Jewish groups step up outreach

Leaders look to the Web as a way to attract and engage unaffiliated Jews

During this week's Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah, Jews are celebrating a centuries-old restoration of the Second Temple and the freedom to practice their faith. For some, it has also become the season to reach out to thousands of Jews who are only marginally affiliated with the religion to encourage a re kindling of their faith and sense of identity.

Recent studies have confirmed trends of declining affiliation in the US, and Jewish leaders are responding with major initiatives.

Philanthropists Edgar Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman last week announced a new comprehensive online resource - MyJewishLearning.com - to provide a personal gateway to Jewish history and the whole spectrum of Jewish faith perspectives.

"Knowledge provides a lasting legacy," says Mr. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagram Co. "We created [the site] to spark a renaissance of ideas and learning."

And the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) has in recent weeks offered 1,550 classes across the US to spur Hebrew literacy through its Read Hebrew America/Canada campaign.

"Services in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues are basically in Hebrew, and the Reform movement is introducing it more," explains Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, NJOP founder. He says some 15,000 people will complete the five-week Hebrew course this month.

A recent Jewish population study showed a decline in the number of US Jews over the past decade from 5.5 million to 5.2 million. (The figures are controversial, as internal debate continues over the issue of who is a Jew.) According to a 2001 survey, only 68 percent of the core Jewish population says its religion is Judaism, down from 80 percent in 1990. At the same time, 33 percent were married to non-Jews, up from 28 percent in 1990.

For NJOP, the greatest urgency lies with the younger population, which it is targeting this year. A 2002 survey by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life found that only 13 percent of Jewish college freshmen reported frequent attendance at religious services (compared to 47 percent of non-Jewish students), while 58 percent of Jewish students said they spend zero hours in prayer.

"Our immigrant parents prayed for a melting pot and they got a meltdown," says Rabbi Buchwald. His group has been working for 15 years to counter the trends.

While it's not yet clear how effective the student outreach will be, the Read Hebrew classes are meeting a need. Dan and Jennifer Mierer, of Colorado Springs, Colo., were married a year ago and she has converted to Judaism. But, she says, it's been difficult to understand what is happening in the services, so they both signed up for Hebrew class.

"I couldn't follow along in the prayer book, and I wanted to," says Ms. Mierer, consultant to an ice cream manufacturer. "It's still a little like being in kindergarten, but I don't feel as lost, and it feels good that I was able to accomplish this."

Robert Frankel, a retired vice president for sales and marketing from the Chicago area, was only marginally connected to religious life until his older son started attending Hebrew school. "It's somewhat social," he admits, "but it's now an important part of my life." His daughter-in-law, who is not Jewish but attends services, encouraged him to join her in the Hebrew class.

"The classes are reaching people of different ages who have forgotten or never knew Hebrew, have married someone Jewish, or who want to make the services a lot more meaningful," he says.

Those involved in the ambitious Internet undertaking - MyJewishLearning.com - see it as a means to reach the marginalized and younger generations as well as to bring the entire Jewish community into the 21st century.

"The Internet is the perfect tool to reach the unaffiliated, the less affiliated, and young Jews," says Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family and Life, coproducer of the website with Hebrew College. "Most Jews will still not walk through the doors of a Jewish institution, but they will invite us into their home." Mr. Abramowitz speaks from experience: In 1996, he created the first "webzine" for Jews.

The aim is to provide a multilayered learning environment where individuals from novice to expert can explore Judaism at their own pace and level. And the site will encompass all Jewish denominations. The challenge is "to reflect with integrity the great diversity in Jewish thought," Abramowitz says.

They've already found enthusiasm among many Jewish organizations, which see it as a valuable resource for adult education and youth camp programs.

While Buchwald sees the effort to counter assimilation in the US "like fighting a nuclear war with a pea-shooter," he also can point to pockets of Jewish revival. "In the Orthodox world, for example, the commitment to study and devotion to God is almost as strong as any period in Jewish history."

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