Shabbat Across America targets students, unaffiliated

The tune, the orchestration and the enthusiastic voices extolling "Shabbat Across America" have a distinctly commercial sound.

But officials at the New York offices of the National Jewish Outreach Program, where the tape is played over telephone lines, hope the message will propel young unaffiliated Jews toward the nationwide prayer service on Friday, March 31.

The NJOP is targeting college students in its sixth annual Shabbat Across America, according to founder-director Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald.

So are local congregations. At Palo Alto's Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth, congregants will host students from Stanford University at services and at dinners in members' homes.

"This event definitely helps us to extend the reach of our community, which is already a very, very warm community," said Barbara Bickerman, the board member in charge of programs.

For Buchwald, the outreach to young adults can't happen too soon.

"College is a disaster area," he said. "What if I were a college student and I had the chance to participate in a beautiful prayer service or spend the weekend in bed with my girlfriend and a bottle of wine? I don't think God has a chance."

To say Buchwald is intent on luring the unaffiliated out of their beds is an understatement. He approaches his job as a proselytizer for the secular with a fervor that bars no hyperbole.

"We're in a spiritual holocaust," he said. "We have lost 6 million to assimilation. The U.S. population has doubled since World War II, but the Jewish population has remained the same."

That message resonates in the Bay Area, where synagogues in San Francisco, the North Bay, the East Bay and the Peninsula have signed on.

"It's lovely," said Margie Sweetzer Brill, director of Oakland's Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation that will participate for a second year.

"This year, we're going to do it even bigger and better," she added. "It brings new people in, and everyone involved is touched by the fact that people all over are doing not just a service, but the same service. It feels inclusive."

San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sherith Israel is also following up on last year's successful foray.

"It's a wonderful idea, linking the Jews of America with the synagogues," said Rabbi Martin Weiner. "The national coordination is fantastic."

NJOP officials believe strongly enough in the power of Shabbat Across America to invest $250,000 in an advertising campaign. Their efforts range from go-carting through Jewish neighborhoods to passing out fliers to placing ads on such syndicated radio programs as "Dr. Laura."

According to Buchwald, 80,000 will participate this year — double the number that attended the first "Shabbat Across America" in 1997.

He has made contact with 30 of North America's 100 campus-based Hillels. He said participation deepens the commitment that many students develop on their first trip to Israel.

Buchwald is reaching out to all Jewish movements. But convincing them they have more that unites than divides them "is like walking a tightrope," Buchwald said. "It's very difficult."

Yet an increasing number of Reform congregations are agreeing to host the dinner service, which means providing kosher or vegetarian meals.

"This is a real breakthrough," Buchwald said cheerfully. "It could mean the coming of the Messiah is at hand."

In the NJOP's slickly produced tape, ersatz rock music plays while a young woman's voice effuses, "You're invited to an evening that will have your heart racing and your feet stomping…when Jewish singles, couple and families gather in synagogues across the country to celebrate what unifies us all."

A man croons, "One people, one family, one love!" to a closing guitar lick.

"We don't want this to trigger that, 'Oh no, I've got to go to synagogue' kind of feeling," said Andrea Snyder, NJOP program director. "We want this to be a positive experience, so people will want to come back."

According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 70 percent of North American Jews are unaffiliated. And 54 percent of Jewish Americans under the age of 18 are not being raised as Jews.

Only 20 percent of Jewish adults over the age of 60 live in a self-described non-Jewish household, but among adults under the age of 40, that percentage doubles.

"We want to reverse that trend," Snyder said. "We want to make sure Judaism will stay around through the millennium."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.