The very people who are reading and talking about the Pew study are by in large, the people who are already engaged and not the ones that we need to try and be reaching.
By Sam Aboudara
On Sukkot, we remember the several decades that the Israelites spent journeying through a hostile environment in search of a promised land that they believed to exist at the end of their travels. During this time, our ancestors took shelter in temporary dwellings. Essentially, the Jews experienced homelessness.
Only a short few weeks after Sukkot ends, we read Parashat Vayera, in which we see evidence of Abraham’s hospitable nature as he welcomes in three traveling guests, who for all purposes are complete strangers. Not only welcoming them into his tent, Abraham rushes to their beck and call, involves his entire family in this grand gesture and provides an unforgettable experience of nice food and lavish home comforts. Of course, this act became known as Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests.
It’s quite a juxtaposition: While the Jews spent 40 years bearing the wilderness, concerning themselves with what might be the future of their people, I’m sure one thing that might have helped is receiving the exact treatment that Abraham gave his traveling passers-by. So now turn it over to 2014 by asking ourselves: As a Jewish people, what are we concerned about today? One obvious answer is the exact same thing we were worried about in the desert, the future of our people.
One year ago, the Pew Research Center released its report entitled: A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Its findings have been well documented since and the topic of debate in almost all spheres of Jewish communal institutions. At the heart of this report, is the desperate need to figure out how to better engage Jewish people in Jewish communal life. The problem is that these conversations are happening in all the wrong places and with the wrong people. The very people who are reading and talking about the Pew study are by in large, the people who are already engaged and not the ones that we need to try and be reaching.
Our target audience should be the general masses who have no affiliation to Jewish life. These are the people who have never been infected with a positive Jewish experience and therefore have no idea how wonderful it can be. Now is the time to start providing Jewish communal services that are relevant and exciting: In our schools, in our temples, in our JCC’s, in our summer camps.
While there is no straightforward model for this, I believe some of the components needed are: Dismantling old and outdated systems including membership models that no longer work and restricted entry points that prohibit participation in Jewish life; Investing in the best talent and ideas by improving the image that exists of careers in the Jewish professional field and ensuring that we are creating attractive development paths; Learning from the top corporate thinkers in technology, marketing and product design and using business principles to produce services that will compete with any others out there; Building on current social trends and civic issues that exist where we are and using these as trigger points for our services to speak to the hearts of our community members.
The Jewish institutions that are achieving this end goal are reaching an audience far larger than just the Jewish community and thus, proving that you do not need to be Jewish to have a strong and positive Jewish experience. If we can be successful in reaching a large audience who choose us for the quality of our services, then they too will receive the principles of our missions. And if we can reach any everyday Joe, we stand a much better chance of reaching our target audience of the unaffiliated and unengaged Jews.
So let me ask you, who will you be welcoming into your Sukkah?
Sam Aboudara works for the NJY Camps as the resident director of NJY Teen Camp, which caters for 215 entering 10th and 11th grade students each summer. His year round work seeks to continuously find what is topical and relevant for teenagers today and provide it in a summer program.