How Feeding the Ducks Grows the Jewish Community: Capitalizing on the Outreach Potential of the Tashlikh Services

By Zohar Rotem

I never go to synagogue, not even on the High Holidays. Ever since my bar mitzvah, I feel a mix of relief and guilt when I pass a synagogue around the High Holidays. Relief, because I know that I no longer have to go and sit through hours of undecipherable boredom. And guilt… Guilt because I somehow know that’s where I’m supposed to be. Because I somehow know that the undecipherable should have meaning for me, and that boring services should somehow be uplifting. That’s why it was so refreshing to participate in a High Holidays festival in the park last year. There was beautiful live music, free food (including an apple and honey tasting station), and friendly volunteers that explained the ancient ritual of casting away your sins. We sang, we ate … and we fed the ducks. What a great day to be Jewish.

Last year almost 2,000 individuals participated in Open Tashlikh, a Big Tent Judaism pilot program implemented in 28 communities around the country. The idea was first put forth by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Big Tent Judaism Executive Director, in “Time to Open Up Tashlikh” on eJewishPhilanthropy in July 2014. That article argued that already-existing tashlikh services taking place in public spaces outside the walls of Jewish institutions have remarkable and untapped outreach potential. This potential can be maximized through the use of Big Tent Judaism resources and guidance.

The majority (87%) of the institutions who implemented Open Tashlikh in 2014 said their tashlikh services were as successful or more successful than the previous year, including half (47%) who said they were more successful (the few whose services were less successful than the previous year’s have attributed this to the weather – a rainy day meant less participants).

On average, each Open Tashlikh program gathered a crowd of 50 to 100 individuals, about 20% of whom were not affiliated with the host institution or highly engaged with the Jewish community. Many of these unaffiliated participants returned later in the year for other programming in the host institution (such as Yom Kippur services or a free Hanukkah festival).

The most successful Open Tashlikh programs were those that combined the tashlikh service with a larger event, open to the public, such as a community picnic or a High Holidays festival. For example, one institution turned Open Tashlikh into a community-wide festival that brought together 8 partners. “Instead of each synagogue offering [Open Tashlikh] individually to their members and getting out a small crowd, we drew a huge crowd of members and unaffiliated people who just wanted to be a part of the community in general and wanted to taste the holiday and hear the shofar.” Another partner added that “promoting the event in local media seemed to help get the word out.”

Developing outreach programs like Open Tashlikh for nearly two decades has allowed Big Tent Judaism (formerly Jewish Outreach Institute) to fine-tune best practices which we have tested hundreds of times across all kinds of Jewish communities. Among the many best practices we offer to those who implement our programs:

  • Promote these programs widely, especially in secular venues where people spend their time. Facebook has proven an effective platform for getting the word out beyond existing membership.
  • Collect contact information. Gathering a huge crowd is not enough. If you can’t follow-up with the new people you meet, and invite them back for something else, it’s a missed opportunity. (Big Tent Judaism has developed methods for doing so in an appropriate fashion for those who refrain from writing on the holidays.)
  • Know what’s next. When planning any outreach event, one must also plan for “next step” events to which unaffiliated participants may be invited. These work best if they are also “low-barrier,” insofar as they require little or no prior Jewish literacy, are free or low-cost, are open to all, and so on.

For the 2015 High Holidays, we look forward to exponentially growing the footprint of Open Tashlikh and invite your community to participate; we provide our training and program materials at no cost thanks to the generosity of our supporters. To learn more, and to sign up for the full implementation guide and program materials, contact program associate Katie Singh at KSingh@BigTentJudaism.org.

Zohar Rotem is Manager of Research and Evaluation at Big Tent Judaism.