Big Tent Judaism

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This week, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute, along with Rabbi Elliot Dorf of the American Jewish University, announced the launching of a new initiative and web site called Big Tent Judaism. This term, now thrown around by dozens of organizations, is meant to recall the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah, who made their tent open and welcoming to strangers and family alike.

In an op-ed piece for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Olitzky challenges the Jewish community to be more inviting to outsiders–in ways that have been suggested before many times: offer free programming that does not require membership, give out direct contact information, include Hebrew translation and avoid jargon, post greeters at the entrances of events, invite newcomers to dinners and small gatherings, and make personal connections between people.

What does seem to be different is the launch of Big Tent Judaism, the web site. Still in development, half of the site is dedicated to “newcomers,” with a searchable directory of resources, discussion boards, and basic information about Jewish holidays and practices.

The other part of the web site is devoted to those of us “insiders” who need to open our tents. It has information being more welcoming and a top ten list of ways to be more inclusive, which serves as the guiding principals for a new coalition.

This initiative is most definitely a step in the right direction for the Jewish community. Though some of the advice might seem to be common sense, far too often, those of us in the professional Jewish communal world cannot comprehend how daunting it would be for a newcomer to approach our institutions.

I, like many in the community I imagine, will be following this to see if BigTentJudaism can differentiate itself from past failed attempts aimed at similar goals. The key will be to find effective means to get what’s on the web site in to the hands people.

Posted on October 9, 2007

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One thought on “Big Tent Judaism

  1. PaulGolin

    Hi Meredith,

    Thanks very much for blogging about JOI’s Big Tent Judaism initiative, and for checking out the very-under-construction website.

    I sense a degree of skepticism in your tone, but it’s a healthy skepticism. There’s a lot of lip-service these days to diversity and inclusion, not just in the Jewish world. Here are the two things I can assure you of:

    1. The staff of JOI is extremely committed to our work—helping the Jewish community engage more Jewish households, including intermarried families. It’s the reason we come into work everyday. (That, and the company Ferraris all our employees get.) We’re not just dabbling in inclusiveness, or giving it lip service while we go about our other business, because it’s all that we do.

    2. We don’t know if Big Tent Judaism is THE initiative. It’s at the very beginning stages. Of course, we HOPE it will work to raise awareness and disseminate best practices. The fact is, Big Tent Judaism is a rubric for all the work we’re already doing at JOI. We may fly under most people’s radars, but those communal institutions that we’ve helped can tell you that there really is a methodology to outreach, and that it works. It’s not about just being nice (warm and fuzzy), it’s about the brass-tacks practical steps in welcoming and engaging people, learning their interest, and serving them.

    As your website proves, there are enough fascinating things about Judaism and being Jewish to engage every possible interest. Putting it in front of more people—in a personal and engaging way that is relevant to each individual—is the challenge communal professionals face, but it’s a challenge we can rise to.

    Thanks again,
    Paul Golin
    Associate Executive Director
    Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org)

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