Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Using Stars to Attract Younger Generation

George Costanza might be coming to a Jewish fund- raiser near you. So might the Fonz. And don’t be surprised when you see the cast of the television show "Friends" making public service announcements on behalf of a Jewish organization.

All of these celebrity icons are members of a new wave of celebrities — both Jewish and non-Jewish — that Jewish groups are using to appeal to the younger generations.

It’s no secret that Jewish organizations, facing both dwindling and aging memberships, are looking to appeal to baby boomers, Generation Xers and even college students to keep their rolls, budgets and programs strong into the next millennium.

Organizers are employing a number of methods to do so — including new technologies such as the Internet — and among them is engaging celebrities who appeal to their target groups.

Indeed, a newspaper ad for an upcoming fund-raiser for the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado featuring the singer Neil Sedaka touts, "Bring back the fun and exuberance of the ’60s with one of America’s greatest singer/ songwriters."

There appear to be at least two different substantive reasons that compel a Jewish celebrity to appear on behalf of a Jewish organization.

Some seem to be born into their involvement in Jewish causes. Henry Winkler, the actor who played the Fonz on the 1970s TV hit "Happy Days" and who has spoken at federation events in several cities in the past year, is the son of Holocaust survivors.

For others, it’s a Jewish experience — such as the 1992 trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League that motivated Jason Alexander, who played Costanza on "Seinfeld" and has also won a Tony Award for his work on Broadway.

Last May, Alexander addressed the American Jewish Committee by video, during which he chided the group for holding its annual meeting the same night that the last episode of "Seinfeld" aired. He’s also narrated a film for the ADL – - and in 1994, he even donated his winnings from a celebrity episode of the television game show "Jeopardy" to the organization.

Alexander was quoted at the time as saying his trip to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was a "life-changing experience."

And there’s another, more expedient reason that convinces celebrities to appear for Jewish organizations, particularly those without a personal identification with Judaism.

The connection to convince the "Friends" stars to make a series of ADL announcements on behalf of tolerance, which have already begun airing on the MTV music network, came from one of the show’s producers. The "someone knows someone Jewish who’s with the show" link can frequently bear fruit.

Using public figures to attract crowds at Jewish fund-raisers is nothing novel. A recent search through archives at the offices of UJA-Federation of New York turned up photos of the actress Lucille Ball, "Wizard of Oz" star Ray Bolger and the sportscaster Howard Cosell appearing at events sponsored by the federation.

With the help of stars such as the singer Lena Horne and the actor Edward G. Robinson, the Chanukah celebrations sponsored by Israel Bonds filled New York’s Madison Square Garden from 1952 to 1988.

Posters advertising the annual event were put up in subways, and many politicians made sure to put in an appearance.

"It put Israel Bonds on the map," says Shragai Cohen, who is currently a consultant for the organization. With the pride of someone who has worked for the organization since 1951 he added, "We created Chanukah."

Jewish organizations today seem to have less ambitious goals than putting a Jewish holiday on the map, but officials at Jewish organizations said celebrities are vitally important in the attempt to reach audiences who normally might tune out their message.

"Every ad campaign is targeted. You try to reach a specific group," says the director of communications and marketing at the ADL, Mark Edelman, referring to the "Friends" ads. Using celebrity spokespersons admired by younger people "makes getting the message out a lot easier for us. No person wants to be lectured or told that they need to be more tolerant."

The use of celebrities is unlikely to attract a whole new set of younger members overnight. But in an age of celebrity culture, when people seem to know more about Hollywood and sports stars than their next-door neighbor, Jewish groups are betting that celebrity appearances are worth a shot.

When the Hillel chapter at the University of Arizona searched for a celebrity to star at an benefit performance next month, one name stood out above all others: that of Alexander.

The man who uncannily played a neurotic loser on one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s attracts a wide audience, including students who are uninvolved in Jewish affairs on campus, says the executive director of the school’s Hillel’s chapter, Michelle Blumenberg. Having Costanza appear, she says, "sends a message to our students. If a big-name celebrity is involved in the Jewish community, why don’t I get involved? Maybe there’s something really cool about it."

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