Skip to content

Rabbi Eli Gewirtz

Klal Perspectives, A Review of Kiruv

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Outreach is In

OUTREACH TO UNAFFILIATED and marginally-affiliated Jews, while by no means a new phenomenon, has taken on a higher profile in recent years. Professionally-staffed organizations offer a wide range of programs, from free trips to Israel and “crash courses” on everything Jewish, to volunteer-driven chavrusa programs and assorted other projects that aim to share the beauty of Judaism with fellow Jews. Outreach is clearly on the community agenda – as is fundraising to support these efforts.

With tzedakah dollars in short supply, however, there are those who question whether the community can afford to allocate funds to outreach when there are so many other pressing communal needs. Even without the proactive efforts of the various outreach projects, there exists a palpable thirst for Jewish knowledge among Jews of all ages, affiliations and levels of observance. Whose obligation is it to quench the thirst for Jewish knowledge and increased Jewish involvement sparked by Birthright, for example? Should it be left to the Federations? What about the thousands of Jews who search the Internet each and every day seeking opportunities to connect with their heritage? Who will be there for them if not us?

Still, questions about outreach remain, even for the outreach enthusiast. Here are a few:

Consider for a moment what constitutes success in outreach. Is it a feeling of Jewish pride? When someone decides to become fully mitzvah-observant? When parents enroll their children in a Jewish day school? When someone decides to date only Jews?

Suppose someone previously impacted by an organization’s efforts becomes committed to Judaism only after being involved over a span of years with a variety of rabbis and organizations. Can it perhaps be argued that some of the organizations along the chain were superfluous or redundant?

Finally, consider the following typical scenario: An organization with a staff of ten professionals successfully attracts hundreds of people each year to its events, but develops a strong bond with only a small number of these participants. The cost of running these events is considerable and in some cases prohibitive, but they do reach large numbers of people. Should they perhaps consider running fewer events aimed at complete beginners, and focus their primary efforts on individuals who have demonstrated a sincere interest in Judaism? This approach would minimize the number of people exposed to Judaism, but offer the regulars a greater degree of attention, likely improving the program’s long-term impact. Or does the positive exposure afforded to the larger numbers provide sufficient justification for its larger scale scope and budget?

What follows is a personal perspective expressed with the goal of generating discussion. The reader is invited to disagree, and I assume that many will. Here are my thoughts:

Stating the seemingly obvious, organizations dedicated to outreach should be focused on making an appreciable and lasting impact[1]on the majority of their participants. As acknowledged, there may be no novelty in this idea but, at the risk of stating the obvious twice, the reader is asked to note three of the words used: appreciable, lasting and majority.

Making an appreciable and lasting impact is an objective – not a guaranteed outcome. It is dependent on each and every participant’s individual choice and personal circumstances. That said, certain factors seem to be universal among those who’ve chosen to become more Jewishly committed: a) Commitment evolves over a period of time, usually a considerable period of time. b) Commitment occurs after having had numerous positive Jewish experiences and almost always as a result of being involved with a variety of mentors, programs and organizations. c) Commitment almost always involves a substantive, ongoing, personal relationship with at least one Jewish role model over a one-to-two-year period. This role model is in addition to the organization’s staff who, while stellar role models themselves, simply do not have the time to offer the time-consuming, weekly attention, that each person requires.

The necessity for a long-term relationship with a role model cannot be overstated. In addition to serving as mentors for students as they navigate through their initial questions and struggles, this role model is often the primary, and sometimes the only, source of support for students, long after they graduate from the status of ‘student’. This is especially true for baalei teshuva, who in many cases make significant changes in their lifestyle only to discover that the teachers who always seemed to be readily accessible are no longer nearly as available. In contrast to long-time Jewish community members who enjoy extensive support from family and friends, these brave men and women suddenly find themselves without families to go to for yomim tovim and without a network of support – just when they need it most. One can only imagine the pain experienced by someone who effectively turned their life upside down to become more observant only to sever their religious ties in frustration after feeling unsupported in their everyday life. This phenomenon is unfortunately not uncommon.

Having established that making an appreciable and lasting impact ought to be the organization’s driving objective, organizations would do well to a) clearly define their objectives and hoped-for outcomes, and b) have a system in place for evaluating whether they are achieving their objectives. Without a clearly articulated goal, it is impossible to accurately gauge their success. Without an objective system for self-evaluation, they can’t possibly know what they’re doing right, and what needs to be tweaked, fixed, or completely revised. A survey of all participants conducted by an independent entity is an excellent way for organizations to accomplish this goal. It’s also a good way to demonstrate the organization’s effectiveness to donors and potential donors. Anecdotal “evidence” will only go so far.

Funders of outreach projects need to be careful not to confuse ‘numbers’ with ‘impact.’ On the surface, an organization that can attract many hundreds of people to its events can appear to be more successful than those that reach fewer people. Such thinking however, can place an unhealthy emphasis on reaching ever greater numbers of people, effectively ensuring that even fewer numbers of the participants receive the individualized attention so critical to their growth.

Finally, while many, if not most, organizations make an appreciable and lasting impact on many of their participants, few are equipped to make an appreciable and lasting impact on the majority of their participants. Nor should they be expected to. Why not? A medical analogy may be useful here. An expectant woman with a heart condition must be seen by her cardiologist throughout her pregnancy, but it would be foolhardy for her to expect the cardiologist to deliver the baby. It would be equally foolhardy for her to expect her cardiologist or obstetrician to personally provide the tender, ongoing homecare she’ll require once her child is delivered.

