Thursday, January 6, 2011

No Synagogues, Please!

My friend Rabbi Jim Egolf posted this article from the Forward to his Facebook this morning. I'd actually seen it before, and was going to blog about it, but had real trouble coming up with any kind of rational, coherent response. It's not that I'm surprised by the attitudes displayed by the participants in this Federation-sponsored, no-Jewish-content type social events. To quote one mom, “Going to a temple right now and spending all that money is not a draw for me, it’s more about connections.”

Or this description:

“Too much Judaism scares them off. Too little, and what’s the difference between what you do and Isis?” Rosen said.

The best examples are programs with five minutes of Jewish content and then a block of time for just socializing, he said.

Of course, Chabad has mastered the art of content-less content. As has the Reform movement, in a different direction. Sing a blessing or make Havdallah (with guitar, natch) or study a quick text and then we're off to the races, whether it's going on a hayride or doing some social action activity or whatever.

And there's nothing really wrong with the activities mentioned or the idea of using this as another outreach tool to get the unaffiliated and unenthusiastic (as Rabbi Eric Yoffie once opined, unaffiliation is a kind of affiliation all its own). And really, who doesn't think the cost of Jewish involvement isn't steep? Hence so many congregations and JCCs and other organizations implementing more and more 'try before you buy'-type programs: Taste of Judaism, prospective member programs, etc. Even programs outside synagogue buildings. Again, nothing is really new here in terms of the content.

I guess what riles me up and renders me speechless is the ambivalence on the part of the quoted individuals, especially toward 'too much Judaism', as if somehow the content is the problem.

Again, not new ideas--we can trace some of these attitudes back to the founding of B'nai Brith, the Zionist movements in America, the Workman's Circle, etc. And I'm hardly one who foists more than connection-building on folks when we do programming. But still, something just

Rabbi Judith Abrams taught a class at a CCAR conference many years ago where we were talking about normative Judaism. She pulled out a bunch of stuff, mostly kitsch (think bar mitzvah bears and car mezuzahs), and passed them around. We had a good laugh and then in all seriousness she asked, "which is mainstream American Judaism? Our members who affiliate, or those whose connection to Judaism is this stuff and not much else?"

That point has stuck with me for a while and I often find myself asking that question: what if we have it wrong--what if they're mainstream Jews, and we're the outliers? And does it matter?

Anyway, article follows below.

Time for “our big deal,” the 22-year-old instructor shouted inside the suburban Boston My Gym play space. “It’s space flights!”

Asher Misiph, an 18-month-old, grinned with glee as he “flew” in a plastic blue airplane across a zip line and back, with a hand from the peppy instructor.

It was almost sunset on a Friday in late October. This was a Jewish event, but there was nothing remotely Jewish about it, except the religion of the participants. The handful of families, with children ranging in age from 14 months to 5 years, came to the free class at the invitation of a parent hired by Boston’s Jewish Family Network to connect more families to the Jewish community. The children danced and bounced on trampolines as their parents socialized.

The families — some interfaith and most unaffiliated — are the target group that many Jewish organizations are reaching out to more than ever before. In the past few years, Jewish federations in New York, Chicago and Boston have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on programs for first-time parents with children up to age 5, hoping to persuade families to become more Jewishly involved. More than half of the country’s 157 Jewish federations — often as partners with synagogues, Jewish community centers and Jewish social service agencies — are working with new families. Most programs are held in secular places and cost families little or nothing.

“It’s happening from Seattle to Miami to New York to San Diego,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “This whole concept of engaging young families in Jewish life is critical to our future in the Jewish world.”

Although some of the programs have Jewish content, many, like the one at the Boston-area My Gym, do not. Organization leaders say they are responding to what first-time Jewish parents said in focus groups and surveys that they wanted: to make Jewish friends where they are the most comfortable — a playground, a café, a home. No synagogues, please.

“Going to a temple right now and spending all that money is not a draw for me,” said Asher’s mother, Stefani Misiph, who lives in Medway, a western Boston suburb sparsely populated by Jews. “To me, it’s more about connections.”

The families that the organizations most want to reach are often the hardest both to find and to persuade to start thinking about making Jewish choices — for example, interfaith families torn over whether to raise their children Jewish. If Jewish organizations do not attract them, however, secular programs, like Boston’s Isis Parenting centers, will.

Wooing more young families to the Jewish community is a bit of a tap dance, said Mark I. Rosen, a researcher and lecturer at Brandeis University who acts as a consultant to multiple Jewish federations on early childhood initiatives.

“Too much Judaism scares them off. Too little, and what’s the difference between what you do and Isis?” Rosen said.

The best examples are programs with five minutes of Jewish content and then a block of time for just socializing, he said.

The idea of Jewish-sponsored activities with zero Jewish content disturbs Cathy Rolland, the Union for Reform Judaism’s early childhood specialist.

“The concept of what I owe to the Jewish people is getting lost,” Rolland said.

That Jewish organizations act to do more with young families, though, is critical, Rolland, Rosen and others said.

Jews are waiting longer to get married and are having fewer children, according to a report put out by Zero to Three, a national early childhood organization. And according to population surveys, at least 50% of Jewish marriages are interfaith. In the past, families lived in predominantly Jewish communities, and social life often revolved around synagogues. Now, partly because of economic issues, more families are settling in suburbs where few Jews have lived in the past, making it hard to have a sense of Jewish community.

“Children grow up with a very weak Jewish identity if we don’t do this kind of thing,” Rosen said.

