Opening the Tent

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen said Jewish leaders need to think outside the synagogue. (Kirsten Beckerman)

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen said Jewish leaders need to think outside the synagogue. (Kirsten Beckerman)

By now, almost everyone who pays attention to Jewish American trends has heard — many times over — about the Pew Research Center’s recent survey on the state of the American Jewish community. The results of the survey, which show soaring levels of intermarriage, declining levels of synagogue affiliation and low birthrates among non-Orthodox Jews have had Jewish leaders at a loss for how exactly to respond, with some believing that welcoming unaffiliated Jews, non-Jewish spouses and children of the intermarried into their communities will weaken Jews’ ties to Judaism.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, whose Big Tent Judaism movement and Jewish Outreach Institute has been training Jewish communal professionals for six years, is not among those forecasting doom, instead embracing non-traditional families.

This month, six Jewish communal professionals from Maryland completed training through JOI to become Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates. Part of JOI’s sixth North American cohort were: Rachel Petroff Kessler, family educator at Temple Isaiah in Howard County; Adam Kruger, youth director and family programmer at Beth Shalom Congregation in Howard County; Dena Cohen and Erica Bloom from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore; Ken Davidson, executive director at Temple Oheb Shalom in Pikesville; and Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen and program director Andy Wayne of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville.

Amanda Kaletsky, one of JOI’s field staff managers, said the training teaches professionals to take Jewish programming into public spaces,
to encourage participation in Jewish programs and to build relationships with Jews and Jewish families who are not already engaged with the community.

Petroff Kessler said she has been familiar with the JOI’s philosophy for some time.

“It speaks to me,” she said, adding that Temple Isaiah has already begun “dipping its toes in the water,” when it comes to Big Tent Judaism. Kaletsky said that Big Tent Judaism and its emphasis on providing Jewish engagement in public spaces differs from conventional Jewish engagement models because instead of planning programs based on the needs of the congregation and the assumptions of clergy and professionals, planning is driven by the needs of the public.

Petroff Kessler said Temple Isaiah has already sponsored several small-scale community programs based on the model.

“We moved our family Rosh Hashanah service out to a park in Howard County, partnered with Greenberries, a great baby and maternity store for Chanukah, and with Robinson Nature Center to provide a seed planning to celebrate Tu B’Shevat,” she explained.

Petroff Kessler said that all of the activities were well received. This year, she said the congregation hopes to partner with JOI for a hands-on Chanukah program.

Arguably, one of the best examples of public-space Judaism is Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars, a free service that takes place outdoors at Oregon Ridge Park and typically draws thousands of Jewish families of all stripes, many of whom are not affiliated with BHC or any other synagogue.

“Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars is probably our biggest and most public expression of the philosophy of the JOI,” said Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. “But long before Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars started we were having conversations about keruv, bringing people in. We find ourselves at a point in history where people feel excluded, and we are thinking about how those of us inside can open the doors.”

In the last couple of decades, she added, “we’ve become more open to difference — people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, interfaith marriages, people with addictions … anyone who doesn’t appear to be the norm as the Jewish community has understood itself. And we are not just tolerating diversity, [we are] being diverse.”

Although she still believes there is a place in contemporary Judaism for brick-and-mortar institutions, Sachs-Kohen said we can no longer limit Jewish community to the walls of our synagogue buildings.

“I believe the future of Jewish community has many levels, and buildings are one of those levels,” she said. “We need them for certain occasions. But if we allow buildings to be the boundaries for Jewish life, we will not survive.”

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