Jewish Outreach

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

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The JOI questionnaire purposely avoided asking program participants about their attitudes toward conversion--for instance, if being involved in an outreach program had made them more or less interested in considering conversion.

That's because the outreach program leaders wouldn't allow the word “conversion" to be used, said Mayer.

"They said use the word 'conversion' and you've lost me half my people," said Mayer. "We'd love to know certain things but we can't ask because they're viewed as 'alienating.'

"Most of our grantees were extremely leery of us even making contact with their participants. They felt that these relationships are very delicate," he said.

Bayme, a longtime critic of JOI’s work, opposes the idea that intermarriage should be regarded as completely acceptable.

In February [2001] he founded a coalition of like‑minded sociologists and academics. The challenge of developing consensus around the right approach toward intermarriage can be seen in the fact that the coalition has not yet been able to agree on a mission statement, or even a name.

Bayme lauded the new evaluation of outreach programs by JOI, though, and its finding that programs inclusive of everyone are more effective than those aimed at the intermarried alone. But he was dismayed by the fact that the idea of conversion had become too hot even to raise in the study.

"It used to be that the primary message [articulated by representatives of the Jewish community] was to endorse marriage within the faith. When that didn't work, it became conversion," Bayme said. "Now we're being told you can't even talk about conversion to Judaism.

"On the ground, it's become just as difficult to speak on inmarriage as conversion. Notice then how it's become such a slippery slope. The idea that Jews can't talk about marriage within the faith or conversion to Judaism lest they give offense is much, much too high a price tag" to pay in order to do outreach, said Bayme.

Mayer said it's too soon to assess the programs' long‑term impact. "This is not the end of the story but the middle. The lasting value of these programs will have to be studied over and over again."

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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