By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky
Thirty years ago, Dr. Egon Mayer and David Belin, both of blessed memory, founded the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), a small start-up dedicated to research into the then new phenomenon of interfaith marriage in the Jewish community. I was privileged to take over JOI in the year 2000, broadening and deepening its work to include research (and our signature research model of the community environmental outreach scan), the training of Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders, direct program work, and advocacy for an inclusive Jewish community. Were Egon and David alive today, they would be amazed – but probably not surprised – at the progress we have made since that modest beginning in 1987.
I am bold enough to suggest that intermarriage has become a normative family structure in the societal landscape of the American Jewish community. While there remains a measure of ambivalence about intermarriage in the organized Jewish community, the numbers speak for themselves. As a result, the talk is no longer about “Should we serve this population?” Rather, the communal conversation has moved to “How should we serve this population?” At the same time, we have succeeded in moving the discussion from “who are people marrying?” to “how are they raising their children.” No longer is the discussion among Jewish communal leaders about us and them. Instead, it is all about us.
Along the way, the Jewish Outreach Institute took on the obligation to identify the needs of other underserved populations and engage them. Our staff members developed important strategies (such as Public Space Judaism) and structures (such as the Concierge model) and programs (such as The Mothers Circle and Passover in the Matzah Aisle) that have been copied by many legacy and start-up organizations to the extent that many of our coined terms have entered the lexicon of American Jewish life. We even took one of those value constructs that we identified as our operating philosophy and changed our organizational name to Big Tent Judaism. At the same time, many of our innovations have become mainstream – an affirmation of everything we had hoped for and worked toward.
We have helped to reach the communal tipping point on intermarriage. We have identified and worked with populations off the radar screen of the Jewish community, such as Single Jewish Moms (program piloted) in San Francisco and the grandparents of interfaith marriages or conversionary marriages who are from another faith tradition (program piloted in Dallas). We have had Big Tent Judaism concierges in seven communities and modeled the concept of client-centered outreach. We trained hundreds of Jewish communal professionals through our Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program and volunteer leaders through our Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors Program. And there are over 600 institutional members in our Big Tent Judaism coalition.
And yet, as we look to the year ahead, the philanthropic landscape has changed drastically. Moreover, since the recent elections, funds that might have been reserved for the kind of work we have been doing for 30 years will be needed in areas unthinkable in the recent past – such as Jewish self-defense, the protection of human rights, reproductive rights, and the rights of immigrants and other religious, ethnic and racial minorities.
We are ready to allow the communities in which we have worked and the communal leaders – both professional and volunteer – to take what we have taught and put into practice on their own. Thus, we have come to the conclusion that it is time to discontinue our operation. It was a difficult decision but we feel it was a prudent one and the correct time to do so. We leave behind many colleagues who will continue to work in the fields that we have sown as we celebrate our many successes along the way. I look forward to continuing to work to build a more inclusive Jewish community, where all will feel welcome, no matter where they come from or how they got here.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of Big Tent Judaism (formerly Jewish Outreach Institute).