You are here

Feed aggregator

We Had to Use Music to Change the World

URJ - Tue, 04/22/2014 - 05:00

By Louis J. Dobin

Recently I flew in from Israel and stopped in New York on my way to Texas to attend the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) Gala. It was a wonderful evening, and put me in touch with people from every generation of my life – those with whom I work now, those who once worked with me, and those from my past who are still working to try and change the world. What struck me about the Gala (in addition to the outstanding honorees – Paul Reichenbach, Peri Smilow, and Rabbi Kroloff), was the primacy of music in the life of modern-day Israelis.

When I first attended the URJ (then UAHC) Eisner Camp-Institute in the 1960s, camp music as we know it today was still in its infancy. Debbie Friedman was a kid at the time, Dave Nelson, Jeff Klepper, and Danny Freelander were my age. Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols had not yet been born. No one had put a guitar on the pulpit of a synagogue, and the Board of my synagogue had to vote on whether to allow me to play guitar on the bimah.

I remember our 1960s song leaders Hank Sawitz and Jerry Breiger at Eisner, and Bennett Miller and Jimmy Shulman from NFTY,  strolling up and down the middle of the dining room singing songs that were primarily from the American folk movement. The songs were about coal mines and dust bowls and civil rights—themes that hinted at the social forces about to rock American society. I was a child at the time, about ten years old, but my dream was to be like those song leaders. Pete Seeger was the deity of song leading, and Tom Paxton, Peter Paul and Mary, and Paul Simon were just over the horizon. And song leading was done with a banjo!

Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, the first NFTY Songbook, published in 1966, contained all English material. By the time I went to Israel for the first time in 1968, as a 14-year-old guitar player and fledgling kibbutznik, Israeli Hebrew music was starting to appear on the scene in America. Through the Israel Song Festival and the Chasidic Song Festival, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” “Shir Baboker Baboker,” and all of the other songs on Side 2 of the first Songs NFTY Sings album became popular,

By the time 1971 rolled around (basically still the ‘60s!) there was an explosion of musical creativity. Jewish kids were writing their own music, which combined Jewish themes, biblical verse, Hebrew lyrics, portions of the liturgy, good old American folk-rock, and eventually, rock and roll. The musical creativity combined the desire for change with the changed circumstances in our relationship with the State of Israel. NFTY decided that its social action project would be to fund raise to help build Kibbutz Yahel. My contribution, as NFTY’s past treasurer, with the help of a group of friends and $100 in “venture capital,” was to create the first Songs NFTY Sings record album. What followed was a second, third, fourth and finally, an entire series.

Lots of us knew that this was what we had to do – use music to change the world. It was a time when one person with a guitar could galvanize thousands of people in front of the Washington Monument. It was a time before you needed a five-piece band, back-up singers, and a light show to make an impact.

I mention this, not to wax nostalgic (although seeing everyone at the ARZA Gala certainly made me long for the good old days of my youth), but to reassure myself and to reassure you that we can still change the world with music. “Sing Unto God a New Son” is still as relevant today as it was then. So pick up your electronic keyboard, plug it into your “Garageband” app, and get going!

Louis J. Dobin has been the director of the URJ Greene Family Camp since 1978.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Christian Leaders Offer Prayers, Consolation after Kansas Shooting

URJ - Thu, 04/17/2014 - 11:39

Our friends from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offered their sympathy this week for those affected by Sunday’s deadly shootings at two Jewish communities in a suburb of Kansas City, KS. As you surely know, three people were killed by gunfire, including a grandfather and his 14-year-old grandson. Overland Park police are investigating the crime as a hate crime and criminal act.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, and the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ, condemned the act, emphasizing that during these holy seasons for both Christians and Jews, every human is a child of God and is undeserving of harm carried out under religious pretense. The reverends called on Christian leaders to publicly decry any notion, even those from Christian traditions, which maligns people of Jewish faith and threatens their safety.

