NFTY Convention (#NC15) means many things to many people. One of the key elements of every convention is Asefa, NFTY’s North American board meeting. Close to 200 teens participated in Asefa while their peers were engaged in off-site programming. Before I explain about Asefa, I want to share what the NFTY board members had to give up to participate.
Their peers choose from one of 25 exciting trip experiences including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the Atlanta BeltLine, a comprehensive transportation and economic development effort. These are just three of places teens visited, so the question remains, why did these teens forgo these incredible experiences? The answer is simple, the rewards gained from participating in Asefa are that much greater.
We often pontificate on how NFTY teaches leadership. When you begin to use the word “leadership” liberally, the meaning can get diluted over time, so here is an example of what we mean: The NFTY North American board realized NFTY needed a mission statement to guide their work, so during Asefa they got down to business. How many of us have had to do the same thing at work or for the causes we volunteer for?
It was fascinating to witness how the NFTY North American Board and regional boards attacked such an enormous and complicated task. As a precursor to drafting the new mission statement, which reads: “As a teen-powered movement, NFTY builds strong, welcoming communities that inspire and engage our peers. Together, we pursue youth empowerment, personal growth, tikkun olam, and deep connections rooted in Reform Judaism.” The teens conducted a listening campaign and held several conversations with various board members and stakeholders across North America.
The teen leaders proceeded to share their new statement at Asefa. They didn’t just read it or share it as a memo and solicit feedback; they creatively shared it as if it were a piece of Talmud text. They attached manila envelopes around the proposed statement and asked each board member to submit their own commentary on how they can improve upon their statement. They modeled the skills and behaviors any good management consultant would have; they collected and analyzed information, and shared their findings and recommendations with others to test and refine their recommendations. They created a process which built buy-in and consensus. Our teen Regional Board and North American Board members are being provided the tools they will use in their life, wherever their journey takes them.
The teen leaders are learning how essential it is to have an overarching guiding principal to inform their work. They understand that for a mission statement to be effective, it has to be an inclusive process that receives the buy-in from various stakeholders. They learned they had to share complex information in a constructive way that garners feedback from a wider audience. The kicker? They are also being taught Torah, Avodah and G’milut Chasidim. This is why over 200 teens willingly chose to be part of Asefa. Yes it was cool, yes it was exciting, but in reality, they knew their time was more valuably spent at NFTY’s Asefa.
Please let us know what you think of the working version of the NFTY mission statement.
by Logan Kramer
Over the past three years, NFTY has taken me to plenty of random places. I’ve held events with my temple youth group in public parks, enjoyed extensive layovers in airports across the country, gone to socials at amusement parks, and visited more congregations than I can count. As I’ve traveled to all of these places, one thing seems to stay the same. I consistently attract confused looks from strangers and passersby, whether I’m chanting the blessing over a Havdalah candle or dancing with friends to NFTY-TOR’s signature “Every Time We Touch” dance.
Surprisingly enough, the moments that attract weird stares are some of my favorite things about NFTY. It’s not that I like the stares themselves, but I appreciate that NFTYites have the amazing capability of turning any space into a holy one, moving our kehilah kedoshah, our holy community, from sanctuaries to parks to airports no matter what stares we might receive along the way. What each person brings to this community is far more important than where we are located on a map.
In this week’s parashah, T’rumah, Moses receives detailed instructions from God about how to build the Tabernacle and various objects to go inside it. Each Israelite is encouraged to bring something to contribute to the Tabernacle, which will be built so that they can easily take it apart and bring it along on their journey through the desert. God tells Moses to “speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering” so that everyone can be involved in this community effort (Exodus 25:2)
What’s key in this situation is that God doesn’t just ask Moses and the priests to make contributions to the Tabernacle. “Every person whose heart inspires him to generosity” is asked to bring an offering to help build the Tabernacle as a community (Exodus 25:2). Today we may not be accepting gifts of copper, oil, and ram skins to build a physical tabernacle, but we must accept each individual’s gifts and talents to build a stronger kehilah kedoshah. In NFTY, we bring our voices to join together in prayer, our shoulders for friends to lean on, and our smiles to brighten each other’s days. We build a tabernacle every time we come together by sharing whatever we can to build up a strong, welcoming community.
This strong, welcoming, inclusive community is something we strive to achieve in NFTY on every level from small temple youth groups to the larger North American community. As teens, we stereotypically have trouble accepting others, especially if they’re not seen as “cool” or “popular.” For me, NFTY is a break from this world. At NFTY events I’m my true self and never feel like I have to hide my quirks or act a certain way to be accepted. I can be loudly and proudly Jewish, and I’m surrounded by others who feel comfortable being loudly and proudly Jewish too. Just like the Tabernacle contained many different materials within its structure, NFTY is inclusive of many different types of teens.
NFTY has done an amazing job over its 75 years of existence fostering this community. But now we have the perfect opportunity to extend our tabernacle. This year at NFTY Convention, we set a precedent with programming that brings together teens from both NFTY Convention and BBYO International Convention across the street. Teens in BBYO are just some of the thousands of Jewish teens around the world involved in Jewish life through dozens of youth organizations like ours. Why not connect with them and invite them to be a part of our kehilah kedoshah? When we partner with movements like BBYO, we can make our tabernacle even larger by involving Jewish teens worldwide to join us.
Take a moment to look around you. These people sitting next to you are the future of the Jewish people. In this room, sitting amongst us, are future rabbis, educators, NFTY advisors, and leaders. In a few years, it won’t matter that we were a part of a specific region in NFTY, or even that we were a part of NFTY versus BBYO, USY, or NCSY. In a few years, the names of the youth movements we belonged to won’t divide us as clearly as they do today. What will matter is that teens from these movements will all be part of the same Jewish communities. We will all reside within the same tabernacle. We will be one big Jewish community, and there’s no reason we cannot or should not invite that to happen now.
In this week’s parashah, God is very specific with the instructions to build the Tabernacle and the things that go inside it. Almost 90 verses are dedicated to specifying everything from exactly what size the Ark of the Covenant should be to how to connect the intricate curtains in the Tabernacle. Today it’s not quite so easy. There’s no step-by-step guidebook for how to make a welcoming community of Jewish teens. We each have to choose how we welcome others into the holy communities we’ve created. In addition, as a larger NFTY community, we have to figure out how best to include teens from other youth movements within our tabernacle.
It’s now our responsibility to make these decisions. Just like the Israelites “whose heart[s] inspire[d them] to generosity” in the desert, we as NFTYites are being called upon to enhance our communal tabernacle by including other Jewish teens within it. Like our ancestors in the desert, we need to respond to that call with generous and open hearts.
