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Outreach Efforts Shift Their Focus and Strategy

June 18, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, Staff Writer
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(From left): Lisa Apfelberg, Rabbi Philip Warmflash, Iris Koller and Rabbi Rachel Ain participated in a panel discussion as part of the Jewish Outreach Institute's recent annual conference in Philadelphia.

Jonathan and his wife have lived overseas for more than a decade. But now that they have young children, they are considering moving back to the United States and particularly looking closely at Austin, Texas, as a place to call home.

That's where Lisa Apfelberg comes in.

As director of outreach and engagement for the Jewish Community Association of Austin, Apfelberg functions as a so-called "concierge," helping to ease the transition into the area for newcomers, as well as for the unaffiliated and disconnected.

In the case of Jonathan and his wife, who are an Orthodox couple, Apfelberg spent nearly five hours on the phone with the two before their first visit to the region. Rather than referring them to other outlets for specific questions, she answered everything herself -- from queries about synagogues and Jewish day schools to which neighborhoods to consider and where to purchase kosher meat.

When the family finally flew across the ocean for their first visit, Apfelberg arranged much of their trip, including meetings with realtors, day schools, pre-schools and an Orthodox rabbi. A JCC babysitting service even watched the kids free of charge while Apfelberg showed her clients around.

This personalized approach is a stark change from the past, when, according to Apfelberg, outreach in Austin was essentially limited to calls to the city's Jewish information and referral service.

"It's not really that welcoming" to just pass people off to "a bunch of different phone numbers," Apfelberg said of the old way. "I'm kind of a one-stop shop for information about the Jewish community."

An Orthodox family is not generally what you think about when you think outreach in the Jewish community.

Yet Austin, like many other cities and towns across the country, is rethinking its strategy.

This refashioning comes as the outreach focus begins to shift away from intermarrieds and toward a broader emphasis on stemming the tide of unaffiliated and uninvolved Jews.

Many communities are also striving to extend a hand to groups that have historically felt unwelcome in the Jewish community, such as gays and lesbians, as well as multiracial Jews.

Indeed, American Jewry is currently going through what Rabbi Mayer Selekman -- rabbi emeritus at Temple Sholom in Broomall -- has called "a mutational period" in terms of how people find their entry points into Jewish life.

This shift was a constant topic of discussion at the Jewish Outreach Institute's national conference, held last week in Philadelphia; the event brought together professionals in the field from throughout North America.

Outreach today "is a combination of a soft sell and a recognition of what already exists within Judaism, which is that you don't have to go to shul to be a Jew," said Selekman, who also sits on the board of InterFaithways, a local outreach group.

Many at the conference discussed lowering the barriers of entry into Jewish life. Participants noted that these can include anything from choosing the right location for an event (a synagogue versus a less intimidating venue); refraining from using unfamiliar Hebrew or Yiddish wording on promotional materials; or even overemphasizing the term "the Jewish community."

"Calling ourselves the Jewish community is sort of a misnomer, and in terms of outreach, we're going to change our mindset and our wording to be your Jewish community," so as to be more inclusive, said Susan Pultman, director of programming and marketing at The Collaborative, a local outreach group that targets young adults.

Stressing the Cultural Side
In an effort to attract families and the uninvolved, many outreach organizations are relying on cultural programming, rather than religious ones, and are moving Judaism out of the synagogue and into more secular spaces.

According to Robyn Krane, outreach director for the Montreal Jewish Community Centres, many families "just haven't found a place in the community and don't feel a synagogue is for them."

As such, she said, those people are often looking for non-threatening points of entry -- a theme echoed by JOI senior program officer Liz Markovitz.

"A Jewish organization can be very, very comforting to someone who already feels welcome there, and I think it's very hard sometimes to recognize that someone might not yet be comfortable there," she said.

Much of Krane's work involves developing events that showcase the secular side of Judaism, such as a recent Israeli film festival or social-action programming, like an upcoming shoreline clean-up project in partnership with a Jewish environmental group.

Linking outreach and social action has proven to be an effective tool in bringing new faces into the tribe -- a tactic that works especially well at the student level.

"It's important for students to understand how to think outside the box," said Sarah Portilla, director of engagement at Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick, N.J. "You can do a party for a Jewish cause" or find other ways to be involved Jewishly without entering a synagogue.

That's the route taken by the PJ Library, funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which sends free, age-appropriate books to member families.

According to Judi Wisch, programming consultant for the PJ Library in Western Massachusetts, the group does outreach on two fronts. "We're reaching families who live on the geographic periphery, and unengaged families who can engage with Judaism in the safety of their own home," attested Wisch.

Connecting families to other resources is another matter entirely, said Wisch.

"My goal isn't to bring them into my institution; my goal is to offer them access to the riches of Judaism in whatever way they can get it," she said.

For Apfelberg, it's all about the approach: "When you're doing the hard sell and you're not listening to people, that can do more damage than good."

As an example, her client, Jonathan, who asked that his last name not be used, said that her personalized touch had helped sell his family on Austin.

"In many ways," he said, "I almost feel like part of the community already, despite the fact that I don't live there yet and haven't decided if I'm going to live there."

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