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Engaging and Enriching Older Immigrants to Israel

URJ - Thu, 07/02/2015 - 09:00

by Sharon Mann

Congregations are always thinking of new ways to attract and interest younger members. While this is, of course, essential, it is perhaps just as important for congregations to consider what they are doing to engage and enrich older members who want to remain connected as they deal with circumstances that arise later in life.

At my congregation, Kehillat Emet VeShalom (the only synagogue in Nahariya, Israel, affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism), we’ve been dealing with a unique version of this scenario. Looking at our community, we asked ourselves: What happens to olim (immigrants) who make aliyah (move to Israel) at an advanced age? Many of these olim live on low, fixed incomes and have difficulty learning Hebrew well. Our congregation saw that these challenges limited new residents’ ability to take part in Israeli society and that, despite the passage of time, they continued to struggle with difficulties adjusting to life in Israel.

Between 2002 and 2003, a large wave of older immigrants from Argentina settled in Nahariya. Our congregation stepped up to the challenge of working with these olim, as well as with veteran immigrants, to provide them with support and the opportunity to participate in Jewish social and educational programs that they otherwise could not afford or understand. We’ve also embraced new and veteran English-speaking immigrants from across the religious spectrum.

Emet VeShalom’s senior immigrants project arose naturally out of our view that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is an integral part of our mission. Our desire to fill the gap in community services for older olim came at an exciting time – just as a connection was being established between the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (“the Federation”) and the city of Nahariya as part of Partnership2Gether. This initiative links communities in Israel to cities in North America through dynamic relationships; in addition to the partnership program, the Federation supports diverse programs in Israel that fulfill needs in local communities, which is initially what led to interest in Emet VeShalom’s activities. Since 2005, with the Federation’s support, we have helped older olim lead fuller lives and participate in a cohesive and involved community.

Israel’s many Jewish cultural aspects have, in many cases, rendered the services usually provided by a typical Diaspora Jewish community center largely unnecessary. However, this structure has also eliminated the social function and framework that such centers typically offer, which would help support senior immigrants. Emet VeShalom’s supportive community program fills this gap in local services so that older olim can live a satisfying and well-rounded life here in Israel.

In our community, seniors, whether members of the congregation or not, have the chance to learn and socialize in a stimulating yet relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. They are enriched by supportive, emotional, Jewish cultural and educational programs – in their mother tongue (Spanish and English) – that are generally not available through other venues. Trips, lectures, and workshops are geared toward helping these olim gain a greater understanding and awareness of Israeli life, culture, geography, and the history of Israel in general and the Western Galilee in particular.

We also offer educational programming on issues that are relevant to them, such as the loss of spouse or partner, caring for loved ones, facing health issues, and dealing with war and natural disasters. We hold special programs designed for our multilingual multicultural community on Israeli national holidays, including Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). Finally, our older adults actively participate in tikkun olam projects that benefit individuals in other disadvantaged sectors of society; this participation further enhances their self-esteem and connection to the community.

Through all these opportunities and more, the senior olim in Nahariya have flourished.

Of course, combining and addressing differences in language and culture is a challenge that requires tolerance and significant effort. But we feel it is worth it to overcome these differences so that everyone can have the chance to socialize, learn, and grow – all as part of a unified community.

Everyone deserves to feel that their lives are filled with purpose and meaning. Regularly engaging in a variety of meaningful activities at Emet VeShalom provides older immigrants with a vibrant connection to their Jewish identity, Israeli culture, and life in Israel. Beyond that, our efforts at community building help to bridge cultural gaps among the various groups that call Nahariya their home, enabling all residents to join together in a vibrant pluralistic community and share the best Israel has to offer.

As people begin to live longer and healthier lives, ask yourself: What is your congregation doing to adapt to the changing needs and interests of the older members in your midst?

Sharon Mann made aliyah more than 20 years ago and lives in Nahariya, Israel. She is an active member of Kehillat Emet VeShalom, where she is on the Women of Reform Judaism Steering Committee and volunteers as International Contact Liaison.

Managing Change, the Only Constant in Today’s World

URJ - Wed, 07/01/2015 - 09:00

This is the time of year when many congregations prepare to welcome new rabbis and other senior staff members to the temple family. With this period of change comes many emotions – excitement, anxiety, curiosity, sadness at the departure of a long-time beloved rabbi or other staff member…

In our work with the URJ’s Strengthening Congregations team, Rabbi David Fine and I interact with Reform congregations all around North America that are in the midst of change. Whether it be a clergy or senior staffing change, a synagogue merger, an emerging collaboration between multiple synagogues, or any of the other myriad changes that are so much a part of today’s world, the only constant seems to be change.

As congregational families, how do we manage feelings of disruption and discomfort in this world of constant change?

We are all familiar with stories from the secular world in which new corporate CEOs have failed spectacularly and of corporate mergers that were deemed to be disasters within weeks of their announcement (think AOL-Time Warner). William Bridges, who in 1991 published the first edition of his groundbreaking book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, says that in most of these cases, the problem isn’t the change itself but the way people react to it. He calls these reactions “the human side of change.”

Bridges notes that a change in one’s own world can lead to feelings of disrupted expectations, a threatened sense of security, and fears of looking foolish, awkward, or embarrassed. In a synagogue setting, these feelings may occur among b’nai mitzvah families who were looking forward to the soon-to-be-former rabbi officiating at their children’s service. Other congregants may wonder: Will the new rabbi “get” and understand my family and me? Members often feel they are missing key information that might help them understand the implications of the change: Why have so many senior staff members left our synagogue in the last couple of years? What will that mean for our synagogue’s future and my own place in it? In Bridges’ lexicon, the psychological reorientation that we go through in coming to terms with a change is called “transition management.”

In other words, the change is the new rabbi’s arrival or the completion of the merger of two congregations. The transition is the process of letting go of old ways and getting comfortable with the new rabbi’s personality and behavior, or with the congregational minhagim (customs) that new leaders institute.

Bridges developed a model for managing transitions in which he defined three phases of the process: ending, neutral zone, and new beginning.

Endings often include emotions that we label as negative: sadness, anger, denial, resentment, fear, anxiety, loss, betrayal, and abandonment. These are predictable, normal emotions when grappling with an ending. Even when the change is positive, there are feelings of ending and loss. Of course, there can also be feelings of excitement and anticipation in the ending zone, but they are often bittersweet and mixed with at least a tinge of sadness and loss.

