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An Open Letter to President Obama About the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

URJ - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:58

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), sent a letter to President Obama about the upcoming commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, invoking the timeless words “Never forget. Never again.” The full text of the letter follows.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

Last week we marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As you said in your eloquent statement that day, “Yom HaShoah is a day to reaffirm our responsibilities to ourselves and future generations. It is incumbent upon us to make real those timeless words, ‘Never forget. Never again.’”

In that spirit, and mindful of our community’s sacred obligation to make sure that the “timeless words” you invoked are not empty phrases, we write to you today concerning the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

We are pleased that you are sending a high-level Presidential Delegation to the Republic of Armenia to participate in the memorial later this week. One of the most shameful chapters of modern history demands commemoration.

It also demands honesty in how we describe what happened 100 years ago. The genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks and the subsequent exile of an additional 500,000 Armenians cannot be described accurately by any other term.

In her Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power, currently our brilliant U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, marshals history as call to action. “In 1915 Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople, responded to Turkey’s deportation and slaughter of its Armenian minority by urging Washington to condemn Turkey and pressure its wartime ally Germany.” Morgenthau also defied diplomatic convention by personally protesting the atrocities, denouncing the regime and raising money for humanitarian relief. When the Turkish interior minister pressed Morganthau, “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew, these people are Christians…. What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” Morganthau replied, “You don’t seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew but as the American Ambassador…. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion but merely as a human being.”

We recognize that the Turkey of today is vastly different from the Ottoman Empire of Morgenthau’s day. However, our respect for modern Turkey’s traditions of pluralism should not deter us from learning the lessons of past mistakes.

Jewish history compels us to be forceful and clear on this issue. In this we join with Pope Francis and other religious leaders who rightly respect the magnitude of this historical slaughter.

Mr. President, as you know better than most, words matter. What we choose to call things matters. Failing to call the slaughter of over 1.5 mission Armenians in 1915 “genocide,” not only diminishes the suffering of those who were annihilated but teaches those of us living today that it is acceptable to recast the retelling of past massacres to ease modern sensibilities.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
President, Union for Reform Judaism

Communities of Practice: Learning, Change, and Other Benefits that Strengthen Congregations

URJ - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 09:49

by Amy Asin and Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

On May 5th, the URJ will launch applications for a new set of Communities of Practice (CoPs). Topics will include:

  • Building a Brand: Excellence in Reform Movement Early Childhood Engagement
  • Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children (for congregations without Early Childhood Centers)
  • Strengthening Israel Engagement in your Congregation
  • Pursuing Justice: Becoming a Community of Action (with the Religious Action Center)
  • Finding the Sacred in the Mundane: Reimagining Financial Support
  • Engaging Congregants: Small Groups With Meaning

How can your congregation decide if participating in a CoP is right for you? You should apply to be part of one of the new CoPs if your community is:

  1. Ready to take innovative action – small steps or large ones, depending on your congregational capacity – in a particular topic area addressed by one of the new CoPs;
  2. Interested in learning how to facilitate change in your congregation – in the specific topic area and overall;
  3. Interested in learning from experts in the field and receiving support from URJ staff;
  4. Seeking the wisdom and partnership of congregations facing challenges and goals similar to yours; and
  5. Looking for a project that will promote leadership development and partnership among congregants, clergy, and other professional staff members.

Being part of a CoP strengthens congregations in countless ways. As participants delve deeper into their topic area, they also will have opportunities to interact with experts, see what other innovative congregations are doing, and understand the costs and benefits of trying new things.

But the CoP experience is about more than just learning. The URJ’s Communities of Practice are designed for congregations that want to go a step further, taking action to create deep and lasting congregational change. Perhaps your congregation has been wondering what it would be like to experiment with a new revenue/membership model, try new programming or outreach to families with young children, go beyond social action to social justice, or make changes in another area addressed by one of our new CoPs. If so, we’re ready to dive in with you. We will work with you to choose initial steps that are right for your congregation, balancing risk and reward, along with your capacity to devote necessary resources to the project.

One of the goals of our CoP model is to lower the risk of change in your congregation. Joining with other communities that also are trying new things allows your congregation to be in conversation with other innovators, to learn from what they are thinking and trying, and to share stories and get advice. Each new CoP cohort will receive support and individual coaching from URJ staff to help participating congregations make tough decisions and move forward in accomplishing real change.

Participation in a CoP is also a terrific way to develop new leadership for your congregation. By engaging a mix of veteran and new leaders, board members, clergy, and staff, your CoP experience will bring together multiple perspectives, and give new leaders a voice in shaping the congregation’s future, inspiring them to take on more responsibility. Often, lay participants in CoP projects go on to become board members and congregational presidents.

Although each congregation has a different CoP experience, many participants not only innovate successfully in the CoP topic area, but also learn skills that apply to other aspects of congregational life. Take, for example, Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD: The skills their participants learned in a CoP about families with young children helped drive innovation in the religious school. Other congregations might use newfound skills to help manage a rabbinic search process, enrich social action programming, or engage young adults.

To learn more about the CoP application process or to sign-up for an informational webinar, visit the CoP website.  If your congregation is considering participation in a CoP, complete an expression of interest form.  For additional information about the new CoP topics or to read about congregations that participated in previous CoPs, login or register to join the conversation in The Tent or contact Jessica Ingram, Manager of Communities of Practice.

Amy Asin is the URJ’s Vice President, Strengthening Congregations. Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Micah, Washington, DC. She will join the URJ as Director of Communities of Practice in July.

The Scheidt Seminar: Shaping Leaders for a Sacred Task

URJ - Wed, 04/15/2015 - 09:00

“The Scheidt Seminar for Congregational Presidents and President-Elects seminar was one of the most meaningful professional development experiences of my entire career….Not only was this an inspiring leadership development experience, but it was a meaningful Jewish experience as well. By praying and studying together, my fellow presidents and presidents-elect formed a connection that links us back to the very roots of our spiritual heritage.”

– Congregational President, Bet Shalom, Minnetonka, MN

What does it mean to be a leader, and how does one learn to be a great leader? Whether you’re born into leadership or rise through the ranks, leadership comes with certain responsibilities. In our congregations, all leaders are responsible for ensuring that individuals feel that they matter and are connected to the core values of the community.

Indeed, being a congregational leader is different than being a leader within a corporation, or even another non-profit organization. How? Considering these differences is vital for all those who assume leadership positions in our congregations, because what we do in our congregations is sacred and holy work. The ways we approach and interact with each another and the community we create together has both practical and spiritual dimensions. This duality is present in the work of congregational leaders at all levels – from the new committee chair getting involved for the very first time to the seasoned veteran who has “done it all” at the congregation.

And yet, being president of a synagogue is a unique leadership role. It is a task both sacred and challenging, and with it comes both the glory when things go well and the responsibility of addressing the many thorny issues that are inherently a part of congregational life. Each temple president brings his or her own experiences, skills, and talents to the task – but no single individual, no matter his or her background, can be expected to step into the presidency knowing everything about how to keep a synagogue running smoothly.

Rudi Scheidt learned this lesson during his tenure as president of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN, during the 1990s. Following his presidency, he articulated the need for congregational presidents to communicate with one another and learn from each other’s experience and skills, as well as from experts in the field. Through the generosity of Rudi and his wife, Honey, the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar for Congregational Presidents and President-Elects came into being. Since its inception, the Scheidt Seminar has sought to enable congregational presidents to fulfill their task effectively and to create a network of colleagues to advise, support, and counsel each other as necessary.

Since its inception 17 years ago, more than 1,400 new congregational presidents have participated in the annual Scheidt Seminar, learning leadership skills through a Jewish lens. During their time together, participants learn from URJ and HUC-JIR leaders and create and rekindle meaningful relationships with fellow temple presidents from across North America. They return to their congregations armed with the tools and inspiration necessary to strengthen their individual communities.

In an effort to offer intentional and strong leadership development to congregational presidents throughout their tenure, this year’s Scheidt Seminar will provide ongoing opportunities for participants to learn and network with each other. This expanded leadership development process is designed not only to empower temple presidents, but also to help them acquire additional skills and resources so that they can more effectively work with their staff and board, engage with those in the synagogue community, and strengthen all facets of congregational life.

Keyn y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. May all who take on the mantle of leadership feel connected to one another and to the Jewish ideals that are at the core of their congregation.

