Turf Wars

I have long felt that JCC’s are a prime location for welcoming interfaith families and engaging them in Jewish life. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, most notably the Pathways program at the Atlanta JCC, most JCC’s do not offer programming aimed specifically for people in interfaith relationships.

I was reminded of all of this by a noteworthy article in the New York Jewish Week, JCC, Synagogues In Holy War In Boca, by Stewart Ain. I’ve seen indications before that some JCC’s want to get more into the “Jewish life” business, which I think is a great development, and I was very pleased to see that Allen Finkelstein, the executive director of the JCC Association, is leading that effort:

“In the last year and a half, I’ve been pushing JCCs to get into conversations about what is happening in Jewish life,” he said.

Finkelstein said he asked the JCCs “what we need to be doing going forward, and what energized us was a remembrance of our Jewish core.

“Not everyone wants to daven [pray],” he added. “We want to find ways to go to primarily young families and say to them that we want to make Jewish engagement easier for you.”

I hope that will lead to more programming for interfaith families. I hope the JCC’s don’t buy the argument that people in interfaith relationships want general programs, not programs just for them; both kinds are needed.

The article reports that the Boca Raton JCC has hired a charismatic rabbi, Michael Stern, who meets people in their homes and asks them what they want and are looking for in Judaism, and who is now offering Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur programs. There are many references in the article to the JCC’s programming being particularly attractive to intermarried couples.

According to Marty Schneer, the JCC’s executive director, “We are targeting the unaffiliated and marginally affiliated who are not experiencing the holidays elsewhere.” The article reports that only 12% of the more than 120,000 Jews in the area are affiliated with a synagogue. Rabbi Stern, who will conduct the High Holiday programs, said that they would:

include “five or six pieces of the traditional service, stories that illustrate insight about the prayers, an explanation about the function of prayer and what we are trying to get out of prayer.” “My goal is to build a vibrant JCC community with the emphasis on the Jewish part of the JCC,” he said. “We are the frontline agency that touches more Jews than any other institution, particularly the intermarried. What should our response be?”

The “Holy War” in the article title reflects that the local rabbis apparently don’t like the JCC’s High Holiday programming one bit. One referred to Rabbi Stern as “an outside rabbi” and called it “usurpation” and “invasion” and said the JCC had stepped over the line and was acting as a synagogue. Another said “we will have a duplication of effort at a time when synagogues are also thinking of how best to serve the Jewish community.”

It is trite to say that there are way too many turf battles in the Jewish world. I was a large synagogue president and I sympathize with synagogues’ needs to attract members with their High Holiday services because they need members to pay dues to support their staff and buildings and program offerings. But synagogues have a real problem with the high cost of belonging, and some have a real problem with services and programming that is not compelling to young families. It is important that young families in particular have Jewish programming that they are attracted to and comfortable participating in, and if they find that at a JCC, that is a good thing.

Moreover, it should be possible for JCC’s and synagogues in a community to collaborate and coordinate their offerings. Wouldn’t it be smarter for the Boca Raton synagogues to view the JCC’s High Holiday programming as a potential “feeder” of people to the synagogues? If the JCC does a good job and turns young families on to Jewish life, won’t they naturally want to find the deeper programming and community that synagogues ideally should offer? There are too many communities in the country where alternatives to synagogues are viewed, not as feeders, but as competitors. I think that’s a shame.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.