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Jewish Outreach Goes to the Mall: Programs Look for Those Who Shop Till They Drop

Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, Oct. 23 (JTA) -- For years, American Jewish organizations eager to reach out to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews have wondered where to find them.

Apparently, they are out shopping.

That's the finding of a popular Long Island, N.Y. program that is rapidly being replicated in Jewish communities throughout the United States. Celebrations: Discovering Jewish Life in the Marketplace, runs educational family programs in such untraditional venues as Home Depot, Barnes & Noble and Bloomingdales.

The three-year-old effort, under the auspices of the Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services, was recently touted by the Jewish Outreach Institute as one of the most successful programs engaging unaffiliated Jews. The heavily publicized events, all of which take place in stores and shopping malls, have ranged from sukkah (wooden hut for holiday of Sukkot) building at Home Depot to a tutorial on seder preparation at a supermarket to a Chanukah party that included a holiday-themed scavenger hunt around a shopping mall.

Among the other activities have been a Chanukah story hour at the children's department of Bloomingdales, planting seedlings for Tu B'Shevat at a nursery and making seder plates at a crafts store.

Some 3,700 people have participated in the program so far, according to Mindy Kremer, the coordinator of Celebrations--25 to 25 percent of them from intermarried families. Several communities are replicating the program, from Providence, R.I. to Tucson, Ariz. and Spokane, Wash.

Costs are relatively low, because the hosting stores often donate materials and help with publicity.

But can Jewish heritage--with its timeless spiritual and ethical teachings--mix with the commercial, consumer-oriented, instant gratification culture of the mall?

Kremer said program planners were concerned at first that some people might be offended by the concept. However, it has gotten "incredible support," she said. "Rabbis have asked how they can do things in stores," she said. "We had an entire religious school come to the sukkah event at Home Depot."

The stores who host do not pressure participants to buy anything, Kremer said, but end up benefiting from the increased foot traffic and publicity. At one toy store, "we had a huge event and when it was over, no one said you have to buy anything, but half the families were in line" at the cash register, Kremer said.

The idea to go to the mall grew out of a frustration with unsuccessful efforts to lure unaffiliated Jews into synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Traditional Jewish institutions "can be intimidating or they can be uncomfortable," Kremer said. "But a store, which is a place they normally go, is familiar."

However, despite the program's success at drawing people in, it has done little follow up.

"We wanted to create relationships and deepen the learning people get," Kremer said. But due to the project's small staff, there has not been the manpower to pursue that goal, she added.

(c) The Jewish Telegraphic Agency Inc.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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