When an Ideology Requires a Name Change


We wanted to adopt a name that reflected our approach to Jewish life, a name that reflects our vision and mission, one that embraces the far reaches of the Jewish community.

By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) was founded over 25 years ago at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). The organization served to support the academic inquiry of its founder, Dr. Egon Mayer, of blessed memory, a sociologist known for his foundational research into the incipient phenomenon of intermarriage. As its first president and volunteer leader, David Belin, of blessed memory, was cofounder of JOI. As a scholastic endeavor, focused on intermarriage, the organizational name served it well – and continued to do so for many years. Over the years, the operating philosophy of JOI evolved into a value construct which we named Big Tent Judaism (introduced at our national conference some years ago) that has been adopted by many institutions (including the 600 plus member institutions of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition). And this ideological framework has also been used in the context of many of our programs (such as The Mothers Circle), as well as our own “boots on the ground” concierges which are now in eight communities and growing. Moreover, since our approach expanded to include reaching out to those who were not engaged by the Jewish community, including unaffiliated intermarried families, and championing our signature methodology of Public Space Judaism, the time came for the Jewish Outreach Institute to live up to its own reputation and become Big Tent Judaism – formally marked by the relocation of its offices (in May) and the launch of a new website (mid-June).

But this notion is not just about a simple name change. And our name change is not just about our organization. We argue constantly that the organized Jewish community is vulnerable (subject to what I have named institutional Darwinism) and has to be responsive to the various trends that are driving North American culture. We also argue that Jewish communal organizations have been historically institutionally-focused rather than client-centered. Thus, we wanted to adopt a name that reflected our approach to Jewish life, a name that reflects our vision and mission, one that embraces the far reaches of the Jewish community, including those populations that have been historically disenfranchised and/or marginalized. It also includes a recognition that the periphery of the Jewish community has become its core and that there are numerous demographic trends that have to be acknowledged and affirmed and welcomed into its center. We think Big Tent Judaism best expresses such an approach to Jewish community and the diversity necessary for Jewish continuity.

Frankly, we were afraid to make a formal change to our name. Besides the labor and the expense, we had some measure of brand recognition and brand loyalty that developed over the years. Since we were an early presence on the internet, we even had a three-letter URL, something unavailable today. Moreover, the new name felt a little awkward. (Consider the similarly awkward movement among sports teams to familiar names like the New York Rangers to the less familiar Minnesota Wild.) Yet it was our major funders who encouraged us to do what we tell others to do – be bold and embrace the change. We also took on the new moniker in the midst of a move of offices – intentionally. This made all of the changes that would have to be made (whether for a move or a name change) a little easier – a double duty, as some people call it.

When should an organization change its name? This is what we learned:

  • When the name no longer reflects its operating philosophy.
  • When it no longer resonates with its core constituency.
  • When it no longer makes an important statement about the organization in the community it intends to reach.
  • When the organization wants to share with the community something new about itself.

Were we right in making the transition to Big Tent Judaism? We will let you know after a second quarter century has passed in our organizational history. Or even better, when our organization is no longer needed and the Jewish community does, in fact, become the welcoming Big Tent we believe it was always intended to be.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute). His latest book (written with his son Rabbi Avi Olitzky) is called “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue: Traditional Dues to Fair Share to Gifts from the Heart” (Jewish Lights Publishing).