Building a Truly Diverse and Inclusive Jewish Community

Dr. Warren Hoffman and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth

The following excerpts from “Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community Can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21st Century” by co-editors Warren Hoffman and Miriam Steinberg-Egeth bookend 15 chapters covering a range of topics including LGBTQ Jews, interfaith families, Jews of Color, arts and culture, education and social justice. These selections give a glimpse into the co-editors’ aims and approaches in presenting both personal stories and practical advice for Jewish leaders to incorporate into their communal work.

Warren Hoffman:

It was Friday night, erev Shabbat, and I was walking into a synagogue I had never visited before. Entering the rear of the sanctuary, I watched the fading light from the stained-glass windows begin to cast gentle shadows on the pews and walls, and I saw five individuals sitting in a circle having a conversation. One of them I quickly recognized from the synagogue’s website as the rabbi. Excited to have the opportunity to meet the rabbi before services, I still distinctly remember how all five people looked up at me, turned in my direction and then, as if I were a ghost, quickly turned away again.

Not a hello. Not a welcome. Not a “Shabbat Shalom.” Perhaps they were deep in the middle of a story and couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps they thought I was a longtime member. By the time their discussion finished, the sanctuary had filled up with people who had settled in for services. The sanctuary buzzed and yet no one greeted me, asked where I was from or even said hello. Services ended, and I left, never to return. Like a spirit who had passed through the aisles unseen, it was as if I had never been there at all. I could have been a member in the making, a donor or who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, even the next synagogue president, but one will never know. I was “low-hanging fruit,” a young person under 30 who had walked through the doors of a synagogue at a time when the average age of synagogue members seemed to be 50 and older.[i]

My story is not unique or even very traumatic, but it’s happened to me and others more than once at Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), synagogues and other Jewish organizations around the country — many of which claim to be “warm and welcoming” yet repeatedly fall short of the very basic action of welcoming newcomers. Sometimes, this absence of welcoming behavior is nothing more than the failure to greet someone. Usually, on a much more profound level, it’s a failure to welcome in and make space for people who are different from the majority of attendees or those who have needs that are not currently being met by the organization. I’ve spent my life and much of my career volunteering at and working in Jewish communal organizations, witnessing firsthand both the challenges and missteps that they — whether legacy institutions or start-ups — have faced in attempting to engage the next generation of participants, both Jewish and not.

While we can sometimes chock up the inability to be truly welcoming to unfortunate obliviousness, in other cases, the actions of a Jewish organization can feel like unwarranted acts of aggression, callousness and outright insensitivity. Jews of color are regularly interrogated and questioned in Jewish spaces by individuals who are suspicious of their presence. Are they really Jews? Maybe they’re just visiting with a Jewish friend. Did they convert? There’s the interfaith couple who is welcomed into the synagogue only to experience rhetoric from the bimah (raised prayer platform) that describes the “problem” of interfaith relationships. How can people feel welcomed if they are defined and seen as a “problem”? Or there’s the nonbinary Jew who wants to join their local JCC but is confronted by an application form that only has options for male or female. Or the single gay Jew in his 20s or 30s who is told about all the programming at his local Federation for young singles, though it’s really programming geared towards matchmaking straight couples so that they procreate and have children. How about the Hebrew-illiterate partner who can’t follow along at services because the organization doesn’t use transliterations? What about the Jew who would be happy to support the local Federation with a donation, but because the individual also supports IfNotNow — a group that advocates for Palestinian rights, a group that the Federation refuses to recognize — the person doesn’t feel like they are part of the larger organized Jewish community? What happens to the young Jew who has much energy and knowledge to offer the local synagogue but can’t afford to pay dues because of student-loan debt, and feels uncomfortable having to plead poverty to the synagogue administrator? The list goes on and on.

The truth is, every time one of these incidents occurs, Jewish institutions potentially lose another member, another donor, another supporter — all while their core number of supporters continues to dwindle. The loss also goes beyond the monetary. These organizations lose new perspectives, diversity, energy and excitement that individuals who want to be a part of something meaningful have to offer. These organizations do lasting damage not only to the unwelcomed individuals, but also to themselves and to Judaism itself. How many “unfortunate” situations or off-putting remarks can one person reasonably tolerate before they decide that they’re done with Judaism altogether?

            At New York’s Central Synagogue — one of the largest Reform congregations in the city and in all of North America with 2,600 member households — there is actually a waiting list to become a synagogue member that lasts about 18 to 24 months.[ii] Central Synagogue, though, is an anomaly as many Federations, JCCs and synagogues in the 21st century are hurting for members and donors. Gone are the decades following World War II when Jews built large synagogue complexes with swimming pools in the suburbs and elsewhere where Jews could celebrate their Jewishness in bolder ways than ever before.[iii] The 1950s and 1960s were the golden years of such institutions, and unfortunately, many of them, despite now having a Twitter channel and Facebook page, are still very much operating with programs, marketing and beliefs as if the 1950s never left, scratching their heads over where everyone went.

