US supermarket aisles filled with outreach groups before Pessah

Synagogues, JCCs and federations who have developed outreach programs all say they've noticed the growing trend.

supermarket cart 88 (photo credit: )
supermarket cart 88
(photo credit: )
Anyone who walked into the Los Altos, California, Albertsons on Sunday would have run right into Margie Pomerantz's Pessah table. There she sat, next to the kosher food display right inside the supermarket's front entrance. A big handwritten sign reading "Passover in the Aisles" hung down from her table, on which lay piles of Pessah recipe books, Haggadot and other holiday resources. Pomerantz and her fellow volunteers from Congregation Beth David, a nearby Conservative synagogue, were out looking for Jews. In a supermarket. Unaffiliated Jews, if possible, but they weren't being picky. They handed out information and collected names. Someone from the synagogue will call later with an invitation to a Shabbat service or other Jewish programs. Scenes like this, with a non-aggressive method of doing outreach, are being repeated across the US this week, in dozens of communities. It's all part of Passover in the Aisles, a pre-holiday initiative conceived of by the Jewish Outreach Institute. Some Jewish groups have been doing this kind of outreach for a decade or more, but the biggest push seems to have come in the past three to five years. No one has a ready explanation for that timing, but synagogues, JCCs and federations who have developed such outreach programs all say they've noticed the growing trend. It is based on the idea of "public space Judaism" - taking programs out to where people are instead of waiting for them to walk into a synagogue or JCC. "If we wait for people to come to programs within the four walls of our communal institutions, we'll be waiting a long time," says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which provides guidance for such programs. "This is an attempt to bring Judaism to where people are." Pessah is a particularly good time for this kind of outreach, Olitzky says, both because it is one of the most widely celebrated holidays among all Jews, even the unaffiliated, and because it requires people to go to the grocery store to buy matza and other Pessah products. Olitzky's group urges synagogues, federations and other Jewish groups to set up temporary shop in grocery stores, offering food samples, holiday information and friendly advice to Jewish shoppers. Volunteers are urged to be welcoming, but to avoid asking questions that might be seen as too private. Olitzky says his outreach model has a lot in common with Chabad's street outreach, which he admires. But he says, what "makes ours different is we are less intrusive, less discriminating. We don't ask, are you Jewish? "It's important that Judaism be shared passionately in public spaces," Olitzky says. "That's what Chabad does, and that's what we do." Beth David's assistant rabbi, Aaron Schonbrun, went to a Jewish Outreach Institute conference last year and says he was astounded at the concept of liberal Jews doing this kind of outreach. It wasn't what he learned in rabbinical seminary. "We learned at the conference that you can't expect people to just write that check to the federation, especially not my generation," says the 29-year-old rabbi. "We talked about how to engage Jews in Judaism, not Reform or Conservative or Orthodox, but Judaism." This is the second year Beth David has done Passover in the Aisles. By 3 p.m. last Sunday, after three hours in the store, there are just nine cards filled out at the Los Altos Albertsons, an hour south of San Francisco. But the volunteers have talked to dozens of shoppers. "People are reluctant to walk up to a table," Pomerantz admits, noting the shoppers who warily eye the volunteers before grabbing their Pessah items and hurrying past. "But those who come over are very appreciative of what we're doing." One young woman who did fill out a card was Galit Azulay, newly arrived from Israel with her husband, who is studying for his doctorate in the area. "We're here to buy food for the seder," she says, adding that the couple isn't affiliated and don't plan to be. She didn't pick up any of the information, but entered the raffle for a seder plate. Carol Greenberg also stopped by the table. A member of a local Reform congregation, she congratulated the Beth David volunteers on their outreach efforts. "I'm so excited to see you here," she exclaims. Greenberg picked up a copy of their recipe book. "I find that congregations' recipes are much better than books," she says. She also took one of the children's Haggadot, which she plans to give to her newborn niece. "It'll be a nice gift from her aunt, her first Haggada." Store manager Aide Garcia says she couldn't be happier to host the event. "It increases our business a lot," she confides. "It's a way to promote our kosher food." The JCC in Columbus, Ohio did its first Passover outreach in a Wild Oats supermarket in 2003. They chose a new neighborhood in the northwest part of the city, an area where young, professional Jews have been moving, to improve their chances of reaching the unaffiliated. "In the core community, we have an affiliation rate of 90 percent, versus 20% in the northwest, where most of the growth is happening," says Lindsay Folkerth, outreach director for the JCC's J-Link project. J-Link is a community outreach program created two years ago by the local federation following a demographic study of the Columbus Jewish community by JOI. The program, based on the JOI model, is called "A Taste of Judaism," and in addition to the raffle and informational booklets, volunteers offer samplings of haroset and chocolate macaroons. In its three years of outreach programs at Pessah and Hanukka, for which J-Link volunteers go to toy and pet stores, Folkerth estimates they've collected 1,000 names of local unaffiliated Jews. Those who want to be contacted are called, and many have subsequently showed up at other synagogue or JCC events. A survey last year found that 90% "feel more connected to the Jewish community because of J-Link," she reports. Folkerth says that one woman who had a Jewish father but was not raised Jewish came up to volunteers at a Pessah table and related how her father gave her a Star of David necklace on his deathbed, urging her not to forget her heritage. "She told us she'd always felt uncomfortable in synagogue," Folkerth says. The woman spent a long time talking to the volunteers, and has since become "very involved" in the Jewish community. That outreach table gave her the road she needed, Fokerth believes. Seattle Rabbi Dov Gartenberg says his congregants "thought it was a little strange" when he set up a Pessah outreach table in a local supermarket more than 10 years ago. That was before he heard about the Jewish Outreach Institute program. He now runs food booths at a Whole Foods store before Pessah and Rosh Hashana, and has teamed up with a popular local chef to offer tastes of Jewish holiday foods. This month they're offering a different charoset each week, along with recipes. Gartenberg uses the tastings as a teaching opportunity. "As they taste, I say, this is what this food symbolizes, and it becomes a basis for conversation." Gartenberg gets a lot of non-Jews at his booths, some of them dating or married to Jews, others who are just curious. He sees that as an important part of his outreach. "Not only are we reaching out and touching Jews, we're sharing good will with the non-Jews who come up," he says. SAJES, a central agency for Jewish education on Long Island, did its first street outreach 10 years ago before Succot. They set up a succa-building demonstration in front of a Home Depot. "It attracted everyone, from people who had never built a succa, to those who build one every year," says outreach director Shellie Dickstein. "I thought, we're on to something." After that, SAJES created a task force to look at how to do this kind of outreach before every Jewish holiday. They especially wanted to reach intermarried families "to send the message that we're welcoming, we want to meet you," she says. With an initial grant from the Jewish Outreach Institute, Dickstein's group created the "Celebrations" outreach model. They run a Passover Extravaganza, taking over an entire shopping mall and holding simultaneous events in several stores. Some people who run Pessah outreach programs say their goal isn't to collect potential members. Roberta Matz, outreach coordinator at the Center for Jewish Life and Learning of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, says most people don't like to give out their names in such venues. Passover in the Aisles is valuable, she says, "for putting a face to the community," letting Jewish - and non-Jewish-shoppers - see that the local Jewish community is warm and welcoming.