This year’s Scheidt Seminar, April 23 to 26, will bring together more than 90 presidents and president-elects from URJ congregations throughout North America. Together and with guidance from URJ staff, they will learn, worship, and network, returning to their own congregations inspired, energized, and with newfound colleagues to support their sacred work. The next Scheidt Seminar will be held in April 2016.

Lisa Lieberman Barzilai R.J.E., Director of the Leadership Institute, is a member of the URJ Strengthening Congregations team.

This Month in The Tent: Being a More Welcoming Congregation

URJ - Tue, 04/14/2015 - 09:37

Membership specialists and committee chairs will tell you the three tenets of congregational membership are recruitment, integration/engagement, and retention. In all three areas, one key to success is making people feel like your congregation is a place for them – in other words, being welcoming.

What, specifically, can you and your fellow leaders do to model audacious hospitality and make your congregation as welcoming as possible?

If you want prospective members to know your congregation is the place for them, say so in your membership brochures and on your website. Consider including language that expressly states that your community includes – and welcomes –young adults, LGBT members, people with disabilities, and all others seeking a connection to Jewish life.

You might also review your membership forms (whether for new or current members) and other applications, and revise them so the language is gender neutral. For example, on a school form, use the term “parent” rather than “mother” or “father” so families with two moms or two dads feel recognized. Highlight the fact that your facilities are wheelchair accessible, have elevators, or include other disability-friendly resources. Publicize a list of your congregation’s active chavurot so people know there are others in your community with interests similar to theirs.

In The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, you’ll find discussions and resources about successful membership and outreach strategies. Leaders in The Tent are discussing how to: form chavurot; refer to members of interfaith families; update and/or improve their membership application; and more. Browse the Membership and Outreach groups to find a conversation or resource, and be sure to check out the URJ’s customizable ads, including these (search “#URJ Ad” to find more):

Congregational leaders involved in outreach efforts might also be interested in knowing about two URJ offerings:

  1. The Belin Outreach and Membership Awards recognize congregations that have developed outstanding outreach or membership programming. Eight congregations will receive a $1,000 award and will be honored at the 2015 URJ Biennial in November.
  2. A Taste of Judaism® Advertising Grants help congregations advertise their upcoming A Taste of Judaism® Learn more in The Tent.

Seasonal Info: June is LGBT Pride Month. Prepare by reviewing your congregation’s policies and practices to make sure they create a welcoming environment for LGBT members. See “18+ Ways to Make Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Members Feel Welcome” for some hints and tips, and visit the Religious Action Center’s LGBT Rights page to stay up-to-date on related advocacy efforts.

Tent Tip: Let’s talk #topics! Adding topics to your post or resource will make it easier for others to find that conversation or file. Similar to the way hashtags are used on Twitter, topics act as keywords to connect Tent activity. When creating a post, simply click the “Add topics” link below the “Update” field. As you type, existing topics will appear.

Join the conversation and access these and other great resources in The Tent.


Counting Days and Making Days Count

URJ - Wed, 04/08/2015 - 05:00

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering-the day after the Shabbat – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. -Leviticus (23:15-16)

This is my favorite time of year. A time of renewal and rebirth. Spring is in the air and as The Song of Songs reminds us, the time of singing has come. It is now just after the beginning of Passover that we begin the count-up to Shavuot, when, according to our Biblical tradition, we bring our first fruits, and according to our Rabbinic tradition, we received Torah at Sinai.

The Kabbalists contributed an additional way to count, citing the great potential for inner growth and to improve one’s own personal character through a system of associating each week with one of the seven [lower] attributes. To the weekly attribute, one of the other six is added each day. The first week of the Omer is Chesed, kindness. So, the first day is Chesed she b’Chesed, Kindness of Kindness. Today is Netzach she b’Chesed — the Eternal or Enduringness of Kindness.

While the counting of the Omer sends much of the Jewish world into a frenzy of marking days and assessing their symbolic importance, we in the Reform Zionist world are counting down the days for a different period. I am referring, of course, to the election period for the World Zionist Congress which has just 22 days left!

Sadly, during this week while we are marking none other than Chesed (Kindness), the Reform Movement was the victim of a Public Relations attack at the hands of another slate. Members of the “Vote Torah” Orthodox slate decided to conjure a false statement about our campaign in order to motivate their members to vote, accusing us of reaching “out to non-Jews to vote in the election and to support ARZA,” which is clearly against the campaign rules. They have since removed the accusation from their article. While I feel bad for the damage done to us, I feel worse for them that they needed to stoop to that level.

With each day that goes by we must stay our course and believe in the strength and purity of our message. We have a deep and durable love for Israel and are eagerly engaged in the work of shaping and building for the future of an Israel that reflects the Jewish values that we hold so dear.

During this week of Chesed let us not only count the days, but make our days count. The Kabbalists recommended that today, Netzach she b’Chesed, on the day of the Enduringness of Kindness, we should do something that fights for or protects a loved one. Today we should fight for something that is worth fighting for: and that is Israel. The soul of the Jewish State is at stake here, and if we don’t fight, if we don’t rise up and make our voices count, a great deal could be lost. Today is about fighting for all those who don’t have a voice ― for asylum seekers, for agunot (married Orthodox women whose husbands will not grant them a divorce), for silenced women, and for those who are victims of slander and libel. And today is about fighting so that tomorrow we can proudly stand together with our Israeli partners, roll up our sleeves, and forge the next chapter of our future in the Jewish State.

Join us by voting for ARZA, in saying that our love for Israel is worth fighting for.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA.

Relational Judaism: How Building Community Helped Us Change Our Dues Model

URJ - Mon, 03/30/2015 - 09:00

By Dani Robbins

My career has taken me to multiple cities in several states, and each time I’ve moved, I’ve looked for a new religious home by calling around to local synagogues. I found it off-putting, however, when the people on the other end talked to me about money before they welcomed me or invited me to visit. By the third or fourth call, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way our congregations welcome prospective members.

Imagine my delight, then, in learning that my current congregation, Congregation Beth Tikvah, was considering changing its dues model – really turning it on its head. I’ve been reimagining the financial future of Jewish congregations for years, so I was thrilled to participate in the congregation’s efforts to do so.

For years, Congregation Beth Tikvah, which was founded upon and employs egalitarian values in all its endeavors, has been moving toward a relationship-based model – one in which the congregation builds a community of enhanced relationships, both among members and with the congregation, moving away from fee-based dues and tickets. Although we didn’t know it at the time, relational Judaism was the lens we used when we eliminated the committee that approved dues reductions, selected our new rabbi, and began to consider whether a new funding model was right for us.

Upon his arrival in 2011, Rabbi Rick Kellner helped us put relational thinking at the forefront of our actions and vocabulary, and encouraged us to adopt it within our community. Under his leadership, we expanded programming for young children and seniors, and finished building a new sanctuary and social hall that had begun before he arrived. Both efforts attracted new families, and our community grew.

Along the way, we found that our existing financial model no longer fit our needs. Eager to learn about alternatives, when the URJ announced its new Community of Practice (CoP), Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation, we signed on. Launched in March 2013, the CoP enabled us to learn from one another, other congregations, and experts brought in by the URJ. Ours was one of 17 congregations in the two-year guided program, which included an in-person gathering, periodic webinars, individual check-ins, and shared resources.

Our CoP committee explored various financial models. We looked at our congregation’s history and culture. We discussed definitions of “dues,” “member,” and “transaction.” We challenged, argued, and debated each other, ultimately building consensus. Though we started out talking about money, we ended up talking about community. We studied congregations that implemented new models, reading their literature and interviewing their members. We talked about who we wanted to be and to what kind of community we wanted to belong. We held formal and informal gatherings to engage constituents. We wrote letters and articles. We sought and received feedback.

We learned that promoting engagement and providing connections among members are more vital than any funding discussion possibly could be. In fact, at one point, we committed to changing our language, and now are moving toward deepening relationships and engaging with each other, our congregation, and our faith. Our goal was no longer about changing congregational dues models; it was – and is – about changing our congregational culture. Finally, we made formal recommendations to our board, and presentations to our fellow congregants, received suggestions, and revised our recommendations accordingly.

It was daunting, nonetheless, to recommend a process that potentially would allow people to participate in our congregation without supporting it financially. We knew various outcomes were possible: we could lose significant income, gain significant income, lose income but gain members, or lose members but gain income (though we all doubted that this last possibility would come to pass). We trusted that if we created a place and a space in which everyone belongs, something magical would happen, and everyone would, indeed, feel like they belong.

So we jumped, and the net appeared.

