Rabbi Ron Brown, of Merrick, had been reading articles for years about Jewish youth experiencing a sense of isolation and a disconnect from their faith while living on campus during their college years.
With Birthright Israel — a program that enables students ages 18 to 26 to travel to Israel — in mind, Brown consulted with Rabbi Charles Klein, and Synagogue Connect was born.
Today, the Synagogue Connect network spans all 50 states, with more than 750 synagogues opening their doors to students looking for a place to reconnect with their faith, somewhere to celebrate the High Holy Days or a community to call their own. According to Klein, the project is “without question the largest interdenominational movement in the Jewish world.”
“Right now it’s really blossoming, in terms of communities coming on board,” Brown said last week.
Klein agreed, and said that the nationwide response to Synagogue Connect has been “staggering.”
“We knew we had somehow hit a very responsive chord in the rabbinic community,” he said. “Rabbis understood that there was an urgent need to reach out to this generation, and to not delay in reaching out.”
The urgency, Klein said, came from the needs of college students who often “lose their way,” as well as what he called an “explosion” of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on American college campuses.
There have been 417 reported incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses so far this year, according to a report by the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to documenting and combating anti-Semitism at colleges. In 2016, there were 639, a nearly 200-incident increase over 2015.
“We felt that it was very important and timely for the American synagogue community … to open the doors wide and say, ‘You know, we have a covenant with you,’” Klein said. “You are our next generation, and we want you to find your way back into the sun, back into the Jewish community. We want you to know that there’s a community that cares deeply about you and your Jewish future.”
Both Brown and Klein said that a recent outreach on Facebook was successful. Although it’s difficult to determine how many Jewish young people use the service, Google’s metrics indicated that roughly 3,000 students viewed a synagogue on the site, showing that they were interested in the information.
The Synagogue Connect Facebook page also spurred interest, with thousands of people clicking from Facebook to the website. This year, during the High Holy Days, Klein said, “What we’re going to see is a staggering explosion of interest in Synagogue Connect.”