By their nature, outreach organizations have a limited number of professionals. To be sure, their staff is likely more versatile than most medical specialists and can simultaneously wear many hats. Yet, with only seven days in a week to work their magic, they simply can’t offer a full range of services for every one of the multitude of people who come through their doors each year. Unsurprisingly, the one service which tends to suffer the most is the matching of each student with a role model that can potentially develop into a long-term personal relationship. Even when offered, not every student will take advantage of such an opportunity. However, failing to offer such a provision practically guarantees that the majority of their participants will eventually drop off the map.

A number of organizations do have one or two staff members whose responsibilities include “follow-up.” This generally means that someone will reach out and “stay in touch” with the program’s alumni, and, where appropriate, inform them of events or programs in their area. Well-meaning as such efforts may be, they invariably fail to have any staying power. In some of the better-case scenarios, the follow-up person may arrange for participants to be matched with a family that will hopefully adopt the student and cultivate the necessary long-term relationship. Though certainly beneficial, such endeavors often fall short of meeting their objectives. Unmonitored as they are, these families may or may not follow through, the student may or may not ‘click’ with the family, and the relationship may or may not continue with any regularity over an extended period of time.

The discerning reader may detect a personal bias– that organizations work strategically and cooperatively with others, such as Partners in Torah, that have the ability to simultaneously offer ongoing, personalized attention to thousands of people.

With budgets nearing, or in excess of, a million dollars for the typical organization, it seems only logical for each organization to do what it does best – offer a meaningful Jewish experience to as many men and women as possible, effectively demonstrate the beauty and vibrancy of Jewish life, and engage participants in learning and other Jewish activities. The time-consuming and long-term relationship building, on the other hand, should be left to dedicated volunteers that are professionally coordinated and monitored on an ongoing basis. Consider the efficiency of this model: one paid coordinator can effectively manage 250 volunteers! In simple dollars-and-cents terms, that’s an additional 250 devoted staff members for the price of one. Seems like a pretty good deal.

To be sure, not every outreach student will be attracted to the idea of studying. While a surprisingly large number of people will opt for this when it is diligently promoted (and only if it is diligently promoted), some will require a different type of ongoing personal relationship which organizations such as Partners in Torah cannot provide. Nonetheless, the burden on the organization can be drastically reduced if they outsourced at least those who would benefit from this very personal and effective weekly studying experience.

Several organizations agree. After experimenting with a number of other models for follow-up, two national organizations and a handful of smaller organizations have partnered on some level with Partners in Torah to ensure that their follow-up will be properly managed and monitored. Some have created their own Partners in Torah face-to-face program to service as many people locally as possible, and refer the rest to Partners in Torah’s national office to be matched with an over-the-phone study partner. Both groups, those who are serviced locally and those who study over the phone, are entered into a database to which the individual organizations have full access, allowing anyone whose “partnership” dissolves to be quickly matched with a new mentor.

Another invaluable benefit of being part of a larger database is that the organization can then learn about Partners in Torah’s former and current participants in its area, giving the organization access to numerous, and in many cases hundreds of, ‘warm’ leads.

If such a solution exists, one wonders why others have not yet jumped at the opportunity.

One explanation might be the fear of another organization encroaching on their potential fundraising prospects. Petty as this may sound, in the real world, organizations struggle mightily to meet their budgets, and such thinking can enter the equation. The following anecdote illustrates just how this may play out in real life:

Some time ago, I made a fundraising call to someone who had been learning with Partners in Torah for over 10 years. After I introduced myself to him, the gentleman spent several minutes extolling the virtues of Partners in Torah and how he considers it one of the most valuable services offered by the Jewish community. He continued to describe how his family’s life had been forever changed by Partners in Torah and how proud he was that both his children were now attending a Jewish day school. I then asked him to consider making a donation of $1,800. Without hesitating, he responded that although he loves the organization, he could not make a contribution at this time. He explained that he and his wife had donated a building to the local day school and a Sefer Torah to their shul that very year, and they could not afford to make an additional charitable contribution. I thanked him for what he had done for his community and hung up the phone wondering whether we had somehow failed by not doing a better job of holding onto him so that we too could benefit from his largesse. How is it, I wondered, that the day school and shul benefitted so greatly from our efforts while we wouldn’t even receive a relatively minor contribution? I then realized (okay, maybe not right away) that while we may never enjoy his financial backing, this was a major success story.

As this story demonstrates, success can be determined by the net gain to the Jewish community. If so, then maybe, just maybe, outreach organizations (dare I say, all Jewish organizations?) would do well to start thinking about how we can all work towards the common goal of making an appreciable and lasting impact on the Jewish community. Furthermore, as noted earlier, increased commitment to Judaism generally happens only after having been involved with a variety of mentors, programs and organizations. As such, for an organization to accomplish its goals, it needs its students to connect with other Jewish organizations. Taking this a step further, any barometer of an organization’s success should include an assessment of the existence and the quality of its involvement with other organizations.

Overly idealistic though it may sound, the question of how organizations can at least begin to work together should be on the agenda of every outreach organization. While the idea may never be realized in its fullest sense – and will likely encounter some resistance – funders of the various outreach initiatives have an opportunity to nudge this process along by making it clear to outreach professionals that they consider the creation of inter-organizational partnerships an indication of the organization’s strength, rather than a sign of weakness. This small step could go a long way in addressing some of the questions raised earlier and in ensuring that we collectively make an appreciable and lasting impact on the Jewish community at large.

Rabbi Eli Gewirtz is the National Director of Partners in Torah.

1 The term “impact” is intentionally vague as organizations have different ways of defining the outcomes they hope to achieve. Whatever the definition, it should measurable and at the end of the day, appreciable. It should be noted as well that this article focuses on organizations. Individuals who choose to share the beauty of Judaism with fellow Jews should not be focused on making a measurable impact. For reasons too numerous to spell out here, such a focus is almost always counter-productive.

No comments yet

Comments are closed.