I urge you to read their powerful statement:

Our hearts break for the families and friends of the three people murdered at a Jewish Community Center and senior home in Overland Park on Sunday. We lift them in prayer. We mourn with our Jewish brothers and sisters for this brutal assault on their community. We hold them in prayer. We stand in solidarity with them in this tragic, frightening moment, particularly coming at the holy seasons for both Christians and Jews.

We are appalled at the killer’s callous disregard for precious human life and the hateful ideology that motivated him. We condemn the deep-seated anti-Semitism that has so long lain at the heart of Western culture.

We acknowledge, as well, the central role Christian tradition has played in promoting the mistrust and hatred of Jews. The ugly truth is that Christian Holy Week, the annual commemoration of the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, has often been the occasion for mob violence against Jewish communities, as priests and pastors preached sermons blaming all Jews throughout history for the death of Jesus. Roman authorities alone had the power to crucify. Pontius Pilate, who issued the execution order, was notorious for his brutality and his insensitivity to the religious and cultural sensibilities of the Jewish population he ruled. And he was particularly harsh during Passover, when Jews came to Jerusalem to commemorate God’s liberation of their ancestors from enslavement to a foreign imperial power. Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus and other Jews at the time of Passover to terrorize and demoralize Jewish pilgrims and inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is a cruel irony, and one of the church’s deepest sins, that so many of our teachers and preachers have twisted history to blame the very people who were targeted by Pilate’s act of state terrorism.

As we journey through this week of reflection and repentance, we urge Christian leaders to actively and publicly renounce the destructive and false narrative that vilifies Jewish faith and all-too-often threatens the life and safety of our Jewish neighbors and friends.

The fact that all three of the victims in Overland Park were Christian, including the son and great grandson of a beloved Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, underlines both the indiscriminant irrationality of such acts of hatred and the deep connection between our Jewish and Christian communities. That which harms either of us, harms both of us.

It is our prayer in this season of Passover and Easter that God will deliver us from the slavery of anti-Semitism and from hatreds of all kinds, that life may triumph over death and we all may know the glorious joy of freedom.

URJ Books and Music Releases the Ultimate Debbie Friedman Anthology

URJ - Wed, 04/16/2014 - 11:39

URJ Books and Music is proud to release the ultimate anthology of the musical works of Debbie Friedman, z”l (1951 – 2011). Regarded as one of the most influential Jewish singer-songwriters in history, Debbie is known for her timeless Jewish folk music, filled with peaceful and universal messages, which have been adopted by Jewish congregations and summer camps around the world. Now, for the first time, that music has been gathered together in one definitive, comprehensive collection – Debbie’s original works, preserved just as she created them.

Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology is a tribute to Debbie’s life and music, featuring every song she wrote and recorded (plus more than 30 songs previously unavailable) in lead sheet format, with complete lyrics, melody line, guitar chords, Hebrew lyrics, transliteration, and English translation. This incredible collection of more than 215 songs was meticulously edited by composer and publisher Joel N. Eglash, formerly managing director of Transcontinental Music Publications and URJ Press, with assistance from Debbie’s sister Cheryl Friedman and other family, friends, and lifelong colleagues. The book includes more than 400 pages of music, photographs, biographical information, memories of Debbie, and tributes to her legacy.

Says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, URJ senior vice president and a close friend of Debbie’s,

Part of the Jewish revolution of the late 1960′s and 70′s was a return to Hebrew as the primary language of Jewish singing. But Debbie’s unique contribution was the courage to blend Hebrew and English in the same song, using spiritually clear and poetic English to bring meaning to a Hebrew text or concept. Debbie’s reclamation of the vernacular to express our deepest aspirations was a tipping point in contemporary Jewish music, a profound change that has created the sound and substance of American Judaism today. My life – our lives – have been spiritually enriched by her contributions, which will continue to bless as future generations sing her songs.

Debbie once stated, “My work is my joy. It is what drives me and keeps me alive.” This collection is Debbie’s final gift to song leaders, cantors, choir directors, musicians – all who breathe new life into her music, keeping her legacy alive as they “sing unto God.”