Logan Kramer is the NFTY Convention 2015 d’var Torah competition winner; this d’var was delivered to a live audience at NFTY Convention. Logan is a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, TX, and North American Federation of Temple Youth’s Texas Oklahoma Region (NFTY-TOR).
I dare any of those who are uneasy about the North American Jewish future to maintain their pessimism after spending, as I have just done, 72 hours with the teen leaders of our Movement at the 2015 NFTY Convention and Youth Summit in Atlanta. I attend a lot of conferences, and I have never walked away from one feeling as inspired and energized as I am today. After spending time with 1,000 teens, upwards of 200 adults and an incredible group of more than 200 volunteers and URJ staff who live and share the values and dreams that we as Reform Jews seek to represent in the world, I am inspired by the power of our community and ready for a spirit-filled future.
I had the honor of sharing the bimah with NFTY’s extraordinary president, Debbie Rabinovich from Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, as she and I presented a joint D’var Torah on Shabbat morning. Drawing insightfully on this week’s Torah portion, Debbie observed that this convention marks a fundamental turning point for NFTY, as it embraces a more mission-driven future. “Never be afraid to go big! The more focused each of us is – the more change we can make.” she said powerfully to a sea of NFTY teens.
It’s been invigorating to see our teen leaders’ dedication not only to their personal growth, but to tikkun olam, repairing the world. On Sunday, Teens heard from speaker Colin Goddard, survivor of the Virgina Tech shooting and advocate for gun violence prevention-a topic that NFTY is taking on head first in partnership with the RAC to advocate for safer communities. NFTY, at the Convention, also devoted time to issues of disabilities awareness and race relations.
At the same time as our NFTY teens are learning and getting energized, so are their advisors, educators and biggest supporters. We have over 200 professionals and stakeholders at the Youth Summit who are learning, networking and developing new concepts to engage more youth in their home communities. So many of the adults who are attending participated in NFTY and our incredible camping system themselves and we know that they will be joining the NFTY alumni network to continue to build and strengthen our movement.
Among the ways in which we “went big” this weekend was convening a first experience of its kind as NFTY and BBYO–who is concurrently holding their convention in Atlanta — came together for a joint Shabbat study opportunity with over 3,500 teens invested in the future of Judaism. Religious Action Center Director Rabbi Jonah Pesner charged the crowd, the largest gathering of Jewish teens in American Jewish history, to work together to continue to break down barriers and together make a difference in the world.
This gathering marks NFTY’s 75th Birthday and the beginning of the celebration of 50 years of the URJ’s Kutz Camp. We closed our Monday evening plenary with a celebration that honored the legacy of a Movement that continues to inspire me every day. My friends, the Jewish future is in capable, passionate and committed hands. I know that the teen leaders and adults who work with them inspired me so much this weekend and that they will lead our community into a brighter future.
By Eva Rubin Steen
The leaders of Temple Beth Torah, a community that always has held inclusion and acceptance as core tenets, realized a few years ago that we were not doing a good job of welcoming those who face physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges. We recognized, too, that by excluding even one family member from participating in Jewish life, we were effectively excluding the entire family. Including all who wish to join in the life of the synagogue enriches each of us, so our lack of welcome was painful for too many families, which in turn hurt our congregation and the broader Jewish community.
Once we identified the issue, our board of trustees immediately and wholeheartedly endorsed the creation of Shaareinu (Our Gateways), which strives to open new gateways for individuals (and their families) for whom participation in all aspects of synagogue life – worship, religious school, and programming – is limited by various challenges.
We established four lay-led task forces and involve more than 80 congregants as volunteers in welcoming into congregational life individuals and families who are affected by physical, emotional or cognitive challenges:
The benefits of these endeavors to those with disabilities in our community should be fairly obvious. What is less obvious, however, is how extraordinarily rewarding this work is to those of us who volunteer in this initiative. As our congregation’s former leader, Rabbi Brian Beal, was fond of saying, “The collateral good of this initiative cannot be overstated.”
Indeed, in addition to the personal fulfillment our many dedicated volunteers derive from this work, our congregation now excels in including all people in synagogue life. We are proud to be featured as an “exemplar congregation” on the URJ’s disabilities inclusion website, and we look forward to ongoing Shaareinu offerings this spring on such topics as positive parent-child interactions, memory improvement, eating disorders, CPR, and autism.
Eva Rubin Steen and her family are longtime, active members of Temple Beth Torah in Nyack, N.Y. A past president and former member of many committees and task forces, some of which she chaired, Eva continues to serve on the board of trustees
As you may know, February is “Strengthening Congregations Webinar Month” here at the URJ. At the halfway point, more than 300 congregational leaders have joined live webinars to learn more about what makes a congregation strong and how the URJ is evolving to help you become or continue to be a strong congregation. The feedback and engagement on the webinars has been productive and valuable.
There are still eight live webinars that will take place over the next few weeks, and I hope you will join one. Join a webinar to learn more about how you can:
All webinars are recorded so you can watch at your convenience.
In the meantime, I hope you will read and discuss Amy Asin’s recent post about voluntary dues in light of the recent UJA-Federation Synergy report. Several Reform congregations are experimenting with new dues models and the lessons they’re learning can be valuable for all congregations. If you’re considering how you might adjust your congregation’s dues policy, keep an eye out for the forthcoming report from our recently concluded Community of Practice, Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st Century Congregation. A new Community of Practice dedicated to this topic is slated to be launched in the coming months. Applications for this and other CoPs will be available in early May and there will be a kick-off meeting for new CoPs at the 73rd URJ Biennial in Orlando, FL, on Nov. 4-8, 2015.
In a just a few hours, I’ll be joining more than a thousand Jewish teens and youth professionals from across North America in Atlanta for five days of learning, exploration, celebration and reunion at the NFTY 2015 Convention and Youth Summit. As a community of teens, professionals and lay leaders invested in youth, we’ll be exploring the theme, “My Self, My Community, My World.” We’ll share Shabbat, learning sessions, music, and Havdalah. We’ll reunite with friends from other regions and camps; we’ll meet new people and make new Jewish connections.
The theme, “My Self, My Community, My World” will give us three unique points of view to the work we do. During Saturday’s sessions we will focus on “My Self” by exploring the most pressing issues and cutting-edge thinking in the field of Jewish youth engagement and emphasize skills, ideas, and tools for the individual to grow and leverage our own skills. On Sunday, we will shift to “My Community” where we will focus on the best methods we can implement in our communities through youth engagement. We’ll wrap up our learning sessions on Monday, focusing on “My World” where we will explore the role of Jewish Youth professionals.
There is a lot to be excited about at the Youth Summit! Through our theme explorations we’ll engage in dialogue on topics that are not just important to us as youth professionals, but as Jews in in a constantly evolving world. Topics like Israel, inclusion, teen team building, civil rights and social action are all on the docket. All of these items are great things to look forward to , but there’s another reason to be excited – and it has nothing to do with what’s on the agenda. It’s all about the people you’ll meet.
