Jewish Outreach

A 2001 study conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute evaluates the efficacy of outreach programs.

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Jewish institutions have demonstrated a commitment to addressing the issue of Jewish continuity with a variety of outreach program meant to provide Jewish individuals, non-Jewish individuals interested in learning more about Judaism, and families (including interfaith families) with rich and varied Jewish experiences that will draw them into Jewish life. The following article reports the results of a survey on the efficacy of such outreach programs. It is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

Since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study found that just over half of those who had recently married wed non‑Jews, the organized Jewish community has been on an outreach spree.

As a result, outreach programs abound today. Synagogues, Jewish federations and educational organizations provide an extensive range of offerings to the intermarried, to the inmarried, to those who are marginally engaged with Jewish life, and to those who haven't had any involvement since their parents stopped forcing them to attend Hebrew school right after their bar mitzvah.

outreachBut what good have these programs done?

A new study conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute found that they increased the participants' levels of Jewish interest and activity.

The study's findings "once and for all let us put to rest any questions about outreach," said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute's executive director. "Outreach is efficacious, cost effective and should continue to be a priority for the Jewish community to ensure its vibrancy of the Jewish community for generations to come."

While the conclusion may seem self‑evident, the survey of participants was the first to evaluate the outcome of a broad variety of these efforts, which have become a focus for much of the organized Jewish community as it struggles to deal with a constituency eroded by assimilation and intermarriage.

The JOI study asked participants in an array of programs--from those committed to multi-session Introduction to Judaism courses offered by synagogues to those who attended a one-shot Chanukkah party held in a mall--how their attitudes and behavior changed after outreach program involvement. On the whole, they were more involved and enthusiastic about Jewish endeavors after their program experience.

At the same time, the study's research director, City University of New York sociologist Egon Mayer, said questions about attitudes toward conversion could not be included in the survey because the very word "conversion" has become too hot to handle.

Steven Bayme, national director of the Department for Contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee, said the fact that the word can no longer even be used in discussions around outreach is a serious problem and symptomatic of how the culture has shifted. He blamed outreach programs for the change.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.