Yom Kippur, which begins today at sundown, is the culmination of the Jewish Days of Awe, the High Holy Days of personal introspection and reconciliation.
Synagogues will be filled with worshipers listening to the strains of the haunting Kol Nidre, which asks for the release from vows and forgiveness of transgressions.
But there is an increasing sense of alarm in the Jewish community that too many Jews have been shunning such religious observance, a phenomenon that many believe ultimately threatens the existence of American Judaism.
As a remedy, there is a growing movement to attract Jews back to practicing their religious heritage, and the High Holy Days are a focus of that outreach.
One of the most active and successful practitioners is the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program, founded in 1987 by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald. The program offers crash courses in Hebrew ("In just five weeks, students who don't know an aleph from a bet can read Hebrew!" says the literature) and basic Judaism.
It also offers beginners' services with English translations and running commentary. In Baltimore, those programs are conducted through the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, which conducts classes in Northwest Baltimore and Owings Mills and will hold a beginners Yom Kippur service tonight.
"The increase in attendance this semester has been overwhelming," said Rabbi Yisroel Fuchs, educational director of Etz Chaim's Owings Mills Center. "Something's going on. I don't know if it's the air or the water."
Earlier this week, Fuchs finished teaching a five-week course, Basic Judaism 101, which offered instruction in belief, prayer, the Sabbath, Jewish observance and sexuality. His students, many of whom expressed a desire to continue studying, said they were attracted by the opportunity to learn about their faith in an atmosphere that was not intimidating.
"For me, Judaism had been going out the window," said Mikhael Cohn, who attended the class with his girlfriend, Laurie Sandman. "It really lost its appeal because I never knew what was going on. It was boring and we just sat there."
"I wanted to make an educated choice" about Judaism, he said. "If you know the ifs, hows and whats, you are able to make an educated decision. I definitely feel I've gotten a lot of answers to my questions."
Shirley Ford, another graduate of Basic Judaism 101, said it was hard to come to grips with the fact that she spent most of her life not understanding the elements of her religion. "It isn't an easy thing to admit you're illiterate," she said. "It's been a great learning experience. I just want to learn more and more and more."
The National Jewish Outreach programs are unique among such programs in that they are open to all branches: Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. What is important, Buchwald said, is affiliation with a synagogue.
"I like dealing with a person who's taking the first step, because I'd like the first step to be a sure-footed step," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, Etz Chaim's director. "Every step is wonderful. Judaism's not an all-or-nothing type of religion. Every step has its own intrinsic value.
"There's no hypocrisy in being inconsistent. The important thing is taking a step."
The beginners' services, which this year are being held in a private home, have been especially popular.
"Look what happens when you remove the intimidation factor -- they enjoy it," said Rabbi Jonathan A. Seidemann, the director of community services for Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Owings Mills, who provides the commentary at the beginners High Holiday services, including the Yom Kippur service.
Seidemann said some efforts to attract people to services have diluted or simplified the service, but Etz Chaim omits nothing from the ritual.
"Just give it to them in a language they can understand and they are going to come back to it," Seidemann said.
The question of the survival of the American Jewish community has recently been a hot topic for debate.
The 1990 National Jewish Population Study brought the issue into a sharp focus. The study found that 57 percent of Jewish marriages were intermarriages, an increase of 40 percent from the previous decade.
Of the nation's 5.6 million Jews, 2 million did not identify themselves as Jewish, another 2 million were not affiliated with any synagogue and another 1.2 million were synagogue members but rarely attended.
"I personally think there is a crisis," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of Shomrei Emunah Congregation. "You can walk 30 yards from this building and find dozens of Jews who are not affiliated, despite the fact they're surrounded by synagogues."
Perception that there was a problem in the American Jewish community began in the 1950s, Porter said, "but they didn't deal with it for 40 years."
"The American Jewish community didn't wake up as a whole until the 1990 study," he said.
Recent books by Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who wrote "The Disappearing American Jew," and Reagan administration official Elliott Abrams, author of "Faith or Fear," brought the issue to the larger public consciousness.
Now is a critical time to reach American Jews, says Buchwald. "I would say there is a window of opportunity of no more than 10 years to reach these unaffiliated Jews. And beyond these 10 years, I think they may be unretrieveable."
"Unfortunately, these people are fading so fast," he said. "It's just a speculative guess, but I think 10 years from now, they won't respond to any program we offer them. They'll just be so far away that they won't respond to any program we offer them. That's why this is such a critical time for us."
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Pub Date: 10/10/97