We’ll create one of the most amazing kehilliah kadoshas at the Youth Summit! Imagine having a cohort of youth professionals to reach out to when you need insight and opinions on how to advance your youth programing, or navigate a temple political issue, or how to innovate your teen t’filah. Imagine having a team of trusted advisors from all around the country that you can lean on for input and advice. This is our chance to build it!
If you are fortunate to be in Atlanta these next few days, use this time to shake hands with and smile at everyone you see. Get to know them and the work they are doing in their communities. Exchange contact information and stay in touch. Most important of all: be a sponge – absorb it all, so you can take it all back with you!
Hope to see you in Atlanta!
Adam Organ is the RALFTY Advisor, teacher and member of the Board of Trustees at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, NC and a member of the Faculty at Community Midrasha in Durham, NC.
Over the last year, the Reform Movement has introduced audacious hospitality: an ongoing invitation to be part of our community. Audacious hospitality means extending a warm welcome to all individuals who seek a home within our movement—no exceptions. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of experiencing audacious southern hospitality. En route to NFTY Convention, from the moment my plane touched down at Atlanta International Airport, I was greeted by a countless smiles, offers of help, and even unsolicited assistance carrying my luggage. These all came from strangers, and yet I felt immediately welcomed into their city, and experienced firsthand the power of an audacious greeting.
Last year, I had the fortune of attending The Disney Institute, a course that shares the principles behind Disney’s success – the method behind the magic. Among the many things I learned, most surprising was the overwhelming role that Disney employees played in the park’s success. According to their research, more than the rides, the resorts, or the overall glitz and glamour for which Disney is famous, it was Disney employees, or “cast members” that kept guests coming back. From the security guard at the park who collects costumed children’s autographs, to the housekeeping staff that arranged guests’ stuffed animals into playful scenes around the room, every cast member understands the crucial role they play in the guests’ experience. Walt Disney understood the importance of an “authentic relationship” to brand loyalty. From the very beginning, Disney determined that they “would treat people not just as another paying customer, but as guests in our own home.” The cast members are empowered to create an audaciously hospitable environment for their guests, leading to a truly magical experience.
NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit not only give our staff the opportunity to create a welcoming and magical experience, but also to model the true power of audacious hospitality to our teens. It is often the small gestures that make the biggest impact, and with our NFTY and URJ youth staff, they are always grounded in authentic care for our participants. Our staff are working very hard to create a weekend filled with magical moments. They are ready to go that extra mile to make our teens feel welcomed, valued, and at home. Today, as over 1,000 teens and adults descend on Atlanta, we will welcome them with audacious southern hospitality, as family into our NFTY home. And at least for this weekend, this will be “the happiest place on earth.”
Micol Zimmerman Burkeman is the Director of NFTY.
I’m currently in the midst of laundering, organizing, and preparing to fly off to Atlanta for NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit. Along with my clothes and NFTY “swag”, I am also packing and bringing with me my excitement for what is sure to be an amazing, insightful, and fruitful four days. In much the same way as when I was a teen, every two years as a professional I get excited about attending NFTY Convention and immersing myself in the special and unique environment that is created when 1,000 teens and 200 adults come to together to share experiences and celebrate Judaism. Of all of the collaboration, learning, and moments that I am looking forward to over this extended weekend, three stand out above the rest: reconnecting with old friends and networking with new people, being part of the NFTY-BBYO shared moments, and returning home refreshed and re-focused.
Reconnecting with old friends and networking with new people:
One of the greatest things about NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit is the opportunity to reunite with so many people I have met and befriended over the years. This ranges from old friends from my time as a NFTY participant, those I have met at various college programs, campers and staff members from my URJ camp experiences, friends and colleagues from my time as a rabbinical student at HUC, and those who I have had the opportunity to meet these last few years out in the field. I also look forward to meeting so many new people at the Youth Summit, many of whom might be new to the profession. When we all gather, reminisce, share stories, and learn about all of the great work that we each do in our communities, the networking opportunities and the sense of shared purpose are unparalleled.
Being part of the NFTY-BBYO shared moments:
Perhaps my favorite part of being a youth professional is having the opportunity to see my students find a home at NFTY events and at camp. On top of that, I love being able to share all of those moments that help me build even stronger relationships with my students. The joint programming between NFTY and BBYO this Shabbat at Convention will be historical in terms of collaboration, and the sheer size of the combined community we will create. I also looking forward to seeing see some of my former students and campers who have found their home in BBYO. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share this moment with BBYO, and to strengthen my relationships with these teens, just as I have with our NFTY teens.
Coming home refreshed and refocused:
All of the conferences I attend, be they URJ Biennials, CCAR conventions, or NFTY Conventions, help to feed my soul, awaken my spirit, and energize me to push forward with my work in the congregation and the greater Jewish world. I am looking forward to this same thing happening at the Youth Summit and NFTY Convention. I am excited to network with my peers. I am excited to see, feel, and immerse myself in the energy that comes from our teens. And, I am even more excited to come home refreshed and refocused on building a youth program and a culture of youth engagement within my community.
I’ll see you in Atlanta!
Josh Leighton serves as the Rabbi for the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon in Kinnelon/Pompton Lakes, NJ. He is a member of the CCAR, serves on the faculty at URJ Camp Harlam, and is part of the NFTY-GER Clergy Team. Rabbi Josh is a proud alum of NFTY-GER.
By Anat Hoffman
Israel is not rich in natural resources: no oil ($50/barrel) or diamonds ($10,000/karat); only milk ($3.80/gallon) and honey ($10/16-ounces).
This means that human resources are our biggest asset. Israeli men and women are who stand between Israel and its enemies, and who can transform dessert into fertile land. Every Israeli is essential in the effort to meet our country’s many challenges. How then can Israel allow itself to silence, segregate, ignore, and discriminate against more than half (51%) of its human resources – Israeli women?
Discrimination against women in Israel gets its inspiration from two of Israel’s main social forces: the religious establishment and the military hierarchy. These two dominant forces are characterized by their patriarchal nature.
Forget the image of the female soldier with an Uzi. This image reflects a small fraction of women’s army experience. Women make up only 3% of Israel’s combat soldiers. The majority serve in menial clerical positions. Today, there are no women among the 25 chiefs of staff, and the only women to be found in their offices are there to serve coffee to the generals. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has always had an over-representation of generals and rabbis — up to one quarter of the Knesset — and an under-representation of women.