Jewish federations are smart to invest in these families now, he added. “The donor base is drying up. If more and more families are not choosing Jewish to raise their kids, where is that pipeline going to come from?”

Federation officials in New York, Boston and Chicago say that their motivation is not fear of fewer donors.

“This is not a fundraising strategy,” said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, a vice president at UJA-Federation of New York. “This is a strategy to create the most vibrant, creative Jewish community that ever lived.”

The New York federation has spent $540,000 since last year on programs for young families. It hired the transdenominational website My Jewish Learning to create, a website for parents of Jewish children, and in December it awarded grants for a variety of programs in Brooklyn, including music classes with Hebrew vocabulary for Israeli families and classes on Sabbath meal preparation for expectant parents.

“We’re not just interested in the kids learning baby signs; we’re interested in the parents hanging out together on Rosh Hashanah and having a potluck in the park,” said Rebecca Spilke, a New York federation official overseeing the activities of young families.

The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is spending $700,000 on young family outreach for 2010–11 — double the amount it spent five years ago — according to Steven Nasatir, the federation’s president.

The money supports preschool scholarships; a Shalom Baby program, which delivers information packets to new parents; communitywide Jewish-themed events at children’s museums and monthly JUF Book Buddies storytelling and singing programs at local bookstores.

Denver’s Jewish community, which has offered young family programs for years because of heavy support from the grantmaking organization the Rose Community Foundation is increasing its efforts even more. Its research shows that many Denver-area young Jewish families are unaware of existing programs, so the foundation now is getting out the word differently. In the fall of 2009, the foundation, working with 29 Jewish organizations, launched, which advertises events and classes and offers discounts on things like Mommy & Me classes in Jewish settings, baby-naming ceremonies and preschool tuition.

Boston’s multi-step approach — which started a little more than a year ago — is supported by the city’s federation, known as Combined Jewish Philanthropies. It is spending $300,000 in 2010–11 for new programs based in suburbs where Jewish institutions are not plentiful. Jewish Family Network, a joint partnership between the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston and two social service agencies based in suburbs, is a part of that work, and hopes to attract more unaffiliated families to the Jewish community through grassroots efforts.

The first step in the Boston-area approach, similar to what other cities do, is Welcome Baby, in-person visits by volunteers or social workers to Jewish mothers within the first six months of the birth. The mother receives a tote filled with gifts, including a Jewish-themed book and information about the local Jewish community. Mothers are then invited to gatherings with other new parents. As the parent connects more to the Jewish community, the hope is that the entire family will attend communitywide events, such as apple picking on Sukkot.

While many cities rely primarily on Internet sites to inform parents, JFN also hires parents as “connectors” to build e-mail lists of new parents and use word-of-mouth and social networking sites to announce meet-ups.

Amy Kohen, a parent connector for one group of Boston’s western suburbs, hosted a recent gathering at Sweet Bites, a local café.

“I always worry that no one is going to come,” Kohen said as she sat there at the 11:30 a.m. start time bouncing her 11-month-old daughter, Ellie, on her lap. By 11:45 a.m., four other mothers were there with their children. Over coffee and pastries, they discussed dealing with tantrums and picky eaters, and how to juggle part-time work with parenting.

“Even though it’s Jewish,” Kohen said, “it’s not like we sit here talking about Torah.”

Valerie Sales Geary, 38, who attended with her 18-month-old, Joshua, said she liked that “there’s not a religious part.” She is the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage.

“We’re going to raise him kind of exposed to both,” she said.

Jennifer Cheron, 33, who brought her 2-year-old son, Michael, said she and her husband are both Jewish and plan on joining a Conservative synagogue.

She grew up in Jericho, on Long Island. “When I was 10, I thought everybody was Jewish,” she said, laughing. But now, where she works and lives, Jews are no longer such a visible group.

“The Jewish content is Jewish community,” said Malka Young, who is a manager at the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, a partner in the Boston-area’s Jewish Family Network.

Although it is too early to gauge the success of these programs, anecdotal evidence, like a St. Louis group of parents visiting Jewish preschools en masse after being in a playgroup together, seems to suggest that the programs are serving their purpose.

And a pair of parents attending the My Gym gathering in Medfield exemplifies what Young and others want to see: lasting friendships between Jews.

Misiph and Jen Newberg first met a little less than a year ago at Little Wigglers, a movement class for Jewish mothers and their babies. Both in their early 30s, the mothers grew up in predominantly Jewish areas but live outside them now. They bonded with each other and with others in the class, and now they get together almost every week. Are group Sabbath dinners in their future? They don’t know. But Judaism is.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a Lexington, Mass.-based writer, is working on a memoir about grief and the Jewish faith.

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  1. Outreach from without the synagogue might be a wise approach in that it meets the unaffiliated from where they are, and is less threatening than being approached by a formal religious institution. This approach might encourage people to remain Jewish in a way that they are comfortable simply by keeping them in touch with other Jews and allowing them to share what is meaningful to them personally. Having to commit time and money to a synagogue whose array of activities may only minimally meet their needs, if at all, is distasteful to many. In the meantime, shifting the responsibility for outreach would free the synagogues' time and resources so that they could better focus on those who chose to affiliate and who find synagogue life important and meaningful.

  2. Thanks so much for posting!

    Absolutely and spot on. One of my mantras that a Chabad rabbi said to a colleague is, "it's not about the building." My only concern is that, usually, outreach efforts are designed to lead to further affiliation and/or integration. This has the feel of being an ends, not a means, and I'm not sure how I feel about that...