Our plan included changing our language to change our culture, evolving from the word “dues” to the term “membership commitment.” Importantly, we provided guidance about the annual costs to sustain programming, as well as how people could give below, at, or above that level.

What happened? Some people gave less, and some people gave nothing but still joined, which also was part of the goal. Some people gave more, and some gave a lot more. One thing is for sure: We’ve left the transactional model behind. No one who calls our congregation to inquire about joining is told about dues.

We’re not finished yet. Our movement toward relational Judaism laid the foundation for a culture of philanthropy that will continue to evolve. It remains to be seen whether we will need to introduce a more formal process to engage donors. For now, though, it’s safe to say that our committee is delighted with where we are and where we’re going. We are currently just one family shy of last year’s membership numbers, with almost exactly the same income. We did it!

We changed our words. We changed our culture. But we didn’t change our income.

Dani Robbins is part of the Reimagining Financial Support Community of Practice Committee at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, OH. She grew up in New Rochelle, NY, in a fiercely secular Jewish household. Her parents were always worried the Italian boys she dated would convert her. Today, she serves as a nonprofit leadership consultant and is happily married to a man who is neither Jewish nor Italian. Her daughter becomes a bat mitzvah later this year.

Unconditionally Loving Israel and Jewish Values

URJ - Sat, 03/21/2015 - 22:04

This speech was given tonight at the JStreet Conference in Washington, D.C.

We gather at a pivotal moment in the history of Israel.

It is precisely at such a time that the North American Jewish community is in desperate need of an open, honest and serious conversation about the Jewish state. I believe that this 5th J Street conference is fertile ground for such dialogue.

Hear the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai: “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring…” But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.” Indeed, righteous certainty leads to closed -mindedness and stalemate; self-doubt and love open up real possibilities for peace.

So let us voice our differences and speak our minds without casting aspersions upon each other’s motivations, aspirations and ahavat yisrael—love of Israel.

American Jews and Israel

American Jews have a complicated relationship with Israel. We are lovers of Israel, but we are not always in agreement with specific policies of her government. The majority of us support a peace process that results in the creation of a viable Palestinian state next to a secure Israel.  We favor this out of love for Israel—as a Jewish and democratic state, and out of an acknowledgement that Israel will only be secure when a diplomatic solution of this crisis is achieved.

Do the settlements make Israel more secure? According to the most recent Pew survey, just 17% of American Jews think that the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security, while 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.  Has the Israeli government made a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians? Only 38% of American Jews agree with that statement.

Staring us in the face are declining rates of Jewish engagement with Israel in general and among young Jews in particular, as well as on college campuses and in the progressive community. These trends are deeply disturbing to be sure, but we Jews are ever-hopeful. We see adversity as a call to action. This is no time for progressives to withdraw. In the next few years, as the leaders of Israel, the Palestinians, and America make crucial decisions on issues related to the future, our voices must be heard. And, simultaneously, we must stand against those whose aim is to delegitimize and isolate Israel on the world stage.

A case in point. This past June in Detroit I addressed the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly which was debating a call to divest from certain Israeli companies.  Divestment, I argued, would not bring the two-state solution we seek any closer; it would only strengthen the rejectionists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Just before I arrived in Detroit, Rachel Lerner, J Street’s not-so-secret weapon, had given a compelling talk making the case for Israel and arguing against the divestment resolution. When Jewish communal and Israeli leaders ask, “is J Street truly pro-Israel” I send them Rachel’s talk.

As we demonstrated in Detroit that week, our Jewish community is so much stronger and effective in our pro-Israel advocacy when we embrace a diversity of pro-Israel views. One dimensional definitions of “pro-Israel” should be put to rest now and forever.

Democracy, Israel, Jewish Values

I come here proud and honored to lead the Reform Movement that has long opposed Israeli settlement policy on the West Bank. The occupation threatens the very Zionism that we hold dear—the living expression of a Jewish democratic state; it causes pain and hardship to the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world. Only two states for two peoples living side by side in peace will bring this tragic conflict to its long-awaited end.

But favoring a two-state solution is not the same as bringing it about. Broadness of goal can only be hurt by narrowness of approach. Alas, no single party to the debate has a monopoly on narrowness.   Too often the Israeli and American Jewish establishment holds Palestinian leaders alone responsible for failed peace initiatives. But progressives are equally at fault for labeling Israel as the sole culprit in scuttling peace initiatives. We are quick to find scapegoats, but wild goats abound on both sides of the divide and we ought at least to round them all up before mouthing platitudes that blame one side and whitewash the other.

Sadly, we are further from the goal of two states for two people than we were a week ago, giving an opening to those – both on the right and the left –who are pushing for a single-state alternative, an alternative that is completely unworkable and unsustainable.

My Jewish values insist that a non-democratic state is inherently un-Jewish. But a democratic state that is not Jewish would be a betrayal of our people’s two-thousand year-old dream to restore Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.

And now more than ever let us remind President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that the U.S./Israel relationship is a partnership between nations, not between individuals.  It transcends partisanship, and belongs equally to Democrats and Republicans, to Likud and Labor. It reflects fundamental values and strategic priorities of both nations.  It is, appropriately, both broad and deep.

Criticism of J Street

Much of what J Street stands for accords with my own views and with those of the majority of Jews. Yet, I have not always agreed with J Street, and I fully expect we will have disagreements in the future. But I am, frankly, stunned at the vituperative criticism of some who seem to imply that the greatest threat facing Israel and the Jewish people is not Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah’s missiles but rather this pro-peace, pro-Israel group known as J Street.

Let me be clear: I believe that when the organized Jewish community draw lines that exclude J Street, it fosters the perception of a one dimensional approach to Israel that will be our undoing. I insist on the right to speak my mind responsibly. But I insist equally on others doing the same.

Last April, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted not to admit J Street into this 60-year-old umbrella organization.   I, on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Movement in Jewish life, raised our collective voice in strong opposition.   It wasn’t simply a referendum on J Street; it was a test of the integrity and cohesiveness of our Jewish community.

The Conference of Presidents has now reformed its structure and streamlined its admission procedures for membership in a way that no longer places unwarranted barriers to entry. I was proud to join Conference leaders in negotiating these important changes — a modest victory, but a victory nonetheless, moving us in the direction of the essentials of honesty of dialogue and decency of debate.

External Threats to Israel, Iran

My friends, I am a proud Zionist, unshakably committed to Israel’s strength, security and vitality. Until now, I have been discussing the need to foster honest debate within our own ranks.

But make no mistake about it: Israel has real and deadly enemies against whom we must close ranks. Iran presents an existential threat to Israel, a challenge to American national interests, and a blow to global stability. In addition to its repeated efforts to build nuclear weapons that can threaten all countries in the region and beyond, Iran’s fingerprints are on almost all of the lethal weapons aimed at Israel specifically, from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.   We dare not minimize the danger Iran poses, so let us not stop pressing for the most effective, international coalition to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Threats From Within

Israel also faces threats from within.

Consider the story of Samer Mahfouz and Amir Shwiki, Palestinians from Beit Hanina, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

I met them this past summer, during the war. I had been visiting wounded Israeli soldiers at Tel Hashomer Hospital and decided to stop also at Hadassah Medical Center where I encountered Samer and Amir. They, too, were wounded. But not from the war. They had been savagely attacked and beaten unconscious by a group of fanatical young Jews filled with hatred for all Palestinians.

As I entered Samer’s hospital room, I could tell his family was nervous to see us.   With me were Rabbi Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and a delegation from Tag Meir, a group of 40 organizations protesting a spate of Jewish assaults on Palestinians. We were the first Jews to visit Samer and Amir since the brutal attack.

Bearing flowers and food to mark their Ramadan break-fast, we expressed to these distraught Palestinian families how ashamed we were by the attack. We wanted them to know that the majority of Israeli and Diaspora Jews were praying for the men’s speedy recovery and were determined to see that their attackers were brought to justice. We will do our part, we told them, to uproot such hatred as we work to create a society that respects the other.

Samer spoke to us in beautiful Hebrew, telling us that both men have ties to their Jewish coworkers and neighbors. It’s too easy to let one’s heart close during a time of war; our goal must always be to keep our hearts open.

The 19th- century teacher Rabbi Yizhak Meir Alter taught that a stork is called “Chasidah” or kindly one, but is not kosher. Why? Because it will only give food to a creature of its own kind. The lesson here is that limiting goodness and kindness only to ourselves is not the Jewish way. Yes, even in times of war we must not lose our deeply honed capacity for spiritual empathy, for it is this authentically Jewish approach that will most likely move us forward toward true peace.

