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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776
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Congregational Responses to Interfaith Issues

Congregational Responses to Interfaith Issues
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Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z’’l was the genius whose vision and heart gave rise to Reform Jewish Outreach. With his inspiration and impassioned advocacy, the Reform Movement not only reclaimed for the Jewish people a forgotten mitzvah, the obligation to love the stranger and draw near those who are far, but also deeply and directly affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – seekers, interfaith couples and their families, and Jews by choice who, otherwise, would have remained on the margins of Jewish life. In the decades since its inception, Outreach, with its message of welcome to all and its invitation into ever-deeper Jewish learning and engagement, has given vital impetus to the surge of growth of Reform Judaism in North America.a

From a religious perspective, Outreach is the right thing to do; from a practical perspective, Outreach works. It would be difficult to find any Reform congregation in North America that does not count among its leaders, lay or professional, individuals whose path to commitment arose in Outreach. Similarly, the membership of virtually every congregation has been enhanced by the presence in large numbers of Jews by choice, interfaith couples, newly engaged Jews, and their families. Under the wing of UAHC-CCAR Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach and the UAHC William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach, a panoply of Outreach efforts have been created, from entry programs such as “Introduction to Judaism” and “A Taste of Judaism: Are You Curious?” to professional development seminars such as congregational teaching workshops and the Outreach Fellows Certification Program jointly sponsored with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Each program individually is constantly evaluated and honed so that it is as effective as possible.

But the broader questions of evaluation remain. Rabbi Schindler saw this and, in his remarks on the twentieth anniversary of Reform Jewish Outreach,b urged an in-depth, critical look at our efforts. How does Outreach work? What approaches are working effectively and what about them assures success? What elements of Outreach need further attention? What gaps remain unfilled? How do interfaith couples and seekers hear the initial Outreach invitation to take part in Jewish life? Once through the door, is the path to fuller involvement and commitment clear to all and well attended by the community?

With these questions in mind and with an eye to the future development of Outreach for the Reform Movement in particular and for the growth of Judaism in North America generally, UAHC president Rabbi Eric Yoffie initiated a contract with the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to undertake an independent and ground-breaking qualitative study of Reform Jewish Outreach as it is actually carried out in Reform congregations. Funded, appropriately through the Alexander M. Schindler Memorial Fund, the study, “Outreach Families in the Sacred Common: Congregational
Responses to Interfaith Issues,” is the result.

Researchers Fern Chertok, Mark Rosen, Amy Sales, and Leonard Saxe have given us a complex and challenging view into Outreach as it is lived daily in a spectrum of healthy congregations, along with their own cogent analyses and recommendations. While some of the results are certainly gratifying, it is also clear that we still have significant challenges to meet, further questions to answer, and more comprehensive program implementation to achieve.

Some initiatives given impetus by Rabbi Yoffie on the 20th anniversary of Outreach are already underway and have the potential, when fully implemented, to meet many of these challenges.c “In the Beginning…Having a Jewish Baby” and “In the Beginning…Jewish Parenting Made Simple” are new programs that will connect new families with Jewish life and community earlier, filling the lost years between childbirth and pre-school. More than one hundred people have already participated in the Outreach Fellows Program for Conversion Certification at HUC and are now mentoring and empowering new Jews to assimilate into Jewish life. A multi-level curriculum for our religious schools that teaches conversion as part of a normative Jewish life cycle is currently being piloted. Congregational creativity in meeting many of these challenges is reflected in award-winning Outreach programs and must be shared widely.

God loves the stranger, providing food and clothing for each one. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19

We know that Outreach in the end happens one person at a time. “Outreach Families in the Sacred Common” gives us an uncommon look at that sacred process.

  1. According to Highlights: American Jewish Identity Survey 2001, by Mayer, Kosmin and Keysar (2001), 30 percent of Jews-by-religion and persons of Jewish background, excluding those with another religion, identify with the Reform Movement, followed by 24 percent who identify with the Conservative Movement and 8 percent with the
  2. New York, April 18, 1999
  3. New York, April 18, 1999

Report By:
Fern Chertok, M.A.
Mark Rosen, Ph.D.
Amy Sales, Ph.D.
Len Saxe, Ph.D.
Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies
Brandeis University

November 2001
This work was funded by the Alexander M. Schindler Memorial Fund, and was
sponsored by the URJ-CCAR Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.


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