June 15, 2007: Local News
Outreach maven: Take programs to people
In city of bridges, JFGP attempts to build bridges into Jewish life
By Paul Haist
PAUL HAIST/Jewish Review
If you can't get the Jews to the Jewish institutions, take the Jewish institutions to the Jews.
That was one of the messages Rabbi Kerry Olitzky brought to Portland Jewish leaders June 11 as the featured speaker at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland annual meeting held at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center.
Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. Previously, he was national dean for adult Jewish learning and living at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
The Jewish Outreach Institute was created in 1988 to develop Jewish community-based outreach programming. Its efforts have led to the creation of scores of Jewish outreach programs from coast to coast, especially focusing national attention on opportunities for including the intermarried in the Jewish community.
In presentations to the JFGP Leadership Council early on the evening of June 11 and later the same evening at the annual meeting, Olitzky noted what most call the Jewish community is, in fact, a minority of the Jews in any locale.
"If we want to reach those (Jews) on the outside, we have to go where they are," he said.
"We in the Jewish community have an edifice complex," said Olitzky. "We build the institution and can't move away from it."
But, increasingly, in Portland and elsewhere, Jews are moving further from the traditional centers of Jewish life, so location becomes one barrier to Jewish involvement.
"Unless we are willing to provide services where Jews are, we will not draw them back into the community," warned Olitzky.
He called for cooperative efforts, such as the free exchange of information on newcomers to the community, among all Jewish institutions and abandonment of the turf mentality.
"We have to do this as a cooperative venture," he said, "because a rising tide lifts all ships."
The federation brought Olitzky and his innovative ideas about outreach to Portland because the federation has been engaged in recent months in a concerted effort to build bridges between various segments of the Jewish community for the purpose of bringing more Jews into active Jewish life.
Olitzky outlined a model of what he calls "public space Judaism" in which existing Jewish institutions—synagogues, the federation, Jewish agencies—begin by offering programs, often tied to Jewish or secular holidays or the cultural calendar, in locales outside the Jewish community and far from the already affiliated core community.
During the December shopping season, for example, he suggested programming in secular public venues such as malls or bookstores frequented by the general population, including the target Jewish population.
He called this allowing for "unplanned participation" and described it as an opportunity to make first contact with unaffiliated Jews, and to acquire contact information for subsequent follow-up.
Slightly closer to the core Jewish community, Olitzky called for "destination" programming such as a Jewish film festival held in a secular venue but that encourages interest in Jewish topics. He described this as "planned participation," but in a secular environment with a low threshold for involvement. This is another opportunity for outreach and the collection of contact information for follow-up.
Still closer to the core community, Olitzky's vision next calls for programming at Jewish institutions, but programming that is open to all, such as a folk festival on the lawn of the Jewish community center.
Through such a series of programming from the far periphery to the core of the community, the community can, argued Olitzky, reach Jews with whom it has not previously been able to make contact.
"Take a program you are already doing and take it out into the community," he said. "If we wait inside the walls of our institutions, we are going to wait an awfully long time."
Olitzky focused also on removing other barriers to Jewish participation, including cost. He suggested, for example, that the membership dues and ticket-price systems in place at Jewish institutions such as synagogues and JCCs be turned on their head.
Instead of charging non-members more than members for admission to Jewish events, charge them less, he suggested.
"If you are (already) committed to an institution, you are willing to pay for it," said Olitzky, but non-members should be welcomed first, he added.
Olitzky outlined a number of barriers to Jewish involvement and proposed ways of removing them.
He urged Jewish institutions and communities to think both strategically and tactically. He pointed repeatedly to the community's "gatekeepers," the people who answer the phones and respond to e-mails."
They need training, he said, not to miss an opportunity to gather contact information for follow-up, such as when someone calls a synagogue to ask about the time of worship services.
"For outreach to be effective it must be systematic, systemic and strategic," said Olitzky.