Housed in an ornate terra-cotta-and-redbrick townhouse off Central Park West, Makor has a handful of classrooms like any JCC but also a license to sell beer and wine. With the intention, essentially, of soft-selling Judaism, it has hosted live music in conjunction with the Knitting Factory and shown movies where the Jewish connection is a stretch (Midnight Cowboy, Bob Roberts, Happiness). Programming incorporates all manner of far-reaching (that is to say, Gentile) themes: "The Jewish Buddha Within," a talk by a Jewish-born Buddhist who calls himself Lama Surya Das (né Jeffrey Miller); "Just Say Maybe," a panel discussion about drugs and spirituality; and weekly courses in Jewish-themed yoga. Shmuley, of course, has also lectured.
"Of the 100,000 Jews in Manhattan between the ages of 22 and 35, around 15 percent are affiliated with a Jewish organization," Makor's Gedzelman says. "We're trying to draw some of that other 85 percent. And a lot of us realize Eastern religions have something to offer."
Indeed, embracing Eastern religions was a corollary of modern Jewish mysticism and of Philadelphia's Jewish Renewal movement, which sought to move away from the City-College, secular-humanist concept of Jewishness. Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus, for example, told of the author's rediscovering Judaism through an appreciation of Buddhism.
"We're at an idiosyncratic point in American religion where we have a confluence of extreme individualism in society and then all these people knowing nothing about the tradition they were born into," says E. J. Kessler, the religion editor of The Forward. "They have backgrounds in sports, est, New Age, drugs. So the Jewish institutions are trying to bring Jews back however they can. It's like niche marketing." And what niches they are. Merv Adelson, the movie producer and philanthropist, told me that his own combo platter consists of "mainstream Judaism, Kabbalah Center classes, and Deepak Chopra." And how do these divergent strands intersect? Adelson was stumped. "It helps in how you treat people," he said finally. "I'm interested in improving my way of life."
"It's a running joke among Oxford students: You want to pick up a shiksa, go to Shmuley's Chabad House."
While Jews have been willing to go outside the fold, it is weird that the inverse has occurred. Nobody expected Makor to draw so many non-Jews -- a development that confounds Makor's organizers.
This is Makor's great, self-defeating irony: Although Steinhardt built it to combat the Jewish loss of identity, the institution, in practice and theory, has come to represent that loss. Its link to Judaism is so attenuated that it doesn't feel Jewish at all. The Saturday before last, there were two acts in the café, a bluegrass combo and a jazz-fusion group. The place is sleek and modern, with exposed pipes and lights inside the bar panels. The crowd was bifurcated, perfectly normal Jewish singles who might have gone to Tufts and earthy types who make their own Phish bootlegs.
There was Maya, a postcollegiate in a ribbed cashmere sweater, pretty, very goal-oriented about her visit to Makor. "It's really hard to meet just a nice Jewish guy," she said. She had recently been out with someone she met through a Jewish online dating service. "He wasn't good-looking. He got upset when I told him I was only attracted to him as a friend."
Maya stole a panoramic glance of the room, pretending to watch the Knicks game on TV. "We were at a bar across the street, and we told this black guy we were coming here," she said. "He was like, 'Yeah, bring me -- I'd like to meet a nice Jewish girl.' "
Her friend Beth said, "He started singing 'Hava Nagila.' It would've been weird if he'd come with us."
"This is lame," Maya said. "Don't you notice at some Jewish-singles things, there are, like, lots of Asians?"
A couple I spoke to, non-Jews from Connecticut, had come for the music, unaware of Makor's theme. "But I like it," said Matthew, who was fair-haired and had dreadlocks. "It's very clean."
At the bar, I found Dean, a self-described "goyish Jew," and his friend Sharon, who is Japanese. "As long as we're here, tell me something about Judaism," she asked him.
"That garage door that rolls up overhead," he said. "That's supposed to represent that God is watching over us all the time. No, I don't know. I'm kidding."
Without exception, every non-Jew who told me of his interest in Judaism cited some common territory that had come by way of dilution, from an ahistorical collapsing of the differences between religions. Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi teacher who spoke at a Makor panel on the millennium, stressed the similarities between the Torah and the Koran. "Abraham is our common father," he said. "We're adhering to the original principles more strictly than the Jews. We Muslims consider ourselves as Muslims to be more Jewish than the Jews." A common refrain among anti-Semitic Islamics -- brought forth, suddenly, as insight.
"I saw so much of myself in Judaism," Cory Booker said. "Jews and blacks share a common story of persecution, struggle, family. It was infectious."
"I like Judaism because of its emphasis on logic," said Yusef Kassim, another black Baptist who is a friend of Shmuley's.
This year, Deepak Chopra will conduct workshops in Israel. He is also starting a Website on well-being, MyPotential.com, funded by Merv Adelson, "to educate the Hindus about Judaism," Chopra told me.
"Most Jews don't know it," he said, "but the parallels between the Kabbalah and Hinduism are amazing." Well, linguistically, anyhow. He ran through a list of Hebrew words and religious concepts that sounded very much like their Sanskrit counterparts. "Also, I found that in both Kabbalah and the Eastern view of the universe, you have the material world, the emotional world, and the spiritual world."
He said it was only in practice that they are different.