Working for the rights of its Arab citizens makes Israel more secure. In contrast to the cynical rhetoric we heard on Election Day making Israeli Arab voters a bête noir, the Jewish tradition and the democratic core of Israel demand the equality and dignity of all citizens. No exceptions.

Tomorrow night I will be giving a talk in Boston with Ofir and Bat Galim Shaer whose son Gilad was one of the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists this summer.   Gilad, Naftali and Eyal were remarkable teenagers whose lives were cut short by blind hatred.   So many Israeli and Palestinian families have buried their children in that blood soaked corner of the earth.     Until our hearts break at all of their deaths, peace will not come.

American Jews are “Active Partners”

The American Jewish community is not merely an audience to the drama of Israel. We are active partners. And as partners we must tell each other our truths.

What are those truths?

  • We will never back down from our commitment to a secure Israel.
  • We will never stop fighting for an Israel that grants all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews, fundamental and equal human rights.
  • We will never stop working for an Israel that grants equal rights to Jews—no matter their spiritual practice or belief.
  • We will never stop advocating for the U.S. to remain Israel’s staunch ally.
  • We will not back away from our commitment to a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in peace and security.

I can think of few audiences that understand those truths better than the J Street U “Town Hall” I participated in last year. I was impressed by the deep commitment of its leaders to the state, people and ideals of Israel.

Many of our student leaders occupy the ramparts in their own frontline battles over Israel. Verbal rockets fly regularly across your college campuses. You are bombarded by voices that question Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage. And let us be clear:   Antipathy towards the Jewish State too easily morphs into hatred of Jews.   A few weeks back at UCLA, a young Jewish leader was initially rejected from student leadership because she was Jewish.   As you probably know, she was ultimately seated but there was a question as to whether her Jewishness would keep her from being fair.   I doubt the same presumption would have been made of any other ethnic or religious group.

In the recent Trinity College study, 54% of US Jewish college students reported witnessing or experiencing Anti-Semitism.   But lest you think there is an exemption for progressive Zionists, half of J Street members on campus also report Anti-Semitism.

It’s one thing to disagree about Israeli policy; it’s another thing to condemn all expressions of Zionism as inherently offensive, to deny to the Jewish people the right of national self-determination accorded to others.

Between Purim and Passover

What happens in Israel truly affects Jews all over the globe – very much including young adults on our college campuses. Better talking points will not resolve this situation; nor would a new Israeli government erase the enmity that is growing in places that are supposed to be bastions of free thinking. Tonight we find ourselves between Purim and Passover.   On Purim we recalled the precariousness of Jewish life in the face of existential threats.   And we were reminded that even the most unlikely of Diaspora Jews can find themselves in leadership roles that save the entire Jewish people as Esther did. Although intermarried and not strictly observant of ritual laws, when it mattered most Esther stepped up and we are here today because of her courage.

And next week, on Pesach, with the symbols of slavery before us, we will sit with our four children: the wise, the apathetic, the naïve and those who haven’t learned to question. We will eat the dry bread of poverty called Matzot while we retell our master narrative of liberation – a reminder that we have been called upon as a covenantal people to shape a more just, peaceful and compassionate world.

My love for Israel is unconditional as is our responsibility for Israel’s well-being. And at the very same time we are equally committed to living our other core Jewish values.   At key moments, as in the past few weeks, we are challenged to hold fast to both commitments. Some have let go of one of these, but I, and hopefully many of you, refuse to stop loving Israel or to cease living our demanding Jewish values of equality, justice, truth and dignity for all of God’s children.

Yes, my friends, we join together tonight at a pivotal moment in which the fate of Israel hangs in the balance. If we hope to succeed in defending and protecting the kind of Israel we think she should be, we, the Jewish community, must first become who we think we should be: honest, humble, generous and open of heart and mind. Pesach commands us to sit with even our divided families at seder. Especially this year we must find a way to sit and debate with our family members who may not share all of our views but let us anchor our deep discussions on the deeper love that binds us to one another and to our Jewish homeland. In a world filled with many more than 10 plagues our haggadah commands us to taste the bitterness of our experience while not losing hope.

Show Us Your Audacious Hospitality: Apply for a URJ Belin Outreach and Membership Award

URJ - Thu, 03/19/2015 - 11:00

“Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of community – and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process.”

– Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism

It’s not always easy to offer the sort of “audacious hospitality” Rabbi Jacobs encourages, but many Reform congregations are rising to the challenge. These exceptional congregations excel at welcoming seekers and engaging prospective and current members – and the URJ is looking for the ones that do it best. Once again this year, we’ll honor eight congregations with Belin Outreach and Membership Awards for creative, original, and outstanding initiatives that promote audacious hospitality. From now through April 30, your congregation can submit an application for a 2015 Belin Outreach and Membership Award. Winning congregations will receive a $1,000 cash award and will be recognized at the URJ Biennial in Orlando, FL, in November.

The Belin Awards – generously funded by David Belin, z’l, the inaugural chair of the URJ-CCAR Joint Commission on Outreach and Membership – are an opportunity to highlight the remarkable innovation and inspiration that exist in our congregations. Here’s a look at some award-winning entries from recent years:

  • Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head Island, SC, created Outreach: Welcoming Interfaith in Every Generation to engage, educate, and honor the many temple members whose lives are touched by interfaith relationships. Program components include workshops designed to educate grandparents on their role in the lives of grandchildren in interfaith families, matches between interfaith and host families for holidays and Shabbat meals, and special group outings to engage non-Jewish spouses,
  • Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL, won a Belin Award for Mommy Minyan, its innovative Jewish learning program for mothers with young children. Designed to promote Jewish education and relationship building, Mommy Minyan is organized around three tracks that meet in various locations – at the synagogue, in restaurants, and in members’ homes – and at different times of day so that both working moms and stay-at-home moms can participate.
  • Temple Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA, developed Membership Drive: Strive for 225. Looking to attract new members to its small community, the synagogue offered congregants certificates for six months of free temple membership to share with their friends and family. Guest members were invited to participate in all areas of synagogue life and in several events exclusively for them, including a brunch and a Shabbat dinner. At the end of the six months, the congregation hosted a “graduation” picnic, where guest members were invited to join the congregation.

Looking for additional ideas about how your congregation can reach out to the unaffiliated and those new to Judaism, deepen ties to existing members, and offer audacious hospitality to everyone who steps through your doors? Visit The Tent, the Reform Movement’s communication and collaboration platform.

For more information about the URJ’s Belin Outreach and Membership Awards, contact Jessica Ingram.

Why My Congregation Hosts “A Taste of Judaism®” Classes – and Yours Should, Too

URJ - Wed, 03/18/2015 - 09:00

by Rabbi Marc Katz

Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of hosting A Taste of Judaism® classes at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first time was at a local restaurant; the second was in the synagogue building. Over the course of teaching this class, I have learned a number of important lessons and have seen many benefits. When it works, here is what congregations and participants can get out of the class.

  1. Students begin to build a scaffolding for later study.
    Learning works in cycles. Students hear terms, then revisit them. They think they know something, but later realize they don’t know as much as they think they do, which prompts them to commit their learning to memory a second time. I have found that the structure of A Taste of Judaism® – spending one class each on Torah, God, and the Jewish people – provides a wonderful framework for further study, whether through independent reading or classes such as a longer Introduction to Judaism course. It’s as if students have a newly minted filing cabinet of Jewish knowledge. Later, they’ll learn something about prayer and stick it in with the rest of those mental files labeled “God”; they learn about social justice and file that information with “how to relate to the Jewish people and the world at large.” Taste of Judaism® students who go on to take more in-depth classes tend to be more engaged, excited, and remember much more than their fellow students.
  1. It’s a fun challenge / thought-experiment for instructors.
    I studied for five years in rabbinical school and have spent countless hours learning about Torah, God, and the Jewish people. I could teach a many-weeks-long course on any one of these topics. Yet, as an instructor, I somehow had to condense each topic into only a few hours. As I taught about God, I had to decide which of the many voices in our 3,000-year-old tradition to incorporate. Would I teach what people said about God in the Middle Ages? Would I incorporate modern thinkers? Would I leave time for personal exploration? Students understand they won’t learn everything in three sessions, but they expect to be given a cogent and intact view of the broad strokes of any topic. Teaching this course allowed me to examine what I thought were the central facets of God, Torah, and the Jewish people and impelled me to communicate them effectively. I’m a better teacher and rabbi because of it.
  1. The course helps you meet many people who you would not ordinarily encounter.
    Because of the nature of the course, I was introduced to so many stories that I may not have heard otherwise. Longer basic Judaism courses are made up of primarily three categories of people: couples who want to raise their children as Jews, people interested in conversion, and Jews who want to learn more. In addition to these three categories, A Taste of Judaism® included others: clergy from other faiths, Christians who wanted a wider understanding of all religions, atheists who wanted to better know what they were rejecting, people exploring the conversion process but who were not ready to commit to a full class, and newly engaged couples in interfaith families who were not interested in raising their children as Jews but wanted to better understand the Jewish side of the family. Because of this diversity, the conversations were often richer than I imagined, the questions more insightful and creative, and the energy palpably different than anything I had encountered before.
  1. It is a great introduction to the multiple entry points of Judaism and the Jewish community.
    The three-fold structure of the course lets students know that Judaism is multifaceted and that it has a space for them even if they don’t connect with one part of the religion. If a student doesn’t believe in God but loves the intellectual rigor of the Torah class, or if he isn’t analytical but is inspired by learning about social justice, he will realize there is a place for him in Reform Judaism. If done correctly, he will also understand his place in the community, not only intellectually but programmatically. To accomplish this, the class on God should include an explanation of local prayer services, and the class on Torah should end with students receiving resources on classes for further study.

