NEW YORK, May 31 (JTA) — A profile of Hallie Kate Eisenberg, better known as the Pepsi girl, might not seem like an obvious choice for a magazine about Jewish values.
But Eisenberg, an 8-year-old actress famous for her mop of brown curls and the commercials in which she lip-syncs the voices of cowboys and gospel singers, will be one of the features in the debut issue of “BabagaNewz.”
A colorful educational magazine loosely modeled on secular publications like “Weekly Reader” and “Highlights,” “BabagaNewz” will be distributed this fall to fourth- through seventh-graders in Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools throughout the United States.
The magazine, which aims to teach Jewish values in a “relevant and cool” way, will use current events and pop cultural icons like Eisenberg and the upcoming Harry Potter movie as springboards for discussion. The article on Eisenberg, for example, will include suggestions for how kids, as an act of chesed, or lovingkindness, can create a drama troupe that performs in nursing homes.
Each issue will focus on a particular Jewish value tied to the Jewish holidays of the month. The debut issue — which appears shortly before the High Holidays — will focus on “new beginnings,” dealing with everything from starting a new school year to the concept of teshuva, or repentance. An interview with Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter, will be followed by discussion comparing an actor’s preparation for a new role with a Jew’s preparations for repentance before the High Holidays.
Future issues will take on such values as peace in the home, caring for the environment, truth, responsibility, heroism and protecting one’s health.
A test issue sampled in 37 schools last year used the news story of Elian Gonzalez as a launching point for discussions on Jewish approaches to resolving custody disputes, an article on the Jewish community in Cuba and an interview with Spencer Eig, the Jewish lawyer who argued on behalf of Gonzalez’s Florida relatives.
“My biggest hope and goal for the magazine is that it will provide an entertaining venue for the kids, that they’ll enjoy reading — something that’s lively, colorful and a good read,” said Mark Levine, BabagaNewz’s editor. “At the same time, through the teachers’ guide, we’ll be providing good hooks for them to introduce Jewish text materials and show them that every dimension of their lives can be viewed through a Jewish lens.”
BabagaNewz’s creators hope that in addition to offering a new educational tool, the magazine also will serve as a model for Jewish unity by catering to a diversity of Jewish kids, ranging from centrist Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist. The idea is that by focusing on values, rather than practices, “BabagaNewz” will be able to avoid theological rifts.
“What’s great about Jewish values is they don’t have a denomination,” said Yossi Abramowitz, editor, publisher and founder of Jewish Family and Life!, the non-profit Jewish media company behind BabagaNewz.
“Kids are kids,” said Rabbi Heshy Glass, principal of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, an Orthodox school in Long Island, N.Y., that tested BabagaNewz last year. “You want to have the material — current events from Israel, things that relate to the holidays, how to connect with other Jewish children. These are all good values that are nondenominational, just Jewish.”
Nonetheless, all involved in BabagaNewz recognize that pleasing a diverse constituency will be a major challenge.
Initially, there were discussions of creating two different versions — Orthodox and liberal — or of focusing solely on day school students.
Some ground rules have been set to prevent alienating Orthodox readers: people featured in the magazine will be pictured only in modest attire; titles, such as rabbi, will be avoided wherever possible, so that Orthodox schools will not feel they are sanctioning things like the ordination of women.
However, such accommodations potentially could turn off some Reform and Conservative children, who might find it hard to identify with girls in long skirts.
Another question is whether a print magazine, even one like BabagaNewz, which will include some interactive features on the Web, is the best way to appeal to today’s computer-savvy children.
“I recently gave an assignment about Biblical measures and even though there were hundreds of books in the room, all the kids ran to the computer,” said Rabbi Leah Kroll, school rabbi and Judaic studies head for the middle school of the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.
Students at Milken and its elementary school, the Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School — both community day schools under the auspices of a Reform temple — tested out BabagaNewz last year and generally liked it, Kroll said.
However, “I don’t know that a magazine is going to be right for these kids. I wonder if a sophisticated Jewish Web site might be a better investment,” she said.
But according to BabagaNewz’s publisher, Mark Levine, children don’t use the Web “to sit down and read articles as much as they do to connect with other kids and look up information.”
“Nothing beats the feeling of getting a colorful magazine in your hands,” Levine said. In addition, he said, a print magazine is more practical for use in the classroom, particularly since not all Jewish schools have computer labs.
BabagaNewz is Levine’s second foray into Jewish children’s publishing. Levine, a former professional with the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Washington, ran a Jewish Webzine, Sparkz.com, in the late 1990s.
BabagaNewz is not the only Jewish children’s magazine. There is an Orthodox publication called “Olameinu;” another magazine, “Shofar,” folded several years ago due to financial problems.
BabagaNewz has stronger financial backing, with more than $4 million in funding from the Avi Chai Foundation. The magazine, which has sold 2,500 subscriptions so far, represents a partnership between Avi Chai — better known for its support of day schools — and Jewish Family and Life!, a publisher of various Jewish Web sites, including birthrightisrael.com, a site for alumni of organized Israel trips, and Interfaithfamily.com.
It also will offer a monthly book club, similar to the Scholastic book club.
Among schools that tested BabagaNewz last year, the magazine has gotten mostly positive reviews.
Louis Nagel, education director of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md., said teachers there “liked the attitude of the magazine, and the kids just loved it.
“It got their attention,” he said.