Diversity and Informal Jewish Education

Bringing activities to secular venues.

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Reprinted with permission from CAJE. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

In recent years, informal Jewish learning environments (youth groups, summer camps, and trips to Israel) have grown in stature and now occupy a place--and rightfully so--alongside formal environments such as day schools and supplementary schools. To meet the needs of the increasingly diverse Jewish community of the 21st century (one that spends more time outside of the community at its periphery than at its core), what might be called "episodic education" has to be given equal legitimacy and raised beyond the level of a program.

Public Space Judaism
brings Jewish education to places
like malls and grocery stores.

Mall

 

While such education admittedly may not yield the same immediate results as do more traditional programs, most of those on the periphery of the Jewish community will not be willing to take the quantum leap required to participate in those more demanding forms of Jewish education that are part of the inner core of the community. A more gradual approach is required, and that is where informal learning activities can serve a great purpose, acting as a bridge between the completely unengaged and those deeply and thoroughly involved in the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, it now appears that in the 21st century those on the periphery are increasingly unwilling to venture into even the informal environments of Jewish education. We can see much evidence for such a claim. Participation in summer programs is waning (perhaps exclusive of Birthright Israel), and the overall majority of the relevant cohort still are not involved in activities such as Jewish day schools and summer camps.

Public Space Judaism

We contend that this is why serious attention must be paid to what we at the Jewish Outreach Institute call "outreach" (defined as a methodology rather than a target population)—taking Judaism out to where people are, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Public Space Judaism, an important component to our outreach strategy, actually refers to a three-tiered approach to community programming that employs secular venues for effective Jewish programs.

If the Jewish community of the 21st century spends more time in the secular world than within Jewish institutions, we must move our episodic education outside the walls of our community in order to reach those on the periphery--and more such programs. Why? This is where we find most of the diversity of the community. Perhaps it is even one of the reasons why those on the periphery are more attracted to such informal programs of activity. Informal programs--that used to be more attractive to those on the outside are perhaps suffering because of a growing reticence of those outside the core of the community to commit to engagement or affiliation before they feel fully ready.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.