Focus on Issues: Outreach Program Quenches Real ‘thirst’ for Jewish Life

In times as polarized as these, it is rare to find a religious program involving Jews across the denominational spectrum.

But the National Jewish Outreach Program manages to do it — and do it successfully.

Through Friday-night programs and brief, introductory courses on Hebrew and Judaism, the National Jewish Outreach Program has brought 165,000 Jews — most of them otherwise unaffiliated — through the doors of more than 1,300 synagogues of every stripe, according to Ephraim Buchwald, the program’s founder and director.

One of those Jews is Marc Chervitz, 33, who took the outreach program’s Crash Course in Basic Judaism at the Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner synagogue in Overland Park, Kan.

Chervitz said he had felt alienated from Judaism since his Bar Mitzvah, after which his family stopped attending synagogue.

He and his wife had recently moved to nearby Kansas City, Mo., when an acquaintance told them about it.

They took the introduction to Judaism class and loved what they heard. That was three years ago.

Today they are regular attendees at the 120-family synagogue’s Shabbat services, and Chervitz is the shul’s vice president for membership.

For Chervitz, the five-week class “awakened something in me that I didn’t even know I was looking for.”

“Once I realized that it was my Jewish identity I wanted to learn more about, I began studying more,” he said. “I finally learned why I was Jewish from a religious point of view.”

When the outreach program first began in 1988, nearly all the participating synagogues were Orthodox. Now two-thirds of them are Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform.

The synagogues that participate in the outreach — which includes a “Turn Friday Night into Shabbos” program, along with a two-part crash course in Hebrew reading and a crash course in basic Judaism — can be found across the country, from New York to West Virginia, from Alaska to Guam.

“People are thirsting, fainting for Jewish life,” Buchwald said in an interview. “Most Jews want to be touched.”

“They’re really waiting for it, and the tragedy is that we’re not getting them fast enough while everyone else, like the Messianic missionaries, is working hard to do it,” he said.

Buchwald’s goal is to get 500,000 unaffiliated Jews involved in courses during the next 10 years, along with 150,000 volunteers, already-committed Jews, teaching in the classrooms.

His 20-member staff includes Orthodox and Reform rabbis, along with other professionals across the religious spectrum.

Buchwald has slated next April 4 as the first nationwide “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos” and hopes to have 300 congregations from all denominations offer Shabbat dinners for their entire communities.

The programs are successful because “we bring them in with something cultural, universal, innocuous, which is reading Hebrew, and they walk away with a tremendous feeling,” Buchwald said.

The effort has worked well at Reform Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, which has been offering the outreach program courses for 18 months, said Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld.

Between 75 and 100 people have participated in the basic Hebrew and Friday night programs at the 188-family temple, he said. Half of the participants had never before been involved in the temple, he said, and several have since become extremely active members of the congregation.

“The success rate in bringing in the unaffiliated has been good,” said Rosenfeld of his experience in a city where about one-quarter of the 3,000 Jews belongs to his synagogue or the other one in town, a Chabad congregation.

The programs also help people find the connection between observing rituals and God, he said.

“The programs really work to stress that ritual consists of holy tasks, that it’s not just doing an action for the sake of doing an action, but that ritual is really designed to bring you closer to God through your Judaism, and that’s really important for people,” Rosenfeld said.

The Anchorage congregation’s experience is no surprise as far as Buchwald is concerned.

The first time Buchwald offered the Hebrew reading crash course, in 1988, “we hoped to reach 800 people and 5,000 responded,” he said of the program’s appeal.

His current annual budget of $1.5 million has almost doubled over the last three years, he said.

The program’s primary funder is philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who gave the organization a $1.5 million grant to be paid over five years, and to be matched by other contributions.

Two decades ago Buchwald virtually created the idea of outreach to the unaffiliated by developing a synagogue service tailored to the needs of uneducated Jews.

The beginner’s service he led at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue — then the flagship modern Orthodox congregation — was an instant success.

He built on the same concepts he used then — making sure liturgy and customs were accessible and non-intimidating — when he founded the outreach program nearly 10 years ago.

His center offers materials, curricula and training to synagogues who offer the programs.

His ultimate goal, Buchwald said, is not only to bring people closer to their Jewish identity, but to coax them into greater Jewish observance.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to inspire them to go much further” than learning basic Hebrew or celebrating one Shabbat, he said.

“I’m not out to make everybody Orthodox, but I’m not abashed to say that I want to give everyone traditional Judaism,” he said.

“We have 3,300 years of empirical evidence proving that only maintaining the rituals of Judaism maintains Jewishness,” he said. “After three or four generations secular Judaism doesn’t work.”

“No more than 10 percent of the people we reach become very traditionally observant, but virtually everybody we touch grows.”

That is certainly true of Shoshana Cohen.

Cohen, a 46-year-old from Eugene, Ore., was involved with her local unaffiliated liberal synagogue but looking for something more when a friend told her that a small Orthodox synagogue, the Center for Jewish Learning, was offering a crash course in basic Hebrew.

Cohen signed up and since then has been studying with the rabbi and occasionally attending services at the 40-family shul, though she remains active in her first congregation, where she serves as the treasurer.

“Knowing Hebrew has allowed me to pray more in Hebrew, and that’s made me more aware of my religion. It has made me more observant,” Cohen said. “I’m not Orthodox by any stretch of the imagination, but I take what I can from it.”

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