Multiplying Access Points to Jewish Life

Changing organizational cultures and behavior can go a long way toward making participation in Jewish communal life a more attractive and rewarding proposition for Jews who currently stand at the margins. It needs, however, to be complemented by another strategy growing out of a marketing perspective: ensuring that there are enough access points to the community to do justice to the incredible diversity and energy of the Jewish populace today.

There is something paradoxical going on in Jewish life today: At the same time as many established organizations are confronting declining or “revolving-door” participation, other Jewish institutions cannot accommodate all those who wish to become involved in or to make use of their services, and still other new, often grass-roots, enterprises are growing rapidly. The lesson here is that when institutions really do meet the needs of a client population, support will be forthcoming. From a policy standpoint, the question is: how can we ensure that Jews who are ready to engage the community find that the community is ready to provide what they are seeking?

In some areas of Jewish life, capacity is a real issue. Each year, many of the summer camps of the major religious movements have to turn away prospective campers. Given what we know about the tremendous impact of summer camping on Jewish identity, this is not just unfortunate, it is a shande. Or take the example of Cleveland’s highly successful Retreat Institute: It faces the prospect of having to curtail its services to schools, congregations and other organizations because there are not enough appropriate facilities in Northeast Ohio to accommodate more programs.

Obviously, it is not easy to generate the resources overnight to increase capacity (and, given the Jewish community’s propensity for building facilities that become white elephants, not wise to rush into expansion without careful thought). But, the community needs to be aware and agile enough to capitalize on such opportunities. Something of this sort has occurred in recent years on several major college campuses, as new facilities have been built to accompany a reviving Hillel movement. Nevertheless, the Jewish community does not have a good record of exploiting its successes. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute has for decades demonstrated how a high-quality retreat/camp/conference center can take advantage of a superb natural setting and creative programming to have a dramatic impact on a multi-generational population, including many who were not previously active in Jewish life. Despite this track record, there is no second Brandeis-Bardin in North America.

Multiplying access points to Jewish life means providing more exemplars of what is working: more camps, more retreat centers, more day high schools, more high-quality adult learning classes, more comprehensive after school programs (like the Kesher program in Cambridge, Mass.). It also means providing more diversity of programming, more and different options for getting involved. Examples of what needs to be and could be done abound:

More than half of all Jewish adolescents “drop out” of participation in organized Jewish education between ages 13 and 18. Fewer than two percent in any cohort participate in an Israel experience each year. Youth group membership is declining.

In the face of these statistics, we need a dramatic change in Jewish youth programming. Jewish teens need new options for participating in appealing, substantive Jewish-related activities that don’t require joining a group, enrolling in a school or making a long-term commitment. Some opportunities exist: arts-oriented programs (choruses, drama groups, dance troupes, etc.), social service projects, internships with adult role models, Jewish activities within public high schools, leadership courses, high-intensity summer programs like Brandeis University’s Genesis Program. Where these programs do exist, they seem to work in that they attract teens who bypass traditional programs or who are seeking more than what such programs can usually offer. Israel experiences that are outside the norm – in content, timing or sponsorship – also appear to draw in some of those who do not participate in more conventional programs.

The objective here is not to destroy what already exists, to abolish Hebrew High Schools or to undermine youth movements. Rather, it is to broaden the range of opportunities that Jewish teens have for staying, or getting, involved. This effect can and should be done both through expanding the horizons of existing institutions and through creating new frameworks as needed. The key is to recognize that “change” and “diversity” are the order of the day, and that they represent “threats” to Jewish communal life only if we permit them to be such.

What applies to adolescents, applies to adults. Significant numbers of Jews today, including individuals who both do and do not participate in existing organizations, appear to be seeking out new ways of expressing their Jewishness. In at least four areas of activity – spirituality, study, social action and healing – not only new programs, but also whole new institutions to deliver and support these activities have sprouted. These institutions, however, frequently have to struggle for their existence, and certainly for recognition and support from the existing organizational establishment.

Again, what is needed is not to overthrow what exists, but to enrich and complement it with new options and opportunities for Jewish self-expression and involvement. This is not a new story. Just a few decades ago, the rapid spread of havurot demonstrated that there were both a need and a potential for engaging and energizing Jews within and beyond existing structures. The explosive growth of Jewish family education similarly illustrated that Jewish parents were open to new experiences and expanded practice when “invited in” sensitively, skillfully and sincerely.

The situation today is in many respects even more promising. There is good reason to believe that if the Jewish community can provide additional high-quality opportunities for adult Jews to study Jewish sources, to explore prayer and meditation, to apply their Jewish values to important issues and to find comfort and consolation in times of pain and anguish, we will discover that the decline in participation is in reality a mandate for new ways of connecting. Study, spirituality, social action and healing hardly exhaust the potential access points worth further testing. But, the real test will be of the will of the community: Are we prepared to accept and encourage the creative tension that will inevitably accompany efforts to expand the range of options – both experiential and institutional – available to Jews?