I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to teach this course and look forward to teaching it again in the future. The course is best run a few weeks or months before a longer course so students have something to turn to after study. For both students and teachers, the URJ’s A Taste of Judaism® class is an extremely valuable experience, and I urge congregations to apply.

Rabbi Marc Katz is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Interested in hosting this free, three-week class in your community? Consider making A Taste of Judaism® a permanent part of your congregation’s outreach strategy to unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews, intermarried couples, and adult children of intermarriage. The Union for Reform Judaism offers advertising grants to help jump-start your effort.  Learn more about the class and apply for an advertising grant.

Making Change Where it Counts: Voting for the Prophetic Ideals of Liberal Judaism in Israel

URJ - Wed, 03/18/2015 - 05:00

by Rabbi Jack Luxemburg

“And Moses assembled the entirety of the Jewish people …” (Exodus 35:1)

Whether a Tabernacle in the desert or at the Temple in Jerusalem, vast numbers of our people would gather to celebrate and experience Jewish life on a grand scale. This past February, I had a somewhat comparable experience. It was exhilarating (occasionally frustrating), and confirmed the critical importance of Reform Judaism having a strong, purposeful presence on the world’s Jewish and Zionist scene.

During the week of February 15, I met with representatives of the various Zionist Federations that are part of the worldwide Reform Movement — the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), ARZENU Canada, and ARZENU representatives from Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America, and Australia. Also present were the leaders of the Israel Reform Movement and prominent members of our “faction” (in Hebrew, si’ah) – who represent the Israeli political parties, Labor and Meretz. Together, we reviewed resolutions slated for a vote on in the Va’ad HaPoel, the “working committee” of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Many of these resolutions addressed issues of major importance to all of us who are committed to seeing the prophetic ideals of our Judaism realized in the political culture and the character of Israeli society.

Because we had a strong Reform presence, we were able to pass significant resolutions. The resolution regarding oversight of the Settlement Division, which demands greater transparency regarding its projects and funding, drew worldwide attention, as did a resolution insisting that the WZO, itself, reflect the pluralism of Jewish life around the world.  These breakthroughs would have been impossible without the work of our si’ah. The resolution came out of committee due to the strong and vocal support from ARZA and our ARZENU partners, and thanks to our advocacy, it passed a floor vote.

This experience proved that when we are present to give voice and substance to our vision of Israel as just, democratic, egalitarian, and pluralistic, we Reform Jews can be agents for positive change. Our partners in Israel and from around the world are counting on us — members of URJ congregations across the United States — to be successful in our WZO election campaign. Smaller progressive Jewish communities expect us to be strong advocates on their behalf. Our partners in Israel are counting on us to support the ARZA slate with a strong vote so that the Israeli Reform Movement will get the support and recognition it deserves, in terms of both financial resources and appointments to positions of influence in Israel’s national institutions.

Not all of us will be able to attend the World Zionist Congress in person. But we can be participants. We can vote online for the ARZA slate and encourage others to do the same. With enough votes from supporters, we can send a large delegation that will have influence appropriate to being the representatives of the largest congregational movement in the Jewish world. We can do this. We need to do this. Let’s demonstrate to the world our movement’s Ahavat Zion – our loving concern for Israel — by voting in the World Zionist Congress elections. Let’s really get engaged and involved. This way, we can have a strong voice in shaping the future we share with all the Jewish people — in America, Israel, and around the world. VOTE ARZA!

Rabbi Jack Luxemburg is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD and senior vice-chair of ARZA.

Four Questions to Ask Ourselves When It Comes to Youth Engagement

URJ - Tue, 03/17/2015 - 09:00

After spending time with more than 3,000 teens – as well as many youth professionals and other stakeholders – at the 2015 NFTY Convention and Youth Summit, I am more convinced than ever that everybody is a winner when it comes to youth engagement.

I don’t mean that we all get little plastic trophies to keep on our shelves, nor do I mean that we will divide and distribute the prize so that we each get a bit of cake or a trinket. What I mean is that it is in the interest of the entire Jewish community to engage our young people and to build a strong youth community. When we delve deeply into the “why” of youth engagement, we find that doing so creates profound meaning for teens, their parents, and their families, for the professionals who work with them, for their congregational communities, and for the larger Jewish community.

The reasons to allocate time and resources to build a vibrant Jewish youth community aren’t complex, but those of us who are passionate about youth engagement don’t always state our case simply enough. With Passover approaching, I came up with four questions – and their answers – that may help us make our case.

  1. Why is involvement in quality Jewish teen experiences different from many other activities for teens? These experiences are different because being involved in quality Jewish experiences enables teens to find their place in a crazy world. They also surround teens with caring adults who understand what they need to develop and thrive.

    Jewish communities also provide opportunities for teens to develop leadership skills and to build healthy relationships with others. Through their involvement, they learn valuable lessons about community-building and lasting friendships – in a safe environment in which they can take risks and be cared for when things get challenging. In so doing, teens not only figure out who they are and how to act, but also become empowered to take action in the world.

  2. Why should I shlep my child to this activity? I believe most parents want to raise children who will take good care of themselves and the world around them. They want to raise children who will make good choices in life, children who will respect their bodies, their friends, and the world. It is also true that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but we don’t live in villages, and in the communities where we do live, many of us don’t have extended families or deep-rooted friendships. The Jewish community is our modern-day village, and being involved can help fill the gaps that are part of our modern lives.

    Parenting advice changes often, and the hot new approaches to parenting teens come and go – but Jewish wisdom can be enormously helpful as we set the course for how we parent. The teachings of our faith can help us navigate our kids’ teen years, and we are wise to take advantage of the time-honored wisdom in our heritage to make our lives as parents – and our kids’ transitions to adulthood – smoother and more meaningful.

  3. Why should we ensure that working with teens is a sustainable career path? The magic of youth communities is created by the professionals who work in them, and for many, working with Jewish youth is a calling. Some do it because they were profoundly affected by a youth professional when they were teens; others do it because they did not experience the effect of a caring adult in their teen years and want to give others what they missed. Never in the spotlight, youth professionals work behind-the-scenes to create opportunities that enable teens to thrive.

    Without opportunities and pathways to grow and thrive, these valuable professionals stagnate, and the entire community losses. Undoubtedly, youth professionals can find other work that pays more and demands less, but they are a unique, dedicated, and talented crew who make a deliberate choice to serve our communities; the least we can do is support them by providing resources to enable them to do their jobs as well as possible. By supporting and investing in these professionals, we allow them to sow seeds that will bloom in our community for years.

  4. Why should our community dip into our budget for youth? Our sacred Jewish communities need our teens, with all their energy, vitality, and creativity. If encouraged and engaged, these teens can contribute meaningfully to the synagogue community and to the larger community – teaching the young, helping the elderly, feeding the hungry, and so much more. By investing in youth, we ensure a vibrancy in our Jewish communities that we cannot attain in any other way.

