Train ALL Staff in Welcoming Best-Practices

by Paul Golin

There’s been a growing chorus in the Jewish community that our organizations must create more engaging websites and get better at using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, in order to build “online communities.” This is certainly a good and noble suggestion; it is far too easy to find synagogue websites best-optimized for viewing with the 1998 version of Netscape Navigator. But perhaps part of the challenge in engaging new people online is simply a reflection of our community’s larger challenge of engaging new people in general.

The way newcomers are welcomed and engaged will be the key determinant as to whether a Jewish organization thrives, survives, or dies in the 21st Century. That is why the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, a movement of Jewish communal institutions who strive to create a more inclusive and welcoming Jewish community, and agree on a basic set of principles about how to do so, has launched an advocacy campaign encouraging Jewish organizations to “Train ALL Staff in Welcoming Best-Practices.”

Welcoming newcomers didn’t need to be a priority in the past, when we were an insular community (by choice or circumstance). As recently as a decade ago, there was still a lively debate about whether to focus energies on outreach or in-reach, welcoming newcomers or retaining who we already know. Today, it’s no longer an “either-or” proposition. Boundaries continue to grow increasingly porous. Campaigns are squeezing more support out of fewer people, a trend that can’t possibly last. And the idealized “Jewish family” that so many of our institutions were built to serve – two married, heterosexual, Ashkenazi, born-Jews with biological children – which was never the full picture of our community anyway, is now a decreasing minority.

Who to Welcome?

The “newcomers” we can do a better job reaching represent a variety of populations. These include adult Jews who did not benefit from a Jewish education growing up, or who’ve dropped out of Jewish life for years or decades but returned because of a lifecycle event – or would return if we as a community could engage them.

Since the late 1990s there’s been a Herculean effort to engage Jews in their 20s and 30s, trying to avoid that traditional dropout period between b’nai mitzvah and marriage, especially in recognition that the dropout had stretched longer with later marriages, and that many Jews were simply never returning. Some of this programming, particularly Birthright Israel, appears to be highly effective at Jewishly engaging young adults, but I don’t believe that all of the programs combined are reaching even half the age cohort. We still need a more effective way of welcoming back adult Jews who have not been part of the community for decades and may think of Judaism as the overly-authoritative or “pediatric Judaism” of their childhood.

Other traditionally under-affiliated populations include LGBT Jews; multiracial Jews; Jews with physical or mental challenges; older adults without children; empty-nesters; divorcees; Jews with financial challenges; and the list goes on. This is not to group everyone together and suggest they share any issues at all, just the one commonality that they feel disproportionately less “welcomed” – less able, less wanted, less enticed – to engage with the organized Jewish community.

And of course the largest segment of newcomers to the Jewish community are the non-Jewish spouses/partners of Jews, more than a million among us, at least half of whom would be interested in participating in Jewish life to some degree if invited and engaged. It is to these people that we as a community have really fallen down. Despite the Reform Movement’s remarkable ability to engage a large number of interfaith families while also moving toward a greater emphasis on Jewish ritual (and not the Christmas trees on the bima that some suggested would happen when the movement first began its outreach), religious affiliation is not going to engage a broad swath of interfaith couples where neither partner is seeking spirituality. Yet many are looking for some connection to the Jewish community and are too often turned away, inadvertently or purposely. There has been no massive effort on the scale of Birthright Israel specifically for the more than a million non-Jews living in Jewish households.

How to Welcome?

The motto of much of the organized Jewish community could be: “Identify Needs, Create Programs.” Now that I’ve mentioned a bunch of target populations, why don’t we just create more programming to serve them better? While there’s always room for new effective programs, welcoming newcomers is as much if not more about methodology.

Many newcomers are actually running toward us, or even among us, yet our organizations do a poor job “capturing” them: learning who they are, what their needs are, or what they’re interested in. If their needs don’t match our services, we too rarely refer them to others in the community who can serve them. Leaders of many organizations simply have no idea who is calling or walking through their doors, because the intake of newcomers, one of the most important aspects of our work, is often left to the least-trained members of our staff or volunteers.

This point became particularly obvious to us at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) as we conducted what we termed “outreach scans” of over 500 Jewish institutions in over a dozen various-sized communities during the past seven years. A component of these scans was to conduct “secret shopper” phone calls and emails to each Jewish institution to gauge responses, and the results varied widely from organization to organization. Emails asking about programs frequently went unanswered – in some communities at a rate of nearly 80% – or responses simply pointed the inquirer to the organization’s homepage. Phone calls revealed many gatekeepers unaware of resources elsewhere in their community. In general, contact information was requested less than half the time. People who are reaching out to our community are being missed all the time.

Even among the organizations in our Big Tent Judaism Coalition, there is room for improvement. The Coalition was surveyed recently and found that even though an overwhelming majority agrees that welcoming newcomers is a priority, only 20% have articulated that priority in writing in their mission statements, bylaws or staff manuals. Almost half do not train staff on welcoming strategies, and less than 30% have formalized training. The good news is that these organizations are willing to do something about it.

We recommend that to better welcome all newcomers, organizations must train all their staff in welcoming best practices. Newcomers first interact with a wide variety of staff and volunteers at Jewish organizations, not just designated gatekeepers. Toward this goal, member organizations of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition are currently sharing ideas and best practices about full-staff training on welcoming. Organizations not currently in the coalition are welcomed to join at this time (it’s free) and benefit from the efforts of your colleagues. A number of new documents have already gone online at the Coalition’s wikispace, and more will be forthcoming.

There are lots of good reasons to focus on your organization’s online strategy, but we are still a decade or two away from conducting all our interactions in the virtual world. Until then, I would suggest that a single face-to-face interaction is more powerful than a hundred Facebook status updates or a thousand Tweets, and that communal organizations should make training on welcoming a higher priority.

Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is the coordinating partner of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.