When Efrem Epstein was in the 11th grade at Ramaz, a Jewish day school in Manhattan, he told his father that he had not read the entire Bible.
"How can I graduate without having read it all?" Rabbi Jerome Epstein recalled his son saying. "I said that I had read a lot of it, but that I, too, had not read it all.
"So he said that from that day on he would a chapter a day. I thought it was a fad, but 21/2 years later he finished it and then started reading it again. He has now been through it three times; I started doing it myself in early 1997."
A year later Rabbi Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, challenged the presidents and past presidents of the movement’s 20 regions to join them.
One of them, Eugene Zinbarg, president of the New York Metropolitan Region, enjoyed it so much that in January he started taking a Bible class at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"It really turned me on to it," said Zinbarg. "And the class covered books that I have not yet read. We’re in Samuel I now."
Beginning on Simchat Torah (Sunday, Oct. 3) the movement’s 1.5 million affiliated Jews in 770 congregations in North America will be invited to join this daily study project, to be called Perek Yomi.
It comes at a time when primarily Orthodox Jews are engaged in a variety of daily study programs, including Daf Yomi (a Talmud page), Tanach Yomi (the Bible, undertaken last month by Amit, an Orthodox women’s organization), Mishnah (the Oral Law), Jewish law and Maimonides’ guide to Jewish law.
The Conservative Bible study program seems to be in step with a national trend toward increased spiritual yearning. Recent surveys by the Gallup organization have found a "widespread and continuing appeal or popularity of religion" and "eager searching for meaning and life; a hunger for God, and belief in prayer and present-day miracles."
Gallup also reported a "glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines and the traditions of one’s own church."
Leaders of other Jewish movements applaud the Perek Yomi project, saying it appears to be tapping into an increasing desire by Jews to study their heritage.
"People in general are looking for more spirituality," said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. "We’re thrilled that the Jewish community is coming back to tradition, coming back to where we started from."
He said it was his hope that participants in Perek Yomi would go on to study "Jewish philosophy, tradition and halacha [Jewish law], and that it would lead them to keep more mitzvahs."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, echoed those observations, saying there has been a "return to serious Judaism throughout the Jewish community."
"We have talked about some kind of daily study that would be appropriate for our movement," he said, "but we are now involved in a half-dozen literacy initiatives and so we have decided to promote what we have already begun. But down the road, we might consider something like this."
That attitude was reflected at the annual convention of Reform rabbis, who adopted a platform calling for increased study.
Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council, said he also viewed the project as a "positive development."
"It is something that traditional Judaism has always promulgated. It is a basic tenet of Jewish life that one should set aside time each day to learn Torah," he said.Rabbi Dworken said Daf Yomi has been a "great boon to Torah knowledge. It formalized Jewish learning, giving it structure.
"The leadership of American Jewry has realized that the straying of much of our populace is due to a lack of Jewish knowledge. If we can re-establish a connection and once again become the people of the book, Jewish religious life will be greatly enhanced."
Rabbi Epstein said Perek Yomi is less time consuming than Daf Yomi.
"To study a page of Talmud is a major obligation," he said. "We think this can be done in 15 to 20 minutes each day.
"We didn’t want to have something in which a person would have to devote an hour a day. We are trying to reach people who have no commitment or a minimal one to the regular study of Judaism, and we are asking them to make a commitment of daily study. That is not something that can be trivialized.
"Most Jews have not read the whole Tanach [Bible]," the rabbi said. "Since the Bible is the tree of life, the core of Jewish life (our values and history and way of life) we think it is important that Jews have some familiarity with it."
Rabbi Epstein said that since most Jews have read the Five Books of Moses, Perek Yomi would begin with something most have not read: the Book of Joshua.
"We’ll then go through the Prophets and through the Psalms and the Megillot, and then through the Five Books and conclude the cycle with the Book of Devarim," he said.
Rabbi Epstein said the goal of the project is to have participants familiarize themselves with the Bible. After they have read through it once, he said, the second reading would be geared to more of an in-depth study.
To help participants, the United Synagogue has developed a series of questions for each chapter.
"They are not to test people but to help them focus their reading so they will know what to think about and to look for," explained Rabbi Epstein.
Zinbarg said that without guidance, it would have been "difficult to understand" some of the chapters.
The United Synagogue plans also to set up a chat room on the Internet to allow participants to discuss a chapter and ask questions of each other. A panel of resource people will be available on-line.
"We are also urging congregational rabbis to run a program or a discussion group once a week to set the context of the coming reading, as well as to summarize and answer questions about the previous week’s readings," said Rabbi Epstein.
But he stressed that Perek Yomi is designed for participants to read a chapter each day by themselves because "we want this to be an empowering thing. But the rabbis of the congregation can be helpful to those who do not know the time of Isaiah and what he was writing about."
Zinbarg, a Manhattan attorney, said he enjoyed "reading some of the old stories and reading about places I visited in Israel. In the summer of ’95, I went to the plain where the battle took place between David and Goliath. And then when you read [about it in] the Book of Samuel: it’s good stuff."