Is your organization really warm and welcoming?

In Short

Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century is the first book to tackle institutionalized biases and barriers to inclusion, offering not only stories and context about the issues facing Jews of all backgrounds, but more importantly offering practical and concrete advice that Jewish institutions can implement right away to change how they engage with diverse populations.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t fit in at a Jewish communal event or, worse, been told by someone that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accommodate you in a Jewish space? Have you ever read on a synagogue’s website that they are “warm and welcoming,” only to show up for services and be greeted with silent stares? What about this one: Have you ever been responsible for writing the website that describes the organization where you work as “warm and welcoming,” only to realize you have no idea if a newcomer would really experience it that way? These questions are hardly theoretical; they’re core issues facing Jews, Jewish communities, Jewish families and Jewish institutions, and they are questions we’ll all need to answer for our communities and institutions to be relevant during this next era of Jewish life. 

This week, my co-editor, Warren Hoffman, and I, have released a new volume of essays called Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century. We have experienced and heard about some of the best and worst that Jewish institutions across the country represent, and we have listened to hundreds of stories from Jews who have looked for a community to call their own, only to find insurmountable challenges to being genuinely welcomed as their whole selves. 

This book tackles institutionalized biases and barriers to inclusion in Jewish institutions through chapters from a variety of experts on a range of topics impacting the Jewish community today. The book offers not only stories and context about the issues facing Jews of all backgrounds, but, more importantly, provides practical and concrete advice that institutions can implement right away to change how they engage with diverse populations. If you’ve ever wondered, even for a moment, if you’re living up to your organization’s goals of serving and reaching those you want to serve and reach, this book is for you. 

One of Warren and my earliest professional interactions, somewhere around 2007, was a conversation about how much to charge for an event so that our low budget organizations could afford a trendy venue while avoiding excluding anyone based on cost. That conversation was followed by countless more similar quandaries: What does the food we serve at Jewish events say about the community sponsoring the event? Where can we find a place for services when the available options don’t match our needs? How do we make sure that people of color are comfortable attending our programs and not subject to microaggressions? This is a small sample of questions we’ve discussed over the years, all of which led to the creation of this book. 

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, as each chapter came together, as each vision for how to improve a slice of Jewish life came to fruition, a chorus began to emerge of common themes. Some of those came in the form of Jewish values: b’tzelem Elohim (seeing everyone as made in the image of God), ahavat ger (welcoming the stranger), hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). Some of the common themes came from the personal stories that begin each chapter: the young adults disillusioned by the bureaucracy of legacy organizations, the parents unsure of how to help their children find a comfortable place to belong in Jewish life, the feeling, expressed over and over, that Jewish organizations weren’t up to the task of meeting the needs of all the people who sought out belonging within their walls. While the two Pew Studies on American Jewish life released in the last eight years have highlighted various sociological issues that have led to declining affiliations with Jewish institutions (including a shift in Jewish identity from religious to secular, mixed feelings about Israel, and changing demographics that include more Jews identifying as intermarried, queer, and/or non-white) what these studies have not studied or considered are the ways in which many Jewish institutions have themselves been inhospitable to the Jewish individuals who are behind these statistics.

Maybe one of two of the chapters will speak to a particular issue or experience in your life or in the life of your organization. Maybe the totality of the chapters, read all together, will give you a diverse picture of Jewish life that you never knew existed. Whether you’re approaching this book as a how-to guide for your organization or as a way to validate your own feelings of exclusion, we hope that this collection will provide perspectives beyond those that are typically available. You might develop a clear fundraising plan for building a ramp so people in wheelchairs can enter your building, or a vision to transform your marketing plan to speak to the hearts of your potential constituents, or a new commitment to partner with a local arts organization. You could come away with a resolve that the next time someone expresses a position about Israel that differs from your own, you’ll think about that difference in a new and less critical way. You might make a personal resolution to be friendlier to anyone who walks into your synagogue, regardless of how they look or dress or sound. 

Consider reading this book along with the leadership of your organization. Ask each other: Have you ever felt like this? Have you ever thought about this? Where are we succeeding? Where could we do better? Listen to each other’s stories, triumphs, and concerns, maybe even fears. Can you choose one action step to work towards being the warm and welcoming community you aspire to be? 

Even in our process of compiling these chapters, we know there are voices that we have left out. We know that no book about inclusion can ever be all-inclusive. We know that the issues described will continue to evolve, and that Jewish organizations will continue to grow and change in their approaches. We also know that this book speaks directly to the times we’re living in and the challenges facing Jewish institutional life today. 

Our goal in putting this work out into the world is not to make any organization feel bad or to call out any individual for being behind the times. Rather, we hope you will feel the joy and excitement inherent in the potential of expanding what your definition of a successful community can look like. We hope you’ll feel bolstered by the expertise of the contributors, inspired by the stories and strategies they’ve shared, and confident in your ability to implement strategies that will change your organizations and the Jewish community for the better. 

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth is co-editor of Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century.