Rabbi wants to involve each U.S. Jew in Jewish life

Highland Park, N.J. (JTA) — Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald wants to reach every Jew in the United States and involve them in Jewish life.

While the United States has about 5.6 million Jews, about 4.75 million of them, or 85 percent, marginally practice their religion and are unaffiliated with any Jewish institution, Buchwald said, citing the results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Two million American Jews no longer acknowledge that they're Jewish, he said.

"The question is are we going to get the committed Jews to mobilize to reach out to the nonaffiliated," Buchwald, founder and director of the New York City-based National Jewish Outreach Program, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "The committed Jews don't recognize the degree of the crisis today. It's their responsibility to address it."

Buchwald said he believes American Jewry's future is at stake. The reasons he cites: The fabric of Jewish life is being threatened as the threads are decomposing, the consequences of apathy — assimilation and intermarriage — and a low birth rate among all Jews in the United States but the Orthodox.

That's why he speaks around the nation, urging the unaffiliated to get involved and trying to persuade committed Jews to reach out to those on the fringes.

While the National Jewish Outreach Program is part of a relatively new movement in Judaism that includes Hineni and Aish HaTorah, Buchwald's broad-based, nondenominational approach has gained him recognition across Judaism's denominations.

"We're not an Orthodox organization," Buchwald told the New York Times. "I don't care where you are, as long as you're on the way up. If you join a Reform temple, that's fine with me."

Ten years ago, Buchwald, 51, organized an effort to combat the loss of Jewish identity. Since Buchwald founded the nonprofit National Jewish Outreach Program in 1987, about 225,000 people have taken a program.

"In the next five years, we hope to reach another quarter million people," he added.