Outreach is a By-Product, Not a Goal

I don’t have an argument with the objectives of those who advocate an aggressive outreach program: to try to attract as many Jews back into the orbit of Jewish living, affiliation, and community, and to share the riches of our covenant with those non-Jews open to joining our people and our faith. The future of Judaism depends on our ability to create passionate Jews, and there is now statistical evidence to bolster the claims of the religious denominations that this vitality will only be fostered in the sanctuaries and classrooms of the synagogues.  That congregations will thrive best if they can invoke the loyalty of a larger population is patently self-evident. 

So it is not with the objectives of Outreach that I differ, but with its focus and its hysteria.  My dissent is with those who advocate an expensive and glitzy outreach program, as though the only thing that keeps the unaffiliated masses from pouring into our synagogues is the right gimmick, the perfect program, or the ideal format.  It just isn’t so: they stay away because they’re not interested—neither in the Jewish community nor in the yoke of Torah.
Why are so many Jews indifferent (or antagonistic) to Judaism?  Most are so secularized that they reject any hint of the divine or the sacred in life.  In so many areas, Judaism stands in opposition to fundamental assumptions and values that permeate American culture: the idealization of urges and personal desires, the ultimate authority of one’s own inner voice, the preference for the new, the spontaneous, the individualistic. Small wonder, then, that so many American Jews find themselves incapable of resonating to Judaism’s rhythms and priorities. They may also resent the demands that Judaism places on its adherents and flee from the pressures of those impositions.  It takes effort and sacrifice and discipline to affiliate with and participate in the life of a sacred community.  Similarly, Judaism imposes high moral and ethical standards, and fleeing religion may be an all-too seductive attempt to squirm out of decency and the effort (and denial) that goodness requires.

There is something paternalistic and infantalizing in the well-intentioned dogma that the unaffiliated can be induced to join us if only the institutions of Jewish life offer sufficiently-attractive packaging. 

Another pervasive assumption is that these people “really” want to be more Jewish, but that we (rabbis, educators, congregants) haven’t molded an inviting environment for them.  The wish may be well-meaning in that we certainly can and should be more welcoming to all people (whether or not they embody the “Jewish ideal”, whatever that is.)  But the premise of the outreach effort is paternalistic not only in its assumption that slick programming will con “them” into joining “us”, but that we know what they really want. We know what’s best; those others may think they’re not interested in Judaism but, deep down, they really are.  It’s the Jewish equivalent of  “father knows best”: Rabbis know best, or, even more frightening, the Federation knows best.

Jews are choosing not to affiliate in large numbers and to marry non-Jews in droves. A majority of these people are raising their children either with no religion at all or as Christians.  Their distance from the Jewish community and their indifference to Judaism is the result of choices that they have made as competent adults.  I may not (and don’t) like their choice and I think they pay a price for their error, but I’m not so presumptuous as to mistake my passion for Judaism as their ideal, or to think that the problem is poor communication from the Jewish community.  They heard our message (join a synagogue, live the mitzvot, serve God), and they reject it.

Proof that the problem is not a lack of the right program or sufficient funds is that unaffiliated people have no problem finding—and using—my phone number when they want to: when a parent dies, when the parents of a child (generally at age 11) decide they do want a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony after all, when a baby is born, or when they want to marry.  At the approach of a life cycle event, the unaffiliated know how to get in contact with a synagogue and a rabbi. Their call at a life-cycle event is not a reorientation to Judaism and Jewish community, but a single, discrete moment when contact can be safely enjoyed and quarantined from the normal routines of life.   The reason they don’t do so at other times is they don’t want to.

Consequently, spending great amounts of time, energy, creativity, or money to lure these people in is a waste of talent and funds.  And the Jewish community can ill-afford that waste.  No program, no matter how clever, can manufacture desire.

I am not suggesting that we wash our hands of the unaffiliated.  I repeat: I do not reject the goals of the outreach agenda—bringing Jews and interested non-Jews into our brit with God.  But I believe that outreach can never be a goal in-and-of-itself.  Rather, outreach is a secondary gain, a benefit that accrues indirectly from building a dynamic and vibrant core.  That’s where our efforts and our investments should go.

Permit me an example from my own congregation: I’ve been the Rabbi of Congregation Eilat for the past five years.  When I arrived in Mission Viejo, there were a little over 200 family members.  I started an Introduction to Judaism program as a way of dealing with those intermarried families who were active within the synagogue already.  The only publicity I generated was a short article in the local Jewish paper and two small ads in the Saddleback Valley News (a paper as small as it sounds).  25 people signed up for that first class, which was based on the curriculum of the University of Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism.  The 18 week program covers the life cycle, the calendar year, Jewish history from Abraham to yesterday, Kashrut and Shabbat, and the contemporary religious movements within Judaism.  It also teaches Hebrew phonetics.  The reading assignments are extensive.

I still teach that course annually, but for the last two years, word-of-mouth and those two small adds fetch, not 25, but over 100 students annually.  About 150 people have converted to Judaism through our program in the past five years, and about half the course is now composed of Jews-by-birth who want to learn about their religion on an adult level.  Our synagogue membership is now almost 600 families, and our Shabbat morning services are filled with young families and children.  The school has shown similar growth.

My goal was not directly to reach the unaffiliated, but to focus on elevating those already affiliated.  It has become a wonderful outreach program, but never through direct action. Instead, those first converts shared their excitement with other preschool parents, with neighbors and friends.  They persuaded congregants to take the course, who in turn convinced other Jews and prospective converts.  Over the years, friends and neighbors of my congregants heard about how wonderful this course was and came, on their own, through the doors of the synagogue. 

There is no substitute for word-of-mouth and an excited congregation.  By pitching to the core, by strengthening observance, study, and prayer among those already affiliated, I trusted their ability to reach out more effectively than anything any institution might structure or impose.  By concentrating on fashioning a vibrant community that takes Judaism seriously and cultivates a warm, heimish feeling, we created a place where people like to be, where spirituality happens.  And there is no more effective outreach than that.

What breaks through popular indifference or hostility is coming into contact with average Jews who have been turned on and reoriented to Judaism and Jewish living.  Because these passionate Jews are still functioning in “normal” professions and still living within “normal” neighborhoods, they aren’t threatening and they remove the fear that one will become an anachronism, a fanatic, or an idiot.  They possess a credibility that no rabbi, educator, or Jewish professional can ever attain.  What works is not a special “message” (that’s just another gimmick).  It is the messengers that are special—we provided the tools and the passion and the ability for congregants to become exemplars of Judaism to their neighbors, friends, and families.  I don’t have a special message (that’s outreach), but I do train terrific messengers (that’s inreach).

Outreach, like happiness, can never be a primary goal. It accrues in the pursuit of meaning and community, and that must remain our primary calling and focus.  Outreach is a secondary gain of creating an exciting Jewish community.  Trusting our fellow congregants and our fellow Jews—by giving them the tools to live rich mitzvahdik lives—will simultaneously provide  the passion and the ability to interest the unaffiliated, without diminishing their integrity, or Judaism’s.

The people (unaffiliated and affiliated) will come (and stay) if the messengers are right.  Successful outreach is the corollary of extensive inreach.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).