Big Tent Judaism

Big Tent Judaism engages more households in organized Jewish life using a proven, community-wide, systems approach that emphasizes the meaning and value in communal participation.

Location: New York , New York
Year founded: 1987


At any given time, only a small minority of Jewish households are actively participating in the life of the organized Jewish community.

Big Tent Judaism shares the benefits of participation in Jewish life through a layered, systems approach: we build a coalition of local Jewish organizations, Jewish communal professionals, volunteer leaders, funders, laity, and commercial partners, to bring a piece of organized Jewish life out to where the less-engaged are, in secular venues, rather than expecting them to come to us. Then, we guide these individuals and families to deeper participation through personal follow-up and referrals to other institutions, programs and events. 

Our vision for the full implementation of the Big Tent Judaism Initiative in local communities addresses the following overlapping systems:

A. Big Tent Judaism Concierges are Big Tent Judaism staff members on the ground in local communities who are tasked with coordinating all outreach and engagement activities. Unlike almost all other Jewish communal professionals who understandably spend the bulk of their time serving the already-affiliated and can only offer a few hours a week to outreach, the Concierge dedicates all of his or her working hours to serving the less engaged through programs and partnerships. The Concierge stewards the individual Jewish journeys of those s/he  meets at outreach programs, and guides them to relevant programs within the organized Jewish community. 

B. Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates are local Jewish communal professionals working at synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and other Jewish organizations interested in engaging more individuals in their programs. Professional Affiliates undergo a formalized outreach training program and agree to dedicate a percentage of their time to serving the unaffiliated through Public Space Judaism programs. They partner with the Concierge to implement outreach and engagement programs, and serve as welcoming contacts to newcomers to whom they are introduced through the Initiative.

C. Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors are local volunteer leaders who advocate for and support the Big Tent Judaism Initiative at their institutions and in the community-at-large. Ambassadors convene regularly to assure collaboration on outreach and engagement across communal organizations; advocate for organizational buy-in for the work of the Concierge and Professional Affiliates; and may even participate in the hands-on outreach programming should they want to get involved in that way.

Utilizing outreach best-practices, Big Tent Judaism equips Concierges, Professional Affiliates and Ambassadors with a full range of tools including our Public Space Judaism program model to cast the widest possible net to find the over 60% of Jews not currently participating in Jewish communal life. Programs such as Passover in the Matzah Aisle, Hands-On Hanukkah, and Gourmet Honey-Tasting for the Jewish New Year allow the Concierge, together with partnering Jewish organizations, Professional Affiliates and Ambassadors, to connect with people who may not even realize there is something relevant for them in the organized Jewish community. Along with bringing Jewish life outside the four walls of Jewish institutions, we also transform the the way newcomers are received and welcomed should they take the deeper journey inside the community, by training professionals and volunteer leaders at Jewish organizations in outreach and engagement.

In addition to casting the widest possible net through the Public Space Judaism program model, for the last ten years we have provided educational content and a supportive in-person and virtual community for traditionally marginalized or underserved populations as they and their families become more Jewishly active. The Mother’s Circle provides Judaic educational content and establishes a supportive community for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children. The Grandparents Circle teaches Jewish grandparents whose adult children are intermarried or interpartnered how to instill Jewish identity and values in their interfaith grandchildren. Our two newest programs - LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle for LGBT interfaith couples who are, or are considering, raising Jewish children and The Grandparents Circle for Non Jewish Grandparents help those in the orbit of Jewish life become more involved at best and at least more understanding of raising Jewish children. These programs, along with others for women who have converted and for both Jewish men and men raised in other backgrounds who now have Jewish children, provide a menu of opportunities to engage interfaith families.

When all these elements work together, coordinated by the Big Tent Judaism Concierge with the support and leadership team at Big Tent Judaism, the outputs and outcomes are impressive. Our goal for each major Jewish population center served by a full-time Concierge is to identify 1,000 previously-unknown Jewish households a year, and move a third of them into deeper engagement within a year of first contact. Our pilot communities of Chicago and Houston demonstrate that these goals are achievable. We believe this is the most advanced and effective approach to addressing community-wide Jewish engagement ever implemented, and expansion into Dallas, Palm Beach County, San Francisco, Sonoma County, and other communities is a direct result of the success of Big Tent Judaism Initiatives.

Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors: Phoenix


The Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors program will identify and train volunteer leaders and empower them to create a more inclusive Phoenix Jewish community through outreach advocacy, institutional transformation, and targeted engagement. 

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What is the mission and purpose of this program?

Volunteer leaders have traditionally been the backbone of the Jewish community—whether they are stuffing envelopes or sitting on organizational boards. In the past decade, volunteerism has changed dramatically. With women entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, their ability (and interest) in taking on volunteer tasks has decreased. Men’s Clubs have taken on many of the roles previously relegated to Women’s Auxiliaries in the form of supportive leadership and fundraising.  Aligned with these changes is the altering of the volunteer-professional relationship. Professional staff members have had to take on many of those responsibilities previously managed by a thriving volunteer workforce. We believe that volunteer leaders are still interested in ensuring the success of the local Jewish community—they simply need to be engaged in a particular way—one that works with their interests, skills and philosophies. 

Just as the Big Tent approach is inclusive of all those who wish to participate, the Ambassadors initiative welcomes all volunteer leaders regardless of their financial or time availability.  We ask the volunteer—“What do you want your Big Tent Jewish community to look like?” And then we help them attain that by training them in the principles of Big Tent Judaism and pairing them with others who are interested in the same results.

Using the systems approach to create an army of outreach workers, thanks to support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and the Jewish Community Foundation’s Teen Philanthropy Board, we are already in the process of teaching Phoenix-area communal professionals outreach best practices through our Professional Affiliates training program. However, we know that the professionals cannot achieve their goals of reaching hundreds of newcomers each year without the partnership of volunteer leaders and others in the community. Institutions typically rely on staff—the membership director, the rabbi, the executive director—to reach out and welcome in those who are interested. But even the best institutions have a limited reach and appeal, and volunteer leaders, both those who are and are not affiliated with traditional Jewish institutions can play a vital and revitalized role in growing and strengthening the Phoenix Jewish community. 

Through this initiative, volunteer leaders from the greater Phoenix metro area will learn about opportunities to advocate for inclusion. They will learn to recognize where and how barriers to participation are erected with a view toward remediating those challenges. They will work together—cross-institutionally and cross-denominationally—to find ways to serve the entire community. They will work with each other and sometimes with professionals to identify and engage newcomers through advocacy efforts and their participation in programs that take place in the public arena.

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Program Description

This program will teach volunteer leaders within the Phoenix Jewish community how to: 

1.) Spearhead institutional transformation: With Big Tent Judaism’s guidance and support, Ambassadors who are affiliated with a particular institution will advocate for concrete structural and systemic changes in their institutions. Big Tent Judaism will provide a “checklist” of possible changes which may include anything from redesign of the website to assure it reflects the diversity of the community, to modifying programs to serve the purpose of outreach (e.g., by implementing such programs outside the walls of the institution).

2.) Advocate for outreach: Ambassadors will educate other Jewish community leaders in institutions (volunteer and professional) on the need to reach out to less engaged individuals. With the leadership provided by Ambassadors, both traditional and non-traditional organizations will create new programs to reach and serve less-engaged newcomers to the community. They will also guide the modification of existing programs to serve the purpose of outreach.

3.) Provide targeted engagement: Ambassadors will identify less-engaged and unaffiliated individuals in the community. They will connect with these individuals, meet with them, and learn about their needs and interests. They will then work with Big Tent Judaism staff to identify or create programs that will serve these individual’s needs.

When the program is fully funded, the Phoenix cohort of Big Tent Judaism Ambassadors will receive two, three hour long in-person training sessions. These sessions will be facilitated by a member of Big Tent Judaism’s senior staff, all of whom are recognized by their peers as experts in the field of Jewish outreach and engagement. In order to accommodate work schedules, these workshops will take place either during weekday evenings or on Sundays. If the program does not receive full funding, some training components might be eliminated or conducted via webinar instead of in person.

