How to reach young, unaffiliated Jews and bring them into the fold? It’s been the Jewish community’s No. 1 question for years.
Now, one of the Jewish world’s wealthiest and most influential philanthropists thinks he has an answer.
And the emphasis is more on culture than religion as a gateway to Jewish life.
Michael Steinhardt, 57, who has emerged in recent years as one of the most creative funders of Jewish projects, from day school education to campus life, has purchased and begun renovating a handsome four-story brownstone on West 67th Street, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park.
In about a year, if all goes as planned, it will be transformed into a significant cultural and social center for Jews in their 20s and 30s, most of whom
have only a tenuous connection to Jewish life.
Unfortunately for Steinhardt, some powerful Upper West Side neighbors are attempting to block the renovation, claiming the project would bring increased noise and traffic on the block.
The idea behind this $5.5-million renovation project is that once people can be coaxed inside the building, they will be so attracted to its unique ambience — a coffeehouse with food and musical entertainment downstairs, regular classes and lectures on various aspects of Jewish life upstairs, and an overall sense of intimacy — they will want to come back for more.
That’s what Steinhardt is banking on.
His Partnership for Jewish Life is underwriting the project, known as Makor (source), and has spared little expense in trying to create a physical and psychological environment that will appeal to younger Jews who have felt distant from, if not threatened by, the organized community.
“That age group is one of the most underserved in the community,” says Steinhardt, whose support of Hillel has created a service corps of Jewish communal workers on dozens of campuses and who recently helped organize a partnership of philanthropists to support day school education.
Steinhardt says there are nearly 100,000 Jews from 20 to 39 in New York, and that many of them are living alone for the first time, in a first job, and with weaker ties to synagogues and Jewish institutions than Jews who are older and more settled.
The idea behind Makor, which Steinhardt describes as unique, is to create a gateway to Jewish life through cultural interests that appeal to the younger generation, from art and music to literature and filmmaking, in an open, pluralistic and accepting way.
“We hope the result will be a stronger sense of Jewishness,” says Steinhardt, in terms of the members and participants marrying other Jews, attending synagogue, taking part in Shabbat dinners and increasing their interest in Judaism.
“Is this just another singles scene approach or an attempt at religious outreach?” Steinhardt offers. “I wouldn’t deny either, or be ashamed. But neither fits what this project is all about.” Rather, he says, it is about creating a “beautiful facility and highly sophisticated environment” that will appeal to young Jews — not just singles — on a variety of levels.
It’s about quality, innovation and taking risks, he says, not attributes for which the organized Jewish community is known.
Makor organizers have spent the last year and a half developing the layout and programming for the facility, as well as creating a core group of professionally successful, Jewishly curious people to form the nucleus of the participants in the project. For more than a year they have been meeting in each other’s homes or at venues on the West Side hoping to build momentum toward the opening of the restored building next December.
Matt Bernstein, 30, is a case in point. An Upper East Sider, he works for a management consulting company and says he found it difficult to make contact with other Jews because “I am not involved in going to temple or in a Zionist way.” But Bernstein was interested in meeting and being with other Jews, and heard about Makor early on by word of mouth. He attended a Shabbat dinner sponsored by the group and found the people he met to be “friendly and outgoing.” Most, like him, were not religious but were interested in Jewish life and culture.
Bernstein gradually has become more involved Jewishly — to his own surprise. He says he “adores” the Bible study class given by Rabbi David Gedzelman, director of the Partnership for Jewish Life, has started praying and last month visited Israel for the first time.
“I’m more in touch with my religion,” Bernstein says, “and getting more interested. But if I told people I’ve become more religious through this project, it might scare them off.”
Rabbi Gedzelman, who has been involved in Makor from the beginning, is well aware of this concern. “We want to introduce people to a full range of Jewish activities,” he says, “but it’s critical for them to find a comfort level. Our goal is to meet people where they are Jewishly.” He says the toughest challenge is to attract people “who are not interested in being in a Jewish context.”
Cindy Rosenfeld, 27, is a native of Allentown, Pa., who moved to the Upper West Side two years ago. She is a development officer for Ballet Hispanico of New York, and says her early Jewish education was limited. She went to a Makor-sponsored focus group seeking input on what would appeal to Jews her age, and has remained involved.
“I didn’t want a singles crowd,” she says, “but the programs are very non-threatening, and people keep coming back. The proof is in the numbers.”
“You’re welcomed on your own terms,” agrees Jesse Lunin-Pack, 25, who grew up on the Upper West Side and works in marketing for New York Life Insurance.
Long involved in Jewish life, Lunin-Pack served the Jewish community at Yale University for a year in the Jewish Campus Service Corps. He says that “no one else is doing what Makor is doing. This is new, different and very open.”
He was particularly impressed with a class Rabbi Gedzelman gave on planning for the High Holy Days, noting that some participants would not have felt comfortable walking into a synagogue without the preparation.
Makor’s mailing list has grown to about 1,200, with a core of between 60 and 100 active participants. The goal is to have a mix of members and guests making use of the building, whether it be simply to come see a Jewish film or sign up for a weekly Jewish class.
“We’re trying to mix it up,” Rabbi Gedzelman says, “with different levels of Jewish commitment in different levels of the building.”
The Jewish content increases from floor to floor, a kind of upstairs-downstairs scene with programming intensifying along the way. The basement will have a sound-proofed coffeehouse for about 60 people, featuring music or comedy; the first floor will feature an extended reading room, parlor and salon for public readings; the second floor will have a screening room and a space to showcase the work of Jewish artists; and the third floor will house four classrooms, a media production facility and a sound and recording studio. Administrative offices will be on the fourth floor.
Egon Mayer, a noted Jewish sociologist, praises what Makor is trying to do.
“The demographic analysis is accurate, and creating ways for Jews to meet one another is a mitzvah,” he says.
Not everyone is sanguine, though. Neighbors on the quiet street, including media consultant David Garth, New York Review of Books editor Barbara Epstein and Cafe des Artistes owner George Lang have formed an ad-hoc coalition in an effort to stop the renovation of the 92-year-old building, the former Swiss Home. They claim that they are not opposed to the project or its goals, but are concerned that Makor could draw hundreds of people a night to the block for various social activities.
But Makor officials say they have bent over backward to reach an accommodation with the neighbors, scaling back plans and spending extra dollars to sound-proof the walls.
“The neighbors have been less than welcoming,” says Steinhardt, and at least one letter critical of the project questioned whether Jews don’t have enough activities already in the neighborhood.
A judge is expected to rule soon on whether Makor will have to submit an environmental impact statement, which could mean a long delay for the project.
But Makor officials are confident that their plans will be allowed to go forward, since similar efforts by the neighbors to halt other developments in the area, including the ABC network complex at the corner of Columbus and the Reebok sports club across the street, have been unsuccessful.