Learn more about the anthology in this press release from the URJ and order the anthology now from URJ Books and Music.

“We Must Live for Today; We Must Build for Tomorrow”: Social Action in NFTY

URJ - Tue, 04/15/2014 - 05:00

By Sophie Foxman

The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) was introduced into Judaism in the early rabbinic period. It was introduced to me — and has shaped my life in astonishing ways since then — when I entered NFTY.

Growing up, I idealistically believed I could do anything and help everyone, a concept understood by my friends, counselors, and others at URJ Camp George, where I spent my summers.  That’s where the seeds of my desire to be part of something bigger than myself initially were planted.

Those seeds blossomed during many summers at Camp George.  By the time I was in high school, I was nearly bursting with a desire to inspire change. The only thing missing was a place where I felt comfortable enough to speak my mind. I desperately needed a community that shared my commitment to and excitement about tikkun olam.

Lucky for me, one of my best friends from Camp George reached out to me with a line I will never forget:  “Hey Sophie, you should come to NFTY.  Trust me, you’ll love it!”

To say that line was an understatement would be one itself. I dove headfirst into the NFTY community, learning, growing, and being guided by the same principles that I had been trying to incorporate into my own life.

Among NFTY’s 13 principles, three in particular stood out to me.  The first two, tikkun olam and kehilah (community) were right up my alley!  What could be better than a community dedicated to repairing the world?   The third principle that excited me was tikkun middot, which emphasizes the importance of creating an environment in which individuals can improve themselves, as well as meet and exceed their potential as Jews and citizens.

Only when saw someone with the title of Social Action Vice President at my first NFTY regional event did I realize the potential of this amazing organization. Through meaningful programming, exciting fundraisers and hands-on community service, NFTY was able to help me shift my mindset from “Wow, I want to make a difference” to “Wow, I can make a difference.”

Feeling so empowered led me to explore NFTY’s social action history.

Through my research, I learned that NFTY has always been at the forefront in supporting human rights and justice for all, and that our work in this area is inspired by the teaching in Genesis that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).  NFTY was at the March on Washington, supporting Martin Luther King Jr. in his quest for equality and civil rights. NFTY also supported Ethiopian Jews making aliyah to Israel by establishing Project REAP (Reform Movement’s Ethiopian Jewry Assistance Program).  NFTY always has been — and will continue to be — a beacon of hope, help, and understanding for those in the world who struggle for equality, for freedom, for survival.  Knowing how much of NFTY’s rich history is immersed in social action, I was thrilled to be a part of this active youth movement.

In Genesis 3:9, God asks Adam and Eve, “Ayeka?” (“Where are you?”)

Heinini!” (“Here I am.”) Adam replies.

This simple interaction encapsulates NFTY.

Where are we?

Here we are, moving forward to change the world.

Inspired by the work of NFTY and the confidence it gives its members, I decided to run for Social Action Vice President of the Northeast Lakes Region. When my peers elected me, I had yet another shift in perspective when I realized, “Wow, I am making a difference.”

Singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, z”l, in her song “And the Youth Shall See Visions,” wrote these lyrics: “We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.” Indeed, NFTY sees a vision for a brighter future, and just as Debbie’s lyrics ring out, so too do we strive to live for today and build for tomorrow.

With my time in NFTY ending soon, I am especially thankful for what it has given me, and for the tremendous impact it is making — and will continues to make — on the world. When asked, I still tell people that when I grow up, I want to change the world. Thanks to NFTY I have the foundation and the confidence to step up and say “Heinini!” (“Here I am to help.”)

