Judaism Needs an Entry Strategy

The road to growth runs through intermarried households American Jewry needs a revolution. Jewish life needs to become extroverted rather than inward looking because we refuse to resign ourselves to a shrinking US Jewish community. In its current incarnation, Jewish life in North America is simply incapable of addressing the dual trends of zero population growth and a below-40 percent affiliation rate. The last revolution occurred 35 years ago, prompted by student protests at the annual General Assembly of the Conference of Jewish Federations (now the United Jewish Communities). That 1969 upheaval was a turning point – from helping immigrant Jews become more American to helping Americanized Jews become more Jewish.

On the whole, that revolution succeeded in transforming our institutions. Those that had been ardently secular -like Jewish community centers – are now infused with Jewish education. Religious institutions -like synagogues in the more liberal movements – now incorporate many more traditional elements of Jewish prayer and ritual. The problem is that most of these same institutions are incapable of attracting large numbers of newcomers. The exit doors – out of Jewish life and into the American mainstream – have been flung wide open, but we have barely cracked any corresponding entry doors back in.

Instead, our strategy has been to try to shut the exit doors. Three decades of national Jewish population studies (NJPS) tells us that this strategy has failed. To begin opening more entry doors into Jewish life, our institutions need to recognize the barriers they create, and then lower them. How expensive is it to affiliate? How much Hebrew is someone initially expected to understand? How long a time commitment do our programs ask for? There are very few entry-level programs to be found anywhere in our community. Even most programs of so-called outreach expect participants to walk into high-barrier institutions like synagogues on their own initiative. This isn’t happening in nearly the numbers we need it to.

That’s why we at the Jewish Outreach Institute offer a new definition of outreach: to take Judaism to where people are, both physically and metaphysically, rather than waiting for them to come to us. The Jewish community must move out of its own four walls, to become extroverted rather than inward looking. That is the next institutional revolution. There are small signs that this movement is beginning. For example, 20 years ago San Francisco hosted the only Jewish film festival. Today, there are hundreds of such festivals throughout North America. And the organizers have found that when films are shown in secular movie theaters, they often attract Jews who are not synagogue or JCC members. So film festivals are one way for the organized community to connect with unaffiliated Jews. We need many more such points of initial contact, and then we need trained professionals who can gently steward newcomers into deeper engagement. This stewardship, what we call “outreach methodology,” will require a corps of specially trained professionals. Just as the last revolution placed a Jewish educator in almost every JCC, now we need an outreach coordinator in every JCC.

And because there is no magic-bullet solution to the complex issues of disaffiliation, this new revolution will require our institutions to actually listen to what unaffiliated Jews need, and then meet those needs with programs of meaning. To do so, institutions must genuinely want to serve the unengaged. Serving the unengaged means losing our preconceived notions of what a Jew looks like because the population we’ve disenfranchised includes Jews of color, it includes gay and lesbian Jews, and most of all it includes intermarried Jews. In the past, Jewish outreach has more often than not been used to define a population – the intermarried. We consider outreach to be a methodology and believe that programs of welcoming and meaning will find relevance among all segments of the unaffiliated, including intermarried families, without necessarily being tailored to one target in particular. That said, any institutional attempts at outreach that are not welcoming to intermarried families are doomed to fail because not only do the intermarried make up the largest part of unaffiliated Jewry, but they also represent the community’s best hope for growth.

The fact that nearly half of all marrying American Jews are intermarrying is well known. What is little understood about this statistic is that the better way to describe it is not with the word “half” but with the word “double.” The number of intermarried households created is nearly double the number of in-married households created. That’s because for every two Jews marrying each other to create one in-married household, there are two Jews marrying non-Jews to create two intermarried households. The result is that sometime within the next few decades, the number of intermarried households will surpass the number of in-married households. This “coming majority” is in some ways already here: the recent NJPS shows that among Jews age 18-25, a minority of 48 percent have two parents who were born Jewish. (It’s noteworthy that the other half of that age range, with only one parent born Jewish, nevertheless identified themselves as Jews to the survey takers.) There are currently more than a million intermarried households, making up more than one-third of all married households containing a Jew. If we really want to ensure the Jewish future in America, the road to growth runs through intermarried households.

That’s because intermarriage itself does not end Jewish continuity – not raising Jewish children does. If we can encourage more than half of intermarried families to raise their children Jewish, it will offset our lower-than-average birthrate and actually grow our numbers. This is not an impossible task. The NJPS found that one-third of intermarried households are already raising their children Jewish. Increasing that percentage should be the single most important goal of the Jewish community. The target audience is there: almost half of intermarried families say they are raising their children as “both” or “nothing.” We know from our work that behind those words is a wide spectrum of meaning, and that for many of those families the door is still open to the Jewish community and to raising exclusively Jewish children.

We need a massive effort to bring tens of thousands of new Jews into the US Jewish community – a kind of internal immigration – by creating many more entry-level programs to function alongside our programs of deeper commitment. And we need to open all our programs, and our hearts, to any family interested in raising Jewish children. Just get them in, teach them, and welcome them. It will take a revolution within our institutions to get us to that point. But we know that revolutions have happened before.

Rabbi Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, the only independent, transdenominational organization welcoming intermarried families into the community. He is author of Introducing My Faith and Community. Paul Golin, assistant executive director of JOI, is author of the report “The Coming Majority: Suggested Action on Intermarried Households for the Organized Jewish Community.”

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