Rabbi Leonard Gordon.
The In-Reach vs. Outreach Debate
-- Rabbi Leonard Gordon
The world of Jewish Federations, facing shrinking budgets, and the Conservative movement, facing shrinking congregations, have been engaged for the past decade in a debate over In-reach vs. Outreach. Should we spend limited, valuable resources to create programs designed to attract the marginally affiliated and unaffiliated, or should our energy go towards “strengthening the core?” The new Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Arnold Eisen, has now weighed in, asserting in an interview with the Jerusalem Post (December 4, 2006) that one million unaffiliated American Jews will probably be lost to assimilation, regardless of what we do. From my perspective as a congregational rabbi, I am willing to concede neither the loss of one million Jewish souls nor a declining role for the Conservative movement in exurban America.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the congregation I serve, Germantown Jewish Centre, was part of the declining Conservative movement sociologists had described. Jews were moving away from the city, and the membership of the Centre declined. But in the 1990s, an aggressive, multi-faceted program initiative turned that around and rebuilt the Centre’s core membership and donor base. The program was built around the idea that in-reach is outreach and outreach is in-reach. We knew that we needed to both meet the needs of the core membership and do what was necessary to attract others whose needs our community had the potential to serve.
Confidence in the usefulness of Jewish community, as well as enthusiasm about diversity and pluralism, are critical to such an effort. Heterogeneity is an important value. Our congregation is evenly divided between families who send their children to day school and families who send their children to our supplemental school. We also have congregants who live in the city (many of whom walk to the synagogue on Shabbat) and congregants who live in the surrounding suburbs. We pray on Shabbat morning in three adult minyanim, including traditional-egalitarian and Reconstructionist/havurah services. Our program starts from the idea that one size does not fit all, and that people will come to a synagogue for a variety of reasons, not just for prayer or fellowship.
The Jewish community’s vitality derives from our multiplicity and mutual caring; Jews with longstanding commitments to Jewish institutions can be made to delight in being part of dynamic, pluralistic, outreach-oriented organizations, in which they see a range of Jews and Jewish families in their midst. Whether or not they benefit directly, the so-called “regulars” at GJC valued the existence of programs designed for interfaith families, Jews who found spiritual nurturance in Buddhist philosophy, families with adopted children, Gay and Lesbian Jews, and those with more questions than answers.
At the same time, those people who had been unaffiliated prior to joining our congregation valued coming into an institution with a Jewishly engaged and educated membership. Newcomers to the tradition found various kinds of role models in the educators and committed Jews who formed Germantown’s membership. Mutual appreciation strengthens Jewish community. The institutional core came to understand that outreach was a way to breathe vitality into the system, and those who were welcomed felt grounded in, and nourished by, the strength of that established center.
Outreach cannot be the sole work of rabbis and program staff members. Those who practice Judaism more actively in their homes have to invite newcomers to Judaism for Shabbat and holiday meals, Passover Seders, and home-based study groups. Without the core, the newcomers cannot be brought closer to Jewish affiliation. Without the newcomers, the core would dwindle and lack the benefits of being part of a constantly renewing community.
Conservative Judaism, with its twin commitments to the fullness of Judaism’s textual tradition and to the highest ethical teachings of our own moment, can regain its position as the vibrant center of American Jewish life. We should avoid having to choose between strengthening our core and reaching out to those who need to hear our message, and instead always do both, vigorously and with a hope for our shared future.
Leonard Gordon has served as rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Centre in West Mt. Airy, PA since 1994. This past semester, he taught Talmud at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
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