In addition, Ambassadors will have the opportunity to participate in additional webinars offered throughout the year and which are open to our entire network of Ambassadors across North America. These webinars will cover material not included in the training workshops and many of them will be tied to Jewish holidays or other timely topics. For example, in January we might offer a webinar on how a synagogue’s Purim Carnival can be modified so that it can attract those who aren’t yet involved in Jewish life. 

Finally, Ambassadors will have access to Big Tent Judaism’s full range of program materials such as our Public Space Judaism program model. These customizable templates and implementation guides will allow Ambassadors to work alongside the professionals and do the hands-on outreach work of meeting less engaged Jews through programs in public spaces and providing personal follow up with an eye towards stewarding these people to deeper participation. 

The Ambassadors will represent a diverse array of the Phoenix Jewish community. Some will be affiliated with various institutions such as synagogues or the Federation while others might be highly engaged in the community though not in any formal leadership role. Members of the Giving Circle will of course be eligible, and would in fact be encouraged to participate in the program. In turn, the Ambassadors will be working with the Professional Affiliates and through their own initiatives to identify less-engaged Jews and guide them to deeper Jewish engagement. 

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Demonstrated Need

According to the 2013 Pew Survey data, at any given time, 61% of Jewish households are not affiliated in any way with the organized Jewish community. There is therefore a growing recognition among Jewish communal professionals that “business as usual” must change. The current approach of many professionals is to remain inside the walls of Jewish communal institutions and focus on the inside of the community, engaging those who are already involved.  In order to reach those on the periphery of Jewish life—the unengaged, intermarried, Jews-of-color, LGBT Jews and others traditionally marginalized—communal professionals and volunteer leaders must create programming and activities that take place where the majority of those individuals and their families are spending their time, outside of the institutions that make up the organized Jewish community, while also lowering perceived barriers to participation. 

Volunteer leaders, often overlooked and certainly underappreciated, have the capacity to drive Jewish organizations towards policies and practices that better welcome less-engaged Jews and interfaith families. However, unlike the professionals, very few volunteer leaders have specialized training or background that would allow them to take on this role.

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Program Accomplishments

Through regional cohorts and national recruitment, there are now over 230 Ambassadors across North America. 

With funding from the Stanford and Joan Alexander Foundation, our most recent regional cohort of Ambassadors was launched in Houston last year. Over 50 volunteer leaders participated in the program, many of whom were unaffiliated with a specific institution though highly active in the Jewish community, while the others represented a total of 19 institutions. Propelled by the advocacy of the Ambassadors, 11 of those institutions implemented at least two systemic changes from the Big Tent Judaism “welcoming in” checklist. 

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How do you measure the success of your program?

We will measure the success of this program by 1) the number of volunteer leaders who sign up for the Ambassadors program and participate in the trainings, 2) the ability of these volunteer leaders to identify areas of potential change or improvement, and by 3) their impact on the institutions with which they are affiliated and on the community in general.

Specifically, our measurable outcomes are: 1) At least 15-20 Ambassadors will be recruited, 2) During the training program, 90% of participants will identify at least one concrete step they could take within one year to create a more inclusive Jewish community, and 3) after one year, 70% of participants will have taken one of the concrete steps they proposed. These concrete steps might include:

• Supporting the implementation of outreach events (either by actively volunteering at the day of the event or in other ways).

• Sitting on local boards, committees, or councils where they advocate for inclusion.

• Promoting policy changes in an institution (such as reforming membership policies).

• Working for the inclusion of a certain population (such as Jews by choice, LGBT Jews, or Jews with disabilities).

• Promoting more inclusive marketing (such as revising an institution’s website or Facebook page).

Our in-house evaluation team will track the number of volunteer leaders who participate in the Ambassadors program and will follow-up with each of them individually approximately one year after the end of the last training session to determine what additional steps such as those on the above checklist they have taken. 

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