URJ Boasts Bold New Hire

URJ Boasts Bold New Hire

April Baskin, former president of Jewish Multiracial Network, takes post as VP of 'Audacious Hospitality.'

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

April Baskin. Courtesy
April Baskin. Courtesy

What’s in a job title? Plenty of symbolism, it turns out, in the new post the Union for Reform Judaism has just filled.

Fueling the organization’s 2020 vision to strengthen congregations and expand the movement, April Baskin, former president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, is joining URJ in a newly created position: the audaciously named “vice president of audacious hospitality.”

“Our goal is to advance inclusion in the broadest sense,” said Baskin, who most recently served as a national director for InterfaithFamily, which offers resources for welcoming intermarried couples. “I’m interested in designing for the margins, for those who have walked into a synagogue in the past and felt they didn’t belong.”

The position, though not yet fully defined, is aimed at increasing engagement among unaffiliated Jews, which has fallen drastically according to the 2013 Pew Study of American Jewry. Though the Reform movement makes up the largest slice of the Jewish denominational identity pie at 35 percent, 35 percent of Jews who grew up Reform identify as “Jews of no religion,” non-Jewish, or as having no denomination as adults.

In many cases, this includes families who have felt estranged from Jewish communal life, Baskin said.

Baskin, a Sacramento, Calif., native, grew up in a multiracial, interfaith family and draws inspiration from her roots. With African-American, Native American and Jewish bona fides, she hopes her “deep ownership of identity” will inspire confidence in others.

“For many, I believe they would love to be involved in congregational life, they just need the right invitation,” she said. “They need to see the right images, whether they’ve adopted a child of color, or they have a transgender child, or a child with a disability. No one wants to be the only one.”

Baskin, who grew up Reform, recalled the pain of having her own Jewish identity questioned as a young adult. In college, she remembers being asked if she was Jewish at a Friday night Shabbat meal.

“For many American Jews, even if they are deeply engaged in Jewish life, they just don’t consider themselves ‘religious,’” said Baskin, citing the Pew study. According to the study, 55 percent of Jews by religion (as opposed to Jews of no religion) said being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Only 17 percent considered their Jewish identity to be defined by religion.

The goal, according to Baskin, is not necessarily to increase those numbers, but to meet people where they are.

“I hope this can be one more step in their Jewish journey,” she said.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs described Baskin, who will assume the position in August, as both a Reform “insider” and “outsider.”

“She is perfectly positioned to lead our work reaching beyond the synagogue walls,” Rabbi Jacobs said in a news release. He noted that no more than 50 percent of American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time. “Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their 20s and 30s will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation.”

But getting people back in the door is not just a matter of proactive programming, said Baskin. It’s also a matter of healing.

“People have been hurt, and they’ve become disenchanted,” she said, describing what it feels like to walk into a synagogue feeling like a stranger. “The forces of exclusion and embarrassment are strong. But if we don’t try to heal together, the dial won’t move forward.”


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