Sophie Foxman, a senior at TanenbaumCHAT in Thornhill, Ontario, is the 2013-14 NFTY-NEL Social Action Vice President. She also is a dreamer, a mover, a shaker, and a world-changer.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Response to shooting in Kansas City: A Modern Plague of Violence

URJ - Mon, 04/14/2014 - 14:40

Tonight at our Seder tables teeming with life, we pause with heavy hearts as we grieve with the families of those killed yesterday in the shootings that took place in a Jewish Community Center and a nearby Jewish senior living community in Overland Park, Kansas. The shooter, a former Ku Klux Klan leader filled with hate, was bent on murdering Jews. This tragedy, as we saw, exemplifies once again hatred and gun violence know no bounds, with two of the victims members of a local Methodist church.

This time Jews were targeted, but in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, it was the Sikhs, and in Newtown, Connecticut, it was small children of different faiths, and a week ago in Chicago, it was 16-year-old football and wrestling star Michael Flournoy III.

On Passover, even as we celebrate our ancestors’ freedom, we recite the 10 plagues God unleashed on the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to free the Jews from slavery. One interpretation of why we do this is so that we remember that our freedom is not complete while others still suffer.

So tonight, safe and surrounded by our loved ones, we remember that when dozens of Americans are dying every day from gun violence, America cannot attain her highest calling of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of her people.

The “Wicked” Child of the Pew Study

URJ - Mon, 04/14/2014 - 09:00

by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Pesach is coming, and at s’darim across the Jewish community we will once again label four children as wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. I have always struggled with this part of the seder for two reasons. All of my work with young people has taught me that we should avoid labeling children because it gives them a negative message, often encouraging them to live up to the label we ascribe. And on a secondary level, I have always found it hard to understand why the respective questions correspond to the labels that the Hagaddah gives them.

While we could analyze each of the children and their corresponding labels, I would like to devote my focus on the wicked child. He asks: “What does this service mean to you?” The Hagaddah’s preoccupation is on the fact that the question says “you,” suggesting that this child no longer identifies with the Jewish people; he is therefore told, in no uncertain terms, that if he had been there he would not have been saved from Egypt. But in reality, one could see this as a question seeking to understand what is happening by looking at it through another person’s eyes. The “wicked” child might not feel a connection to the seder, but he is still seated around the table trying to understand the relevance and meaning for others.

In light of the recent Pew study, this question and this child have taken on a new significance for me. A great deal of attention was given to the study’s finding that 22% of the American Jewish community today identify as Jews of no religion. The study said of them that they “are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.” But despite this label, according to the study, 42% of Jews of no religion still attended a seder last year, assuming their place around the table.

With this growing group in the Jewish community, we might reconsider the question of the supposedly wicked child: “What does this service mean to you?” Using the Pew study’s categories, surely this is the question the “Jews of no religion” could conceivably ask the “Jews by religion.” In this context, the “you” in the question does not symbolize that the group no longer identifies as part of the Jewish community. Rather it symbolizes a struggle to find meaning in Jewish religious life. In seeking meaning, they are still seated around our communal table, identifying as Jews, and they ask others to help provide them with an insight into the meaning.

If we offer this group the answer suggested by the Hagaddah, not only do we fail to answer their question, but we further alienate them from Jewish religious life, and by extension the organized Jewish community. The Hagaddah solidifies a “them” and “us” approach by excluding them from the formative experience of Jewish history, our Exodus from Egypt. And once we exclude them from our communal history, what likelihood is there that they will want to be part of our shared future? Their voice will be silenced, but unlike the child who does not know how to ask, who is silent due to an inability to question, their silence will come because they have removed themselves from our communal table.

It is wonderful that in twenty-first century America, people continue to identify as Jews despite feeling no connection to the religion. In this group we can see either a threat or an opportunity. The Hagaddah’s response to the question comes from a place of fear, feeling threatened by this group and trying to coerce them back into the fold. Instead, we can see the opportunity to try and find ways to help this group find meaning in Jewish religious life. It may not have the same focus as the Judaism of our grandparents, but it can still be rooted in Jewish history and tradition, inspiring them to a deeper Jewish connection.

