Is Outreach A Bad Word?

Is Outreach A Bad Word?

A few weeks ago I attended a relatively small invitation-only gathering at the Upper West Side’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to discuss “Jewish identity, who is a Jew, membership in the Jewish community and outreach, in Israel and the Diaspora.”

As you might imagine, that was a lot to pack into a four-hour meeting. (And next month, we’ll reconvene to resolve the Israel-Arab conflict, or at least the Israel-Palestine conflict, ha ha.)

Since the conversation was off the record, not to mention a bit all over the place, I didn’t blog about it at the time. However, one thing that really struck me: how several high-profile participants, including one who has been quite outspoken about recognizing patrilineal descent, preceded their comments with “I’m not a big proponent of outreach, but…”

It made me think of the tendency among many ambitious young women to say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” Or even the Democrats’ decades of backing away from the word “liberal.” (If you’re over 30, you might remember, years before that Showtime series about glam lesbians, when W’s dad disparagingly accused his opponent Michael Dukakis of being “the L-word.”)

Granted, outreach has its limits when done badly, when quantity is valued over quality or when we bring uninspired or shallow Jewish experiences to those poor (or upper middle class) huddled masses yearning (or not) to be affiliated.

But does outreach deserve to be a bad word?

I thought about this yesterday while I was at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Judaism 2030 conference. (More on this, along with the larger “Jetsons”-esque trend in Jewish communal life of late, to be discussed in a future [futuristic?] post.)

I also thought about it last week when announced IFF/Chicago, a pilot project to “bring comprehensive programming aimed at engaging interfaith families Jewishly to local communities.”

Interfaith-specific programming has, to some extent, fallen from favor in recent years, since a) the Reform movement, for budgetary reasons, slashed its outreach staff and b) some people have argued that this population, particularly as it grows to become majority, rather than minority, shouldn’t be singled out or treated differently than other Jews.

IFF’s Ed Case, however, has long argued there’s a need for both: welcoming interfaith families into mainstream programs, but also offering interfaith-specific programs.

“As people get more comfortable in Jewish settings it can be less important, but at first many people feel more comfortable” in a Jewish environment “if they know there will be other people there who are like them,” he told me.

“No matter how prevalent intermarriage is, when someone is in a relationship with someone who is not Jewish, they face many of the same issues” — decisions over how to raise children and what traditions to observe at home — “and I don’t see how that changes,” he added.

Budgeted at $175,000 for the first year and funded by four Jewish foundations — The Crown Family, the Marcus Foundation, the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund and one that has asked to remain anonymous — the pilot will have a full-time director (already hired, but not yet announced) who will, according to IFF:

*Provide information about and connect people in interfaith relationships with Chicago Jewish resources,

*Publicize and raise awareness that the Chicago Jewish community welcomes interfaith families, and

*Provide a robust, personalized referral service for rabbinic officiation at weddings and other life cycle celebrations, help officiating clergy maintain connection with Chicago couples, and help couples maintain connection with Jewish life and community.

The pilot also includes resources and trainings to ensure that interested couples are welcomed by Chicago Jewish organizations/professionals; online and hybrid online/in-person workshops to help Chicago interfaith couples learn how to share religion in their lives and online and hybrid online/in-person basic Judaism classes for interfaith couples and families.

“We think we’ve come up with something that, if it works, could be replicated in other places,” Case said.

Just don’t call it outreach.

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