Achieving full equality for women in Israel could be a game changer for our society and the Middle East. Women are effective agents of social change and can be the harbingers of peace, religious diversity, and tolerance and equality for other minorities. To make this a reality, we must invest in our women. This propels the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and the Reform Movement in our tenacious struggle against gender segregation in Israel’s public sphere, and in support of equal rights for women in marriage and divorce, increased rights for battered women and widows, and the promotion of bat mitzvah ceremonies and women’s ordination.
First among our struggles were the “Mehadrin buses” — public bus lines run by the state bus company Egged that imposed gender segregation and “modesty” dress codes on women. Once on board, women were required to sit in the back of the bus. The consequences for not adhering to the segregation and modesty rules were verbal and physical attacks, or being denied entrance to board.
IRAC filed a petition against Egged and the Ministry of Transportation on behalf of five women who endured these humiliating practices. After a long, protracted legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court finally declared, in January of 2011, that mandatory gender segregation on any public bus is illegal. Signs are now required on all formerly segregated buses stating that all passengers have the right to sit wherever they choose. We continue to monitor buses to ensure that the court decision is upheld.
Next, we ensured the rights of women on the airwaves. In September 2014, we won our first class action lawsuit, the first dealing with gender exclusion in Israel. The Jerusalem District Court approved our claim against the ultra-Orthodox Kol BaRama public radio station for excluding women from the station’s broadcasts. Kol BaRama has exercised discriminatory practices against women’s freedom of expression for years, by refusing to employ women, feature women as anchors, allow women to be interviewed or to call in to shows.
The court ruled that our client, Kolech, can claim damages, as can all women who have been discriminated against by this illegal practice. The court made it clear that the station’s policy was blatantly discriminatory and that regardless of the station’s target audience, the exclusion of women cannot be justified. The court ordered the station to publish ads in two newspapers, one of them ultra-Orthodox, inviting women who have been discriminated against by Kol BaRama to lodge a complaint.
Finally, we took on the fight against “modesty signs” in Beit Shemesh. Last week, for the first time, an Israeli court awarded damages to women for having to endure these so-called “modesty signs” on the streets. The court ruled that signs like these violate women’s civil rights and fined the municipality of Beit Shemesh for refusing to take them down.
The court hit the municipality in its pocket, ordering it to pay $15,000 plus court costs to the four brave Orthodox women we represented in this case.
Our battles on buses, radio stations, and signs on the street have jolted public opinion in Israel. Israelis woke up to the phenomenon of gender segregation and demanded that it stop. The attorney general and a Ministers’ Commission published a comprehensive report in 2014 that states unequivocally that gender segregation is illegal in all its forms.
Every ARZA member has been a partner in our work. We are all partners in the mending of the only sovereign Jewish state on the planet. Israel can make up for not having oil or diamonds by mining its own human resources. Luckily, we are finding many diamonds among us.
Support equality by casting your vote for ARZA in the WZO elections.
Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.
by Cori Miller
I recently heard about a beautiful woman who was known for, well, being beautiful. She was accustomed to being stared at and was repeatedly told, by strangers and loved ones alike, just how beautiful she was. While flattering, this constant focus on her appearance left her feeling judged solely on her looks, with no one seeing past her beauty to learn about her intelligence, her experiences, or her other contributions to society.
As the woman grew older, she continued to receive acknowledgments of her beauty, but they were less frequent and less intrusive – until she developed ALS and was confined to a wheelchair. As in her youth, people stared at her – and as in her youth, it didn’t feel good. No one saw past her disability to learn about her intelligence, her experiences, or her true contributions to society.
With some disabilities, visibility can, at times, be valuable as a means to increase awareness and prompt important discussions about disabilities and inclusion. However, we have to be able to see past the disability to learn about the person behind it. We must learn to see disabilities as just one part of an individual’s identity without letting the disability define who she is or what she can do.
As a year-round, full-time staff member at the URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA, I am constantly reminded of this lesson. The camp’s open, safe community – a true k’hilah kedosha (holy community) – is a place that, perhaps more than any other, can have a positive effect on children, both those with and without disabilities. The camp’s professional team – including counselors, camper care specialists, and other leaders, including a special “inclusion coordinator,” who will join the staff this summer – works closely with parents to anticipate, recognize, and effectively deal with the challenges that may crop up while their kids are in our care.
This level of understanding and partnership enables us to support our campers in creative ways, ensuring that everyone can be their best self at camp. For example, some campers – whether or not they have disabilities – transition to camp with ease, while others struggle to acclimate to being away from home. Sometimes, we wait for campers to adjust to camp on their own; other times, we step in to provide individualized care, especially for those who face physical disabilities or emotional, social, or behavioral challenges.
At URJ Camp Harlam, everyone is valued and everyone is part of our k’hilah kedosha. We understand the virtue of middah lev tov (a good heart), and we have a lot of “good hearts” in our midst. Although we live in a society that often only sees disabilities through the lens of what someone can’t do, at camp, we strive to see past disabilities, and to be intentional about creating programs that focus on what people can do.
Cori Miller is the Camper Care and Enrollment Manager at URJ Camp Harlam and a member of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA.
by Marilyn E. Gootman
Congregation Children of Israel is a 150-family congregation in Athens, GA. As a small congregation, we were looking for creative ways to welcome and engage families with young children, one of our target membership demographics. The answer came in the form of PJ Library®, which enables us to offer book subscriptions to local families raising Jewish children ages six months to 8 years.
Our congregation joined the program in 2007, and it has been a huge success. The fact that we could now offer something to families with young children at no charge and with no strings attached proved to be an offer too good to refuse. Within a year and a half, our young family memberships grew by 66%, and ever since, young families have consistently represented a sizable percentage of our new members. At the same time, community members have grown to appreciate our success in engaging young families, and “PJ parents” have gone on to become congregational leaders, improving the overall congregational attitude toward young families.
Of course, joining the initiative didn’t come without challenges. The first was obtaining financial support to fund our congregation’s participation. As the synagogue’s PJ Library® coordinator, I approached congregants, non-members, the sisterhood, and the rabbi for donations; the Harold Grinspoon Foundation matched the funds we received. Although fundraising is still an ongoing challenge, it has gotten easier since our congregation received a PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant – but more on that later.
We also needed to find potential subscribers, and in the beginning, we relied heavily on word of mouth. I asked young Jewish families I knew to spread the word, employed my “Jewdar” to locate potential participants, and requested referrals through the temple bulletin. Participation grew to between 60 and 70 children, which the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (which serves as the national PJ Library office) considered to be a remarkable number for a community our size. Today, PJ parents and others in our community continue to recruit new participants.