The neutral zone is often characterized by feelings of confusion, disorientation, apathy, disconnection, and impatience. It is a time in which people complain about a loss of leadership – i.e., the outgoing rabbi seems to have “checked out” and the new rabbi isn’t here yet. Frequently, synagogue leaders ask how many members they should expect to lose when going through the rabbinic placement process. It is because of their own fears of the neutral zone that this becomes such a big worry. A wonderful video titled The Trapeze, based upon the poem by Danaan Parry, is worth watching for a better grasp on this phase. Indeed, the neutral zone is that moment when you have let go of the old trapeze bar but have not yet grabbed the new one, evoking a mix of emotions: fear and excitement, impatience and curiosity, disorientation and openness.

Individuals finally enter the new beginning phase once they become comfortable with the change. At the very least, congregants feel a sense of ease in this phase. When the transition process is carefully managed, fully embracing the new beginning leads to a sense of recommitment and reengagement, and, as a result, a congregational family that is energized, vigorous and renewed.

Here at the URJ, we have gone through many changes and our own transition process in recent years. As such, we are especially committed to offering learning and engagement opportunities to help our congregations focus more fully on their transition processes. For more information about managing your congregation’s transitions, please email me or my colleague Rabbi David Fine.


Daryl Messinger Will Become First Woman to Chair the URJ Board of Trustees

URJ - Tue, 06/30/2015 - 17:04

Daryl Messinger of Palo Alto, CA, has been nominated to serve as the next Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Messinger will become the first woman to hold the top lay leadership position in the URJ, which represents the largest and fastest growing constituency of Jews in North America, including nearly 900 synagogues and 1.5 million individuals.

Messinger was nominated by the Board’s Special Nominating Committee, and her nomination will be formally presented to the full Board of Trustees at the URJ Biennial 2015 in Orlando, FL, taking place November 4-8, 2015. She will succeed Stephen M. Sacks, of Washington, D.C., who will have served the maximum allowable four years as Chair.

Messinger has served on the URJ Board for 15 years and in Reform Movement affiliated organizations in a wide variety of roles. A dynamic leader with a track record of sustained involvement and success, she will be concluding service as chair of the Reform Pension Board, which serves Reform Movement professionals and has a total portfolio of more than $1.2 billion.

She has been a key partner in helping to implement the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and in shaping the URJ’s 2020 Vision strategic plan. She currently also serves as chair for URJ Camp Newman Advisory Board (in Santa Rosa, CA), where she has been instrumental in raising over $22 million to-date for Camp Newman’s renovation, including the recent $4 million gift from the Koret Foundation. Messinger previously served as a vice chair and an assistant treasurer of the URJ.

Messinger’s congregational lay leadership experience is extensive. She served, at the age of 36, as the youngest president of her then 1,100-member congregation, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA. She has served in a variety of roles there including as treasurer, chair of its capital campaign, chair of the rabbinic search committee, and volunteer coordinator of an innovative family education program.

Said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs,

Daryl will be an outstanding chair and an effective advocate for the Reform Movement. Daryl articulates an exciting and compelling vision for implementing the URJ’s bold 2020 Vision as our successful three-pronged action plan for the future of Reform Judaism: strengthening congregations, audacious hospitality, and tikkun olam (social justice).”

Messinger said of her nomination,

“It will be an incredible privilege to chair the Board of the Union for Reform Judaism. The opportunity before us is to help our 900 congregations envision and create a 21st Century Reform Judaism that is inclusive, adaptable and thriving. I owe much of my identity, relationships and sense of purpose to Reform Judaism.  I cannot imagine doing anything more meaningful and impactful.

This fall Messinger will once again represent ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) as a delegate at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, to help ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars in funding are allocated to initiatives and social programs that promote democratic principles and religious pluralism in Israel and abroad.

Said Peter J. Weidhorn, board chair of the Foundation for Jewish Camp Board Chair and immediate past chair of the URJ (who also chaired the Special Nominating Committee):

“I cannot imagine a better person to lead the Union Board at this pivotal moment. Daryl brings a knowledge of the URJ, the Reform Movement, and the broader Jewish community that is not just wide but deep. She is greatly respected and will be a tremendous leader for the URJ.”

In addition to her Reform Movement involvement, Messinger currently serves on the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s endowment committee. She is also a past president of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, and a past vice president and treasurer of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the San Francisco Bay Area. She is an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program.

Prior to retiring in 2009, Messinger had various roles in both communications and investment management organizations. She served as executive vice president and strategic consultant at WeissComm Partners, Inc., an integrated marketing and communications firm. Early in her career, Messinger was an investment manager and partner of various funds managed by Glynn Capital Management, an investment advisory firm.

Messinger and her husband Jim Heeger live in Palo Alto, CA, and have two grown sons who live and work in the San Francisco Bay area.

Coming Out in a Jewish Community: How Our Congregation Embraces LGBTQ Teenagers

URJ - Mon, 06/29/2015 - 09:00

On the bimah during his confirmation, twelfth grader Sean Cooper recounted his coming out experience:

When I came out as a homosexual, I posted a picture to Facebook with my father, with the caption “….”. While some may have previously inferred my sexual orientation, that post was my first official public coming out.

The next day, I came to my temple, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, for a meeting of our youth group. I was greeted at the door by Cantor Doug Cotler, the man I have known my whole life, with a warm hug and friendly “I’m proud of you,” and by Rabbi Julia Weisz with a smile and great warmth. Rabbi Paul Kipnes was even more accepting than anyone. His kind and heartfelt acceptance expressed not only his embracing personal views, but also the wide-open arms of the Jewish community.

I don’t need to compare Judaism to other, not-so-accepting religions, because theirs is not the standard for the people of our Jewish religion. We Jews hold ourselves to an expectation of ahavah rabba, unconditional love. It is this love that greets sexual minorities, racial minorities, and oppressed people whom others have turned away, with those same open arms that I felt at our synagogue doors.

I am fortunate enough to have an identity that does not conflict, but instead that bonds the pieces of two strong communities together. I am a homosexual, Jewish man, and I could not be more proud to be in this amazing Jewish community.

We at Congregation Or Ami are proud of Sean – a NFTY leader, URJ Camp Newman alum, and a passionate advocate for Israel – for his courage and honesty. We hope he found confidence to come out, in part, because we have worked tirelessly to convey the unequivocal message that our congregation welcomes with open arms all people of all genders and orientations.

