Was 2011 the Tipping Point for “Public Space Judaism”?

by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

Ten years ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) released a landmark survey of participants in engagement programs, which clarified many of the best practices that are still of paramount relevancy today to any Jewish communal professional interested in reaching less-engaged Jews and unaffiliated intermarried households. One of those findings now seems obvious, but was not at the time: that Jewish programs held in secular venues attract a less-affiliated crowd than the same programs held inside the four walls of Jewish institutions. We believe this past year was a tipping point for the key outreach method of taking Jewish life out to where people are rather than waiting for them to come to us.

In that 2001 study, JOI coined the term “Public Space Judaism” to describe the phenomenon as well as the nuanced program model we built around it, which requires much more than simply setting up a table in the matzah aisle of your local supermarket before Passover. And we’ve spent the past decade “evangelizing” Public Space Judaism methodology to all who would listen – which gratifyingly has been thousands of communal professionals and volunteer leaders. In 2011 more than any year before, we’ve heard the acceptance of Public Space Judaism echoed back to us from some of the most important players in the Jewish communal landscape.

New outreach programming to unaffiliated parents sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, including those operated by Kveller.com, are intended to – in the language of their RFP – “reach families in public spaces.” The PJ Library, one of the true homeruns in Jewish communal programming over the past decade, has built a robust network of local coordinators who, trained in JOI’s Public Space Judaism methodology, are implementing Jewish children’s literature programs in Barnes and Noble stores and other secular venues across the country.

And most recently, in his keynote speech at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial in December, incoming president Rabbi Richard Jacobs identified “the walls of our congregations” as a barrier to Jewish life. He said, “Too many synagogues wait for new people to knock on their doors begging to be let in. Few congregations take responsibility for Jewish life outside their walls.” He pointed to programs that meet young Jews “where they are – in coffee shops and bars, in gyms and private apartments – outside synagogue walls, that is.” And he rightly emphasized that meeting people where they are is about relationship-building, not just programs. “Before handing out membership forms or asking for dues, what if we first forged relationships of caring? We could learn this important lesson from Chabad.”

Of course, any discussion of Jewish outreach has to acknowledge Chabad, which pioneered many of the key aspects and is still in many ways the best and most committed to reaching less engaged Jews where they are, and drawing them into deeper engagement through personal relationships and meaningful Jewish experiences and education. But Chabad’s outreach is a closed system leading only to Chabad; we want to offer the entire gamut of Jewish communal life to those we reach. We’ve been advocating for years that the rest of the community need not abdicate outreach – include public-space holiday celebrations – to Chabad. And we’ve been piloting and replicating initiative that have grown each year around the public celebration of Judaism, such as “Passover in the Matzah Aisle” in supermarkets, “Hands on Hanukkah” in malls, “Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year” at back-to-school supply stores, and many more.

Our training and advocacy over the past decade has certainly met with some pushback. To address fears about the collision of church and state, we explain that our programming is in the public commercial arena not in the “public square.” For those with the perception of missionary activity, we explain that the goal is not to convert non-Jews to Judaism, but rather to ignite the spark of a faint but preexisting connection to Judaism and Jewish community of existing Jews (together with their non-Jewish spouse when applicable). And for those who want to avoid putting Judaism “out there” for fear of an anti-Semitic backlash, we explain that those are the fears of past generations; pride in one’s Jewishness has not only been accepted by the American public for decades, it’s actually admired. Overall, the feedback by both Jews and non-Jews alike upon finding our Public Space Judaism programs is thanks and encouragement.

As thrilled as we are to see the increased recognition that outreach means going to where people are, we hope location alone does not become the benchmark for effective outreach. Outreach is about lowering barriers to participation, and if the only barrier your program lowers is location, that doesn’t automatically make it good outreach. JOI’s methodology addresses many questions, from the mundane – on which side of the table should your volunteers sit (in front of, and don’t sit, stand) – to the deepest core of your organization’s mission – how does what you hope to achieve through outreach mesh with the personal wants and needs of the newcomers you meet?

Our methodology also addresses questions such as:

  • How do you learn about the newcomers you’re meeting in unobtrusive ways?
  • Can you offer vibrant, engaging Jewish education through entertaining “quick hits” and one-on-one conversations?
  • What’s the follow-up plan for providing next-step programs that are relevant to the end users?
  • How do you track whether people move from one program to the next?
  • How can you collaborate with other organizations that can serve the newcomers you reach in ways you can’t, so that nobody is turned away?
  • Is your community really as “warm and welcoming” as you claim, so that you can actually deliver on the promises that outreach makes?
  • How are you making the case for the meaning and value in Jewish communal participation, in other words, what’s in it for them?

JOI’s outreach comes from a place of genuine optimism about the future of Jewish life in America. This isn’t a desperation membership drive. We’re out there sharing what we love about being Jewish and helping individuals explore their own connections to whatever they find meaningful in our tradition, culture, and/or peoplehood. We look forward to continuing to share what we’ve learned about outreach and engagement with as many Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders as we possible can in 2012.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), located in New York City. Paul Golin is JOI’s Associate Executive Director.