When Julie Sandorf's daughter, Sarah, was 3 years old, she came home from nursery school and declared: "Mommy, I don't want to be a Jewish, I want to be a Christian." These words sent Sandorf, an assimilated Jew with almost no grounding in her own religion, running, aghast, to the first place she could think of: her local bookstore. "I decided at that moment that we were not going to repeat another generation of ignorance and semi-self-loathing," she says.
Over the next 17 years, Sandorf reclaimed her Jewish identity for herself and her family by reading books. Among her favorites: "The Prophets" by Abraham Heschel and "Turbulent Souls" by Stephen Dubner. Now, with Nextbook.org, a literary-outreach effort, she hopes to inspire America's 6 million Jews to do the same. For consumers of highbrow culture, Nextbook looks familiar. Its Web site feels like a combination of Slate and Arts & Letters Daily--lively and full of essays, commentary and recommended reading. Its digest, sent monthly to a mailing list of about 200,000 people, looks like The New York Review of Books. But it is the biography series, published together with Schocken Books, that really stands out. The books--hardcover, but concise enough to read on a long airplane ride--pair Jewish subjects with Jewish authors. Sherwin Nuland writes on Maimonides, Esther Schor on Emma Lazarus. Nextbook is one solution to the hotly debated problem of Jewish assimilation--and an answer to the question of why people don't read the classics anymore. Sandorf puts it this way: "How are we going to keep alive this incredible cultural heritage if we don't bring it to people's attention?"
What sets Nextbook apart from other Jewish-outreach efforts is its indifference to the conventions of Jewish outreach. The organization doesn't care particularly whether Jews intermarry, go to synagogue, give to the UJA Federation or embrace Israel. "If you can get turned on by Maimonides and medical ethics," says Sandorf, "you are one step ahead of where you were before." An advocate for the homeless by profession, Sandorf had spent her life matching corporate money with affordable-housing projects when, about three years ago, she was approached by the executors of financier Sanford Bernstein's estate about running a program on Jewish books in public libraries. Nextbook was born and now cosponsors Jewish-book groups in 140 libraries nationwide. As for Sarah, off at college, her own Jewish history is still being written.