Our clergy teach and blog about inclusiveness. We proudly display on our website’s homepage our openness to and embrace of LGBTQ individuals and couples. We have been vocal about our support for marriage equality. Our partnership forms for new congregants provide spaces for Adult 1 and, where appropriate, Adult 2, instead of the Male and Female. We invite gay and lesbian couples and individuals to participate fully on the bimah on High Holidays and at other services. In each of these ways, we convey our warm embrace.

We also actively speak out to counter the rejection of LGBTQ people that some individuals (and some religious groups) espouse, and we decry the violence that this engenders. Our message is clear and consistent. We say, “Torah teaches kedoshim Ttehiyu, that you are holy and valued (Leviticus 19). We accept you and want you to feel welcomed and valued and respected and loved.”

Back in 2010, when teenager Tyler Clementi took his life in the face of being bullied for being gay, Or Ami’s clergy team sent a letter to every young person in our congregation (and their parents). Inspired by a missive from rabbis Andy Bachman and Alan Cook, we wrote,

We want to speak to you, whoever you may be. Whether you are gay, straight, bi or transgender or just plain confused, Judaism teaches that each individual is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It does not matter what other people think about you as you struggle to figure out what you think about yourself. What does matter is that you feel comfortable being who you are – at Congregation Or Ami, at school, in your community, and in your home – and you learn how to deal with those who do not accept you….

…We have been blessed with friends and relatives, rabbinic and cantorial colleagues and other coworkers, and beloved and involved congregants who are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, or questioning. If we examine our relationships, we believe all of us would find the same to be true. Some come out easily; others struggle with their identity; still others remain “in the closet.” One day, perhaps we will be able to say, “Who cares what an individual’s sexual orientation is?” And until that day comes, so long as such prejudice and bigotry remain, we cannot remain silent. The Jewish tradition teaches that we are all responsible for one another….

Always remember that you have a rabbi and cantor and a community that care about you deeply and accept you for who you are. No matter what.

We celebrated Sean’s coming out as a shehecheyanu moment, a sacred holy blessed experience. May his experience be another illustration that Judaism and the Jewish community are changing, are open, and are warmly welcoming.

If your congregation is looking for ways to be more openly welcoming, I encourage you to learn more about Congregation Or Ami’s commitment to inclusivity and openness, especially with LGBTQ individuals and families, through what we say and what we do. You can also learn how Reform Judaism embraces LGBTQ individuals and families as a Jewish value, a matter of principle, and a blessed reality in our Jewish community.

Originally published at Or Am I?

Motivated and Ready to Work: Mechina Prepares NFTY’s Leaders for the Year Ahead

URJ - Thu, 06/25/2015 - 17:21

The past several months have been very profound; the Charleston Church shooting, the attack on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore on the heels of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, the ruling by the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states, just to name a few.  Our children’s world is shaped by a mix of crisis and opportunity. After attending NFTY’s Mechina, the four-day leadership training event for regional leaders held at URJ Kutz Camp, I remain hopeful.  I’m hopeful because I got to meet, study and pray with amazing teens who are ready and willing to wrestle with the important issues of our time and the Reform Movement has what to offer to help them with that important task.

Last week we had the opportunity to work with the teen leadership of NFTY at Mechina when 150 teen leaders representing all of NFTY’s 19 regions and more than 120 URJ congregations arrived at the URJ Kutz Camp for NFTY’s annual youth leadership training summit. The participants:

  • Honed their religious practice when they planned Shabbat worship that was spiritual, song-filled and connected to the themes of leadership, unity, and social justice.
  • Took part in peer-lead discussions focused on economic injustice, gun violence prevention and race relations in partnership with staff from the Religious Action Center.
  • Explored their personal connections to Israel by developing their Israel narratives.

NFTY’s Mechina taught participant’s important leadership skills in the context of Jewish values broadly and Reform Judaism’s philosophy specifically that will help them to:

  1. Analyze their own strengths and weaknesses;
  2. Set personal and organizational goals;
  3. Build self-esteem, confidence, motivation, and abilities to carry them out;
  4. Establish support networks in order to fully participate in community life and effect positive social change; and,
  5. Guide or direct others on a course of action, influence the opinions and behaviors of others, and serve as a role model.

Many of the teens departed for other URJ camps, Mitzvah Corps programs and NFTY in Israel experiences while 50 teens remained at Kutz to join 150 more of their peers for four weeks at the NFTY Leadership Experience at Kutz.  These 200 are joining 13,000 other participants across our entire youth programs so that collectively we can work toward building a world of justice, wholeness and compassion.

Picture Yourself at the URJ Biennial: Enter Our Photo Contest!

URJ - Wed, 06/24/2015 - 19:49

Ready, set, snap! Want to see yourself on the big screen during URJ Biennial 2015? Here’s your chance to share your congregation’s best moments with 5,000 Reform Movement friends.

Do you have beautiful photos that demonstrate the vibrancy of your community? Enter the Biennial 2015 Photo Contest for a chance at a starring role in Orlando! Simply submit amazing photos that show your congregation’s Jewish and social engagement for a chance to win a new digital camera for your congregation and to have your photos featured at the Biennial.

Speaking of bonuses, register for the Biennial by September 10th and you’ll be eligible to win some other, very cool prizes to enhance your Biennial experience, including hotel upgrades, meet-and-greets with Reform Movement leaders, gift cards, and more.

Learn about Delegation Pricing Incentives that will enable more representatives from your congregation to attend than ever before; plus, find out about the exciting programming and performances in the works, the brand-new Biennial Camp for children in pre-K through 8th grade, and much more.

We’re looking forward to a picture perfect Biennial… and we hope you are, too!

Why We Closed Our Synagogue’s Preschool and Started Over from Scratch

URJ - Wed, 06/24/2015 - 09:00

by Rachel Stein

As a former preschool teacher and director, I was enjoying my role as a parent and lay leader on the “other side” in our preschool at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL. As my two boys happily made their way through our small preschool, I chaired the parent committee and volunteered on our early childhood task force, which explored ways to expand the school and reach target families, many of whom were sending children to other area programs.

In the midst of this work, we were invited to join the URJ’s Community of Practice (CoP) “Pursuing Excellence Through Your Early Childhood Center,” and we headed off to the kick-off retreat, where we met other professional and lay leaders working through their own programmatic challenges and successes. As we contemplated the next steps for our preschool, several points resonated with us:

  • Get families in the door before their child turns 2 years old.
  • Meet families where they are.
  • Sometimes it’s best to dive in and take a risk. Don’t overthink it, just do it!

Following the retreat, we spent one more year attempting to keep our diminishing program afloat before we decided to close the school and find other ways to engage families with young children. As difficult as this decision was, it opened doors to new, innovative, and exciting programming.

