Big Tent Judaism: Do the mystery shopper test

by Maskil on November 16, 2007

In his recent opinion piece “Let’s Put Out A Communal Welcome Mat” in the Forward, Adam Bronfman had this to say:

Many of the institutions that feel the warmest to those already on the inside are the chilliest to newcomers, without the insiders ever realizing. Yet each of those insiders has friends and relatives that are not connecting to the Jewish community.

Think this doesn’t apply to your congregation or institution? Carry out a mystery shopper test on your own synagogue or temple. You might be in for a nasty surprise! We are not always the best judges of how welcoming our communities are, given that we’re in our comfort zones when in that familiar environment.

Either way, I hope that this initiative to adopt an “All are Welcome” approach for “Big Tent Judaism” will be taken up by all the alternative streams of Judaism (including Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform, as well as those who consider themselves non- or post-denominational, or who simply refuse to be labelled). I also hope that this initiative will not be restricted to the US (where it originated), but will permeate all alternative Jewish communities world-wide, both in the Diaspora and Israel. This includes not just the English-speaking Jewish communities, but also those in places such as the FSU, where open forms of Judaism are struggling to gain traction.

Here’s what the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) had to say in launching the Big Tent Judaism Coalition recently:

“But Rabbis,” those who are reading these words might respond, “My Jewish institution already is welcoming.” We have no doubt your institution is welcoming—to you. For those of us on the “inside” (and we happily count ourselves among them), it is difficult to imagine our beloved Jewish homes, synagogues and organizations as potentially cold and unwelcoming places. But we are insiders. Those who have not yet ventured into our homes, synagogues and community centers may not have experienced that sense of community. Perhaps they’ve never been invited. Or maybe they ventured in but we on the inside did not rush to greet an unfamiliar face, instead expecting that job to fall to someone else. The tension between how we feel about our institutions and how newcomers perceive them is one with which we must grapple.

It is why we have chosen to together issue a challenge to everyone involved in the Jewish community: We must look at our institutions from the outside. We need to evaluate how our institutions can best welcome in all newcomers, those who have not yet stepped over the threshold. It’s time to put out our welcome mats. Let’s post signs that say “All are Welcome,” and state it in all of our institutions’ marketing materials and on our websites.

To truly welcome all, we must look at why newcomers are choosing not to engage with the Jewish community and address those reasons head on. For example, cost of membership and programming can often stand in the way of those who would like to engage in our institutions. By giving newcomers “free samples” of our offerings, we can lower their barriers to participation and provide access to Jewish community programming.

Let’s make sure that the welcome mat is put out for all the marginalised and disadvantaged in our midst; the less-learned, observant or financially well-off, the mentally and physically handicapped, along with non-Orthodox converts and the inter-married and their children, who have in a sense become the “Mamzerim” of the 20th/21st century Jewish world. Instead of writing them off, as some streams within Judaism would have us do, let’s welcome them for who they are; family making the attempt to come home again.

The other aspect of putting out the communal welcome mat into Big Tent Judaism is the welcome mat (or perhaps “helping hand” might be a better term) the federations of the major alternative streams of Judaism need to extend to whole congregations. By this I mean that we frequently find mention of the (mainly financial) ordeals of alternative Jewish congregations throughout the world, but particularly in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and even Israel itself (for different reasons). Perhaps its time for each established congregation in a Western Democracy to adopt or twin with a struggling congregation elsewhere in the world. Assistance might be financial, expertise, teaching or spiritual resources, a “recycled” Torah scroll, etc. Assisting another community in this personal way would benefit both parties in re-discovering what it means to be part of a community.

Links/Reading/Resources:

Let’s Put Out A Communal Welcome Mat – Forward.com

JOI Op-Ed: Let’s Create a Big Tent Judaism

JTA Forum: Article Comments: Op-Ed: Let’s create ‘Big Tent Judaism’

Big Tent Judaism

The Jewish Outreach Institute

ALEPH–Alliance for Jewish Renewal

USCJ: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ)

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation | JRF

International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

MyJewishLearning.com – History & Community: Non-Denominational & Post-Denominational

MyJewishLearning.com – History & Community: State of the Denominations


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  • Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director, Jewish Outreach Institute

    Beautifully written, thanks for all the quotes and links. By the way, the Big Tent Judaism Coalition is indeed open to Jewish organizations outside North America. We are current building the coalition and already have interest from a couple of places in Europe. Our directory will hopefully be online soon.

    Also, this of course is not just limited to progressive streams of Judaism; non-religious/cultural organizations can join too (like JCCs) and I think there are even some Orthodox organizations that may be interested. For example, there are a number of Chabad rabbis that deal with intermarried families or children of intermarriage in a sensitive and welcoming way rather than shunning them.

    Thanks again!

  • Paul Golin, Associate Executiv

    Beautifully written, thanks for all the quotes and links. By the way, the Big Tent Judaism Coalition is indeed open to Jewish organizations outside North America. We are current building the coalition and already have interest from a couple of places in Europe. Our directory will hopefully be online soon.Also, this of course is not just limited to progressive streams of Judaism; non-religious/cultural organizations can join too (like JCCs) and I think there are even some Orthodox organizations that may be interested. For example, there are a number of Chabad rabbis that deal with intermarried families or children of intermarriage in a sensitive and welcoming way rather than shunning them.Thanks again!

  • Maskil

    Many thanks for the positive feedback, and for the corrections. After half a lifetime of disaffiliation, I joined my current synagogue just less than two years ago. It was the welcome my family and I received within the first few minutes of entering that made all the difference and, even although membership is a financial sacrifice, I’ve never looked back. Without those first few minutes of warmth, I would probably still be in the ranks of the disaffiliated!

  • Maskil

    Many thanks for the positive feedback, and for the corrections. After half a lifetime of disaffiliation, I joined my current synagogue just less than two years ago. It was the welcome my family and I received within the first few minutes of entering that made all the difference and, even although membership is a financial sacrifice, I’ve never looked back. Without those first few minutes of warmth, I would probably still be in the ranks of the disaffiliated!

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