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PARK CITY - The overarching questions and concerns they'd be grappling with were not new, but when about 40 leading Jewish thinkers, writers, academics, rabbis and professionals arrived in Utah last weekend, they were definitely in for something different.

For one, gawkers in the Salt Lake City International Airport reportedly approached a group of them and asked, wide-eyed, "Are you Jews?"

And then there was that time on Monday when an outdoor-adventure company, under the guise of a "team-building" exercise, asked them to build teepees. Yes, teepees.

News media weren't allowed to observe this experiment, but a leading Jewish academic, who had escaped unnoticed, later quipped, "God didn't put me on Earth to build teepees." An Orthodox participant from Jerusalem added, "Apart from schlepping these logs, I didn't have much to do." And when facilitators voiced disappointment in how long it took participants to complete the task, a third promised to take up his failure to excel in therapy.

Fortunately, they'd traveled from as far away as Israel not to use their hands but rather their minds. They came to attend the "Why Be Jewish?" conference, sponsored by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic giant dedicated to inspiring Jewish life. The three-day affair, which wrapped up Tuesday, marked Adam Bronfman's first step onto the broader Jewish community stage.

Bronfman, who owns a home in Park City and is active with Temple Har Shalom, wouldn't grant interviews because he wanted the conference to speak for itself. He'd invited the diverse group of guests - all in town on the Bronfman dime - to delve into this premise: At a time when being Jewish is a choice, what's the motivation to be Jewish?

For decades, and as the rate of interfaith marriage among American Jews has soared to about 50 percent, the Jewish people have been struggling with issues of continuity and identity. This Park City conference joined a growing list of gatherings dedicated to these matters. Gone are the days when necessity dictated that Jews, who were barred from neighborhoods, professions and organizations, stick together. Now, especially in America, a Jew is free to identify any way he or she chooses.

Holed up in the posh Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley Resort, these Jews - of all different backgrounds and perspectives - set out to start a conversation, one the Bronfman Foundation hopes to continue with its newly launched, as of Tuesday, Bronfman Vision Forum. The goal was to figure out how to animate Jews in the 21st century, using Jewish learning as an entree.

They kicked off their time together by breaking into small groups to study and debate passages of Talmud, rabbinic commentary on Jewish law. For some, the exercise was familiar and Hebrew rolled off their tongues. For others, it was less comfortable. But for the group assembled, no matter their diverse views, one thing they held in common was a strong Jewish identity, rooted in their cores.

Debby Hirshman, who founded and directed for 13 years the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, voiced concern about the unaffiliated, those who feel a "sense of inadequacy," and therefore unwelcome, when it comes to Jewish learning and life.

"What concerns me in this room is that we're 90 steps ahead of people who we really want to be here," she said.

Jewish community members from Park City and Salt Lake City poured out in the hundreds Monday night to attend the conference's one public event, a discussion about religion in the age of fundamentalism. It featured French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, American literary critic Leon Wieseltier and Israeli spiritual leader and feminist Tova Hartman. But what could have been an opportunity to connect with the hungry masses quickly turned into graduate-level philosophical and theological grandstanding.

While having such speakers in their midst was an honor, no doubt, most walked away with their heads spinning.

"I was sorry and sad for many people who came in good faith and were left to feel foolish and illiterate," said Maeera Shreiber, who teaches English and Jewish Studies at the University of Utah and will serve next spring as a visiting chair at Los Angeles' Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "I was sitting next to someone who said, 'Do you think there's going to be a test at the end of this?' "

Answering "Why be Jewish?" proved challenging, much like teepee-building. But Rabbi Jennifer Krause, a self-professed "rabbi without borders," was grateful for the tension because it drove home that contemporary Judaism isn't "working for everyone."

Just as Talmudic rabbis debated for centuries the virtues of Judaism, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, today's conversations are equally pivotal, she said.

"Change, in an eternal project, doesn't happen overnight."


* JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at or 801-257-8776. Send comments to the religion editor at

Who is Jewish?

Among perennial questions being debated in the Jewish world, and among the various denominations, is this one: Who's a Jew?

According to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of New York City's Jewish Outreach Institute, there are anywhere between 5.5 million and 7.5 million Jews in America, depending on how individuals are counted. A child born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother may identify as Jewish, but in some circles, because Judaism is matrilineal, this child would not make the cut. Similarly, when it comes to conversion, there are Orthodox rabbinic authorities who do not recognize, for example, a Reform conversion.

Olitzky said about 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox. About 40 percent are affiliated with "a synagogue of any stripe," and, of those, about 20 percent are considered "heavily active," he said.

In contrast with most religious groups, there are an ethnic as well as a religious identity that are considered Jewish, Olitzky added. When it comes to matters of Jewish identity, it means different things to different people. For one, it might be steeped in Torah observance. For another, it might be purely cultural.

For a third, it might mean support for Israel. And for a fourth, it might be commitment to the Jewish ethic of tikkun olam, or healing the world.

For these reasons, determining Jewish population can be tough. But the rough estimate of Jews living in Utah is often quoted at 4,500.

-- Jessica Ravitz