Working with our director of education, we applied for and received a mini-grant from Chicago’s Jewish United Fund (JUF) that enabled us to offer a free, drop-in program for children up to 2 years old – and their caregivers – at a local bookstore one Friday a month for four months. Our main goal was to create an opportunity for parents of young children to connect with one another, which we believe is at least as important as (if not more important than) connecting with the congregation.

We advertised this new offering rigorously on social media, in ads in local newspapers, and on websites geared to families with young children – and then, on that first Friday, I waited in the bookstore with Susan, our newly-hired program coordinator, and wondered whether anyone would show up. Twelve participants showed up to that first event, and by the fourth class, we had 25 toddlers. We’d outgrown our space in the bookstore!

Each session focused on an upcoming holiday or Shabbat, and included age-appropriate songs, sensory activities, art, stories, and more. Rabbi Lisa Greene, playing her guitar, sang with the kids before they headed home, each clutching a children’s book related to the holiday that had been highlighted in the session. Holding the class beyond the walls of the synagogue helped us meet people where they were, and attracted non-members who, unfamiliar with the building, might have been intimated about attending an event there.

An online survey told us that, after having made social connections with other participants, as well as with Susan and me, the class’s adult participants were interested in additional sessions, even if the program were to be held within the synagogue walls. We’ve now been running this free program for more than a year, mostly at the synagogue, and we still pack the house each month, both with “regulars,” who greet each other with hugs, and with drop-ins, who come when they can and often bring friends. Perhaps most telling is the chatting among the parents, who talk about going out to lunch together after the class and ask if they will see each other at our tot High Holiday services and other synagogue programs.

In fact, building on the momentum created by this class and its participants, Susan has created a series of other free-of-charge classes for this cohort, including an art class for 2- and 3-year-olds and a Sunday morning movement class for dads and tots, which is also funded by a JUF grant. We initially thought our need to charge for the art class – to cover the cost of the materials – might be a barrier, but we were pleased to learn that through our other high-quality program offerings, we had established trustworthy relationships with participants, who were happy to pay and keep attending!

This summer, we will host two family programs: a Friday night Shabbat picnic followed by a movie screening on the lawn, and a Sunday afternoon event at a local pool. Thanks to that first bookstore event, many families who never would have walked through our doors now have real roots in our synagogue. Indeed, the connections and relationships keep growing – from synagogue to family, from family to Jewish learning, and from family to family.

What more could we ask for?

Rachel Stein, who holds a master’s degree in child development, serves on the youth and family community committee at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL. She teaches babies and toddlers, and also enjoys time at home with her husband and their 6- and 9-year-old boys

Join a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American Community

URJ - Tue, 06/23/2015 - 23:06

In an extraordinary display of unity, a broad cross-section of American Jewish organizations – including the Reform Movement – joined together to declare this coming Shabbat, June 26th, to be a Shabbat of solidarity with the African-American community. In light of the horrific act of violence in Charleston, S.C., last week, where nine people were killed at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, leaders of the Jewish community are asking their members to participate in this Sabbath of solidarity.

Among the suggested actions for rabbis, congregations, and organizations are to speak out in synagogues this Shabbat on the issue of racism in society and to express rejection of hateful extremism. All rabbis and congregations are encouraged to reach out to AME churches in their communities with expressions and demonstrations of support.

The call to action is consistent with the historic ties of the Jewish and African American community going back to the civil rights era.

Participating Jewish organizations include the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as the Rabbinic Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Council of America, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Hillel.

How to Participate

We encourage Jewish to reach out to the local AME or historic black churches to express your sympathy, prayers and concern. If your congregation does not already have a relationship with your local church, today is an opportunity to begin to build one. We must fight hate the best way we know how – through love and community building.

Many of our partners and friends throughout the Jewish community have joined this solidarity initiative in reaching out to their local AME church and in incorporating something into their Shabbat observance this weekend.

We also hope that you will share the statement that RAC Deputy Director Rachel Laser issued on behalf of the Reform Movement in response.

Liturgical Resources & Prayers Pastoral Resources

Attempting to understand tragedies like this one is challenging, if not impossible. That is even more true when attempting to help children process such events. We hope you will find the following resources helpful.

Finally, we hope that you will join us in sending prayers and messages of support to the Emanuel AME Church community. The messages will be compiled and delivered to the church to ensure the families affected by this tragedy feel loved and supported.

Check out the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s website for more information about the Reform Jewish community’s on civil rights, hate crimes, and gun violence prevention.

5 Tips for Networking with Other Synagogue Leaders

URJ - Mon, 06/22/2015 - 09:00

by Luisa Narins

Stranger danger! We have been taught to embrace this phrase since we were children, but how does it affect our relationships as adults? Strangers can be inherently dangerous, and it is difficult to open up and meet new people. I moved to the United States for college with no family around me. I had to rely on meeting strangers and making them friends and maybe even family.

My training in business also enforced networking as a key ingredient to successful leadership. Creating, keeping, and growing relationships is an asset in the business world. This translates to any type of business, including not-for-profit organizations. In order to spread your message, you need to have connections. But where to begin?

Here are five crucial tips for networking at Jewish events and beyond:

  1. Get your business (cards) in order. Business cards are a fantastic way to reach out to people, as they give your basic contact information, but they can also say more about you. As an actor, I have my headshot on my business card; it is imperative in my business for people to recognize my face. What else can I say about myself in a succinct manner that would open up to a conversation? Have you ever thought of adding the name of your synagogue or your temple sisterhood to your business card? Imagine all the opportunities that small bit of information could open for you.
  1. Connect online. Once you have made the contacts, how can you make them work for you? I confess, I am horrible with names, so I immediately try to connect through social media. I friend on Facebook, connect on LinkedIn, follow on Twitter or Instagram, and let’s not forget The Tent! I make sure these names are added to lists so I know where these connections come from. I now have a face and a name that I can remember, and so do they.
  1. Share information. Most of the workshops you go to will be attended by people with similar interests or backgrounds, so you know you already have something in common with them. Whether it validates what you are already doing or opens your mind to a new approach, sharing information is critical to building a relationship with this stranger.
  1. Follow through with new acquaintances. Attend each other’s programs, and encourage your fellow congregants or sisterhood members to attend, as well. Broaden the circle and create more opportunities for sharing. The stronger our bonds are, the stronger our organizations will be. Remember, relationships don’t happen in a week, so you will have to continue to follow through in order to turn acquaintances into friendships.
  1. Be open to new people. This year, I attended the WRJ Fried Leadership Conference. No one else from my sisterhood was attending, and I wanted a roommate. I was able to find a woman from Florida; I had never met her, but I took a gamble… and she was wonderful! Now, we keep in touch and are planning to see one another in November at the WRJ Assembly and the URJ Biennial. I also happened to meet a fellow Peruvian at this conference. Yes, I traveled all the way to Austin, TX to meet a brand new Peruvian friend. Had I not reached out to strangers I would’ve missed on both these wonderful friends.

