Program judges the outreach efforts of Morris County Jewish institutions
Strangers who attend a synagogue function in Morris County are likely to get a follow-up phone call or e-mail from a congregant or professional.
Yet none of the area synagogues uses the secular media to advertise important offerings like discounted High Holy Day tickets.
“That’s shocking,” said Ruth Decalo, senior director of programming and training at the Jewish Outreach Institute.
Maybe not shocking to the average person, but Decalo is spearheading a project now under way in Morris County designed to review, analyze, and strengthen outreach to unaffiliated Jews. If her research tells her anything, it is that everything counts when it comes to boosting attendance and interest in Jewish activities.
The first phase of the Community Transformation Initiative, begun last June, includes a scan of 16 synagogues across Morris County, along with the Lautenberg Family JCC of Morris County in Whippany.
The goal is to identify how well the community is interacting with the unaffiliated and what areas need improvement.
“Everyone thinks they’re doing outreach. But are we really getting the outcomes we want?” asked Barak Hermann, JCC MetroWest assistant executive director, who is serving as the liaison between JOI and Morris County.
“The goal is to bring the professional community in the area together to do better outreach,” said JOI associate executive director Paul Golin.
On Jan. 18, JOI will present the findings of this first phase of the project at an open meeting to be held at the JCC in Whippany.
The targets of outreach include anyone not already engaged or participating in the Jewish community, said Golin. JOI tries to understand the needs of various populations, from interfaith and multiracial families to members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
People don’t always want programs specifically geared to a particular population, Golin said. Often they just want “a program where they feel welcome. Jewish professionals need to be aware of whom they are reaching out to so they don’t make assumptions that turn people away.”
He offers a list of obstacles JOI has found in other communities, from untranslated Hebrew or Yiddish on a Web site to programming held exclusively inside established Jewish institutional spaces.
“People may feel more comfortable with a Hanukka celebration in a secular space. It’s more challenging to walk into a JCC than into a shopping mall,” said Golin, who acknowledged it’s a concept the Chabad hasidic movement internalized long ago. In fact, this year Chabad Lubavitch set up Hanukka displays in the Livingston Mall and a local Kings grocery store.
“It’s about lowering barriers,” said Golin. “We need to build ramps into the Jewish programs so more people can participate.”
JOI began three years ago to bring the Community Transformation Initiative to communities in Arizona, Ottawa, California, Ohio, upstate New York, and Washington, DC. The Morris County project marks its introduction into New Jersey.
The Jewish Outreach Institute, established in 1988, focuses on creating community-based outreach programs with a particular eye toward engaging intermarried families in local Jewish communities.
This “transformation” project involves several stages. The synagogue and institutional “scan,” during the first phase involves interviewers sending blind e-mails and making cold telephone calls to see what kind of responses they get, according to Golin. They also look at institutional Web sites and judge how accessible they are. The bulk of the first phase involves intensive interviews, lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, with people in the participating institutions.
In Morris County, all but three synagogues responded.
“No one was kicked out of the scan, but typically some congregations don’t respond, either because they don’t have time or it just isn’t a priority,” said Decalo.
JOI brought the project to Morris County, supporting it with a $32,000 grant that would cover all but $18,000 of the first phase. Hermann recalled being invited to a meeting in April 2005 to learn about the project.
“It spoke to me. It really resonated,” he said. “At the time, we had already organized a Morris County task force trying to reach people living in western Morris County who were far from the Whippany JCC. We were looking at how synagogues and JCCs could work collaboratively.”
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey ultimately provided the required $18,000 to begin, and in June, the scan began.
Following the Jan. 18 meeting, JOI will conduct one-on-one reviews with each participating synagogue.
Other phases that Morris County can decide to undertake include training professionals to be better gatekeepers, even establishing a single person to be the county outreach coordinator.
Much of the training focuses on seemingly mundane interactions like office phone calls. If the person answering the synagogue phone tells a prospective couple, “The rabbi doesn’t do interfaith ceremonies,” that sends one message, said Golin. And yet he offers the example of a rabbi who doesn’t perform such ceremonies but nevertheless meets with mixed-faith couples to explain his approach and reasons. They often reach an understanding and a connection, said Golin. “But for every couple that gets to the rabbi, there are probably 10 that get hung up on. That’s because there’s often a disconnect between the gatekeepers and the upper level professionals,” he said.
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