Just as we annually retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt, so, too, must we continue to raise our voices and tell our own stories in all our communities. We must tell the stories of healthy growth and development of our teens, and the efforts expended by their parents and youth professionals to create healthy activities and environments in which young people can grow, thrive, and give back to the larger congregational community. Indeed, investing in our youth is an opportunity with no downside, and when we do so, everybody’s a winner.

This Month in The Tent: Useful Mission Statements

URJ - Thu, 03/12/2015 - 09:00

A congregation’s mission statement is often one of its founding documents, setting forth a vision for the congregation and serving as a guiding document as leaders manage the sacred. Yet a lot can happen in 15, 50, or even 100 years, and so congregational leaders may wish to periodically revisit the synagogue’s mission statement as a regular part of strategic planning.

When reviewing your congregation’s mission statement, keep in mind that effective mission statements:

  • Express the core values of the synagogue, including who the members are, which member needs the synagogue is attempting to fulfill, and how the synagogue plans to conduct its business
  • Articulate attainable goals
  • Provide a template that leaders and others can use to make decisions

Suggestions like these are available in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum. In the “Mission Statements: Hints, Tips and Samples” document, you’ll find helpful information as well as mission statements created and used by Reform congregations. While you’re in The Tent, you also can access the URJ publication, “Hear, O Israel: Creating Meaningful Congregational Mission Statements and engage with your fellow leaders to find additional models of mission statements. (Enter the search term “MissionStatement” in the search box on any page of The Tent to find and join ongoing conversations.)

Seasonal Info: This year, Shavuot falls on May 23-24, which coincides with Memorial Day weekend. As you explore The Tent, search “Shavuot” to learn how congregational leaders are preparing for the confluence of the two holidays. You’ll also be able to download the “Shavuot Holiday Happenings” guide.

Tent Tips: The Tent has dozens of groups, from Membership to Facilities, from Recipe Box to Early Childhood. Each group addresses topics and issues within a specific area of interest. When posting a question or an update in The Tent, be sure to post in the appropriate group so your message will be seen by your target audience. For more Tent Tips, visit the Tent Tips group and join us for our March TentTalk webinars.

Join the conversation and access these and other great resources in The Tent.

Reform Youth Leaders Debrief AIPAC Conference

URJ - Wed, 03/11/2015 - 05:00

By Debbie Rabinovich, Andrew Keene, and Jeremy Cronig

American Jews are extremely passionate about Israel. Regardless of sect, political affiliation, or region of the country, 16,000 people came to Washington, D.C., for the AIPAC Policy Conference for the sole purpose of advocating for Israel. The enormity of this event was a physical representation of the care that American Jews have for our homeland. This was remarkable, and it was also clear that Israel unites people outside the Jewish community as well. AIPAC draws on a diverse audience, from college students to retirees, people of the Jewish, Christian, and African American communities, as well as policymakers, law enforcement officials, and community leaders, all of whom gather to support Israel uniquely. This blend of voices elevates the fact that Israel means something different to every person: for some it is an ancestral homeland and for others it is a place of budding innovation and entrepreneurship.

Among this incredible amalgam of people were three people who have the great honor of representing the youth of our movement. The immediate past, current, and incoming NFTY Presidents all attended the Policy Conference. For two of us, it was the first time at a Policy Conference, and for all of us, it was the first time that there was a solid contingency of NFTY leadership. We were able to view everything at the conference―from workshops to speakers—through a Reform lens. We had the opportunity to debrief together and envision the future of Israel engagement in NFTY. Currently, NFTY has stellar Israel programming that takes teens to Israel to explore the Jewish homeland. As teens continue to look for more niche experiences, we will have to expand our understanding of Israel engagement. How can we meet teens where they are and help them build a deep understanding of Israel before they even get there? This question is far from answered, but we were able to begin thinking of possibilities at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

Andrew: I was sitting in the Israeli technology and innovation plenary session when I was introduced to a UCLA student who is originally from Panama. We started to talk about being college students at AIPAC and our mutual friends at each other’s schools. As a motorcycle-style ambulance pulled onto the stage, she said, “We have that in Panama!” I figured they had something similar. Absolutely captivated by the founder of “United Hatzala,” an Israeli company that trains laypeople to be first responders to triage emergency situations while waiting for an ambulance, I realized how critical this service could be in countries with rural populations and even in big cities with dense traffic. Near the end of the presentation, the founder said that the company is being scaled to countries, including Argentina, the United States, and Panama! My new friend was right, a revolutionary Israeli innovation had made its way 7,500 miles away to Latin America. That moment both clarified Israel’s importance in solving global challenges by fostering innovation, and demonstrating that Israel connects the Jewish people in more ways than one.

Debbie: I generally think that the government is pretty wishy-washy in their statements. While I understand why this is the case, political-correctness tends to trouble me. It makes politics opaque and difficult for the average person to navigate. At the Policy Conference, we heard UN Ambassador Samantha Power stand up for Israel, much the way she frequently does in the United Nations. Her speech―the opposite of wishy-washy—was crisp and meaningful. She clearly stated her view that the U.S.-Israel partnership “transcends politics and it always will.” From my seat, I imagined Ambassador Power speaking with that amount of directness and transparency in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi. What she said spoke to who we are, as supporters of ARZA, as Progressive Jews, and as Reform Zionists. Her words resonated with me and reminded me that those on every end of the political spectrum can unite over the importance of Israel. During her speech I was proud to be both a supporter of Israel, and an American supporter of Israel.

Jeremy: A moment that struck me was lobbying at the office of my congresswoman, Marcia Fudge. I expected our meeting to be tense, due to the fact that she had decided earlier that day to not attend Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Instead, our meeting was polite and lighthearted. As I watched the speech from Representative Fudge’s office, I realized that support for Israel is an issue that extends far beyond American party lines, regardless of how it can be portrayed in the media.

One of the most fascinating things about the AIPAC Policy Conference is that we all had the chance to hear opinions vastly different from our own. We were challenged to discuss our opinions with others and often heard remarks that were the complete opposite of our beliefs. It became clear that we often get entrenched in focusing our support of Israel on policy and laws, and while that is critically important, we must celebrate Israel’s rich culture, cutting-edge technology, and most simply, the vibrancy of the Jewish peoplehood. The AIPAC Policy Conference was a place where that was possible, and we look forward to continuing the conversation about how to deepen and widen Israel engagement across the Reform movement.

Want to see what we saw? Check out the AIPAC conference videos and more.

Debbie Rabinovich is the current NFTY president. Andrew Keene is the immediate past president of NFTY, and Jeremy Cronig is the current president of NFTY-NEL (Northeast Lakes) and is the incoming NFTY  President.

Kindling the Flame of Education in Our Students

URJ - Mon, 03/09/2015 - 09:00

by Emily Messinger

Philosophers – Jewish and otherwise – have long shared their individual insights into the philosophy of education. For educators, such insights can teach us about our students, how we relate to them, the challenges we offer them, and the ways we shape them into the best they can be.

From Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue focusing on the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship, we learn about the importance of creating holy and authentic relationships. Buber’s I-Thou relationship represents a sacred, respectful, and meaningful dynamic that occurs among and between two people when they are in true dialogue and feel mutual respect, appreciation, and admiration. Both individuals feel as though that have something to add to and learn from an I-Thou relationship. Buber also believes that God’s presence exists and is, in fact, further brought into our world through the interactions that take place in I-Thou relationships.

Nel Noddings, an American philosopher known for her work in the philosophy of education, teaches us that caring and moral education are as important as – if not more important than – students’ academic studies. Teachers are responsible not only for creating caring relationships in which they are the “carers,” but are also responsible for helping students develop the capacity to care. More than telling students how to care, teachers must model this behavior through their interactions with students and others in the classroom. Only when students feel cared for will they learn to care for themselves and others.

John Dewey, a twentieth-century American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, urged us to make the learning experience personally meaningful and authentic for students. It must be built on prior interactions and knowledge, and be expressed in concert with real life experiences outside one’s learning environment. Dewey also stressed the importance of teaching to the student, acknowledging that there are myriad ways to connect with, educate, and influence our learners.

Finally, we must take into account the teachings of Jewish philosopher and theologian Franz Rosenzweig, who proposed that rather than starting from Torah and leading into life, learning starts “from life, a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah.”

Using the teachings of Buber, Noddings, Dewey, and Rosenzweig as a foundation, it is critical that we see our students’ education as did Socrates: “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” We must create I-Thou relationships that honor their uniqueness and individuality, as well as design lessons that are relevant and meaningful to them and their lives. Even as we hope to teach our students that Judaism is a living, breathing religion with the potential to be a positive, enriching part of their everyday lives, we also must convey how important it is for them to be proud Jews who value, honor, and respect themselves, each other, their community, and the world-at-large. To do so, we must behave not only as committed Jews, but also as caring and loving teachers, friends, and role models.

