Project aims to be a model of ‘engagement’

Project aims to be a model of ‘engagement’

The Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County is overseeing an ambitious multi-pronged effort to increase participation in the area’s Jewish community and create what could be a national model of collaborative “engagement.”

Targeting three “core markets” — Jews in their 20s and 30s without children, families with children, and teens — the federation has hired a community engagement coordinator.

At the same time, federation is partnering with the national Jewish Outreach Institute in New York to bring a pilot initiative to the community based in part on JOI’s “Big Tent” approach to Jewish community. JOI expects to hire a Middlesex County “Big Tent” Judaism concierge.

JOI defines “Big Tent Judaism” as outreach to “everyone interested in finding Jewish meaning and community, including those from intermarried households, the unaffiliated, and other underserved populations.”

“This is all about making this a welcoming community for Jews of all stripes,” said Laura Safran, the federation’s director of planning and allocations, who is overseeing the federation’s initiative. “Every Jew has a place in this community, and helping each Jew find that place will allow our community to thrive.”

The three targeted “core markets” would be inclusive of both interfaith families and the unaffiliated, said Safran.

Federation recently hired Michal Greenbaum — former assistant director of teen initiatives and coordinator of Jewish service learning for the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — to fill the newly created position of community engagement coordinator.

Greenbaum will bring together programs offering similar services, expand existing programs, and help new ideas get off the ground. She will also identify and develop “partnering” programs and services with community organizations and institutions serving the target groups, said Safran.

JOI’s “concierge,” meanwhile, will “become the pivotal person to meet with newcomers and guide them into the community and into community engagement,” said JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. “The biggest issue facing the North American Jewish community is engagement. We’ve found that those inside the Jewish community feel that it’s warm and welcoming. Those outside find it cold and prickly — and that gap is widening.”

As a hallmark of the initiative, the concierge will engage people in “low barrier” settings such as shopping malls, parks, and sporting events rather than in in synagogues or other Jewish settings, often around the holidays.

Olitzky, a North Brunswick resident, is a member of the committee overseeing the federation’s Dave and Ceil Pavlovsky Jewish Education Fund, which underwrites “gateway” educational opportunities to connect Jews communally.

“They were interested in doing something bold,” Olitzky recalled. “It’s a model we’re going to be doing across the country, so I thought why not do it in my own backyard?

“Certainly we’re helping them as an umbrella for the community,” he said.

As part of a three-year contract with JOI, part of the concierge’s salary will be paid out of federation’s Pavlovsky Fund.

Olitzky said Greenbaum will be one of a number of Jewish professionals with whom the concierge will interact. Through its Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors program, JOI is providing free training to Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders in how to attract newcomers and minimally engaged households.

Greenbaum will then help to “connect the pieces” and help find an activity or organization to capture people’s interest, said Safran.

Greenbaum will also help build relationships between community institutions to spur collaborative programming.

“This initiative reflects considerable increased communal investment in outreach programming that reaches beyond the walls of any one institution,” said Safran. “Wonderful opportunities exist — from turbo-dating and other singles’ events to social service opportunities — all coordinated by more than 130 Jewish organizations of every type that people can’t currently access because of lack of information.”

A member of the Rutgers Hillel board and a founder of its alumni organization, Greenbaum already has an in with one of the target groups.

“We know from studies that 18 percent of Rutgers graduates stay in our community, and we’re eager to be part of their Jewish journey,” said Safran.

A 2008 Jewish community study by Ira M. Sheskin of the University of Miami found that among 52,000 Jewish persons living in 24,000 Jewish households in Middlesex County, 44 percent of Jewish households report current synagogue membership; another 13 percent belong to another Jewish organization; and 1 percent belong to the JCC.

Said Safran: “It will be a very rich initiative. Everything will be low-cost and easily accessible. This is about all of us holding hands and connecting as a community. It’s about connecting all the dots and making those dots brighter.”

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