In this way, the question “What does this service mean to you?” is a wonderful one for us to answer. One may find meaning in the story of the Exodus as a way to find a connection to God, through God’s relationship to the Jewish people. Or perhaps the meaning comes from our slavery experience which compels us to be socially active in the world on behalf of others. Or maybe there is meaning in the seder as a chain linking us back through our history, but also forward into the future with the emphasis on teaching our children. We each can share our personal understanding of the seder to offer them a variety of ways to find a connection.

The Hagaddah provides us with just one answer. Today, with so many possible responses to this question, rather than pushing this group away, we instead can find ways to answer this question with meaning and love to deepen their Jewish connection. Then, perhaps at next year’s seder, they will not ask this question but instead answer it for others, sharing the meaning they have found.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a spiritual leader at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY. He also serves as a board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.

Originally posted at eJewish Philanthropy

Reform Leader Responds to Tragic Shooting at Jewish Community Sites

URJ - Sun, 04/13/2014 - 11:39

In response to today’s shootings at several Jewish communal institutions in Overland Park, KS, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We mourn the tragic loss of life in today’s shootings in the Overland Park, Kansas Jewish community. Information about the perpetrator is still being uncovered, but early reports indicate that anti-Semitism may have been a factor. If so, it is a tragic reminder, this day before Jews around the world observe Passover, of the hatred that continues to plague our world. It is also yet another horrific instance of an act of senseless violence involving the use of guns to take innocent lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and injured in today’s shootings. May the memories of those lost be forever a blessing.

A Fifth Cup – Going Beyond What is Required

URJ - Wed, 04/09/2014 - 05:00

By Joshua Weinberg

Growing up, I struggled with the impression that being a Reform Jew meant that we did less. Fewer mitzvot, shorter holiday observance, and less time spent in Jewish education. It was a stigma that I carried with me as I wrestled with and contemplated my own Jewish identity. This lead me to a realm of experimentation with halachah (Jewish law) – pushing and pulling my ‘red lines’ as I grew and learned more.

Today, as many of us are busy preparing for Passover, I find myself less occupied by the meticulous aspect of the holiday’s demanded mitzvot, but searching instead for ways to supplement the narrative and to find meaning in a modern context. I commend those who find deep meaning in cleaning out their kitchens and sterilizing their homes, making sure that all leavening ceases at the 18-minute mark and [in the Ashkenazi tradition] nothing that could resemble wheat flour – such as legumes – will be consumed during Passover. However, I would like to offer an additional perspective on Passover by suggesting some meaningful ways to supplement the seder.

Zionism and living in Israel were the answers to my search for Jewish identity, and to me, Passover became a holiday of peoplehood. The central narrative became the one that we clearly state after we sing Dayenu,that B’khol Dor VaDor: “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt.” In the traditional Haggadah this statement is followed by a biblical and liturgical reading.

In the recently published Israeli Reform Haggadah, A Haggadah for Our Day, each page is supplemented with modern readings and interpretations. It includes a wonderful poem by Amir Gilboa (who many of us will recognize from the music set by Shlomo Artzi) entitled Shir Baboker BaBoker(Song of the Morning). In his interpretation of history, Gilboa talks about a man who “suddenly wakes up in the morning, feels that he is a nation and begins to walk. And everyone who he meets on his way he calls out to them ‘Shalom.’” The poem ends with the same narrative — that this man has woken with the newfound revelation of nationhood — and he sees that the spring has returned and the tree is turning green since last fall’s tree-shedding of leaves.” There’s no more appropriate metaphor for Passover in my mind than the Spring being a time for awakening, discovery, and the realization that we are indeed a people and have the opportunity to come out of “Egypt” (literally ‘out of narrow places’) and enter the Land of Israel as a nation.

As we have collectively left Egypt and entered the Land of Israel, as Reform Jews who increase our observance as we adapt to our modern circumstances, we now need a fifth cup at our s’darim (plural of seder). There are many interpretations to the additional fifth cup, including Happiness Inside the State: Toward a Liberal Theology of Israel, by Rabbi Michael Marmur.

