On a recent Sunday morning, Rebecca Davidson, a few days shy of her 10th birthday, snuggled with her teacher Davidah Moradi at the dining room table of Moradi’s West Orange home.
Rebecca recited the Hebrew alef-bet, as well as the morning prayer Modeh Ani and the Sh’ma. Then Moradi offered a summary of the weekly Torah portion.
Rebecca, whose family does not belong to a synagogue, spent a rainy Sukkot evening with Moradi and her family. She recently hung a mezuza on her bedroom doorpost with Moradi’s help. It’s the only mezuza in their house, though her father said he plans to hang more. She also said she is looking forward to Shabbat dinner with the Moradi family.
The budding relationship between the Davidson family and their daughter’s Orthodox tutor is just one aspect of West Orange Encounters, a grassroots Jewish outreach organization launched four years ago by West Orange residents Moshe Glick and Ira Bloom.
Cochairs of the outreach committee at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, an Orthodox congregation in their hometown, both wanted to see stronger efforts to connect with unaffiliated Jews.
“Judaism is in a crisis state,” said Glick. “We’ve all seen the figures. With 50-60 percent intermarriage, at this rate we’ll be gone soon. Jewish survival is very much at risk.”
Glick said the group is reaching people who fall into one of three categories: empty nesters who have let their synagogue memberships lapse and have lost touch with Jewish communal life, parents looking for a connection but whose children had a negative experience in Hebrew school, and those who have no background at all — or, as Glick put it, “they know they are Jewish and that’s it.”
The group has set up informational tables in malls and grocery stores before major holidays. Its Facebook page lists candle-lighting and Havdala times as well as some events in the West Orange Jewish community.
In addition to the Davidsons, four other families are engaged in paired learning. The effort includes holiday and Shabbat meals (at least 10 families have signed up for these), as well as annual crash courses in Judaism at the West Orange public library during the month of December. (This year’s series — covering belief in God, prayer, Shabbat and ritual, and Judaism and sexuality — will run on Thursday nights Dec. 8-29.)
West Orange Encounters also prepares holiday baskets, organizes “Turn Friday Night into Shabbos,” and recruits “block captains” who are assigned to make a “shidduch” between unaffiliated Jews and more engaged Jews who live nearby. Most recently, the group sponsored a weekend seminar in November run by Aish HaTorah.
The efforts are funded privately and by area synagogues including AABJ&D and Congregation Ohr Torah.
It’s a model of outreach, or kiruv, common among the Chabad Lubavitch hasidic movement, whose husband-and-wife teams of shluchim, or emissaries, run come-as-you-are outreach efforts in communities large and small. But such efforts are much rarer outside of Chabad.
So far, about 200 people are on the Encounters mailing list.
Over the next six months, Glick said he hopes to expand the volunteer base into neighboring towns. (Although West Orange Encounters does reach across its borders in terms of attracting unaffiliated Jews — the Davidsons, for example, are from Morristown — its volunteers and its offerings are all based in West Orange.)
“I’d love to see a Springfield Encounters, a Livingston Encounters, a South Orange Encounters,” he said. He also hopes to receive grants that will enable him to hire a full-time director.
Rebecca and her parents, Gary and Janet, were in the Livingston Mall this spring when they noticed Encounters’ Passover table. They filled out a raffle ticket and mentioned their interest in finding a tutor for Rebecca. They not only won the raffle two weeks later, they were also partnered with Moradi, a math instructor who earned a BA in education and psychology from Stern College for Women. She has been tutoring Rebecca on a weekly basis ever since.
Encounters organizers don’t want to leave such outreach efforts to the professionals, but want to empower lay people to establish the groundwork, whatever the denomination.
“This doesn’t have to Orthodox; it’s just that we happen to be Orthodox,” said Glick. “We want to get lay people at any level of observance involved. There’s always someone who knows less. This is about bringing Judaism to the masses. It’s about creating relationships with somebody who hasn’t been exposed to Judaism and providing exposure in a positive, exciting way.”