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Intermarriage Outreach Group ‘Big Tent Judaism’ Shrinks as Top Staff Leave

A wave of departures has nearly wiped out the full-time staff a Jewish nonprofit that is a leading voice promoting outreach to intermarried families.

Big Tent Judaism, founded in 1988 as the Jewish Outreach Institute, has shed most of its senior staff since the spring. Six employees listed on the organization’s website as recently as April, including the group’s associate executive director, its director of strategic initiatives, and its development officer, no longer work there. Full-time staff has dropped to three people, including the group’s executive director, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky.

A former Big Tent Judaism employee, who asked not to be identified, told the Forward that the organization laid off nine people between November 2015 and May 2016. Olitzky disputed that figure, but would not say how many people were laid off, saying that personnel matters are confidential.

Olitzky said that the departures were due to the organization’s June move from offices in New York City to cheaper space in New Jersey, telling the Forward that “many” staffers chose to leave the organization rather than to “make the reverse commute.” He also said that some staff members had earlier been let go after grants supporting their work ran out.

“We continue to be a responsible and financially viable organization,” he said.

Big Tent Judaism, once a voice on the fringes of the Jewish communal debate, has pushed mainstream Jewish groups towards greater acceptance of intermarried families. Founded by the sociologist Egon Mayer, it was the first Jewish organization dedicated to supporting intermarried families. Through publications and programming, it has argued vociferously for the intermarried to be accepted as members of the Jewish community, and has often clashed with Jewish communal leadership.

“They really did tremendous work,” said Keren McGinity, director of the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement program at Hebrew College’s Shoolman Graduate School of Education.

Now, the work of BTJ and other pioneers in the field is paying off, and Jewish donors are expressing greater interest in funding outreach to intermarried families, including a brand-new $3.3 million initiative from the Genesis Prize and the Jewish Funders Network.

Yet Big Tent Judaism ran an $866,00 deficit in 2014, according to its most recent publicly available financial statements. Contributions and grants received that year were far lower than what the group had raised in the previous three years. Olitzky said that the group’s 2015 financial statements are not yet available.

Today, the organization is reliant on part-time employees, who Olitzky said were taken on as a “short-term solution” amid the group’s move. He said that the organization is continuing to run all of its programs.

“We’re maintaining a full compliment of people necessary to implement all of the programs which we have been implementing the last fifteen, sixteen years,” Olitzky said.

Olitzky denied that the group is facing an organizational crisis. “I don’t think those concerns are justified,” he said.

In 2013, Olitzky set off a debate within the Conservative movement by submitting a proposal to allow Conservative rabbis to perform intermarriages. While the proposal failed, a 2015 survey of Conservative rabbis sponsored by Big Tent Judaism showed that 40% would perform intermarriages if allowed by their movement.

Olitzky told the Forward that Big Tent Judaism has a range of ongoing programs, including a research study on engaging millennials, a preschool project in Los Angeles, and four part-time workers running local programs nationwide.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.

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