzky explained. 

About 600 institutions are officially affiliated with BTJ, but the name and concept are catching on and, Olitzky said, he sometimes gets phone calls from clergy whose synagogues are not unaffiliated who will say, “I’m a big tent Judaism rabbi.” 

Olitzky expressed enthusiasm for the way the larger Jewish community is embracing the ideology of Big Tent Judaism. “We seem to have reached a tipping point in the Jewish communities,” said Olitzky. “More and more individuals are embracing our approach whether in name or not. Communities are affirming the positions we’ve taken.” BTJ says the 2013 Pew study of American Jewry, which noted an intermarriage rate as high as 71 percent, also suggested that a majority of interfaith couples intended to raised their children as Jews. 

“The opportunity to work with Kerry is not to be passed up,” said Livingston. He appreciates that Olitzky’s “creative, out-of-the-box thinking” often challenges his own ideas. Involved with the organization “for years,” he said, the moment was right to become its president.

President of Imperial Consultants, Inc., a real estate development and management company, Livingston served as president of the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, where he is chair of the endowment board. He is treasurer of the Jewish Social Service Committee of New Brunswick and Highland Park, treasurer of the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital Foundation, and first vice-chair of the United Way of Central New Jersey.

Livingston said the larger Jewish community adopted JOI’s various programmatic models without acknowledging its role in moving the Jewish world forward. “The tremendous value of the organization needs to be translated into a strong financial model,” he said. “We need to convince people to give not just emotional and spiritual support but also financial support.” That is one of the challenges he is taking on in his new role.

Olitzky also believes that to create a healthy future, Jews need to start looking ahead rather than backward. “I think the community has assumed a posture of survivalism and as a result it is desperately clinging to the past,” he said. “We need to be willing to let go of paradigms and institutions that no longer serve the needs of the current generation and the generations to come.”

Asked to look forward and articulate his vision for the organization, Olitzky quipped, “My vision would be that it is no longer needed because Judaism doesn’t need to focus on engagement anymore!”

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