Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Us us us us us us us and them them them them them them them

I received not one but two (identical) solicitation letters in the mail today from the Union for Reform Judaism. I think the way I got on their "donor" mailing list is that I sent a contribution last year to the URJ's Katrina Relief fund. All denominational and non-denominational politics aside, the URJ and the Jewish communities of New Orleans and throughout the South did admirable work in assisting evacuees in the aftermath of the hurricane. If they asked for more money to continue rebuilding the Gulf Coast, I'd donate again.

But that's not what this letter was about. They're looking for contributions to the Fund for Reform Judaism to support "Outreach". The climactic paragraph says:

As our Movement continues to grow, so does our obligation as Reform Jews to reach out to the unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews, to intermarried couples, and to all those on the margins of the Jewish community, communicating to them the power and beauty of our Jewish heritage. We are committed to opening our arms as wide as possible to welcome the stranger into our sacred communities.

I filled out the reply card, writing $0 for the contribution amount, and writing this note at the bottom:

I believe this solicitation was misdirected. I am not a member of a URJ congregation; I am one of those "unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews", not part of the "we" who are welcoming "them". Asking for money is not the best way to start attracting "them".

And I'm sure I'm not the only non-URJ-congregation-member who contributed to the Katrina Relief Fund -- at the time, lots of people were looking for ways to make their Katrina donations through Jewish organizations. If they had done a more refined search of their database before sending this letter, they would have figured out that I'm not on any of their other mailing lists, and they thus have no way to assume that I'm part of the "us" who are taking up the white man's burden. When it comes to Jewish institutions, I think of myself as that "stranger", the huddled masses, the "them", not one of the people who are already in the door. Like many Jews my age who grew up in the Reform movement, I have not belonged to a URJ congregation since I moved out of my parents' house and went to college. If they insist on drawing this dichotomy between "us" and "them", they should be more careful about where they send the internal memos that are just intended for "us".

Another "us"/"them" gem from the same letter:
Today, about 1/3 of the interfaith couples in our midst choose to affiliate with synagogues, a number that continues to grow. These are families each of us knows. They are our friends, our relatives, our children and grandchildren -- and we cannot imagine our congregations without them.

Ok, it is correct that I am not part of an interfaith couple, and I have friends and relatives who are (no children or grandchildren). However, this phrasing assumes that the recipients of the letter do not include any interfaith couples -- "we cannot imagine our synagogues without them" -- which cannot possibly be true, especially given how indiscriminately the letter seems to have been sent. And I can't imagine that the interfaith couples reading the letter appreciate being addressed in the third person.

The URJ's heart is in the right place: they get credit for giving lip service to welcoming interfaith families, rather than talking about intermarriage as a boogeyman that is coming to eat us. However, this "us"/"them" mentality ensures that the people being "welcomed" are always the Other, always at arm's length.


  1. I think you are being very picky and hyper-critical. I thought the Reform movement choosing outreach to interfaith families as the basis for their year-end fund-raising appeal was a wonderful development, something to be applauded, not criticized. I didn't read the "us" and "them" language at all as you did, I read it more as "they" are "us."

  2. This post strikes me as poorly thought out, and verging on petulant. Either you broadly endorse the enterprise that is the URJ, or you don't. I know you well enough to know that this is not a simple question, and not well enough to know what your bottom line answer is. If you do, and if you endorse in particular their outreach effort, then make a contribution (subject to your other tz'dakah priorities), and if not, don't -- but then decline because you don't endorse them and/or their outreach effort, not because they sent you a mass-mailed letter that was crafted with an eye toward an audience in which you don't happen to fit. Organizations send fund-raising letters to mailing lists -- their own list or one they've bought or borrowed -- all the time, and running a match of one list against another takes time and money. It's reasonable for the URJ to assume that people who contributed to their Katrina campaign are likely enough to be sympathetic to their movement that it's worth their while to send them an organizational appeal.

    Now, if you're willing to send them a contribution for the specific purpose of paying the cost of matching and culling mailing lists, then may have a legitimate complaint.

  3. Ok, let me start again.

    Yes, my complaint would be picky or petulant if it were only about the URJ's use of pronouns or mailing lists. But really I posted because the result reinforces a larger problem with the Reform movement and Jewish institutions in general. (Sorry if this was lost on people who can't read my mind.)

    The problem is that when the Jewish institutional world divides Jews into "us" and "them", unaffiliated Jews like me become nonexistent in this paradigm. I'm not "us", because I'm not affiliated with the institutions, but I also don't fit their image of "them", so I'm not a target of any welcoming efforts. I am assumed to already be on the inside, except I'm not. Therefore I don't exist. And this feeling of invisibility is reinforced when I get a letter that 1) assumes that I'm on the inside when I'm not, and 2) is the only communication I have received. (I don't expect a personal letter, but I haven't even gotten junk mail saying "Welcome!", only junk mail saying "Give us money to help welcome them".)

    (BTW, tarfon, do we know each other in real life, or just in blogland?)

  4. BZ,

    Your argument that there are assumptions underlying the language usage in this letter is right on. i also agree that the language choices can be interpreted to reflect larger values present in the movement.

    The potency of your argument gets lots because of the medium you are using to advance it, a solicitation letter. The letter you received is "annual fund" fundraising: a letter which was broadly written to speak to an extremely broad audience, with the hope of acquiring small gifts from new donors, and increasing mailing lists. Often, annual fund fundraising stuff will be dramatic "our synagogues would not be the same w/o you" because direct mail research has shown that this brings in the bucks.

    Additionally, I know that in many of the development offices I've worked in, when it comes down to it the language choice of particular phrases comes down to the decision of the top dog. So, if I were to write a letter and say "all of us", the ED may change it to "us" because of how it sounds, even when the meanings are different.

    So, in conclusion I agree with your analysis of the assumptions present in the movement, but I'm not sure I find this letter to be good evidence for the reasons I explained above.

  5. BZ you are right on. Can you send that as a memo to more jewish orgs so that we (yes, i am a board member and a staff member of at least two jewish orgs) can use more welcoming language?

  6. Mar Gavriel has two good parsha posts from a few weeks ago about "us" and "them":

    part I
    part II

  7. I have frequently found myself in neither the "us" nor the "them" camps, though for different reasons.

    Having worked in non-profits (a long time ago and not Jewishly related) and been the one who wrote the letters that went out in fundraising attempts, I can say that 1) it's hard to write a letter that will apply to all recipients [which is why I often sub-categorized recipients and sent out as many as four different letters], and 2) sending the letters is almost purely a business transaction, while receiving them is almost purely personal.

    I remember getting a number of irritated responses to those letters, some of which prompted me to fire up the shredder while creating witty, cutting comebacks. Other responses prompted me to change information in the database and send a personal note of apology.

    IMHO, there's far too much "us vs. them" in the larger world. Our national - or even global - Jewish community should see this as a challege to create more inclusive opportunities rather than seeing this dichotomy as a perspective to emulate.

    I saw your post not as a "Why did I receive this letter?" complaint, but rather a post in which that letter highlighted a larger problem that needs to be addressed.