Next came the challenge of providing synagogue programming that would attract young families. We soon formed a parent steering committee to assume the bulk of this responsibility. The committee created a variety of programs for children, both at the temple and out in the community. We hosted pajama parties at which donors or local authors read books to children. We offered a wine and cheese party for parents that included free babysitting for children, provided by temple and youth group members. We also hosted a Rosh HaShanah-themed dinner at a local farm-to-table restaurant, and a picnic at a local lake. One of our most memorable special events was a congregation-wide “Klezmer and Kugel Party,” during which we projected the PJ Library® book Kugel Valley Klezmer Band on a large screen as the head of the University of Georgia Drama Department (a PJ parent) provided a dramatic reading of the book, accompanied by our local klezmer band.
Partnering with other Jewish groups has helped make programming easier, more economical, and more frequent. We paired with Hadassah for a series of Jewish cooking classes and a Sukkot visit to a local farm, and we joined forces with the temple’s NFTY youth group and the University of Georgia Hillel to provide babysitting at events. An added benefit of such joint programming is that it also has helped foster multi-generational relationships.
Because we are a small community with limited funds, grants help support our initiatives. The PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant we received has expanded possibilities for engaging more families. The grant helps cover some of the subscription costs of the program, allowing us to create a programming fund with the money we raise through fundraising. Instead of using all of our donations to fund book subscriptions, we can now use these funds to sponsor events for families with young children. For example, last fall, we combined our new programming funds with a micro-grant from the Schusterman Family Foundation to partially subsidize our Rosh HaShanah dinner, making it more affordable for parents who had to hire babysitters.
Because the cost of the program was so affordable, that particular event was attended by some families who had not ever attended PJ events before. As a result, friendships were formed and new folks became actively engaged in local Jewish life. These relationships even inspired a new event: At one of the dinner tables, attendees – including a PJ dad who also happens to be a beer distributor – came up with the idea to hold an Israeli beer tasting party. That event will take place in February, funded in part by the local programming money, which will cover some of the expenses, keeping the cost reasonable for parents.
The URJ-WRJ-PJ Library® partnership grant has opened up exciting new possibilities for Congregation Children of Israel to reach out to families with young children. We look forward to continuing to engage the unaffiliated, encouraging them to give congregational life a try and forming Jewish connections among parents.
Marilyn E. Gootman is a member of Congregation Children of Israel in Athen, GA.
Congregation Children of Israel from Athens, GA, is one of 58 URJ congregations who are offering PJ Library® subscriptions to their local community with the help of the PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant. The PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant provides select small congregations the opportunity to offer PJ Library® in communities where it does not yet exist. For more information, or to find out whether your congregation might qualify, please visit the partnership website or contact Stephanie Fink.
by Shelly Christensen
“There comes a moment when you realize that what you’re advocating for is more than just accommodations. You’re really advocating for someone’s quality of life. That’s the moment you realize you won’t give up.” (Dyslexia Training Institute)
Sometimes Facebook produces surprises, like this quote I recently found while scrolling mindlessly through my news feed. These words, from the Dyslexia Training Institute, gave expression to the significance of the seventh annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) in February.
In 2009, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium held the first Jewish Disability Awareness Month in a handful of communities in the United States. Our intent was to elevate awareness that Jewish institutions were not providing meaningful Jewish experiences to Jews with disabilities. We saw JDAM as a way to come together to deliver a common message to our own community that there are indeed Jews who have disabilities, and many of them are invisible in Jewish life because of those disabilities.
Today, JDAM is recognized in Jewish communities across North America, as well as in Britain and Israel. The JDAM logo, a Magen David of intertwined blue and gold ribbons, illustrates how the inclusion of people who have disabilities must be woven into all aspects of Jewish life.
The first six years of JDAM focused primarily on raising awareness that Jews with disabilities and those who love them were either marginalized or were invisible in organized Jewish life. The Union for Reform Judaism has been an active supporter of JDAM, encouraging Reform congregations to feature inclusion of people with disabilities in programs and events during the month of February.
Today, JDAM is also heavily focused on advocacy. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has taken a leadership role in advocating for the civil rights of people with disabilities, partnering with the Jewish Federations of North America to co-convene the Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of Jewish organizations working together to advocate for disability rights at the government level. The two organizations now co-organize an annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day that brings Jewish advocates to Washington, D.C., each February to lobby for such policies on Capitol Hill.
But awareness is only the first step toward meaningful and participatory inclusion for Jews with disabilities. Raising awareness creates the expectation that inclusion goes beyond February, beyond the special services and events. JDAM events are catalysts to carry the mission of meaningful participation into the rest of the year.
JDAM reminds us that we must set our sights on supporting people with disabilities to achieve a self-determined quality of Jewish life.
Indeed, JDAM has created the promise of inclusion for people with disabilities as fully vested members of the Jewish community. Let’s honor that promise so that all people, without regard to ability, can live the Jewish lives that they want to live, participating however they wish.
We can support people to live a self-determined quality of Jewish life, but only when we all dedicate ourselves to dialogue and learning what is important to each individual. Making assumptions about how someone is able to participate in the community has only led to doing things for them rather than with them. Let’s listen to what is important to those who dream of worshipping with others, finding a place to make friends and to make a difference, learning Torah and wrestling with the text, and teaching community what it means to be created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
The answers we seek as to how people with disabilities can participate in Jewish life come from each individual. The road to meaningful and participatory inclusion is built on respect, communication and support.
A self-determined quality of Jewish life is what we all strive to achieve – that is the message of Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
Shelly Christensen, MA, is the co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month and the author of Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. She is the founder and executive director of Inclusion Innovations, co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, and frequent speaker on issues of inclusion and disability. Shelly serves on the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners and is the president of the Religion and Spirituality Division Division of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. She directed the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, an award-winning initiative that supported inclusion in all Jewish organizations. Shelly and her husband Rick are parents of three adult children, one of whom lives with Asperger syndrome. They reside in Minneapolis with their two Shelties, Yafi and Penina.
With the start of February, so too begins Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Of course, there is nothing uniquely Jewish about disabilities, nor is there a greater need for inclusion in February than in any other month. So why observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month 2015 this February?
We encourage Reform congregations to observe and participate in this important, Jewish community-wide initiative because it is Jewish to cherish each and every life; it is Jewish to create communities where each person and family is able to learn, pray, find friends, feel a sense of belonging, and reach their full potential; it is Jewish to dispel prejudices and misconceptions that contribute to isolation, underemployment, and lack of human rights. When Reform congregations observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month together in February, we join with other Jews across North America to make February a month to rededicate ourselves to creating a truly inclusive Jewish community.
In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we at the URJ offer a few suggestions to help congregations adopt further awareness and understanding of disabilities. Please feel free to adapt these ideas in ways that fit the needs and culture of your own community – and let us know what your congregation does that might be missing from our list!
How is your congregation putting into action its commitment to inclusion? Leave a comment below and let us know. Visit the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center for more tips, ideas, resources, and contacts.
