Yes, this community is reaching out to unaffiliated families

“Have you heard the one about the young Jewish couple …” begins Adina Kay-Gross in her Aug. 22 column (“Should Young Families have to Pay to Pray?”) The answer is yes, families should pay if they want to take advantage of resources like synagogue services, and yes, we’ve heard that one.

Families should pay because the Jewish community, any community, requires investment. The parents of these families are the Jewish community’s next leaders. If they don’t understand that there are costs to participating in community, ultimately our institutions, the very ones Kay-Gross is talking about, will fail.

But that doesn’t mean Kay-Gross is wrong. As more and more families opt out of traditional synagogue affiliation and by extension, organized Jewish life, our institutions need to think seriously about how business models do and don’t work for a new generation of families struggling in this economic climate. To not charge for services sends a message we should be concerned about, but to do nothing for those families who are effectively priced out of Jewish community is wrong.

So, how do we make our institutions more welcoming to families? Jewish communities have played with alternative dues and membership models. Bay Area communities have experimented with community passports, allowing those who purchase a passport to attend any synagogue in the community. Others have given away tickets while others have opened up their services to all at no charge.

We’ve heard this story before. What’s new is Kay-Gross’ description of an engagement experience that actually worked: A holistic approach to family engagement combined the efforts of a local federation, a JCC, the PJ Library and a synagogue, and led to an experience that ultimately blew the doors off the Jewish community for one family. That’s something to talk about, and something we’re trying to do all year long.

The Kesher Initiative, a partnership between Jewish LearningWorks, the San Francisco and East Bay Jewish federations, and a wide range of local Jewish institutions is working to re-create those kinds of welcoming experiences for hundreds of families throughout the Bay Area, throughout the year, in just that way. Spearheaded by a team of community concierges, Kesher works with local institutions and families to facilitate connections, gentle handoffs and personalized referrals so that families can connect to the Jewish experiences and institutions that fit their specific needs and desires. Partner programs, collaborations and community initiatives are emerging from this approach — and in the South Peninsula this year, so has a community High Holy Days ticket promotion for families. Parents who would not otherwise bring their family to services are invited to purchase $36 tickets to any participating South Peninsula synagogue or institution.

Don’t confuse this with a sale. The rationale isn’t to fill seats that would otherwise be empty. Families don’t want to be treated like customers, and synagogues don’t want to be treated like products. This promotion is about breaking down barriers and developing relationships. Synagogues still struggle with the reality that dues and tickets appear to many as insurmountable obstacles to engagement. Families, like others in our community, continue to operate under the assumption that synagogues are only for members and that they aren’t welcome unless they pony up.

A holistic approach to engagement recognizes this fundamental breakdown in understanding and attempts to address it — holistically. That’s the magic Kay-Gross experienced. PJ Library, a North American Jewish engagement program that reaches out successfully to less-connected families, partnered with a JCC preschool, a local synagogue and a rabbi. The result is a simple yet elegant system in which families were introduced to Judaism with no strings attached. Then an invitation to explore what a deeper relationship might look like arrived in the mail. This is what, why and how Kesher works in the Bay Area as well, and it’s great to learn other communities are coming to similar realizations.

Yes, Ms. Kay-Gross, we’ve heard that one before, and we’re working together as a community to really do something about it.

Rabbi Joshua Fenton is the associate director of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.