            If you were to ask the leaders of such communal organizations for the reasons behind these trends of attrition, they would have a ready answer — one that was handed to them on Oct. 1, 2013, complete with facts and figures in the form of a 214-page document titled A Portrait of Jewish Americans, researched and compiled by the Pew Research Center. The “Pew study” or “Pew survey,” as it was often called in shorthand, was the first major demographic study of the American Jewish community since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. The 2013 study tried to determine how people identified Jewishly, how they practiced their Judaism (if at all), how certain political issues resonated with Jews and more.

When the study was first released, it was all that Jewish communal professionals could talk about for weeks and months afterward, as Jewish publications and pundits spilled a great deal of ink trying to unpack what the study meant for the future of Judaism in the United States.[iv] The response among Jewish professionals (and Jews themselves) was unsurprisingly mixed. For many, it was a “sky is falling” moment, amplifying the woes and anxieties that many legacy organizations had long been experiencing. Many of these entities quickly moved into panic or triage mode (if they weren’t already there), asking how even more dollars could be spent on outreach to millennials and other under-engaged individuals in the Jewish community. Innovation grants sprung up and committees were formed to try to diagnose and treat the situation. Many of these efforts were well-intentioned but often misguided in their approach, attempting to provide Band-Aids to Jewish institutions that in many cases needed a major overhaul. For other individuals, the results of the Pew study were nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. “Tell us something we don’t know,” they seemed to say. Not letting the results of the study distract them from their missions or core activities, such agencies decided that ultimately, it was, for better or worse, business as usual. While a new Pew study on American Jewry was released more recently in 2021, many of the statistics from 2013 had not changed that much.

            The 2013 Pew study confirmed the fears of many legacy Jewish institutions that could now point with dismay to numbers showing how their woes of attrition were not imagined or insignificant. Jews, especially those in their 20s and 30s, were identifying as less religious than before (a trend that was not unique to Jews, although that point was somewhat buried in the Pew study), and it was the job of legacy organizations to win them back.[v] In reality, though, this was only half the story. While it’s true that factors beyond the control of Jewish legacy organizations had accounted for shifts in Jewish affiliation, what was unexamined by the Pew study were the ways in which Jewish communal institutions — many of which describe themselves as “warm and welcoming” — had unwittingly alienated, turned away and even offended the exact individuals they were trying to engage.

For those of you from Jewish communal institutions who are reading these words at this very moment, I’m sure this assertion may be hard to process or accept. “That’s not us!” you’ll exclaim. “We’re a wonderful organization. How could anyone not like us?” After all, you view yourselves as positive spaces in the Jewish community. But in many cases, Jewish communal institutions are unwilling and sometimes even incapable of effecting the change necessary to be truly inclusive organizations in the 21st century. To say that you are “warm and welcoming” is very different than actually being “warm and welcoming.” Rather,being “warm and welcoming” is a continuous, evolving and never-ending process that requires a great deal of concerted effort, energy and work; it’s not a simple statement of fact.

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth

I grew up in a small town with an even smaller Jewish community. In my professional capacities now, I see many times the number of Jewish people on a daily basis than I even knew existed when I was young. Part of my naïveté about Jewish communities as a child was that I perceived that everyone Jewish had to stick together; there were so few of us that we couldn’t afford to be exclusionary, territorial or anything other than genuinely welcoming to each other.

One of the greatest disappointments of my adult life was realizing just how wrong that perception was. Much of my motivation for my work in the Jewish community and my involvement in this book is to make good on what I believed to be true in my childhood: All Jewish communities must, by necessity, be open and accessible to anyone and everyone who wants to participate.

As my family’s phone number was on the answering machine for the only local synagogue, from a young age, I learned that if I answered the phone and someone had a question about Judaism, I was to answer it to the best of my ability or to make sure that the person on the other end of the line knew that my parents would get back to them soon. To some extent, I have been striving to be the best person on the other end of the phone for anyone trying to connect to the Jewish community for my entire professional life, determined to treat each newcomer with care and concern, and never taking anyone for granted.

Becoming “warm and welcoming” is not a project with an end. Inclusionary work is never-ending and always changing, and the commitment to examining our organizations is sometimes as important as the changes we choose to implement. In some cases, the act of solving an issue can even create a new issue. What if you decide to use amplification in your sanctuary on Shabbat to make services accessible to people with hearing disabilities, but that causes Shabbat-observant Jews to feel alienated by the use of electricity on Shabbat? Or what if you arrange a meet-up for families with young children to help create a safe space for noisy kids, and in the process, childless young adults feel excluded from their peers? These aren’t theoretical examples; they are real-life ways that organizations are grappling with what inclusion means.

Making your institution a welcoming place means negotiating boundaries, thinking about how changes will impact people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and ultimately, coming to terms with the fact that your space, organization or project won’t be able to be all things to all people. Rather, you need to determine what being “warm and welcoming” looks like in the context of your audience and the specific circumstances of your organization. By examining your institution’s values and goals, you can determine which things you can change and which you can’t.

