USA TODAY: At Passover and All Year, Creative Jews Update Traditions

The PJ Library and other programs aim to shore up Jewish demographics.

4/18/2011

READ THE ORIGINAL USA TODAY ARTICLE HERE.

By Cathy Lynn Grossman | USA Today

Monday night is Passover, American Jews' most observed religious ritual. They'll retell the story of freedom from slavery in Egypt during a ritual meal, the Seder, and conclude with a vision of the future: "Next year in Jerusalem."

But with each passing year, Jewish numbers are threatened. Surveys find fewer U.S. Jews and more who are unaffiliated and uninterested in the established Jewish religious and institutional life.

Now, to meet the challenge, young and young-minded creative Jews in the arts, philanthropy, technology and more are launching or expanding innovative programs to experience their ancient faith and culture with a 21st-century twist. A sampling of innovations includes projects as "right now" as Tuesday's 5 p.m. EDT webcam/live-chat Online Seder, rallying Jews to a virtual table.

The primary appeal for the event is to unaffiliated and inter-married families who still want a Jewish touch in their lives without a major commitment. About 1,000 families from Manhattan apartment dwellers to military in Afghanistan have signed up so far. (You can do so by visiting OurJewishCommunity.org and clicking on "Sign up now for our Online Passover Seder.")

Many of the fresh ideas start with core Jewish values of prayer, study and good works and spin off in new ways.

Four years ago, a cluster of successful young professionals launched the annual Slingshot Guide. It's a Zagat-like book that highlights the 50 "inspiring" (i.e. cool) new events, programs and charities for folks who want to go or give or both.

All the projects are generated by under-40 Jews and designed for an influence on Jewish life in North America.

Among listings at SlingshotFund.org:

  • JDub Records -- A non-profit music label;
  • Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia -- A faith perspective on sustainable agriculture;
  • G-dCast.com -- Retells traditional Jewish stories with computer animation.

"G-dCast is addictive! I learned things about my Torah portion from my bar mitzvah that I never knew," says Will Schneider, 30.

Schneider started as a typical guide user, "looking for something fascinating and relevant in my life. I wanted to be Jewish in ways that excited me."

Now, he's executive director of Slingshot. The fund is also a resource to donors. Family foundations and young donors looking to leverage small gifts have pooled together $1.5 million in four years for new projects.

It also partners with the Jewish Federations of North America's own efforts to engage young adults with programs such as Moishe House. This is a network of 33 urban houses where small clusters of young Jewish professionals live with subsidized rent in return for creating Jewish social, religious and service events for peers who rarely affiliate with synagogue life.

WEB PRESENCE

Technology-friendly rabbis are also reaching out to the unaffiliated. Consider bar and bat mitzvah tutoring via Skype for kids who won't -- or can't -- go to Hebrew school.

Parents who find synagogue life too expensive or perhaps not welcoming to a non-Jewish spouse can connect with rabbis who go the Internet distance to teach the Torah for the rite of passage to Jewish adulthood.

Rabbi Jamie Korngold tutors online from home in Boulder, Colo. Her new book in stores now, The God Upgrade, uses tech-savvy lingo to explore a Judaism that "calms our spirits, excites our minds and connects us to something larger than ourselves."

But Korngold is better known as the Adventure Rabbi, who leads Sabbath and holiday treks in the wilderness, such as an annual Seder in the desert.

Today, 120 people from across the country are planning to hike the Red Rocks in Moab, Utah, reading the Scripture under the sky, then conducting a Seder on the Colorado River banks to talk about the God of Moses' time and now.

"There are huge conversations going on about God today, and we need to join in however, wherever we can. Even those of us who don't believe that God actually came down here with an outstretched arm and freed the slaves resonate with the holiday. Passover celebrates freedom and cultivates compassion for those not yet free," Korngold says.

Philanthropist Harold Grinspoon doesn't care where or how Jewish people, particularly young Jewish families, worship. His fear is that they're nowhere.

"I saw the Jewish people in some type of crisis. So many young parents don't know anything about Judaism," he says.

His answer: The PJ Library, free books for pajama-clad tots that snuggle Jewish culture, history and pride into bedtime stories.

To date, PJ Library has sent books to 70,000 children in 145 communities in the USA, Canada and Israel. New books go out monthly, each with a guide for parents to enrich the Jewish experience.

"With these books, you reach anyone who reads to children. I'm looking for maximum return on investment," says Grinspoon, whose Institute of Jewish Philanthropy also supports scholarships for Jewish camping programs. "I am very, very scared about the demographics of the Jewish people today."

DECLINING NUMBERS

Here's what scares him: Jewish numbers in the USA have been flat or falling for years.

Every branch of Judaism has seen membership drop digits. Interfaith marriages, like that of Marc Mezvinsky, who is Jewish, to Chelsea Clinton, a Methodist, continue at a pace of 50% for Jews.

Demographer Ariela Keysar, a principal researcher on the American Religious Identification Survey, says, "I just don't see the Jewish population growing. At best, it's leveled off."

The 2001 ARIS found 4 million Jews in the USA - 2.8 million Jews "by religion" and 1.1 million who claimed some other cultural connection. But only the "by religion" question was asked in 2008. It turned up 2.7 million people.

With a 50% intermarriage rate, however, Keysar also sees changes in how Jewish people express their identity.

She quotes studies showing that 62% of mixed Jewish/non-Jewish couples hosted or attended a Seder in 1990.

By 2000, that dropped to 41%, and, Keysar predicts, "it will continue to fall. We are moving in the direction of less-connected Jews. Tonight you'll see a lot of 'soft Seders' - everyone gets together, they have the matzo-ball soup and tell a few stories, and maybe they read some of the blessings."

Time to reboot. Or Reboot - the name of a mash-up of think tank and start-up incubator for Jewish cultural identity.

"The idea of rebooting Jewish cultural life isn't new. Jews have been doing it for centuries. We're always about adapting to a new time and place that eventually becomes part of us. Jews change. We advance. We meet the times within the basic values we believe in," says Reboot's executive director, Lou Cove, 44.

For the past decade, 50 or 60 young professionals with track records of creative success are invited to an annual May weekend summit in Utah to explore ideas and generate projects.

By now, 350 have attended Reboot's summits, and they're moving projects into the public domain. You didn't have to be Jewish to join in one of the latest - a day of turning off all tech devices, known as the Sabbath Day of Unplugging.

Currently, Rebooters in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles are beta-testing "Sayder 4.0." This is a pilot project that experiments with the four questions that are traditionally asked during the Seder.

Says Cove, "The 20th-century American Jewish experience was all about historical imperatives: keeping the (synagogue) alive, remembering the Holocaust, caring about Israel. But what got shortchanged was Jewish culture. Culture is the glue that holds a people together. In the 21st century, culture is how we are proudly and publicly Jewish."