Next time you see a room full of strangers, think of it as a room full of opportunities and a chance to make new friends!

Luisa Narins is the president of Temple Ohev Sholom Sisterhood in Harrisburg, PA. This piece originally appeared in Women of Reform Judaism‘s email blast on June 5, 2015.

Reform Movement Mourns Victims of Charleston AME Tragedy

URJ - Thu, 06/18/2015 - 12:42

In response to the tragic killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last night, Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We are heartbroken by last night’s attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those whose lives were taken, those who were injured, and with the entire community that has been traumatized by this violence. For all congregants – from the youngest children in religious school, to young professionals engaged in religious life, to long-time stalwarts of the community – houses of worship are places of safety, comfort and inspiration. For the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to have become last night a place of such horror tears at the heart of every person of faith and goodwill.

We are pleased that the police have identified and captured the suspect. Prior to the arrest, Charleston police Chief Greg Mullen has asserted that this attack is a hate crime. If so, we reaffirm that religious intolerance, racial discrimination and hate-motivated violence have no place in our society, which aspires to be a haven for people of all faiths, races and ethnicities.

This attack also serve as yet another tragic reminder of the violence wrought by guns, which fall too easily into the hands of those who seek to cause grievous harm. Our Jewish tradition teaches: “He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Today we stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal community as we pray for those who were murdered and send our thoughts and strength to the families of the victims and those who were wounded.

Find prayers of mourning to say at your services this Shabbat on

Partners in Success

URJ - Tue, 06/16/2015 - 16:05

What might it look like to transform a summer camp into a year-round center for youth engagement?

That was the question on all of our minds when I joined the staff of URJ Camp Newman last July. Our team began to explore this idea through community conversations and experimentation. A year later, we’ve uncovered the key component to achieving this transformation: Partnerships.

First things first, what are our mutual strengths?

In setting out to create new, successful teen programming at Camp Newman, we knew that working with one or more partners would allow us to provide more for the Jewish teens in our region than we could do alone. We began by identifying our strengths and resources. As one of the larger institutions within the URJ’s camping system, some of our greatest infrastructural strengths were in registration, finance systems and staffing. We also realized that we could both leverage and share with potential partners our knowledge of and experience as a North American network of youth programs.

While the partners we work with are extremely diverse, we found that above all else, our congregations could offer us access to the vital individual relationships that they create and maintain with teens and families. Congregations also have a unique, on-the-ground understanding of the dynamic needs of their community, families and individual teens.

While working closely with congregations is nothing new to us, we learned that to launch new, successful teen programs, we needed to build a strong core of congregational partners who share a common goal. While those goals may vary based on several factors, we all share a common belief in providing meaningful ways for teens across our regions to build relationships that create individuals and a world with more compassion, wholeness and justice.

Taking our strengths and 8th graders on the road to Santa Cruz

This spring, these ideas coalesced beautifully between Camp Newman, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California, and Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California, when we took a group of 8th graders to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.



Together, we realized that there was a need to provide a bridge to high school programming for the 8th grade class. The congregations had seen first-hand how hard it was for their 8th graders to walk into a regional NFTY or camp program not knowing anyone, especially during a time of life that is full of transitions. By providing a specialized experience just for 8th graders, we realized we could create an opportunity for this class to build connections and community with their Jewish peers on a regional level, in an environment tailored for them and their age, and at a time when they are transitioning to high school.

Post-Boardwalk, and ready for more

After the Beach Boardwalk event, each participant returned to their community enthusiastic about the opportunities they would have to participate in their Temple Youth Groups, NFTY and other high school programs. Post-Boardwalk, we invited 8th graders to our last NFTY event of the year and saw a 200% increase in 8th grade attendance over last year. We didn’t have to look far to discover the source of the increase and learn that teens had been telling their friends after the Boardwalk how great youth group could be.

The biggest piece of feedback we got from this event was around relationship-building. The youth professionals that we work with in these congregations are responsible for nearly every aspect of running their youth programs, from registration to catering to being Jewish role models. By working together with congregations to offer programming, we were able to assume the role of logistics coordinator, which allowed youth professionals to reallocate that time to participating in programming with their teens and having shared experiences that deepen their connection to the synagogue and to Judaism. We, in turn, were able to reach more teens with innovative programming than any single institution can do alone. By playing to our strengths, all partners benefit.

Growing our partnerships and our shared vision for youth programming

As I reflect back on this incredible year, I feel blessed to work in a community with so many dedicated partners–clergy, youth professionals, educators, thought-leaders, volunteers, parents, and so many more. We share a vision of allowing more young people to live vibrant Jewish lives 365 days a year. Yet while we may each achieve some success on our own, we are coming to realize that this success can be magnified exponentially through our partnerships.

When thinking about growth in your own community, I would encourage you to look outside your walls to the partners that may be just around the corner. Implementing a new idea can be a challenge when our individual resources are spread thin. By working with those around you and capitalizing on the resources and strengths of those involved, we can bring new programming to more teens with little strain on any one party. By joining together to offer more opportunities in our communities throughout the year, we are seeing visible results across the board–elevating the meaning of Judaism in the lives of thousands of children and teens each year and strengthening congregations.


Alex Rogers is the Assistant Director for Year-Round Programs at URJ Camp Newman. This article was adapted from the Camp Newman blog. Read the original article to hear more from Camp Newman and their congregational partners.

9 Jewish Education Lessons from the Field

URJ - Tue, 06/16/2015 - 04:00

by Michelle Shapiro Abraham

Director of program development for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, Michelle Shapiro Abraham, is a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Here, she draws on her extensive experience to offer this sound advice to educators and congregational leaders.

Every day I feel honored and humbled by the blessing of my work. Creating youth engagement opportunities for the URJ takes me from synagogues, classrooms, and offices, to camps, retreats, conferences, and preschool programs. The settings are varied but the goal is the same. Our purpose as Jewish educators is to connect, empower, and partner. To do this, we need to think beyond and between the traditional boundaries of formal and informal, children and adults, school and camp, and simply look for the best ways to touch minds, souls, and hearts.