By extension, our schools and synagogue communities must strive to challenge the intellect of our students while also offering them opportunities to nourish their souls. It is critical that we help students see how Judaism – as a culture, religion, people, and place – can enhance their lives and, we hope, lead to lifelong personal practice and connection with the Jewish community. Unlike secular learning environments, our religious schools can offer students (and their parents) opportunities for spiritual connections – through Mussar, tikkun middot (nurturing character development), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and other avenues. We have the ability – and, indeed, the responsibility – not only to teach Hebrew, holidays, and history, but also to ensure that our students grow into well-adjusted, emotionally developed human beings.

Let us take the teachings of these philosophers to heart so that more than just filling our students’ vessels, we kindle the flame of education in each of them.

Emily Messinger is the director of teen engagement and the co-interim director of congregational learning at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA.

Life As A Youth Summit Intern

URJ - Thu, 03/05/2015 - 15:10

by Rachael Harvey

As an individual who is passionate about the Movement and youth engagement, the Youth Summit marked the next big step towards my intentional career path of becoming a Jewish professional. I had never been to a Youth professional conference before, or even a NFTY Convention. Overall, I was not sure what to expect from this conference. However, I did know that this was something I was meant to do. Being an inaugural Youth Summit intern this year was exactly what I needed to immerse myself in the Movement that has contributed so much to my Jewish learning, education and leadership development. Not only did this experience contribute further to my value for the Reform Movement and its forward-thinking Campaign for Youth Engagement, but I also was able to directly contribute to this progression by working through a professional lens.

In preparation for NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit, I developed a trivia night for a networking event that took place on Saturday evening. I’ve written programs for a few hundred teenagers before, but I had never led any type of programming for adults. I wondered if my questions would be challenging enough, if they were too challenging, and if the music would please everyone. All these thoughts, as silly as they may seem, were constantly running through my mind throughout the night. But, as I watched the game unfold, I also saw the participants enjoying themselves; socializing and networking with each other. This was one of my main goals of the event, and along with  my eight fellow interns, I was able to achieve this.

Night after night, the sense of accomplishment I felt was definitely worth the hard work and time put into planning the event. This feeling of triumph is one I often reach for when I pursue a new challenge. This internship opportunity made me realize that if you are willing to sacrifice the time, put in the effort, and accept the mistakes you make along the way, then you are in the right place. When you can actually witness the impact you leave on others, it motivates you to keep contributing and doing more. Along with his trivia night, taking notes on sessions and preparing learning sessions for the rest of the conference also showed me how my contributions can make huge differences to those who could not attend. The notes we took during these programs were posted on “The Tent,” so other professionals and stakeholders could access and implement the sessions remotely.

I knew most of the interns and staff coming into this event from either NFTY or the URJ Kutz Camp where I spend my summers. But through this internship, I had the privilege of working with my peers in a totally different way, which helped me realize how much in common we really have. In this movement we all may hold a variety of positions, but when it comes to what we are passionate about and what we hope to shape for future generations, we are all not that different.

Rachael Harvey is a Junior at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA, and a member of Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA. 

Green Eggs and Hamantaschen: Creative Purim Gift Bags Bring a Community Together

URJ - Mon, 03/02/2015 - 12:00

by Betsy Zalaznick

Purim at Or Chadash, in Flemington, N.J., includes many of the usual traditions: putting on a Purim spiel (play), using boxes of pasta as gragers, baking hamantaschen with our students, reading the Megillah, and hosting a spectacular carnival that features Esther’s Salon, Mordecai’s March Madness, a photo booth, and plenty of prizes and food.

But the highlight of Purim at Or Chadash is our mishloach manot (Purim gift bags) program. Launched 12 years ago, the initiative has since evolved into one that touches each and every member of our synagogue community, including our college students, who receive a text message reminding them to check their mailboxes for Purim goodies. The project also encompasses many facets of congregational life – social action, college outreach, community outreach, and fundraising.

Here’s how it works: Congregants order mishloach manot gift bags to be sent to other congregants, and every household in our community receives a gift bag and card, hand-delivered before Purim by synagogue members. The cost to send a mishloach manot gift bag to each household in the Or Chadash community is $180. There are other gift options, as well. For example, for $18, members can select three households to which they wish to send a gift bag. Each bag’s contents fit within the theme selected for that year, and the accompanying card is signed by everyone who had a hand in putting the bag together. This year, that’s more than 85% of our members!

This year’s Purim theme is “Green Eggs and Hamantaschen,” which we selected to coincide with Read Across America, an annual event to celebrate reading and the birthday of children’s author Dr. Seuss. In addition to green eggs and hamantaschen, this year’s red and white striped bags will be filled with goodies related to Dr. Seuss’ books, including a bookmark, red fish candy, Goldfish crackers, animal crackers (for all the animals in If I Ran the Zoo), lollipop Truffala trees (from The Lorax), a pencil to “briefly write briefs”, and a chocolate globe to navigate The Places You’ll Go.

In addition to selecting a theme every year, we also choose an organization or two related to the theme to receive a portion of the proceeds from our fundraising initiative. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, our theme was “The Jersey Shore,” and the gift bag included playing cards from Atlantic City, cotton candy, and salt water taffy. We donated the proceeds to an organization that was doing hurricane relief work. Another year, the theme was baseball, with a tie-in to a baseball exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History called “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American.” That year, Cracker Jack, Baby Ruth candy bars, and bubblegum were among the bags’ goodies, and we sent the residents and staff of our neighborhood boys’ home to spend a day at the local Atlantic League ballpark.

Because this year’s theme is centered around reading, a portion of the proceeds from the fundraiser will go to an Or Chadash favorite: PJ Library®, a Jewish family engagement program whose website and books are our number one resource for holiday activities for kids of all ages (and their parents). We also will donate to First Book-Hunterdon County, which provides new books to children in need in Head Start, Early Head Start, and our local public schools. We also have delivered 20 Purim gift bags to Family Promise-Union County to support its new reading initiative, The Need 2 Read®.

On Purim, we read in the Book of Esther (9:22), “The Jews were to observe these days for feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” Or Chadash’s mishloach manot program provides members with opportunities to perform these two mitzvot—sending gifts that delight family and friends, as well as offering presents and tzedakah to the needy. This initiative strengthens our sense of community, both within the congregation and in and around Hunterdon County.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Betsy Zalaznick is a member of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE), formerly the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE). She is the longtime educator at Or Chadash in Flemington, N.J., and enjoys baking for her students, Bikram yoga, cycling, and knitting.

The Union for Reform Judaism has partnered with WRJ and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to provide opportunities for 58 select small congregations to offer PJ Library® subscriptions in communities where it does not yet exist. For more information, visit the partnership website or contact Stephanie Fink.



On 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the RAC Talks Civil Rights

URJ - Mon, 03/02/2015 - 09:00

As the newly appointed director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I am inspired by the storied history of our role in the critical social justice battles of our time. In fact, the RAC was founded at the height of the Civil Rights Movement to provide an outlet for Reform Jews to express their deep commitment to equality and justice in our society.

Next weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, which was one in a series of Selma-to-Montgomery marches demanding voting rights for African-Americans. Like Reform Jews 50 years ago, my colleagues and I will be in Selma – alongside President Barack Obama, Rep. John Lewis, a number of congregational and community leaders and civil rights activists.

How can you participate?

  • I urge you and your families to join us on Tuesday, March 3 at 7:30pm EST, for a special webinar featuring Julian Bond, Al Vorspan, Rabbi Joshua Caruso, and others who will share their experiences fighting for racial and economic justice and their insights on the work ahead of us.
  • Choose from one of these two prayers your family or congregation can use to honor this anniversary.
  • If you can be in the area, I hope you will join the Jewish community in Selma at Temple Mishkan Israel, on Sunday, March 8, and march with us behind the RAC banner.

The Jewish call to care for the most marginalized in our society has led us to engage deeply in the fight against economic inequality on a state, federal and international level.

This work will continue at the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience, April 26-28th, 2015 in Washington. You can register here or follow along online. I am honored that this program will include a tribute to Rabbi David Saperstein’s 40 years of moral leadership and my formal installation as director of the RAC. Among our esteemed speakers will be former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Rabbi Denise Eger, president-elect of the CCAR.

