Teen Mags Put Hip Cover on Jewish Culture

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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The first 15,000 glossy copies of JVibe magazine shipped out to Jewish schools across the country this month. From the cover, Evan Taubenfeld, the dirty-blonde guitarist for pop singer Avril Lavigne, peers out coolly at teenage Jewish readers.

The teen magazine is the latest product from the mini-media empire known as Jewish Family & Life, which includes 15 Web sites, three magazines and a host of books — all of them trying to translate Jewish culture into a modern language. The whole operation is not for profit, but under its energetic CEO, Yosef Abramowitz, the company acts like some omniverous conglomerate, always reaching for more market share in every age range.

However, Abramowitz does not want to be a media mogul; instead he is intent on solving what many consider to be the largest problem facing the Jewish community today: its steady decline. “Judaism, Cool New Trend?” the cover of JVibe asks hopefully.

“We’re engaged in a process of rebranding Judaism for the next generation — for both the core of the community and the less affiliated,” Abramowitz told the Forward, “as well as changing the substance of Jewish life.”

Jewish Family & Life was started in Abramowitz’s attic with $150,000 in fund raising, and lots of warmhearted ideas about social justice from his days as an activist. The main new pathway that Abramowitz used was the Internet. In 1997, he was the first to start a Jewish Webzine — Jewishfamily.com — and two early ventures, MyJewishLearning.com and InterfaithFamily.com, have spun off into independent enterprises. Even now, after the Internet boom and bust and re-boom, Abramowitz has little competition for Jewish Web surfers.

Each print publication created by Jewish Family & Life came into existence as part of a much broader multimedia campaign. The flagship of the whole empire is BabagaNewz, which is targeted at forth to seventh graders — the pre-bar mitzvah years. The newest addition, JVibe, is aimed at an older, teen audience.

While it might not be the behemoth that Abramowitz imagines, Jewish Family & Life has grown to a $4 million enterprise with 38 full-time employees, and it does appear to be reaching people. In 2004, all the Jewish Family & Life Internet sites hosted a combined total of 2.7 million user sessions. BabagaNewz now boasts a circulation of 35,000.

At 40, Abramowitz still has a rather childlike presence, and in his wide-eyed way, he can make it sound as though his company is already shaping the debate. But getting someone onto a Web site is one thing, changing the way that person thinks about his or her religion is another. Although a number of educators who have used Jewish Family & Life products said that the magazines make the classroom more fun for kids, they questioned whether any media source is going to spark a cultural shift.

“It’s like a very sophisticated library,” said Vicky Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project, located in San Francisco. “But it’s not a Jewish community, and it’s not a Jewish life.”

Still, Abramowitz’s publications have made their way into classrooms across the country. Barry Koff has been using BabagaNewz in the after-school classes at his synagogue in Newport Beach, Calif., as well as with his own two home-schooled children. The online teacher guides turned him on to the publication. “When it’s not your primary vocation you don’t have hours to plan lessons,” Koff said.

As part of the broader campaign to change the culture, Jewish Family & Life makes sure to get to kids from every angle. The organization has a whole Web site — Jskyway.com — devoted to distant learning for Jewish teachers. Then there are the parenting Web sites. And the Sh’ma print journal is a bid to reach Jewish leaders.

But Koff says it is the magazine itself that hooks the kids. Unlike most other Jewish learning tools, BabagaNewz is devoted to the news of the moment, told by kids. And it is done with the full-page graphics and saccharine language of a real pre-teen magazine.

“Graphically what BabagaNewz has done hasn’t been done for young people before,” Koff said. “This is the TV generation. Let’s face it, you gotta compete.”

JVibe has a similar flashy appeal. On many pages it is hard to distinguish it from some of its commercial cousins, with its “Embarrassing Moments!” and a column on “Bouncing Back After Getting Dumped.” But there are also little boxes with excerpts from the Torah, or quotes from Israeli politicians.

Abramowitz is a master marketer and trend catcher, and the magazines reflect this — but by trying to make something for every Jewish demographic with only $4 million, some of the projects have clearly received less attention. The most visited Web site — JewishFamily.com — is little more than a list of articles for parents, and JewishHistory.com has six static pages with overviews of Jews in every era.

Abramowitz has gotten flack in the past for spreading himself too thin, and it still seems to be in his nature. Beyond his work on expanding Jewish Family & Life, he still serves as the outspoken president of the Union of Council for Soviet Jews and as a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, among other positions. At Jewish Family & Life, he has continued to open up the Web site in the same socially conscious vein. WorldManna.org, which is raising money for global hunger, went online only two months ago.

Right now, with Abramowitz’s fund-raising acumen, Jewish Family & Life does not have to worry about whether each product is the perfect one, because they are not relying on ads or subscriptions for revenue. Schools have to pay $5 for a one-year subscription to BabagaNewz, but most of the $2 million in funding for the magazine comes from the Avi Chai Foundation.

This could be to Jewish Family & Life’s detriment. The perfume and music advertisements are, of course, half the reason that any teen reads a magazine. Koff said that when he first introduced BabagaNewz to his class, the students were hesitant; they could tell it was educational, and their mindset was, “If this is Jewish, then I’m not interested.”

With its evident Jewish focus, he noted, it took a few months of his prodding before they began to say, “Yeah, this is kind of cool.”

Which raises the question of whether Abramowitz will be able to capture from the Jewish people all those elusive young disaffiliates. He is hopeful, and he’s not alone.

“The problem that [Jewish Family & Life] has pinpointed is the right issue,” said Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department at the American Jewish Committee. “We simply cannot recycle the same messages, and the same curricula. We really do have a problem of Jewish indifference.”






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