  1. Be intentional: When leaders at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp realized they weren’t reaching their Jewish education goals with a daily learning hour, they scrapped that model and started experimenting with integrating Jewish learning into other activities. Don’t let assumptions hold you back and lock you into models that don’t work. Instead, throw all the pieces back on the drawing board, figure out what you want to accomplish, and build anew.
  1. Integrate, combine, and blur: Educators often schedule activities into organized boxes – “This is when we do art, this is when we learn Judaism, and this is when we eat lunch.” – but specialty camps URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy have taught me that living communities do better when they let go of those labels. With confident and properly trained staff, the best Jewish learning can take place while campers chat in the bunk or even build a Rube Goldberg machine together. Success happens when each person knows the goals, feels confident doing her part, and then lets the entire environment teach.
  1. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t: I had been working with a camp for three years on their approach to Jewish life when one staffer admitted to me that using “Jewish Teachable Moments” (adding Jewish text or stories into regular camp moments) felt forced and unnatural, an opinion apparently shared by most of the counselors. From this experience, I learned that if the Judaism doesn’t feel organic and natural to those doing the teaching, it won’t feel organic or natural to those doing the learning. Educational content needs to be lived, not just taught. Techniques to ensure a shared vision include involving staff in the creation process, keeping the lines of communication open during the program, and sometimes being willing to scrap the program if it isn’t working. Which brings me to the next point…
  1. Don’t get too attached; everything is an experiment: Every new educational initiative is an experiment. I once began a new approach to high school education wherein students picked their own classes from a list of offerings – but the teens soon complained that they never saw their friends anymore. The next year, we cut down the number of classes and added a monthly social gathering to build up the community we’d apparently broken down – but the teens said they wanted more academic classes, so we changed those monthly social gatherings to academic classes. Two years later, the teens wanted a “campier,” more social experience, so we changed the class offerings to cooking and art with Jewish framing.

Moral of the story? No program, schedule, curriculum, or course of study is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon. Add to the mix that what works for one group of kids may not work for the next, and it’s clear that flexibility is key to success.

  1. There’s nothing new under the sun and your idea is the best ever: I was once writing a curriculum that I eagerly shared with my father-in-law, a rabbi, who read through it and told me proudly that he ran programs just like mine in the 1970s. As he described those programs, I had to admit: They sounded pretty good! He taught me that no matter how amazing a new idea may seem, someone has likely already tinkered with a similar idea. That’s not to say that seemingly new ideas are any less amazing, but rather that we’re not alone on our journey as educators. Each of us stands on the shoulders and in the company of other amazing educators who have plenty to teach us.
  1. Don’t shy away from ideas that sounds impossible: Sometimes, the craziest, out-of-the-box, insane idea is just what’s needed. Case in point: When Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J., sought to improve its once-a-year, grade-based family education program, the rabbi suggested the congregation drop its entire religious school curriculum for a wholly new trimester-based model in which all of the kids and adults in the community would study the same topic at the same time. Even I stared at the rabbi – my husband! – in disbelief, but after a few months of meetings, think tanks, and focus groups, the congregation followed his lead… and the new model transformed our community and its approach to Jewish learning for the better. Indeed, sometimes the impossible turns out to be the truly amazing!
  1. Different people need different things: Sometimes a child needs a sports camp to connect to Judaism. Another student may need Hebrew letters traced on sandpaper in order to learn to write them. Attending religious school on Sunday mornings may truly present a hardship for kids in another family. What works best for one child won’t necessarily work for every child, and what works for one family won’t always work for another. It is an educator’s job is to listen and to create opportunities and access points that our students and families need – not just those we think they need.
  1. Our toolboxes are bigger than we think: I bring my experience as an artist, teacher, camp counselor, mother, wife, and program designer to the work I do in Jewish education. Indeed, every educator brings his or her own experiences from a variety of settings to the work they do, and it helps to mix them up: What curriculum design approaches from the broader education world might apply at camp? How can the rituals from camp help us in Hebrew School? How can we apply the youth group’s leadership structure to create a new congregational dues structure? Our toolboxes are full of great strategies and approaches from all facets of our lives, and we are better educators if we put all the tools on the table while we work.
  1. Reflect, reflect, reflect: In my graduate program at Hebrew Union College, we joked that we couldn’t do anything without first reflecting on what we were thinking about doing, reflecting while we did it, and reflecting afterward about what we’d done. But it’s so important to be intentional about our work as Jewish educators – and reflection is an important part of the process. Before we start, we need to define where we want to go, be willing to change course when necessary to realign our actions with the goal, and, when we’re finished, to look back and recognize what we learned along the way. It is this process of reflecting that enables us to do truly great things.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, director of program development for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, is a recipient of a 2015 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

This Month in The Tent: Preparing for the High Holidays

URJ - Mon, 06/15/2015 - 13:00

The High Holidays are on their way, so before you head out for summer break, visit The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, for a full list of tried-and-true High Holiday preparation suggestions, including these and other tips.

  • Tickets: Provide all relevant information, including (as applicable) pricing policies for members and guests, distribution methods, availability, and special offers for students and military personnel.
  • Seating: Describe policies concerning saving seats, as well as accommodations for those with special seating needs.
  • Parking: Describe availability, use of shuttle buses, special arrangements that have been made with local law enforcement officers or neighbors, and considerations for people with wheelchairs and strollers.
  • Security: Explain the security procedures, including what type of identification, if any, will be required to enter the building, and what parking decal must be displayed in vehicles.
  • Special Situations: Describe how to obtain hearing devices, large-print or Braille prayer books, and where to stow strollers.
  • Children: Delineate between worship service attendance and childcare/babysitting policies.

The Tent also has High Holiday resources to help ensure that everything runs smoothly at your congregation throughout this busy season:

Looking for more? Join us in The Tent on June 17th for our next YamJam, an interactive live chat, about The High Holidays in the Age of Audacious Hospitality. Search #HHD or #HighHolidays for additional resources and conversations, and keep an eye out for a Tent announcement about how to promote non-member engagement opportunities in your congregation during the High Holidays.

Seasonal Info: The URJ Biennial will be held in Orlando, FL, from November 4-8, and registration is now open! Special pricing is available for early bird registrants and congregational delegations. Visit the Biennial 15 group in The Tent for a social media Biennial recruitment toolkit and colorful advertising graphics (located in the group’s file library) to help your congregation promote Biennial and build a delegation.

