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Conference on Outreach Urges an Open, Welcoming, “Big Tent” American Judaism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 2007

Translating an ideal of inclusivity into reality was the theme of the third annual conference of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which drew more than 300 participants — from rabbis to lay leaders to Jewish professionals — to Washington, D.C. in October.  
Writing in Washington Jewish Week (Oct. 18, 2007), Richard Greenberg described the vision of the conference this way: “Imagine a refashioned American Jewish landscape. No more us versus them. No more insiders versus outsiders. Almost anyone could be an insider if he or she wanted to be, and it wouldn’t matter whether the individuals were intermarried or gay or situated elsewhere on what is now known as the periphery of American Jewish life. Everyone would be welcome in the big tent of Judaism.”  
The three-day conference marked the launch of what the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) calls the “Big Tent Judaism Campaign,” which will explore an array of programs and strategies aimed at making the Jewish community a more welcoming and nurturing place.  
“This is a conference for optimists and those who are willing to work hard to give wings to that optimism,” JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky declared.  
Keynote speaker Adam Bronfman, conference co-chair, said that he has experienced life on both sides of the inclusion divide. Raised in a secular household, Bronfman married his high school sweetheart, who was not Jewish at the time, but later converted after raising their four children as Jews.  
“Rejection has unintended consequences,” he added. “I think anyone who identifies as a Jew is a Jew; I don’t have a threshold.” Bronfman conceded, however, that perhaps because of his high-profile name, he and his wife encountered fewer obstacles than other inter-married couples. “I want that for everybody,” he added.  
Among the best local outreach vehicles according to JOI, is EntryPointDCGesher City, a free, online bulletin board aimed at Washington-area Jews ages 21-35.  
Operated by the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, EntryPoint is a platform for social networking groups called clusters — virtual communities of young Jews who coalesce around shared interests, place of residence, age and many other commonalities.  
Michelle Weiss, religious education director at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, Virginia, said her synagogue is already very inclusive. It has organized “ask the rabbi” sessions for parents of religious school students. “I’m here because I want to learn how to open our doors even further,” she said.  
JOI executive director Rabbi Olitzky, writing in Washington Jewish Week (Oct. 11, 2007), argues that non-Jewish partners of synagogue members deserve a vote on congregational affairs: “Some institutions have come a long way to granting privileges to those in our midst who are of other religious backgrounds and yet are part of the Jewish community because they are married to or partners with Jews. In many synagogues, these folks are being given more extensive participatory roles where a few years ago they could not even stand on the bima. Finally, synagogues are realizing that raising Jewish children does give these non-Jews a rightful place in the community. But the right to vote usually remains elusive.”  
According to Rabbi Olitzky, “There are no halachic, Jewish law, prohibitions here. It is only the institutional culture of fear that is preventing Jewish institutions, particularly synagogues, from granting full voting rights to intermarried families ... Some communal leaders reason that if we ‘circle the wagons,’ there can be no entry from the outside, no possibility that something of another religion may even be unconsciously insinuated into the Jewish culture of the synagogue ... We know that intermarried households who have taken on the responsibilities (and expense) of synagogue membership are not interested in changing Judaism or infusing it with other religions. They are there for the same reasons as in-married and single Jewish households, primarily to educate their children Jewishly and also find a spiritual home and a welcoming community. How can we make sure they are fully welcomed.”  
Rabbi Olitzky quotes Rabbi Brian Deal of Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, N.Y. who states: “At Temple Beth Torah, everyone has a vote: Jew and non-Jewish spouse.” Olitzky concludes, “If we consider the history of the United States, what really delivers citizenship status to people is voting rights. The Jewish community is not the same as a democratic state, yet that is what gives us more flexibility to make changes. Consider women’s suffrage or the civil rights movement. At their core was voting rights ... It is the same with those who come from other faith communities and live in our midst. Until we offer them full voting rights in our institutions, no matter what we do, they will still be considered — and feel like — second-class citizens. Why not use the season of change which is upon us to make a change that will make the difference in the lives of our community?”

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