The need to multiply access points into organized Jewish activity has one more dimension: addressing directly the situation of Jews who are either underserved or marginalized by (most) existing institutions. The Jewish community, for perhaps understandable reasons, focuses a substantial portion of its energies and resources on facilitating the involvement of families with children and other settled, middle-aged, relatively affluent adults. Its agencies provide extensive services for the elderly and for other Jews “at risk” (including immigrants), although these individuals are often separated from the “mainstream” of communal activities. It is hardly a secret that the community does not effectively reach or engage a significant proportion of those Jews who are:

  • young adults (especially those who are unmarried)
  • childless
  • divorced or separated
  • recent arrivals in the community
  • married to non-Jews
  • gay or lesbian
  • not affluent (if they’re not also Orthodox)
  • victims of abuse
  • physically, mentally or emotionally challenged

The issues and challenges involved in increasing participation among these populations include, but also go beyond, those of modifying organizational cultures (see above) and reducing costs (see below).

If the community is seriously interested in expanding their involvement, it will have to adopt a multi-dimensional, and, in some instances, frankly experimental, approach. The elements of this approach would include:

  1. targeting more programs and activities for individuals within these population segments;
  2. publicizing the availability of such programs;
  3. working with existing institutions to create a more open, welcoming climate for participation; and
  4. supporting initiatives and institutions emanating from these population segments that may serve their needs in ways that “mainstream” organizations do not or cannot.

It is not clear what the impact of such efforts would be. Experience with some groups like young adults and inter-married couples indicates that even sincere overtures from mainstream organizations may not produce dramatic rises in rates of participation. There is no simple recipe or formula for success: each of the options frequently suggested and sometimes pursued – targeted programs, special-purpose groups, greater efforts at inclusion and “destigmatizing,” more vigorous outreach from existing organizations, heightened responsiveness to grassroots endeavors – will likely “turn on” some individuals and “turn off” others. The bottom line is that we know that current policies and practices leave substantial numbers of Jews “outside” the organized community; what we don’t know is precisely how to bring them “in” – or even if that is the best way to frame our goal.

One of the concerns that has been expressed recently with regard to “outreach” efforts is that they divert energy and resources away from activities that could deepen (and, presumably, lengthen) the participation of the considerable numbers of Jews already being reached by communal institutions. There is both a pragmatic and an ideological component to the argument. On pragmatic grounds, it is suggested that outreach to more marginal populations is not cost effective. Too much needs to be expended for too small a yield. Ideologically, the concern is sometimes expressed that to appeal to Jews who are currently under-represented in organizational life, the Jewish content and integrity of activities and institutions will need to be watered down or distorted.

These concerns are not without merit. But, the consequences they anticipate are neither universally applicable nor inevitable. In truth, most “outreach” is more of a “meeting halfway.” Comparatively little energy goes into finding and trying to appeal to Jews who want nothing to do with the community. Rather, those who participate are generally among the most eager to get involved, but have not been able to find a comfortable place to do so. It would be tragic if debate about the appropriate priority to be given to outreach to the inter-married blinded us to the reality that much more needs to be done by the community for and with the myriad of Jews who remain poorly served and under-included: single parents, children in need of special education, the less affluent, young adults and many others.

Effectively multiplying access points to organized Jewish life will require a higher level of institutional collaboration than the Jewish community is used to. One of the reasons why many Jews do not find what they are looking for in Jewish institutions is because the institutions are drawn, by experience, competencies and economic factors, to providing a relatively narrow range of programs for a limited, but valued and important, segment of the community. A good example of this phenomenon is supplementary Jewish education. Most “Hebrew schools” offer very similar curricula, on a similar time schedule, with similarly qualified teachers. These reflect a) the overriding goal that parents hold for such education, namely, effective Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation; b) the role the school plays as a recruiting vehicle for congregational membership; and c) the modest investment of time and money that can be justified by the above. Other options for supplementary education, such as magnet schools emphasizing particular topics or teaching approaches, are rarely to be found. Where they are, they often do tap into new markets. But the risk and expense for any individual synagogue to go against the norm are usually too great to inspire originality. Only if a group of synagogues or a community were to work on supplementary education as a collective endeavor is it likely that we would see diverse options become available.

A similar dynamic operates in other arenas. The challenges of engaging outside-the-mainstream populations in Jewish institutions are such that it is easier and more rewarding for individual institutions to focus their energies on “lower hanging fruit”: those who are more accessible and whose needs are more easily met. But what is a rational strategy for single institutions is damaging to the community as a whole. The only realistic approach is to share the risk in the hope of sharing the gain as well. Helping institutions cultivate specialties in specific areas of programming or in serving specific populations, or joining together to create new programs or institutions for the same purposes, will likely be increasingly important as the Jewish community tries to engage an increasingly diverse and demanding population.

In this and in other respects, multiplying access points and implementing organizational change go hand in hand with strategies for expanding and deepening participation. In a competitive environment, the Jewish community needs to offer both additional and more rewarding opportunities for involvement. It is already rare that any Jew finds all of her or his needs being met within the confines of a single institution, certainly not over the course of a lifetime. Building the commitment and the mechanisms to help Jews move along pathways of growth and involvement, to take advantage of the contributions of many institutions, is the direction for the future.