Writing a New Chapter in a Tale of Jewish Discovery

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.
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Julie Sandorf and her husband Michael Weinberger gave little thought to Jewish rituals or observance as they raised their young daughter. Then one day, when she was 3 years old, their daughter came home from church nursery school and announced that she wanted to be “a Christian, not a Jewish.”

If Sandorf’s ethnic anxiety upon hearing these words was rather predictable, her immediate course of action was less so. Rather than running to a synagogue, Sandorf, who was raised in a secular family, took her daughter to a bookstore in search of books about Chanukah. For both Sandorf and her daughter the books they found were the first steps of a Jewish education.

In the following months and years Sandorf journeyed back to the bookstore looking for works that would help her process her own mixed feelings about Judaism. She found books like “The Prophets” by Abraham Heschel and “Turbulent Souls” by Stephen Dubner, which resonated with her own shifting Jewish identity.

“I first started the religious journey with books,” she said, “because traditional Jewish institutions were loaded with connotations I did not feel comfortable with.”

After this experience of discovering Judaism through books, it’s not surprising to find Sandorf, 46, leading Nextbook, one of the most ambitious cultural projects to come out of the Jewish community in recent years.

The idea behind Nextbook was born in January 2000, when Mem Bernstein and Arthur Fried — the trustees of Keren Keshet, a new foundation that was started with the fortune of Bernstein’s late husband, Zalman Bernstein — sat down with Sandorf to discuss their ideas for potential philanthropic ventures. When they came to one about a Jewish outreach program to public libraries it struck a chord with Sandorf’s personal experience and her discomfort with the exclusivity and hierarchies of organized religious life.

“Libraries are open to everyone,” she said. “There’s no requirement to have a certain level of knowledge, and there are no membership dues.”

At the time Sandorf had a long history of leading homeless housing organizations — she was the founder and president of the Corporation for Supportive Housing — but she had never been involved with Jewish institutional life, much less the type of cultural work for which Keren Keshet and Bernstein’s other foundation, Avi-Chai, are known. Bernstein and Fried, though, saw in her someone with a proven ability to lead, and they gave her the room and the money to “gather talent and make something good,” as Sandorf explained it.

In May 2003, Sandorf officially opened Nextbook, with funding exclusively from Keren Keshet. The organization she designed is more than just a public library program; Nextbook has an extensive Web site with cultural news and book selections (www.nextbook.org), a lecture program with famous Jewish authors and a publishing division.

She hopes that the organization will open up the world of Jewish literature for others as it opened up for her.

Sandorf’s own journey through Jewish books eventually led her to a synagogue, the famously open-minded B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But Sandorf recognizes that not all people can find a compatible synagogue, and she does not expect that “everyone who visits the Web site will join a congregation.” She states her goals for Nextbook much more modestly: She just hopes that everyone who wants to explore the world of Jewish culture can always find the next great book to read.

Matthew Brogan, a program director at Nextbook, said that this is a surprisingly hard task. Diving into his work at Nextbook has given him an acute sense of how “undervalued” the history of Jewish literature is.

“When you get Jewish culture these days, it is generally Israel, the Holocaust and occasionally the Bible,” he said. “The rest of it you don’t see.”

Where other ethnic groups with strong literary traditions trumpet those achievements it seems that the Jewish community has sometimes pushed them onto the back burner to deal with more immediate concerns.

To counter that, Brogan has helped establish the library program in Seattle, where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon recently held a workshop for children, and in Chicago, where New Republic book critic James Wood spoke about Saul Bellow’s influence. In the coming months, new activities will be coming to the Washington, D.C. area.

Jonathan Rosen, the former arts and letters editor at the Forward, is putting together Nextbook’s publishing program in conjunction with Random House. His goal is to have contemporary authors touch base with some distant Jewish source, like Maimonides’s “Guide to the Perplexed,” that would otherwise be inaccessible to many readers.

Sandorf gives each of these project directors the autonomy to pursue their own projects; she calls herself the “traffic cop,” making sure it all flows together.

Sandorf, in turn, says that the trustees at Keren Keshet have provided a tremendously open working relationship that is a world apart from the tangled bureaucratic mess involved with putting up houses for the homeless.

Bernstein and Fried, Sandorf said, “regard the partnership as one of intellectual equals, where generally people who control the purse strings tend to be a little more proscriptive.”

The programs that have been created in this environment have been getting little other than positive reviews.

After the Chabon reading, a writer for Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger wrote that “this wasn’t a celebration of religious experiences; it was an illumination of the ways in which religion, like language, enlivens and informs and obscures.”

“I thought we were going to get criticized from all over the place, but it just hasn’t happened,” said Sandorf. “I think it’s because we’ve been very pluralistic.”

But she admits: “We will have only really succeeded when someone gets riled up.”

For now, though, the very personal project that started all this has come to a happy fulfillment. Her daughter became bat mitzvah a few years back in what Sandorf describes as “one of the most profound experiences of my life.” And this fall, as her daughter has gone through the college application process, Sandorf was astonished to find that in the application essays her daughter referred to herself as a “Jewish liberal.”

“To me that’s worth it all,” said Sandorf, “that she feels comfortable in her own skin.”

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