Tent Tip: Not hearing from The Tent often enough? Receiving too many emails? You can customize your email notification preferences so you’re only notified about activity that’s important to you. Watch this brief webinar and review the accompanying Q&A to learn how to set your preferences.

Join the conversation and access these and other great resources in The Tent. For additional support, contact the URJ Knowledge Network team.

Graduating Seniors: Let Them Talk, And You Might Like What You Hear

URJ - Mon, 06/15/2015 - 12:20

“I am the only Jew in my high school of more than 3,000 students.”

“I was the only kid who missed school for high holidays each fall.”

“My friends ask why I eat unusual foods and if I have one of those little beanie hats.”

These were some of the first words spoken when our high school seniors stepped on the bimah to lead a portion of our Friday night Shabbat services. At the service, each senior gave a short reflection on the value of Judaism and being part of our congregation.

If these were the only words these young adults spoke, it might have left us with the feeling of solitude or even a sense they had been traumatized. But this was not the case.  Each of these young Jewish adults went on to explain how their connection to Judaism was strengthened by these experiences of being challenged and questioned. They went on to explain how their involvement at our congregation enabled them to grow, to understand their Jewish identity, and to become proud of their beliefs.

The kids shared customary words of thanks for parents, friends, teachers, and mentors.  Many went on to explain how NFTY and the URJ summer camps (specifically Greene Family Camp) had molded them to become upstanding young individuals. While a few students had drifted since their bar or bat mitzvah, nearly all had remained active in some element of our congregation: in our Madrichim (junior teacher) program as leaders in various youth movements, and actively tutoring younger kids in Hebrew. All of them have been accepted to university.

How did we get to this point? Each year, our synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands (CBSW), sets aside one evening for our graduating high school seniors to lead Shabbat service for what we call Shomrei HaKaballah. Often, this service is held the same weekend as Confirmation so we can embrace the large number of people in town, including alumni.

Back row (left to Right):
Aaron Platt, Steven Schmulson, Rabbi Matthew Berger, Jeffrey May, Abraham Walter, Douglas Snyder.
Front Row (Left to Right)
Chelsea Mahon, Hailey Cassidy, Ashley Lachterman, Bethany La Bone, Robin Kohnhorst, Helen Richard (Director of Life Long Learning).
Not pictured but in the Graduating Class:
Sarah Mais, Kelsey Vetalice, Jacob Carmichael, Gabriel Espindola, Micah Friedman, and Travis Richard.

I wore several different hats at this service. As a parent of one of the seniors, I nervously sat in the service wondering if I would be proud or shocked by what my own son would say.  As the congregation’s president, I worried if our kids would represent the views of our congregation.  As congregation leaders, we have spent a lot of time discussing the future of our faith and our congregation. We generally tend to focus on young children and B’nai mitzvah teens.  We talk often about engaging these young Jews and helping them embrace Judaism.  We have not spent nearly enough time reflecting on how to measure success.  As I sat listening to the speeches I realized that this service was the test.  If our youth engagement and teaching efforts were working then listening to our graduating seniors would clearly be the proof.

Our goal is that at least once per year each of our young people will be on the bimah. We take pride in seeing our children active in services. But to deepen engagement, we must do more. In the next year, we are hoping to put more teens on Temple committees and we are modifying our madrichim program. We are creating more opportunities for older teens to be role models to younger teens, even beyond the synagogue. This summer, one of our older teens will be a bar mitzvah tutor for a younger teen at camp.

During the service, one young lady spoke of her URJ-organized trip to Europe and Israel.  She spoke of seeing a single flower blooming in the fields of Auschwitz.  She noted how the flower was individual, unique, and proud – like her.  Yet the flower was connected via its roots to other flowers like she is to the Jewish friends and family in our congregation.  She spoke of how water had nurtured the flower just as our teachers and leaders had nurtured her.  Listening to this proud Jewish young lady and the dozen others who joined her, it was clear to me that our congregation had indeed passed the test.

If your congregation is wondering if your efforts are paying off, consider allowing your graduating seniors to run a service. Then sit back and listen. You might just be surprised by what you hear.


Neil Z. Platt is the President of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands, Texas.  He has served as First Vice president, Vice President, Secretary, and Board of Trustees member and Youth group adviser / Co-advisor for several years.   Away from CBSW, Neil travels the world as a Global Maintenance Leader for Major Energy Company.  Together with his wife, Ronna, they raise three teenagers.

3 Ways to Build LGBTQ-Inclusive Communities

URJ - Sun, 06/14/2015 - 09:00

Already this month, we have celebrated inclusion in its many forms: making congregations accessible to those with disabilities, highlighting women’s stories in the Torah and Talmud, breaking the Jewish glass ceiling for women, and of course, celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month. Women of Reform Judaism was ahead of its time and the entire Reform Movement in 1965, when it publicly supported the decriminalization of homosexuality. Since then, WRJ has not stopped speaking up for LGBTQ people and their rights as citizens and as Jews – and the entire Reform Jewish Movement has now joined in.

As a young, queer Jew growing up in a Reform synagogue, I didn’t know that these resolutions were being made – that the women in our temple sisterhood were a part of a larger movement to support LGBTQ rights. But I never worried about acceptance in my community. Our small post-confirmation class with the rabbi frequently discussed Reform & Conservative Judaism’s support of same-sex marriage. Our adult youth group advisors were a lesbian couple who were married by our rabbi. I knew that if and when I came out, it would be okay.

We all know that the Reform Movement supports LGBTQ Jews, but how can congregations, sisterhoods, and brotherhoods put this audacious hospitality into practice? Here are some ideas:

  1. Learn the lingo. Don’t wait for an LGBTQ person to join your community to learn about how to use more inclusive language. Consider hosting an LGBTQ sensitivity training in your synagogue, for the general population and for leadership. Don’t forget to put this new knowledge into action! Always ask for preferred names and pronouns, don’t assume that you can tell someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity by what they’re wearing. Respect the labels individuals use (or don’t use) to describe themselves.
  1. Integrate LGBTQ themes into your programming. Does your congregation have a book club? Consider reading Stone Butch Blues by Jewish transgender activist Leslie Feinberg. Does your sisterhood enjoy fundraising? Consider holding an event to support The Trevor Project (a LGBTQ Youth suicide hotline) or a local chapter of GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). If your members prefer to support causes through volunteering, consider asking a local LGBTQ organization how you can get involved. To integrate our celebration of LGBTQ Jews with our practice of Judaism, organize a Pride Shabbat: The Religious Action Center has prayers and sermons to help!
  1. Support LGBTQ visibility and be visible yourselves. Having LGBTQ leaders is invaluable for making LGBTQ members, out or not, feel accepted and at home. LGBTQ leaders also add diversity that can strengthen your community and add a different perspective. I can’t emphasize enough how meaningful it was for me to have Jewish, lesbian leaders as role models for me in my synagogue, and motivating me to be the youth group co-president for two years. My heart still jumps every time I see a rainbow flag sticker in a window or a form with gender-neutral language; small symbols of acceptance can go a long way.