As Tu BiSh’vat approaches, The Tent, the Reform Movement’s communication and collaboration platform, offers resources to help you plant seeds that will bear fruit long into the future, enriching your congregation and the Jewish world.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism issued the following statement about news of the death of Alberto Nisman:
The World Union for Progressive Judaism joins the leadership of our Latin America region (WUPJ-LA) in expressing shock and horror as we learned the news of the death of Alberto Nisman, lead prosecutor in the search for the truth behind the bombing of the AMIA (Jewish Community Center) building in Bueno Aires over 10 years ago, which resulted in the death of 85 innocent victims and hundreds of individuals who suffered grave injury. We stand with the Jewish community in Latin America in demanding a complete examination of the cause of his death.
Alberto Nisman was a remarkable man, who relentlessly pursued the truth regardless of political motivation or consequence. The attack on the AMIA of July 18, 1994 was an attack on the entire Jewish community – but ultimately, it was an attack on the critical concepts of religious freedom and pluralism, among the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s most important tenets.
While this tragic death may delay the justice we all seek, and for which Alberto Nisman’s life was dedicated, we pray that justice finally win the day – and we learn the truth behind those responsible for the bombing of the AMIA, and the truth behind the death of Prosecutor Nisman. Those responsible must be held accountable.
Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, President WUPJ
Michael Grabiner, Chairman WUPJ
Raul Gottlieb, WUPJ-LA Chairman
Miriam Vasserman, WUPJ-LA Vice Chair
On Sunday, June 6, 1915, Sylvester Marx was confirmed at The Temple–Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, OH, marking the culmination of the young man’s Jewish education. A special reception followed, and the entire congregation joined in celebrating Sylvester and his fellow confirmands on that beautiful spring day.
Soon afterward, Sylvester’s parents resigned as members of The Temple and joined a local Christian Science church. Many of their friends already belonged to the church, choosing church affiliation – as Jewish families of the time often did – as a way to assimilate into American culture.
But Sylvester, having just celebrated a major milestone in his Jewish journey, considered himself a full, adult member of the Jewish community. Therefore, he requested a meeting with Moses Gries, The Temple’s rabbi, to see if he could retain membership in the congregation without his parents. Sitting together in the rabbi’s dark, book-lined study, the two of them worked out an arrangement so that Sylvester could remain a member on his own. Maybe he needed to pay a few dollars a year, maybe not.
Since Sylvester’s confirmation in 1915, Reform congregations have grown. They have added staff, purchased insurance policies, adopted by-laws, and approved policies and procedures to support the daily management of thriving houses of worship. Adding this sometimes-complicated infrastructure has been necessary to support the business of our sacred institutions. As members of our congregations pay more and more to belong, it is important that they know their money is being handled responsibly, and that their synagogue is being managed competently, legally, and according to best practices.
However, the policies and procedures our leaders worked so hard to create can prevent them from doing the right things for the right reasons.
Suppose Sylvester Marx had been confirmed in 2015 instead of 1915.
In today’s world, his request to meet with the rabbi might land him with a referral to the membership committee chair. She, in turn, adhering to a policy that individual members must be at least 18 years old, would tell Sylvester that if he wants to join the congregation, he can, but only if his parents – who clearly have no interest in synagogue life – become members.
Worried that Sylvester’s parents may be trying to get an inexpensive family membership through their son, she might refer the boy to the congregation’s president. With the High Holidays approaching, the president may have little time to deal with the matter, referring it to the executive director.
The executive director, unfamiliar with the situation, might want to meet with the boy and his parents, but because, per temple policies, he is limited in what he can do independently, he is forced to refer the matter to the rabbi and the membership vice president. With this referral, it lands on October’s board meeting agenda, but once the rabbi and president realized the cantor’s contract was up for negotiation, they tabled everything else until the November board meeting.
It’s now been six weeks since Sylvester’s first call to the rabbi, and he’s just learned that it will be another four weeks before the board will discuss his request. Needless to say, the young man feels increasingly ignored and discouraged.
Today’s synagogues’ policies are important, but back in 1915, Rabbi Gries could more easily do the right thing for the right reasons: Sylvester Marx joined The Temple and maintained his membership for nearly seven decades. During those years, he got married, raised three children in the congregation, served on the board, and was an usher on the High Holidays every year until his death at age 84.
Sylvester’s eldest son, Rabbi Robert Marx, founded the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and served as the spiritual leader of two Chicago-area congregations: Congregation Solel in Highland Park and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe. Don Marx, Sylvester’s younger son, settled in Fort Wayne, IN, where he and his family were, for many years, active members and leaders of Congregation Achduth Vesholom.
Harriet, Sylvester’s daughter, had three sons of her own – Mark, Jim, and me, Larry. My older brother Mark is the interim rabbi of Congregation Har Hashem in Boulder, CO. My younger brother and our whole family recently celebrated the bar mitzvah of his son. As for me, I worked for a decade as an executive director, most recently at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL, and now serve the Union for Reform Judaism as director of Network Engagement and Collaboration. Many of Sylvester’s great-grandchildren are involved in temple youth groups and NFTY, and are considering their own careers as Jewish professionals.
Needless to say, my Grandpa Sylvester’s Jewish legacy is a strong one.
Maybe Rabbi Gries bent the rules to welcome my grandfather as a member of The Temple; maybe not. Either way, his actions back in 1915 reverberate through the Jewish community today. I pray that our lay and professional leaders always have strong policies and procedures to guide their sacred work, and that they have the wisdom and freedom to set the rules aside when necessary to welcome the seeker, enrich the community, and perpetuate Reform Judaism for generations to come.
Thanks to Rabbi Mark Glickman for writing about his history several years ago, and to Bob Allenberg, executive director at The Temple, for sharing the confirmation photo of Sylvester Marx.
by Steven Windmueller
With the announcement this week of the appointment of Rabbi Stephanie Kolin to the position of Associate Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, the progressive Jewish community has the opportunity to celebrate the evolution of Just Congregations, including its creation of Reform California, and the defining role played by its extraordinary leader, Rabbi Kolin.
The storyline here is not only about how one person can affect change but also of how a movement can be created, nurtured, and led by an inspiring leader.
In examining the rise of Reform CA as a new political force within this state, we can explore the impact of what religious leadership can mean in a 21st-century context. Rabbi Kolin, with her knowledge of community organizing, her Jewish prophetic passion, and an extraordinary degree of personal energy and integrity, also brought to the table a leadership style that empowered her colleagues and in turn engaged their congregational leaders.
For Rabbi Kolin, this was as much about “team” as it was about mission. From the outset, she framed the entire cause for building a new model of social engagement around the collective will, insights, and commitment of her partners. The team evolved, not only in terms of numbers but through a maturation process of shared learning. Several principles framed this enterprise: to organize, empower, and invest the collective energies and resources of our community in growing our political resources and connections in order to build partnerships and alliances with other state-wide actors. The outcome was to achieve a new vision of what California could be by taking the political steps to change the status quo.
