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10 Ways To Expand Your Temple’s Reach

When asked why he robbed banks, the notorious Willy Sutton is said to have famously responded, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Similarly, Public Space Judaism takes Judaism outside of the four walls of the synagogue to where the people are. Here are 10 effective ways to make it happen:

1.  Identify the barriers to participation and then find ways to lower or eliminate those barriers.Common barriers include high costs, expectations of participants’ Jewish knowledge, “in-speak,” cliquishness, demographic biases (heterocentrism, Ashkenazi-centrism, in-marriage-centricism, etc.), and the “location barrier”—the latter the most important, because Jews who once felt excluded will not re-enter a synagogue. Instead, holding programs in public spaces allows people to stumble upon them and discover for themselves what’s changed in their Jewish community.

2. Design an event that is both core to your mission and most likely to interest your target population.For example, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation's Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars engaged hundreds of people who may not have otherwise participated in the temple’s High Holiday services.

3. Create a spectacle—an event that will attract the attention of passersby. For example, Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC and Houston's Temple Emanuel presented Hands-on Hanukkah programs. Passengers in the DC Friendship Heights Metro Station and shoppers in a busy Houston Learning Express stopped to see a young person in a dreidel costume spin in front of a large colorful Hanukkah back-drop to live holiday music—which prompted them to get involved in a variety of Hanukkah activities.

4. Position your program at a highly-trafficked area and time. Nearby baseball fields during Sunday morning baseball practice, for example, provide a great venue for creative programmers to engage parents.

5. Staff the event with people who reflect your target population. Participants want to engage with institutions where they see people like themselves. For example, families with young children have been responsive to Alyssa Latala, a personable, Jewishly passionate mom with young kids who serves as Big Tent Judaism Concierge for congregations and other Jewish communal institutions in the larger Chicago area. She talks to unaffiliated Jews at malls, bookstores, supermarkets, and parks, and offers personalized recommendations of Jewish community programs that might interest them.

6. Stage an event offering an explicit benefit to passersby. For example, Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico hosted “8 Days of Oil,” a gourmet olive oil tasting, in a local grocery store, offering shoppers the chance to sample different, fine olive oils and inspiring them to make healthy, creative food choices in their Hanukkah celebrations.

7. Give participants a takeaway they’ll appreciate that reminds them of the experience and the temple.For example, Temple Sinai in Cranston, Rhode Island presented each family participating in Color Me Calendar with a three-month holiday calendar that included their children’s drawings during the event. Printed on the calendar, which undoubtedly ended up on many families’ refrigerator doors, were low barrier, kid-friendly Jewish community events over the next three months.

8. Turn your Jewish outreach programs into public events. A Taste of Judaism, for example, can be moved from synagogues to big box bookstores, ideally in the highly trafficked month of December. Retailers have a simple rule: The longer a potential customer stays in the store, the more likely s/he is to make a purchase. As a result, retailers are generally very responsive to such events.

9. Experiment with cultural destination programs, which are also held in public spaces but depend on participant planning. A good example is a Jewish film festival held at a commercial movie theater. Although viewers may have to purchase tickets in advance, there’s a low barrier to participation because everyone knows the etiquette involved in going to the movies.

10. Measure success not in affiliation, but engagement. It is unusual for people to join an institution following a first encounter. Instead, evaluate your success by the number of participants engaging in the next similar event. Experience shows that the combination of a good event and smart follow-up can bring about a third of the newcomers into further engagement during the course of the first year. To collect contact information, use an unobtrusive incentive, such as a raffle with a desirable prize; avoid sign-up sheets, which are seen as serving the institution rather than the individual. In the case of the Color Me Calendar, the promise of receiving a subsequent activity coloring calendar was sufficient for participants to share their contact information with event organizers, which enabled them to invite the families to participate in another event likely to interest them.

If we build it, they may not come. But if we go to them, that’s where they are. And only if we meet them where they are do we have a chance of forging a path with them into the congregational community. 

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish-Outreach Institute, which developed the theoretical program construct and term “Public Space Judaism,” and trains synagogue and other communal professionals to take Judaism outside the walls to the people through signature programs such as Passover in the Matzah Aisle, Color Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year, 8 Days of Oil, and Hands-on Hanukkah.