The Consultation will be an opportunity for our Movement to come together, and for us to mobilize around the following exciting priorities:

As we continue to forge the path of tikkun olam, we are connecting the teachings of our tradition to the greatest struggles for justice in our world today. When we march arm-in-arm in Selma, we know that each step takes us closer to a world of justice, wholeness and compassion

We’re Youth Professionals, Not Youth Workers

URJ - Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:58

by Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman

What went on at the Youth Summit? Yes, learning. Yes, networking. Yes, collaboration. But so much more. Experimentation. Visioning. Celebration. Inspiration. In addition to watching NFTY teens celebrate and pray together, we too needed this opportunity to join as a community.

I had the honor to co-lead a learning session block. My title, “Moving from Youth Worker to Youth Educator,” implies that we do more than just “work.” Language is a powerful tool that frames who we are and what we do. By shifting our language to be seen as people who educate youth, not just work with them, we have the opportunity to be taken more seriously amongst our colleagues and lay partners.  However, this alone does not shift the paradigm.  It needs to be backed with a knowledge of the literature being written about experiential education and the conversations happening of what is changing in the field.

Additionally, to be truly seen as an educator, one must create an educational vision outlining clear statements reflecting our values–of the congregation, the youth group, and one’s self. Youth educators have a passion and mission to educate the teens with whom we work; we help to shape youths’ Jewish identity in a communal environment. Through the development of this vision we can ensure we are meeting our learner-based goals in an experiential setting.

Colleagues at the Youth Summit also focused on teaching important topics around issues of inclusion, moving towards experiential Jewish learning, making a difference as a mentor, and managing organizational dynamics.  I have returned home re-energized, and armed with more ideas for the work I do in my congregation.

If you missed the conversation visit the hashtag #nftyys on Facebook and Twitter to read the snippets. Join The Tent discussion groups to read the notes, and watch the videos of the live-stream sessions. Just because we have returned home doesn’t mean the conversation needs to end, or that you need to be left out.  I for one, know that I can’t wait to put it all of my learning into action!

Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, FL. 

This Month in The Tent: Preparing for Passover

URJ - Wed, 02/25/2015 - 17:00

As your congregation prepares for Passover, find terrific holiday resources throughout The Tent, the Reform Movement’s communication and collaboration platform. In The Tent, you’ll find ideas, materials, and opportunities for clergy and lay leaders to share expertise and experiences about all facets of congregational life.

This year, Passover begins on Friday, April 3. Because it falls on Shabbat, congregational leaders in the Tent are talking about how the timing affects worship services that evening. Join the conversation, and then check out these holiday resources:

  • Passover Print Ads: The URJ offers a variety of customizable print-ready ads you can use (in your bulletin, email newsletter and on your congregation’s website and Facebook page) to promote your congregation’s Passover events. Preview the ads (ordering information is on the last page), and then head to the Communications group’s file library to view ready to use ads and banners (look for the yellow star by the file name), including these Shalom Sesame badges.
  • Social Action Seder: Want to infuse your home or congregational seder with modern symbols or a social action spin? Take a look at these suggestions from the RAC.

Budget Planning Tools: In addition to Passover planning, you may also be preparing your congregation’s budget. If so, keep your copy of Food for the Spirit: Synagogue Budgets close at hand. It contains information about budget timelines and financial reports, as well as several sample budget planning tools, created and shared by URJ congregations. This cash flow/audit template, designed to assist leaders in creating a balanced budget, might also be useful. Have a question about what’s happening in other congregations? Visit the Finances group and ask your fellow congregational leaders.

Join the conversation and access these and other great resources in The Tent.

Understanding Teen Brains, Creating Jewish Adults

URJ - Wed, 02/25/2015 - 09:00

Imagine it.  A group of teens, sitting together, talking Torah, or current events, or tzedakah.  It’s what we all hope for, aspire to, in youth group.

Imagine it.  A group of adults, sitting together, talking Torah, or current events or Tzedakah.

Oddly, the first scene is one we do imagine.  And the second scene feels less likely.  Or not our responsibility.

When we think about youth groups and youth programming, we must start to focus on what we are trying to achieve.  Because youth programming, of any kind, must be goal directed.  Are we trying to create a youth community or adult Jews?  Are we hoping to produce deep conversations, or lifelong Jewish identity?

If we want to achieve this second scene – an energetic living Judaism in a group of adults – we must focus on what we can do now, when the teens are in our midst, to help them set out on a Jewish path. We can, through the special places that youth groups provide, teach our teens to work together, to understand and promote their values, to be more in touch with their unique selves. The recipe for success has three components: an understanding of adolescent brains, a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve, and the right kind of adults to help us achieve it.

Adolescence is a unique time in human life.  Unlike latency, the ages between 5-12, teens are less compliant, and are more interested in understanding themselves than others around them. They are emotional and self-centered.  They are driven to succeed and yet often unable to articulate what matters to them.  They care deeply about their friends and their relationships, but they are singularly poor at understanding the experiences of others.  They focus on the injustices in the world at large and in their own personal world, but they have great difficulty reading the emotions of those they care for.  This is a time of increased concern for social justice and decreased ability to empathize. They are a conundrum.

Recent brain research tells us how complicated the teen years really are. To best understand this, let’s take a quick tour of the brain. Human brains become more logical as we move towards the front of the brain.  In the mid-brain, we find the amygdala, which is the part of the brain where we experience the most intense emotions, especially rage.  This is the part of the brain that is activated during a tantrum.  In the front of our brains, we find the pre-frontal cortex, which is where logical thought and reasoning take place.

During latency, most of our processing occurs in the pre-frontal cortex.  Children can process emotions rationally, and most of the time, can manage themselves. We see an increase in empathy and caring during these relatively calm years.

And then, adolescence begins. Adolescence is not simply the hormonal changes that make us pimply and moody, but also the changes in the ways we process emotional information. Suddenly, after years of pre-frontal processing, we “regress” to emotions in the amygdala. We are more likely to experience rages.  Our ability to read the emotions expressed by others weakens, leaving us wondering what people are really thinking and feeling about us. We take greater risks, as we are less able to assess risk – especially when we are in groups of peers.  In fact, the pleasant and cooperative latency age kid is replaced by a bigger, more dangerous two year old in the body of a teenager!

At the same time all of this is happening, we also know that the mental health of parents decreases in 40% of parents when the first child enters adolescence.  We have teens, whose brains are processing more poorly than they have in years, living with parents whose mental health is declining.  Furthermore, we know that more children, especially from ambitious families, are experiencing emotional stresses like never before.  They are driven to achieve and succeed, but they are not given the tools to know themselves or the opportunities to discover what matters to them.

This is where Jewish youth groups and camping come in.  We have the opportunity, and maybe even the responsibility, to create moments in the lives of teens and their families.  We can help teens explore themselves and their beliefs, though the lens of Judaism, and in settings that are developmentally appropriate for where are teens are as adolescents.  Judaism can offer children and their families a chance to think together, to begin to understand their values and their characters.  We can, though the special places that youth groups provide, teach our teens to work together, to understand and promote their values, to be more in touch with their unique selves.

How do we do this?  I believe we need to return to those original images of kids and adults “doing Jewish.”  If we can begin to imagine what adult Jews do, then we can begin to support and strengthen those behaviors and characteristics in our teens. If adult Jews engage in critical and thoughtful discussions, then we should be doing exactly that with teenagers.  In fact, teenagers need us to challenge them, in supportive ways.  They look to adults for value-based conversations, for opportunities to self-explore.  They don’t want us to tell them what to think, but they need us to encourage them and help them build skills in how to think.  Teens need trusted and trustworthy adults who are willing to engage in deep and challenging conversations.

Finally, what teens really need are interactions with teen-friendly adults. Teen whisperers are a special breed of adult.  They enjoy the challenge of teenagers; they revel in the questions posed; they can disagree without being disrespectful.  Look around your congregation.  You will find the adults that kids talk to and gravitate towards. It may be a parent. It may be clergy or staff. It may be someone who has no natural connection to the youth group.  Engage those adults in meaningful ways with your programs.  Bring them in for discussions, ask them to go on a retreat.

This is the recipe for good teen programming: an understanding of teens and teen brains that allows them to be who they are; a vision of what we are working towards; and adults who resonate with this special age group. Cover these three areas, and you will hold the keys for success.

Dr. Betsy Stone, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Faculty – Certificate in Jewish Education, Specializing in Adolescents and Emerging Adults



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