Taking it to the streets: NY rabbi peddles Judaism

'Outreach is something all Jews need to get into, not just Chabad'

Some walk by briskly. Others view the large, "Gotta Minute" sign with sheer curiosity. It's hard to tell, even among those who stop to chat, just how much they're really taking in. But Pete Stein isn't discouraged. "Do you have a minute for the Torah?" he asks them, standing at the corner of 112th and Broadway. While such outreach tactics are usually employed by Chabad leaders, Stein is a newly minted Conservative rabbi. Stein, who graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary last month, has built a tiny sanctuary for Jewish life here, nestled among the hustle and bustle of New York City. Though the tools of his trade are simple - a small card table, a few leaflets - the idea to engage random Jews in a "Torah Minute," or brief exchange on the weekly Jewish text is anything but. "Outreach is something all Jews need to get into, not just Chabad," Stein says. "People are out there yearning to learn." Stein began his Friday afternoon "street outreach" pilot in November, initially using it to gain seminary course credit. But now he plans to expand its reach to New Haven, which he says lacks a Jewish center for young professionals. "All the synagogues moved out to the suburbs 40 years ago," he says. "All that is left is Hillel of Yale and a few Chabad institutions." Stein would know - he grew up in the area and graduated from Yale University in 1999. His vision includes bringing Shabbat dinners and Jewish classes to the community. "My biggest market will be the unaffiliated," he explains. He has applied for funding from the Jewish Federation there. Stein is not the only one emulating the Chabad model. The Jewish Outreach Institute runs similar programs based on what its organizational leadership terms "public-space Judaism." Passover in the Aisles, Chanukah in the Mall and Color Me Calendar are national initiatives that offer basic information about Jewish holiday observance in supermarkets, shopping malls and other easily accessible locations. Through these programs, volunteers target unaffiliated and intermarried Jewish families. Paul Golin, the institute's associate executive director, said the idea is to "take Judaism to them, rather than waiting for them to come to us." "Jews are not coming through doors of Jewish institutions in nearly the numbers we want them to," he explained. "In general, professionals are still hesitant to leave their buildings. They may have just done a wonderful capital campaign or built a beautiful JCC, and they feel like if we build it they will come." "But that's not necessarily happening," he continued. "The bottom line is, we need to better articulate why to be Jewish." Once a week, Stein stands on a street corner in New York City, doing precisely that. "The smallest drops of Yiddishkeit can add fuel to the fire burning in the Jewish soul," he wrote in a paper summing up his outreach experience. "A few moments of authentic Torah study has the power to touch Jewish souls in exactly that way." Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.