Study Finds Atlanta Institutions Failing in Jewish Outreach Efforts

Atlanta Jewish institutions think they’re doing a better job at outreach than they really are, and that misperception means a lot of unaffiliated Jews are lost to the Jewish community. That’s one of the key findings of the Jewish Outreach Scan of Atlanta, a just-completed study of the outreach practices of 46 local synagogues and Jewish organizations conducted by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute.

The institute, known as JOI, this week brought together close to 120 lay leaders and Jewish professionals from around the country, half of them from Atlanta, for a three-day national leadership conference here.

They came to learn about successful outreach practices, and to share ideas for making their own organizations more welcoming to unaffiliated Jews, particularly the intermarried.

Keynote speaker Michael Rukin of Boston, a longtime Jewish activist, told the opening night crowd on Sunday that the Jewish community spends too much time developing programs for a core group of already engaged Jews, instead of reaching out to draw the majority of Jews, who are both unaffiliated and underengaged, into Jewish life.

His remarks focused on the ongoing debate over where best to expend Jewish communal energy and resources.

Rukin said that the traditional focus on “revitalizing the core Jews,” a key priority of the Conservative movement, for instance, is misguided.

He drew a clear distinction between the extensive outreach approach that he and the JOI favor and the “small group of committed Jews” approach favored most publicly, he said, by Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee and Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“We need a Jewish army committed to welcoming and embracing those who would grow near to us,” he said, adding that “absent a profound cultural change, we will continue to shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Atlanta is the sixth city whose Jewish institutions have been assessed by the JOI. The outreach advocacy group promotes a proactive approach to engaging those on the periphery of Jewish life. That approach includes lowering barriers to access and cooperating among institutions.

With its model of “public space Judaism,” the JOI exhorts Jewish organizations to hold events outside their own walls, work more collaboratively, do better follow-up with newcomers and partner with secular groups to organize events such as Jewish film festivals or Chanukah parties at local bookstores, all as a way of bringing Judaism out to unaffiliated Jews instead of requiring that they come into the Jewish institutions they are already avoiding.

As part of its research, JOI staffers emailed 44 Atlanta Jewish organizations anonymously, asking for information about their programs. Just 24 of those groups, or 55 percent, replied to the emails, and only 13 of them, 30 percent, asked for contact information to enable follow-up.

“We’re not being critical of what’s going on in Atlanta, it’s the same situation everywhere,” said Paul Golin, JOI’s associate executive director. “We’re saying, here’s what we think you can do to reach more of the unaffiliated.”

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s executive director, said that while Atlanta has “a very willing federation” in terms of outreach, the city’s Jewish leaders should create a community-wide outreach committee headed by a neutral coordinator, so names could be shared and people could be referred to the institution that best meets their needs.

“Whatever the institutions are doing, and some of them are doing a lot, they seem to be doing it alone,” he said.

Too many Jewish organizations fall prey to a “cult of scarcity,” fearfully grabbing from what they mistakenly believe is a limited Jewish pot, he said.

“That may help individual institutions, but in the long run it won’t help grow the community,” he said.

At the conference, Lynn Schusterman, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, told participants that the American Jewish community needs to shift its focus and realize that Jews connect in many different ways — some through synagogues, some through music, some through social justice work or trips to Israel.

“It would be so easy to focus our efforts only on the well-traveled routes,” she said, when what Jewish groups should be doing is “helping the travelers who are finding their own routes to Judaism.”

Getting Jewish organizations to share their lists of names isn’t easy, particularly when dollars are at stake.

Jodi Mansbach of Jewish Arts and Culture, an Atlanta nonprofit that organizes Jewish events in secular settings, says she gets several calls a week from other Jewish organizations that want her mailing list of 4,000 names, most of them young, unaffiliated Jews.

The same thing happens to Dyan Wiley of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Mass. She said she won’t hand over the list of people who have signed up to receive her weekly emails of the local Jewish calendar.

“Jews who are unaffiliated don’t want to be hit up by these groups,” she said.

Golin agrees, which is why the JOI counsels federations that adopt its model to avoid soliciting new names for a specified period, usually one year.

“There are plenty of Jews out there that no one is reaching, but if you meet them once and ask for $1,000, you scare them away,” he said.

Faye Dresner, community engagement director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, “absolutely” agrees that Atlanta’s Jewish community would benefit from greater collaboration.

She said the JOI community scan will be “a real useful tool” to help local groups from duplicating efforts.

“Not everyone I talk to wants to volunteer for federation, so I try to refer them to a different organization,” she said. “If we don’t share data and people, how will we accomplish that? We have to move out of this place of fear and territorialness.”

Still, her federation, like many other Jewish organizations, depends on constituent dollars.

The Atlanta federation recently partnered with Mansbach’s small nonprofit, underwriting the group’s young adult Chanukah party in return for access to Mansbach’s list of names. Dresner said the federation has agreed not to solicit those individuals until 2007.

Asking federations not to solicit new names “is a tough sell,” Dresner acknowledged. But, she added, “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without these kind of arrangements.”

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