In rethinking what it means to be truly warm and welcoming, along the way you may feel challenged and even defensive about why certain topics don’t apply to your organization. Maybe you will feel overwhelmed by the sense of being unable to possibly implement all the different strategies that our contributors have suggested to change your institution. Maybe you feel righteously justified by how many of these things you’re already doing well, and you think that your work is done. Experiencing that range of emotions is what will allow your community — and the Jewish community as a whole — to grow and change. All Jewish institutions won’t evolve at the same rate or with the same goals or results, but our hope in sharing these chapters with you is that, wherever you are, you’ll be able to push yourselves to go a little further.

Situations in which people have been made to feel unwelcome were not created overnight; so, too, can many of them not be corrected quickly. Many of these issues require new funding sources to support new initiatives, and very few organizations can or should be expected to tackle everything right away. Rather, we suggest forming a committee that can begin by doing an “audit” of your organization. Where are you succeeding and where are you falling short? Are there some easy wins you can achieve now? What will take more time and planning? Some issues might seem obvious and may have already been brought up multiple times by your organization, while other areas might not be relevant to your group at all.

Create a plan (you don’t need to hire an expensive outside firm to do this) with specific goals and action steps, metrics and deadlines to keep your organization accountable. Share your plan with your constituents and invite feedback and involvement, especially from the people you are most trying to engage, and share your progress along the way so that your constituents know that you’re invested in this continuing, ever-changing work.

Don’t be afraid to listen and have open, honest, and even difficult conversations with people who are not like you. If you are lucky enough to have someone come to you and say that they had a negative experience with your organization, embrace that opportunity to make amends and do better next time, maybe even under the guidance of the person who approached you. We can often only see the world through our own experiences, unable to see the blind spots that are pain points for others. While each of us still needs to do the work in learning about diversity and inclusion and should not expect any one person to serve as the encyclopedia for a certain group of disenfranchised people, learning from others who are not like us is a blessing and one of the most tangible ways to make progress.

Again and again, our contributors referenced the concept of b’tselem Elohim — that “we are all made in the image of God.” Interacting with, learning from and including those who are not like us is a holy act. The commitment to making your institution “warm and welcoming” will be lifelong and never ending, and this process will likely be the difference between institutions that continue to be relevant in the coming years and institutions that fade from the Jewish landscape. Committing to being inclusive is a journey that we must all be on, and one that has no single end point. Rather, aspiring always to be more inclusive, more self-reflective and more committed to living up to our “warm and welcoming” goals will carry all of us into the future.


 

[i] According to the 2020 Pew Research Center study, among respondents to the survey, 27 percent of synagogue members are between the ages of 18 and 29, while the largest group, at 35 percent, are individuals between the ages of 50 and 64. Pew Research Center, Jewish Americans in 2020 (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, May 11, 2021), 82, https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/.

[ii] “Becoming a Member,” Central Synagogue, accessed Feb. 15, 2021, at: https://www.centralsynagogue.org/community/becoming_a_member.

[iii] See, for example, David Kaufman, Pool with a Shul: The “Synagogue-Center” in American Jewish History (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 1999).

[iv] Gary Rosenblatt, “What Pew Does and Doesn’t Tell Us,” Times of Israel, Oct. 9, 2013, https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/what-pew-does-and-doesnt-tell-us-2/; Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen, “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope,” Mosaic, Nov. 2, 2014, https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/uncategorized/2014/11/the-pew-survey-reanalyzed/; “ ‘Jews of No Religion’: Haaretz Contributors Unpack the Pew Survey,” Haaretz, Oct. 15, 2013, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-jews-of-no-religion-analyzed-1.5273974; J. J. Goldberg, “Pew Survey about Jewish America Got It All Wrong,” Forward, Oct. 13, 2013, https://forward.com/opinion/185461/pew-survey-about-jewish-america-got-it-all-wrong/; Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, “2015 After Pew: Thinking About American Jewish Cohesion, Assimilation and Division,” Berman Jewish Databank, Oct. 1, 2015, https://www.jewishdatabank.org/databank/search-results/study/793.

[v] Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, pp. 7–8. The 2020 Pew study revealed that the majority of American Jews in all age groups identified more culturally as Jews than religiously. See Pew Research Center, Jewish Americans in 2020, chapter 3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Resources

July 27, 2022
Posted in Community
Synagogues are in trouble. I suggest that we revisit Kaplan’s notion of the synagogue-center.
April 26, 2022
Posted in Community, Justice
Restorative Justice (RJ) is invested in long-term classroom culture-building. The work starts long before an offense.
March 23, 2022
Posted in Community
March 2, 2022
Posted in Community, Ethics
Evolve continues to publish essays discussing the practice of brit milah (ritual circumcision. They are gathered here.
February 20, 2022
Posted in Community
It is time to welcome with open arms Jews who think differently about circumcision.

The Reconstructionist Network