Menu JTA Search

Community surveys aid cities’ Jewish outreach

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif, April 21 (JTA) — To reach the unaffiliated, Jewish organizations will have to move their programs out of their institutions and into the streets. At least, that’s a key recommendation of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which just concluded a community-wide scan of the outreach potential of Jewish organizations in the San Francisco Bay area. “Most Jewish institutions focus their energy on programs that take place within the walls of their institutions,” the JOI’s executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, told a group of 40 Jewish religious and communal leaders Wednesday night at the JCC of San Francisco. That’s no way to reach people who aren’t already members, he said. The findings — the result of interviews conducted with 98 professional and lay leaders at 130 Bay area Jewish institutions — are the first step in a yearlong project sponsored by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. The San Francisco survey was the fifth such community scan by the JOI, a New York-based nonprofit that advises and trains Jewish professionals and institutions how to better reach those on the community’s periphery, including intermarried, multiracial and nontraditional families. The institute has conducted similar studies in Washington; Tucson, Ariz; Columbus, Ohio; and Rochester, N.Y. The effort comes after demographic surveys have shown an aging and shrinking American Jewish population, as well as high levels of intermarriage and of unaffiliated Jews. The JOI next will provide practical advice and training to interested organizations in San Francisco, and hopes to create a community-wide network of Jewish professionals similar to those set up in Tucson and Washington. The institute is interested in intermarried households “because they are the biggest subgroup in the Jewish population,” Olitzky said, “and the way we respond to them will determine the American Jewish landscape we leave to our children. Intermarriage is not a disease, and it’s not the end of Jewish continuity — not raising Jewish children is.” Unlike demographic studies, JOI scans are action-oriented: In each city, the group is invited by a funder to analyze demographic data and then work with local Jewish institutions to improve their outreach techniques. Following a 2003 scan, the Jewish federation in Tucson created a new outreach department and an “outreach connections board” that meets regularly and includes representatives from every synagogue and Jewish organization. “The JOI showed us we had 500 new Jewish families moving in every year, but 80 percent of our population is unaffiliated,” said the federation’s outreach director, Rebecca Crowe, whose position was created as a result of the institute’s work. Institute staffers helped Tucson’s federation set up methods for collecting names of unaffiliated Jews and suggested they hold those names in a separate database for at least a year before asking them for money. During that year, the outreach department tracks the unaffiliated Jews’ Jewish activity, notes who shows up for more events and sends them the local Jewish newspaper. The idea is to focus on Jewish engagement rather than immediate affiliation, since engagement has long-range benefits for the entire Jewish community, explained Paul Golin, JOI’s assistant executive director. “Hopefully that will lead to affiliation, but that’s not our immediate goal,” he said. It has worked in Tucson, Crowe said: Out of 900 new Jewish names collected in 18 months, 110 have joined synagogues. Washington’s study, completed in October 2004, is the most recent, and the results have only begun to be assimilated, said Dottie Bennett of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “We found out that in some instances, we’re not as welcoming as we could be,” she admitted. The federation now has created a “presidential commission” that brings Jewish professionals together with selected nonaffiliated local Jews to discuss what these people want from the Jewish community — which is not always what the community thinks they want. “Listening has been a big part of it,” Bennett said. But the San Francisco Bay area is not like Tucson or Washington, Olitzky pointed out Wednesday night. Its Jewish community is “dispersed and diverse,” he said, with the nation’s highest percentage of intermarried families — 53 percent, compared to the national average of 31 percent found by the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-’01 —combined with a very low synagogue-affiliation rate of 22 percent. While the city’s Jewish institutions believe they are very open to intermarried and nontraditional Jews, they don’t always translate that attitude into effective outreach, Olitzky continued. Outlining the JOI’s model of “public space Judaism,” Olitzky urged Jewish leaders to “take your programs out where people can stumble over them.” One such program is “Passover in the matzah aisle,” where synagogues or Jewish communal institutions set up Passover food-tasting booths in supermarkets. Some at the presentation protested the suggestion. Rabbi Moshe Levin of Congregation Ner Tamid said it offends him when representatives of other religions proselytize in the street. Why, he asked, should Jews do it? “Those who are uncomfortable with it, don’t do it,” Olitzky said, citing an annual Jewish street fair in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Israel Day held every May by San Francisco’s Israel Center as other good examples of outreach. But such events need “a collaborative, sustained approach” with “communal buy in” from Jewish groups, working together across denominational and institutional lines, to raise Jewish engagement, Olitzky said. “There’s no guarantee that a person who goes to a Jewish film festival will join your synagogue the next day,” Olitzky said. He outlined a detailed follow-up program, starting with nonintrusive name collecting, the sharing of those names between Jewish organizations and a shift in Jewish institutional culture to become more pro-active and welcoming. “That starts with the person who greets you at the front door,” Olitzky said, noting that when he walked into the JCC that evening, he “walked right past the front desk and up the stairs, and no one spoke to me.” Judy Bloom from San Francisco’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund said she didn’t “have a problem” with Olitzky’s recommendation that donations not be solicited from new names for a year. “Our ultimate goal is to get them involved, but it’s not very welcoming to put out your hand right away” for money, she said. Asking Jewish institutions to set aside their immediate membership needs won’t be easy, pointed out Carrie Rice of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. “The fact is, if we co-sponsor an event, I want those names and you want those names,” she said. “There’s an undercurrent of competition, because we all need members.” But noting that she hoped to get her synagogue involved in JOI training, she said, “If you’re not somewhat altruistic, you can’t work in the Jewish community anyway.”