Address to the United Synagogue President’s Council
This is a typical week in the life of an outreach Rabbi.
I left a printing project for Panim Hadashot in a copy center. When the clerk called to say the project was ready, she had something more to tell me. Apparently another customer had noticed our materials on the counter. This woman was an unaffiliated Jew who wanted to find out more about our programs and asked the clerk how she could get in touch with me. The clerk could not give out my phone number, but she gave me the woman’s number and I called her. This woman told me that she was searching for a connection to Judaism, but did not know who to contact.
Another Story: Here is an email I received this week from an Episcopalian Minister:
I have recently become acquainted with a Jewish woman who is searching for a more meaningful worship experience.
Specifically, she’s looking for:
- Prayers (NOT mumbled and not glossed over)
- Meaningful music…I think she’s open to more traditional or more contemporary, but with some sense of continuity with the past
- Preaching that ties in to current life and applies to today
- A sense of God’s loving-kindness for God’s people (that law makes sense!) imparted through the preaching and teaching
She likes to think and discuss, and would like a place where the worship brings her closer to God and the community. It will be my job to help connect her to something meaningful.
Another Story: On Friday night I had 20 people at my table. Among my guests were a highly identified Jewish woman and her daughter. They greatly enjoyed the Shabbat table experience at my home so much that the mother asked me to help her to be more confident in leading a Shabbat dinner and to be able to share it with guests.
This is the work of an outreach rabbi. This work involves Making connections with Jews everywhere, reaching out to people who have trouble finding their way in, coaching Jews on how to deepen their relationship to Jewish practice and values, and most of all sharing Judaism in the most meaningful and impactful way possible.
To meet the challenge of this outreach work I left the security and structure of the congregational pulpit. I came to the conclusion after 20 years in the Conservative pulpit that outreach and teaching of the kind I describe is more effective and transformative outside the congregation than within.
This conclusion came after 20 years of a commitment and many successes in creating a different congregational model which integrated outreach into the educational and worship program of the synagogue. At Beth Shalom in Seattle, I refined a two pronged approach to synagogue programming which worked effectively for many years.
First I worked on cultivating a knowledgeable and committed core. At Beth Shalom this core was strong. I recruited knowledgeable members to be layners, baalei tefilah, teachers, and darshanim in the religious life of the congregation. Because Beth Shalom did not have a cantor, the leaders from worship came from the knowledgeable and committed core. I also sought to make Beth Shalom a place that would attract Jewish professionals. At its height Beth Shalom had 10 rabbis from all three movements and more than 20 Jewish educators, and many Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders.
The second part of this strategy was to recruit from this committed core to share its Jewish knowledge and commitment to Jewish life. I knew that the majority of our membership and many others who visited Beth Shalom did not have the background or commitment of the core. The key was to create access to a rich Jewish experience in worship, study, or action by encouraging the members from the core to share their Jewish lives and their knowledge. I set the example by developing programs of access and education that integrated newcomers and many members into the culture of the congregation.
Two examples to demonstrate this: Beth Shalom always had a learner’s minyan from the time of my arrival. Parallel to the Shabbat morning service this service built skills and understanding among participants with the aim of making them comfortable and active participants in Beth Shalom’s all Hebrew worship. A second program of called Living the Jewish Year provided a structure of for immersing participants in Jewish life over a complete year and engaged congregational members as coaches to help people adopt Jewish practice into their lives.
This two pronged approach was very effective for a long time. The committed core remained strong, the religious culture of the congregation was not watered down. Outreach was integrated into the life of the congregation so that newcomers were motivated and educated to become part of the rich Jewish religious culture of the congregation.
However this approach ultimately broke down. There are many reasons for this. But the main reason for the collapse of this congregational model had to do with the ambivalence within the congregation about outreach itself. Some members felt that outreach was not a priority for the congregation. But the question revolved around the allocation of limited rabbinic resources. The truth was a congregation of 450 members with one rabbi did not have the luxury of doing outreach.
My experience has taught me that congregational keruv and outreach is very hard to sustain unless a rabbi and the congregational leadership is deeply committed to it as an essential part of the Rabbi’s and the congregation’s mission.
I left Beth Shalom last year and started working on a new model of Jewish community in which outreach was integrated into the educational mission of the organization. The result is Panim Hadashot-New Faces of Judaism.
Here are a few key innovations of Panim Hadashot.
1. It is not a synagogue. -it is a beit midrash-a house of study.
2. Our focus is Shabbat, but Shabbat is organized differently. We focus on bringing people together around the Shabbat table and in a wide variety of learning experiences which are meant to engage people in the meaning and relevance of Judaism.
3. The rabbi’s role is almost totally focused on teaching and mentoring.
4. We have learned a lot from the successful Orthodox outreach organizations. We model an intimate Judaism-Judaism of the home and of a personal commitment to learning. We cultivate an attitude on acceptance and disdain harsh judgment. Most of all we are welcoming.
5. We see ourselves as a compliment to the synagogue, not an alternative. We also see ourselves as Jew brokers-helping Jews and converts to find their place in the wider community.
6. We are developing a different model of membership in which mentoring and sharing of one’s Judaism is at the very core of what it means to associate with the Beit Midrash. We believe that doing Keruv is a mitzvah.
I will end with a beautiful quote from my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis which encapsulates our inspiration:
“I believe that Judaism has something of immense importance to say to the world and particularly to the individual - to you and to me. I think further that not to share the poetry, the insight, the ethics of Judaism with sincere men and women who search is an injustice to them and a betrayal of the purpose of Judaism.”
We share his vision. We are taking the commitment of Keruv to another level and creating a structure which is supple, flexible, and responsive to contemporary Jewish realities. The combination of focus on message, flexibility of structure, and rabbinic and lay partnership in the mitzvah of Keruv can be a potent new way to present Conservative Judaism to a Jewish community which is largely unaffiliated and disconnected.