Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Metaphor for Jewish Community

Some months ago I was in a meeting where we were discussing the metaphors for Jewish Community. The one you commonly hear is the image of the bull's eye with the most connected or affiliated at the center. Emanating out from that are the layers of Jews as less and less engaged. I believe many of us find that inaccurate and not useful.

Additionally, we in Outreach often discuss the individual organizations in Jewish community in terms of their "welcoming" or "openness." We judge them by how relaxed their observance of Halacha is. So the fewer conditions on the potential participant, the more welcoming they are said to be. I find this image to also be inaccurate and not useful.

I have a couple of ideas -

Looking at the Welcoming definition
I like to think of Jewish community as a living organism. Each organization within the community (synagogue, JCC, agency) is like a cell. Every cell has a membrane. In order to live the cell must take things in and pass things out. If the membrane becomes non-porous, the cell dies. If the membrane is broken, the cell dies. So each entity must decide on it's own boundary (membrane) and sustain it. Additionally, all those cells make up different and necessary body parts. Each has its own function. All are interdependent for the life of the body.

This approach has made it easy for me to work with different movements and agencies. I'm comfortable with whatever they decide is their boundary -- whether it would be mine personally is irrelevant. In choosing their own boundary and function they sustain the whole. This also means that an Orthodox or Conservative Jew who has married a non-Jew can find acceptance in my program. I have not judged their way of life to be "unwelcoming." Additionally I believe it broadens all my couples when they are asked to be accepting of multiple life choices, not just ones that match their own.

Looking at the "Engagement" Level
(These numbers are based on the 2004 San Francisco Jewish Population Study done by Bruce Phillips.)
Rather than the bull's eye model, think of the students in a college class. The students represent the entire Jewish population. A portion of those Jews we consider to be most engaged. They are members of synagogues or JCC or they give to Jewish organizations - but they connect with a formal Jewish organization in an ongoing way. In the SF study 28% of the community was in this group. These are the most knowledgeable students, they come to class, do their homework, participate in class discussions and are probably majoring in this subject.

Also in the population are the Jews that say, "Don't call me, don't even call me Jewish. I want nothing to do with Judaism." In the study they are 8%. These students don’t come to class at all. They don’t like this subject and are likely to be inquiring about how to drop the class.

Another portion of the population say they "do Jewish" at home, they aren't interested in the broader Jewish community. They represent 20%. These students don’t come to class, they look up the assignments online and email in their work to the professor. They might be interested someday, but not right now.

This leaves 44% that I call Threshold Crossers. They go to Film Festivals, book discussions, holiday celebrations, services, etc. at JCCs, synagogues, and other Jewish venues but they don't join. These students come to class, they occasionally participate in class discussions, and they turn in the homework. They moderately interested in the subject being taught.

We the Outreach workers are the professor of this class. We can’t reach the students who are already dropping the class. We may be able to email the students that stay home. But our greatest portion of our students shows up, does the work but just isn’t yet enthralled with the topic. It is our job to try to interest and engage this group, the largest group, the group that shows up. Can we stimulate them, surprise them, fascinate them? I think we can.

In terms of successful outreach programs that invite those who are potentially interested in Jewish community, I believe it is the Threshold Crossers that are the easiest to reach. They show up at our Jewish buildings and they represent the LARGEST segment of the population! It doesn't take a lot of Public Space events to get them because they are coming to us. At 44% they are the majority of Jews in my community. I do need to publicize events in the secular venues because our community is not so obvious as Jewish community is in New York or Los Angeles. I do have to be findable. If I want continued engagement, I have to provide value -- a reason for these folks to sign up for more events, information, whatever. I am aware that things may be quite different in your community.

Our shared concerns for discussion:

* creating a metaphor for Jewish community
* what are the Jews that make up your community like
* usefulness of Public Space events in your area
* successful approaches to marketing & getting the word out