Rabbi Marmur suggests that the fifth cup is the “Cup of Confidence,” an understanding that comes from needing “the confidence to appreciate all that has been achieved so far, and the confidence to acknowledge that which is still at fault.” I suggest that we adopt a fifth cup for the fifth “verb” of redemption, which revolves around two verses in Exodus (6:6-7) commonly referred to as “The Four Expressions of Redemption”:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. . .

However, in verse 8 there is a fifth verb used: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal.”

As Reform Jews and as Zionists let us use this verse as a way of saying that our fifth cup is the cup of peoplehood and our people are connected to the Land. This Passover, while we sit at our seder tables surrounded by family and friends, let us affirm that this is the time to remind each other that it is our obligation to go beyond our own families and communities and connect to our people and our land. And as the Haggadah says, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Chag Pesach Kasher V’Samei-ach!

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

NFTY of the 1960s

URJ - Tue, 04/08/2014 - 05:00

NFTY in the 1960s was remarkably like NFTY today.  Except in those areas where it was different.

It was the same because, in most ways, kids are the same.

Adolescence is a tumultuous time when kids are suddenly vulnerable and suddenly sexual.  They are desperate to know who cares about them.  They want to find a place where they belong.  They love their parents, but also can’t stand the sight of their parents.  They care too much about clothes and body image.  They are caught up in a need to fit in, but also a need to rebel. 

When I was in NFTY, the kids were like that.  And they are like that today.

But amidst this confusion, rebellion, and uncertainty, kids in our congregations have the most remarkable gifts.  They are hungry for direction.  They have a thirst for the noble and the spiritual.  They are disgusted by hypocrisy and half-hearted commitments.  They are willing to think about constructing new identities — including Jewish identities.  Again, this was true in the 1960s, and it is true today.

And the NFTY that I was involved in knew how to respond to these kids — and to me.  It offered me a refuge from constant adult scrutiny.  It offered me unconditional acceptance.   And it summoned me to a higher standard.  It spoke the language of service, engagement, and commitment.

And it engaged my passion.  It approached Judaism the way teenagers approach falling in love.  It spoke the language of romance, reaching out to me with music, candles, and ceremonies.  It offered me heartfelt music and prayer, authentic rituals, the experience of Shabbat, and most of all, a loving and inclusive community.  And I loved it.

Intellect was important too, of course.  It was a place where I could say whatever was on my mind and challenge everyone and anyone.  It was a place, in other words, that was a little bit subversive, and I loved that too.

But passion was most important.  And in every decade, this is what NFTY has been.  It draws kids in by making the connection between the passion of youth and the passion of Judaism.

But how was NFTY different in the 1960s?

First, youth groups were more important because life was, in many ways, simpler.  I grew up with only four or five television channels, and no DVDs or worldwide web.  And, very important, no cell phones.  When I wanted to call my mom to pick me up at a store downtown, I had to walk — yes, actually walk — to the nearest pay phone, sometimes 40 or 50 yards away.  And while there was pressure to get into college, it was nothing like what it is now:  increasing test scores, building resumes, and raising academic competencies had not become the obsession that we see today.  In my world of the 1960s, I went to youth group not only because my parents pushed me to go, but because in a less busy world, Jewish youth activities — NFTY, BBYO, Young Judea, and USY — were welcome alternatives to the relative quiet and boredom of our teenage lives.

Second, there was a greater intensity to NFTY because walls still existed between American Jews and other Americans.  I grew up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood; furthermore, when I joined my youth group in 1962, the intermarriage rate in America was 6%.  In these circumstances, NFTY was a natural extension of my home and community; we Jews, including Jewish kids, were very much a part of America but, to some degree at least, still lived apart.  Of course, that was beginning to change in my TYG years.  I remember many heated youth group programs about whether or not dating non-Jewish kids was permissible.  Those conversations would be very different today.

