Jewish Outreach

A 2001 study conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute evaluates the efficacy of outreach programs.

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Still, the study found that programs aimed at engaging people with a range of backgrounds, including unaffiliated Jews and interfaith families, had more impact than programs targeting just interfaith couples. It also found that outreach programs have their greatest impact on people who are part of interfaith couples.

The study found as well that recreational programs, rather than those which are overtly educational, are more effective at reaching a larger number of people, said Mayer, founding director of the JOI.

Among the specific findings:

- While just under half of the respondents, 49 percent, went to synagogue "sometimes" or "frequently" before participating in an outreach program, the percentage jumped to 67 percent afterward. When the responses of those involved in interfaith relationships were separated out, the differences were even more striking: 33 percent went to synagogue before the program, 60 percent went afterward.

- Among intermarried respondents who had not joined a synagogue, 35 percent became members after program participation and another 25 percent were considering membership at the time of the survey. 

- Shabbat dinner was often enjoyed by 48 percent of respondents overall before they participated in an outreach program. That jumped to 69 percent afterward. Among interfaith couples, the number climbed from 35 percent who had Shabbat dinner on many Friday nights before participating in a program to 65 percent afterward.

- Most of the respondents, 86 percent, celebrated major Jewish holidays before the outreach program, but nearly all, 94 percent, did so afterward. Almost as many of the interfaith involved, 83 percent, did so beforehand, and again, 94 percent did so afterward.

- Less than half of the respondents overall, 46 percent, were involved with Jewish cultural activities before participating in an outreach program, which rose to 62 percent afterward. Among those in interfaith relationships, less than one‑third, 32 percent, had attended Jewish film festivals, Jewish museums and the like before the outreach program, but 51 percent said that they did afterward.

The JOI, founded in 1987, is a New York‑based research and advocacy think tank devoted to outreach. In 1998 the institute also became a funder of outreach programs, administering money contributed by a coalition of foundations to 13 groups around the country. After three years of funding, JOI had granted $800,000 to the projects.

Two or more group's programs never really got off the ground, so the survey was sent to 3,165 people who had participated in the outreach efforts of 11 groups. Twenty‑three percent of them responded to the survey, which got under way in January [2001].

What became clear to JOI executives as they designed the survey with input from program organizers is that the very vocabulary used in discussions about outreach has become fraught with tension.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.