By the end of her tenure, Rabbi Kolin’s will have been on the ground in Los Angeles no more than four years – but there will be a lasting impact for the Reform Movement in California. Her work is evident in helping to construct new relationships for the Jewish community within the political arena and, just as importantly, within our communities. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs noted, “Reform California alone brings together congregational leaders from 120 Reform communities across the state and has celebrated significant legislative victories on immigration and affordable housing.”
It is instructive to understand and appreciate how Rabbi Kolin framed her work, just as we ought to assess the leadership style that she modeled for us:
In the course of this experience, our community encountered new ways to bring Jewish texts and religious practice into alignment with our political mission. In this endeavor, we learned as much about ourselves as we did about embracing the organizing model she introduced. This road to self-discovery was yet another of Rabbi Kolin’s rich gifts to each of us.
In the end, California’s Reform Jewish community is the beneficiary of a new way to embrace one another and the political arena. Rabbi Kolin gave us the language and the tools to permit our community to grow its political message. As our teacher and our leader, she inspired us to dream about an alternative vision for California, for which we will forever be grateful.
Steven Windmueller Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles.
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
“This is the day that the Lord has made – let us exult and rejoice on it.” -Psalms 118:24
During the years I taught Jewish history on our Movement’s NFTY-EIE high school semester abroad program, at the end of each semester I would ask my students this question: “What are the top five most important moments or dates in Jewish history?” With great consistency they would cite similar moments―the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the unification of Jerusalem as our fledgling nation’s capital under King David, the destruction of the Second Temple on the 9tn of Av 70 CE, and, in a jump to modernity, the outbreak of WWII and the establishment of the State of Israel. Those 10th-12th graders were always eager to “pass the test” and prove that they had a solid grasp on the 4,000 years of history we’d covered in a relatively short period.
While their answers and dates were important and of great significance to our people and our collective narrative, mine was a trick question. The answer is simple: today. Today is the most important day in Jewish history because the important dates in our past are exactly that – in our past. We cannot control or change them. Today is about seeing the unfolding trajectory of our people’s past and using it to impact our future. Today is about taking the triumphs and tribulations, all of our collective suffering, and our remarkable contributions to the world, and making them count.
Today we have a tangible opportunity to make it count. Today, the voting is open for the World Zionist Congress, and today we have a chance to join with every Jew in the United States to make our voices heard. Today, by voting, we as Reform Jews will be able to stand up and be counted and tell the world that we are a strong and vibrant movement, and that we care deeply about shaping the State of Israel to become one that exemplifies our values.
By voting today you are exercising your only democratic opportunity to have a say in what happens in Israel, and you are helping to ensure that our movement is strong and continues to grow. The whole Jewish world is involved in elections this season and that means that the whole world is watching. A tremendous amount is at stake, including political influence, essential funding, and a chance to renew the vision and purpose of our Zionist institutions.
The Talmud cites the following passage: “This is the generation and those who seek its welfare.” (Psalms 24:6). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and the sages differed in this matter. One opinion was that the character of the generation is determined by its leader. According to the other opinion, the character of the leader is determined by the generation. –Talmud, Arachin 17a
Our generation has tremendous power to affect change. We are responsible for standing up as a community and as a Movement to vote in the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish National Fund. These national institutions provide the essential funding for our Movement and influence policies in Israel. They fund the initiatives that are most important to Reform Jews, Jewish identity and education, and our work towards gender and religious equality. We desperately need to reinvent and re-imagine what Zionism means in today’s reality. This election is our chance to say that it’s possible to both love Israel and be critical of it; to both live in the U.S. and take an active role in shaping and molding the character of the Jewish State. While we are always concerned for the well-being of Israel’s body, this is a vote for her soul.
What we do, or don’t do, from today on will define the character of the Jewish State and will show the world what it means to stand together as a Movement. That is why each individual vote is so important, and each person we reach out to share this important message will help us impact the future.
Today matters: make us count. Vote – www.reformjews4israel.org
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA.
As NFTY’s 75th year comes to a close, we find our Movement at a crucial moment in time. While we honor our rich history, we also look toward our vibrant future with much anticipation, joy, and excitement. This year it has been our privilege to serve as the leaders of NFTY, and we want to share and celebrate ten important headlines from NFTY’s 75th year.
1. Engaging teens from 75 new congregations
The NFTY General Board, comprised of more than 130 teen leaders from throughout North America, has committed to engaging teens from 75 URJ-affiliated congregations that are not currently involved in NFTY regional events. We are hard at work on this initiative, which launched in June 2014. To date, we already have 40 new congregations.
2. Opening NFTY’s leadership training event, Mechina, to all NFTY leaders
This year we opened Mechina—held every summer at URJ Kutz Camp—to any teen with a leadership position in their region. Historically, only members of the elected Regional Board were eligible to attend this important event. Leadership development was offered to head songleaders, regional cabinet members, and event coordinators. This new paradigm was in sync with the guiding mantra for Mechina: Elevating Teen Leadership in Reform Jewish Life.
3. Expanding Nashir, NFTY’s teen songleading seminars
From Dan Nichols and Alan Goodis, to Eagle Eye Cherry and John Denver, we love our cherished NFTY songs. In the past two years, NFTY’s Nashir Teen Songleading Seminars have expanded to locations throughout North America. Hosted by URJ congregations and led by professional musicians, these weekends have allowed us to bring the NFTY music experience, and high-level songleader training, to more teens everywhere. The expansion of Nashir, made possible through a grant from Dr. Arthur and Marilyn Lieber, is a remarkable example of success in specialized teen programs.
4. Collaborating with other Jewish youth movements
For the first time in our history, NFTY Convention will bring together more Jewish teens than ever before. Over 3,000 participants from NFTY and BBYO will come together during their International Conventions for a day of learning and networking. Immediately prior to the Convention, a group of NFTYites will collaborate with youth movement teens from BBYO, USY (United Synagogue Youth), NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth), and Young Judaea. By convening this group that represents a cross-section of the Jewish landscape, teens will be equipped with the skills to take a critical look at membership, inclusive religious practice, and other elements that will help our Movements create vibrant Jewish futures.
5. The NFTY North American Board visits all 19 regions
From Toronto to Phoenix, The North American Board keeps a pulse on all NFTY developments unfolding throughout the Movement. Traditionally, this has been done primarily through regular communication with each regional board. This year, a North American board member will visit each of the 19 regions, connecting us with thousands of teens involved with regional programming! In an era where so much of our interactions are happening on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, being together in person is still the most influential way to interact with NFTYites, and we are fortunate to be present in each of these incredible communities.
