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Jewish Journal

Conejo and West Valley shuls rate high with newcomers

by Adam Wills

October 12, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky presents his group's findings during a Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting. Photo by Adam Wills

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky presents his group's findings during a Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting. Photo by Adam Wills

For a Jew who doesn't belong to a synagogue, the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys are good places to shop around. A new report from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) gives a snapshot of the community as a whole and an assessment of its ability to react to newcomers, including interfaith couples, racial minorities and sexual minorities.
 
The JOI presented results from "The Jewish Outreach Scan of the West Valley/Conejo Valley" during a well-attended Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting at The New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Oct. 4. The survey was funded by the United Jewish Communities' Emerging Communities Project.
 
Last summer, the JOI anonymously e-mailed and called 11 synagogues and four community agencies in the Conejo and West Valley, assessed the effectiveness of local Web sites and interviewed 30 Jewish communal professionals. The organization has conducted similar surveys in communities such as San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, Louisville, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
 
The West Valley/Conejo Valley drew a 77 percent favorable response rate, placing it second overall behind Ottawa's 86 percent.
 
"The biggest surprise was ... how well we did," said Carol Koransky, Valley Alliance executive director. "But it's true, as was pointed out to us, that doing 77 percent means there are 23 percent that aren't being reached."
 
According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 44 percent of Jewish adults are unaffiliated, while 28 percent are moderately affiliated. With the intermarriage rate currently hovering at about 50 percent, and with only about 30 percent of interfaith families raising their children Jewish, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, JOI's executive director and former vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, said it's important for synagogues to review their outreach strategies.
 
"Eighty-five percent of interfaith families are not affiliating with the Jewish community," Olitzky said. "Unless they engage the Jewish community, it's unlikely they'll raise Jewish children."
 
The scan did not compare response rates of area synagogues or agencies to one another. However, Olitzky recounted one anonymous phone call placed to a synagogue. When a receptionist told a caller to check back after the New Year regarding an "Introduction to Judaism" class for his non-Jewish spouse, the caller asked if the receptionist meant Jan. 1.
 
"The person on the phone said, 'Honey, when I say the New Year, I'm talking about the Jewish New Year,'" Olitzky said.
 
In addition, the receptionist never asked for the caller's contact information.
 
According to Olitzky, one of the biggest obstacles the Jewish community must overcome is its kiruv mentality, a Hebrew term that means "to bring near." He said many synagogues wait for unaffiliated Jews to come knocking. Instead, Olitzky suggested that congregations think outside the shul and engage in what JOI calls "public space Judaism."
 
"We spend most of our time in a secular environment," Olitzky said. "We need to create programs where people will stumble over the Jewish community."
 
Founded in 1988 as a vest-pocket organization for City University sociology professor Egon Mayer to conduct studies, New York-based JOI has expanded its mission over the last 10 years and now features a variety of outreach programming, including interfaith inclusion efforts and surveys of North American Jewish communities.
 
Prior to last Passover, a Conservative congregation in Northern California took part in a pre-holiday JOI program called Passover in the Aisles. Congregants spent time near a matzah display in a Palo Alto Albertson's, talking with unaffiliated Jews shopping for their family seders.
 
Olitzky suggests this kind of activity can draw in those who might not come to a synagogue on their own; other suggestions are holding readings in bookstores, setting up tables with kid-friendly activities in front of a Target or Staples during back-to-school shopping or holding menorah lightings in malls the way Chabad does. "Why not take what Chabad does well and copy it?" he suggested.
 
Temple Beth Haverim has been doing just that for the last 10 years, holding menorah lightings at The Promenade at Westlake.
 
"We've just been providing it as a service for the community," said Rabbi Gershon Johnson, who added that the Agoura Hills Conservative synagogue hadn't looked on the activity as an outreach opportunity. He said the congregation would be more proactive this year about collecting names and phone numbers from unaffiliated Jews attending the event.

Olitzky said that adopting a retail mentality can help get people in the door, especially advertising membership discounts and free specials.
 
Debbie Green, vice president of membership at Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, said her synagogue drew in 40 unaffiliated Jews with an outreach program that advertised special no-cost High Holiday tickets. But she said follow-up has been a problem for Aliyah. "One month later, we need to be telephoning them and offering free tickets to something else," she said. "We're one-time-event oriented, and we need to get beyond that."
 

 


For more information about the Jewish Outreach Institute, visit www.joi.org.

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