Finally, social justice was the heart of NFTY in my days, the priority for every event.  It is still vital, and rightly so, but in the 60s, the country was in the midst of a debate on civil rights legislation; rights for African-Americans was a subject that consumed our youth group agenda.  And the war in Vietnam was just coming into focus.  My first really heated discussions about the justice or injustice of that war took place in youth group settings.  On one hand, we probably paid less attention than we should have to matters other than social justice, but on the other hand, youth group created a social justice consciousness that many of us carried with us into the rest of our lives.

NFTY, in many ways, made me what I am; in ways both similar and dissimilar, the same will be true for NFTYites today.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.  He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Reform Movement Horrified by Fort Hood Shooting

URJ - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 18:27

In response to yesterday’s tragic shooting at Fort Hood in Killeen, TX, Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We are deeply saddened by the tragedy that occurred yesterday at Fort Hood. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. This horror cannot help but remind us of the 2009 shooting at the same base. Though the details about the perpetrator’s motivation and the means through which he obtained his weapon are still developing, yesterday’s events reinforce the need to ensure that common-sense gun violence prevention laws are in place to help prevent these incidents and others in which guns lead to the loss of innocent lives.

The Talmud teaches us, ‘He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe.’ The loss of so many lives is not just devastating – it is unacceptable. We call on members of Congress, the President and people committed to the well being of all Americans to find shared values on gun violence prevention measures that will help ensure the safety of us all.

A Passover Social Action Update from the RAC

URJ - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 14:42

Every year I look forward to Passover, when we gather with family and friends, share a festive meal, and retell the story of our exodus from Egypt – with all the lessons applied to today’s urgent moral dilemmas and to the struggles for freedom in America and across the globe.

At every seder, I am touched by the creativity of connecting symbols, old and new, on the seder plate to modern challenges – the bitter herbs for the victims of human trafficking, the symbols of the spring harvest reminding us of our responsibility to protect God’s creation for generations yet to come, and newer symbols – an orange for women’s rights, a tomato for farm workers’ rights, etc. And this year, I know, as we tell the story of our own journey to freedom, we will remember those still facing injustice and inequality – immigrants to our nation, the LGBT community, the differently abled still facing too many barriers at too many turns. And in these connections, we should take tremendous pride in knowing how our story of liberation continues to inspire all those who dream that one day soon, freedom and equality can be theirs.

Let me also suggest a way at this time of year, you can help strengthen the social justice program of your synagogue: By ensuring that a congregational leader – or better yet, a delegation – attend the RAC’s major social justice happening of the year, a Social Action Skills Training & Advocacy Day, May 18-20 in Washington, D.C.

Built for lay leaders, clergy and social justice activists who want to strengthen our Movement’s social justice work and bring their synagogue programs to the next level, attendees will learn from key leaders of our Movement’s social action work, teaching about current best practices and exciting new programs from coast to coast. They will in turn introduce you to leading policy experts, staff from Capitol Hill and the White House, and top social justice advocates in Washington who work on a range of issues with which your congregation either is involved or might well choose to be involved.

Your leaders will learn ways of respecting political differences and bridging ideological divides in your congregation, and will enhance their skills in every area of congregational social justice work. To conclude the program, they will join on Tuesday with members of our Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism – our Movement’s top social justice lay leadership – in meetings with key staff and members of Congress. Your attendee(s) will come home energized – and in turn be prepared to energize even your most successful local programs. Register today for yourself or recruit/designate others from your synagogue to attend.

As you know, the Passover-Easter season has exposed heightened tensions between Christians and Jews. As such, I was grateful to have participated recently in a Jewish-Christian summit that included colleagues from several other Jewish communal organizations, as well as the denominational leaders of the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestant groups. We successfully reopened ongoing relations after a tense year and a half in which disagreements regarding Israel had caused the cessation of our dialogue. As you likely are aware, the Presbyterian Church recently released “Zionism Unsettled,” which calls into question the legitimacy of Israel. This topic will be addressed in depth at the Presbyterian’s upcoming convention in June. In the meantime, Religion News Service carried this op-ed from Rabbi Rick Jacobs about the issue. It, and this JCPA press release provide more information.