6. NFTY Convention offers tracks for specialized programming
NFTY Convention 2015 will offer three specialized tracks designed for focused learning in three areas: Madrichim/Teaching Assistants, Songleading, and Social Justice. These tracks will provide meaningful and intentional programming to prepare teens to bring the skills they learn back to their home communities. Unlike past Conventions, the opportunity for participants to choose these targeted experiences will allow them to meet other teens with similar interests, and will also help them hone skills and interests that will leave a lasting imprint on their communities.
7. Event registration inclusive of all gender identities
When registering for NFTY Convention 2015, teens had the opportunity to choose between “male,” female,” and “neither of these options describe me.” By allowing NFTYites to choose a gender identity that best represents them, we’re building an authentic culture of inclusion without marginalizing our peers who neither identify with being “male” or “female.” Multiple gender options encourages the welcoming community we strive to create and lead, and allows participants to be their most genuine self when immersed in NFTY.
8. Expanded NFTY representation to the Netzer Conference
It is extremely powerful to be connected to NFTY, as well as the global progressive Jewish youth movement, Netzer Olami (the youth movement of the World Union for Progressive Judaism). Following a discussion that began with a group of teens at URJ Kutz Camp this past summer, NFTY representatives across North America examined our relationship with global progressive Judaism and came to understand the importance of being part of something even larger than NFTY. In January, for the first time, two teens who are not part of the North American Board will travel with the NFTY president to Jerusalem, to Netzer Veida Olamit, the board meeting for leaders from each branch of Netzer.
9. Reconnecting with alumni
A great part about being involved in NFTY is the myriad of opportunities to stay connected post-high school. This year, there are many opportunities for NFTY alumni to staff NFTY events, including NFTY Convention and regional events. This past Hanukkah, we introduced a great way for alumni to celebrate NFTY’s 75th birthday through Reignite the Spark, an initiative that invited NFTY alumni to host and participate in Hanukkah celebrations in communities around the country. NFTY may begin in high school, but it doesn’t end there. The connections we make and the family we form last a lifetime.
10. NFTY mobilizes action for social justice initiatives
As a Movement, NFTY takes stances on issues with the intent of educating teens and spreading awareness. With any initiative, it is important to have tangible aspects that can be influential in more than an educational way. This year, NFTY is taking action on three key social justice issues: gun violence prevention, gender and sexuality equality, and the inclusion of people of all abilities. With informative North American campaigns and interactive theme-based workshops at the NFTY Convention in February, we are continuing to forge the path towards a more evolved and impactful youth movement.
The NFTY North American Board is the six-person executive body of NFTY at the North American level. These leaders are elected each year in February and serve terms beginning and ending in June when they are installed in front of more than 100 peer leaders at the URJ Kutz Camp.
What do robots have to do with Israel and Judaism? This was the question that twelve third and fourth grade students set out to answer this fall. This experimental robotics chug (elective) was part of a larger initiative to infuse the education program at Temple Shalom of Newton – called SHACHARIT – with offerings designed to examine modern innovations through the lens of Jewish tradition.
Our goal was to teach about ancient traditions in a rapidly changing world. We hired two researchers from the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University to bring the content knowledge of LEGO Robotics into the classroom. Together, the researchers and Temple Shalom’s Rabbi Allison Berry developed a curriculum introducing concepts of robotics and computer programming to explore questions about Israel and the people who live there. Students who had never visited Israel investigated different regions throughout the country, studying geography, culture, and history. They would eventually use that knowledge to create authentic 3D art creations to represent a portion of the geography of the country.
In order to highlight different aspects of the land of Israel, we investigated several major cities through the study of meaningful historic sites for Judaism, as well as other faiths. We explore geographic features, and even popular tourist destinations that participants or their families may have visited.
While the children discussed the sages buried in Tiberius and studied the architecture of the Bahai Gardens, we also took some time to focus on fundamental aspects of robotics. We explored programming and action commands, discussed sensors and interactivity in the everyday objects around us (i.e. refrigerators, elevators), and even built and programmed our own robotic cars.
Near the end of our chug, we applied all of our learning to create a 3D map of the country. We used robotic media as an expressive tool to teach about Israel. Students worked in pairs to create cities out of recyclable and craft materials like foam, plastic cups, pipe cleaners, and colored paper. They then had a choice about how to integrate the robotic materials. Some students created small cars to act as tour guides, others created geographically accurate terrain for robotic vehicles to navigate, and still others used sensors and text displays to teach about their city. Each group came up with a creative way to show off their city using hand-crafted models and unique robotic parts.
We knew the most difficult challenge to overcome would be introducing the larger Temple Shalom community, most of whom knew nothing about robotics, to the map that reflected such powerful learning and deep investigation. To that end, we hosted a large open house, in which parents and members of the congregation were invited to see and experience the children’s hard work. Our chug students presented their projects and research about the different landmarks and historic events in each of their cities. We included some time for students to show their parents, siblings, and friends how to use the robotics kits, and to become teachers to their peers.
We glimpsed success in real time at the open house. We heard shouts of excitement when one group explained to their friends how they made their cool Dead Sea salt crystals. We listened to parents tell stories of their own visits to Israel, and children asking elders about the historical sites and biblical stories they had been learning.
So what do robots have to do with Judaism? As it turns out, quite a lot. Learning to program is like learning a language – Temple Shalom’s children now have a whole new way to communicate. However, knowing a language doesn’t matter much unless we are trying to communicate something. For our students, the motivation to learn programming was the ability to communicate about their own Jewish identity in a new way and to discuss a region of the world they had heard so much about but never seen. Now, our eight- and nine-year-olds are imagining and interpreting Israel through their robotic creations.
When we first began to create this curriculum, we had no idea how the kids would react to the idea of using unfamiliar robotic materials to represent a country they may never have visited. We hoped that the intersection of Judaism with modern innovation would be exciting and meaningful. We could never have imagined the interactive, room-sized map of Israel that was the culmination of their work. It was rewarding to see our students confidently mixing gears and computers with colored pens and popsicle sticks as they creatively explored their heritage.
This was a very successful start to the SHACHARIT education program’s new curriculum. In the coming year, we have many more courses planned. For example, one will introduce computer programming with Scratch to develop interactive, animated versions of traditional Jewish stories. As Jews, we are “wired” to be innovators. New technologies and philosophies are not studied in isolation, but are used as expressive tools for the children to develop their own Jewish ideas and identities in a meaningful and engaging way.
For more information about SHACHARIT, please Temple Shalom’s Education and Youth Engagement website.
Amanda Strawhacker, Tufts University Developmental Technology Group Researcher
Mollie Elkin, Tufts University Developmental Technology Group Researcher
Rabbi Allison Berry, Temple Shalom, Newton MA