And finally, some wonderful news to share: We just learned from Gift of Life that the first two potentially life-saving matches have been made from last year’s Yom Kippur bone marrow swab drives organized in our congregations. Can there be any more dramatic expression of the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh – our responsibility to do all we can to save a life? We hope more will follow the 35 congregations that participated last fall, and we’re aiming for 75-100 this coming Yom Kippur. So we’re kicking things off early, and we hope you’ll help us reach this goal. You can find information on how to participate here and contact Veronica Grant to get involved.

In closing, I wish you, your loved ones, and your congregational family, a sweet, wonderful Pesach holiday. In the meantime, please check out the Passover section of for recipes, craft ideas, and information on the customs and rituals of the holiday. Chag sameach! 

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

URJ - Tue, 04/01/2014 - 05:00

By Alexa Maltby

It isn’t every day that you have a life-changing experience, so to say I had a life-changing summer is a blessing. Urban Mitzvah Corps could easily be described as a six-week Jewish social action summer program. But life changing experiences aren’t that easy to describe.

For the past two summers I took the long 15-minute drive from my average hometown to the city of New Brunswick, NJ. I lived in a sorority house on the Rutgers campus and worked in the New Brunswick area. What made the experience unique was working with groups of people who I never would have interacted with before. But that is the beauty of Mitzvah Corps. It is an organization that pushes its participants to be brave and kind hearted.

The difference a 15-minute drive can make is amazing. My stereotypical suburban hometown is a whole different world than New Brunswick. I worked at a camp run by the city of New Brunswick that serves people of all backgrounds. I went in expecting an average summer camp, and left knowing that I was a long way from home. My campers, 6- and 7-year-old girls, were being held back in school and having behavioral difficulties. Before working at Play S.A.F.E., I didn’t know a single person held back in school, but half of my campers were enrolled in summer school. Some of them had language barriers, and others didn’t have the resources at home to get extra academic help. I didn’t start my summer expecting to witness real-life urban problems, but I did.

Mitzvah Corps isn’t just about volunteering at a nursing home or summer camp. It is an organization that sets out to inspire teens to change the world. As Jews, we are raised knowing that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is important. After “shalom,” tikkun olam was the first Hebrew phrase I really understood. We grow up knowing that we have a duty to repair the world, but where is our real chance to do it? Mitzvah Corps gives teens that chance. We spend our summers repairing ourselves and the world around us. For me, I’m repairing in “my own backyard,” but there are participants from all over the United States making a difference in places they’ve never been. This past summer we had eight high school students from the west coast who dedicated their time to servicing New Brunswick. I think that is something special.

Urban Mitzvah Corps is also something special. It offers programs that helps make teenagers mature and humble. Participants leave with a new sense of purpose. I left Urban Mitzvah Corps knowing that I had taken part in performing tikkun olam. I formed friendships with the ‘bingo girls’ at the nursing home, the ‘regulars’ at Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen, and the ‘jump rope girls’ at Play S.A.F.E. I’ve formed countless other relationships over the three summers I have spent with Mitzvah Corps. My life has changed, as we continue to work to change others’ lives.

The impact on my life of Mitzvah Corps will last beyond the summer. Later this year, I am heading off to college, and I will be choosing my major based on my experience. While at Play S.A.F.E., I learned about communities very different from mine. Majoring in Human Development and Family Studies will allow me to learn how to help people like my campers. I want to learn about human dynamics because I loved working with people from different backgrounds. I didn’t just get a great summer experience out of Urban Mitzvah Corps; I got a future out of it.

Alexa Maltby, a high school senior, serves as NFTY Garden Empire Region’s Programming Vice President. This past summer she served as the Urban Mitzvah Corps Student Coordinator. Throughout high school Alexa has also served on AETY, her Temple Youth Group’s executive board.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Website developed by Pogstone Inc. powered by Shul Suite