This Pride Month, I hope we can turn advocacy into action! For more tools, be sure to look at Women of Reform Judaism’s LGBTQ materials, the RAC’s social justice work on LGBTQ rights, and the extensive resources available from Keshet, an organization for LGBTQ Jews, educators, and allies. Please share your LGBTQ programs and advocacy efforts with us in the comments or in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum.

This piece originally appeared in Women of Reform Judaism‘s email blast on June 12, 2015.

Revolutionary: A Recipe for Delivering What Teens Want

URJ - Fri, 06/12/2015 - 12:08

Social action and civic engagement are central to the formal and informal education experience at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. From elementary through high school, students are immersed in the exploration of systemic inequality and Jewish social responsibility. As such, the question for high school students in the Beth Emet youth group (BESSY) is not, “Should we engage in social action?” but rather, “How best can we pursue social action in a way that is both meaningful for us and impactful for our community?” Recently, BESSY designed and led a workshop for the local Evanston teen community focused on gender and sexuality. More than 40 teens attended, and in the weeks since, teens have been asking for more of this kind of opportunity. Here’s a look into our recipe for success, and the key questions we are asking moving forward.

Many of the teens I work with are deeply passionate about the topics of gender and sexuality. The seventh grade curriculum at Beth Emet focuses partly on the themes of peoplehood, identity, sexuality and relationships through a Jewish lens. It is no coincidence, then, that so many of the teens seek to continue expanding these conversations in a Jewish context when they get to high school, given that for many of them Judaism has been the foundation for this exploration.

When working with the BESSY teens to create a meaningful social action opportunity, my colleague, BESSY advisor Libby Fisher, and I started by brainstorming different topics, inviting each student to put post-it notes on a white board with different issues they felt BESSY could realistically address. Using the post-its as a guide, we reflected on the most prevalent topics listed on the board, and guided the conversation in that direction. One teen mentioned the idea of a workshop, so we began to focus in on the format of the event. Students worked to plan four stations that addressed the topics of gender and sexual identity in different ways – one station dealt with terminology, the language that we use to discuss gender and sexuality; one focused on gender and music, another on gender and art and the different ways that we perceive identity through imagery; and finally, one station was devoted completely to anonymous question asking, which we called “Fishbowl.”

One question continually arose throughout the planning process: who is our intended audience for this event? Traditionally, BESSY events are open to Beth Emet teens. Our teens articulated, though, that there was interest for this workshop beyond the synagogue. With little hesitation, the teens decided to open up the workshop to the larger Evanston community. The students recognized that there was a greater impact to be had with their peers by broadening these conversations to include more people in their daily lives. We were open to pushing for this because we thought it accomplish our mutual goals the staff-driven goal of bringing more people to the table and the teen’s desire to expand the conversation.

After agreeing on a format and structure for the event, the teen leadership felt that in order to have a successful event, the board needed to invest time educating itself about the topics of gender and sexuality. How, they argued, can we teach others about these topics if we do not first commit to teaching ourselves? At their behest, half of the teen board meeting preceding the workshop was dedicated to internal education. They engaged in conversations about perceptions of gender and sexuality they had experienced in their schools and plotted out identity spectrums that explore the intersections, or lack thereof, between biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation. By participating in these types of activities, they acquired language and tools to go forward and lead the workshop for their peers.

And so they did. More than 40 teens attended, and the excitement was palpable in the room. It was important to them that Jewish values framed the event. One way they achieved this was through the use of a B’rit Kehilah to establish a safe space and create ground rules for the program. Our teens educated their non-Jewish peers about the concept, and they created one together. At the conclusion of the program, I heard participants refer to the event as “revolutionary” and “the most meaningful event I have ever participated in.” When asked what we could have done differently, the majority of teen responded that they would have liked more time at the workshop, which already was a 2.5 hour event. Following the buzz generated by the event, one of our co-presidents was asked to present with the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) to her school’s physical education staff about how the department could be more inclusive of varying identities. This was an indicator to me that we had created something of enormous value for our teens and their communities beyond the synagogue.

This was our recipe: teen-driven topic selection and program development; a commitment to educating ourselves in order to teach; broadening the conversation to reach the influencers in our teens’ lives.

Where will we go from here? In part, that will be determined by next year’s board. But conversations imagining the possibilities have already begun. Some of the questions that we are asking ourselves include:

  • Will we run the workshop again in collaboration with other youth organizations?
  • How might the teens host the workshop at Beth Emet for the adults in our community?
  • What are the ways that feel right to move from education into action?

Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the BESSY teens created a safe space for a wide variety of individuals and engaged them in conversations about what matters most to them. That is what teens are asking for – and BESSY delivered.


Abigail (Abby) Backer joined Beth Emet full time in July of 2014 as Director of Youth Programs, overseeing both formal and informal educational experiences for the Beth Emet Youth. Abby brings experience in faith-based community organizing, social justice work, activism, and formal synagogue education. She graduated from Barnard College of Colombia University in New York where she majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies. There she was also involved with student organizations for justice and peace, including Rabbis for Human Rights and JStreetU. After graduating from Barnard, Abby worked as a community organizer in Wisconsin with WISDOM and the Racine Interfaith Coalition, focusing her efforts on the nationwide push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Abby was raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin where she attended Beth Hillel Temple and taught Hebrew and Religious School for many years. She was also a leader in her Temple Youth Group and on the Northern Regional Board of NFTY (North American Federation for Temple Youth).

Op-ed: “Conventional Wisdom Has Shifted” Regarding Congregational Life

URJ - Mon, 06/08/2015 - 09:00

Amy Asin, vice president of strengthening congregations for the URJ, has an op-ed in eJewish Philanthropy aptly titled “Strengthening Congregations,” highlighting the many ways the URJ is helping its 900 congregations across North America grow and flourish. Asin writes,

A lot of attention is paid these days to innovative start-ups in the Jewish world. And much of this attention is well-deserved. The energy and creativity being unleashed are both extraordinary and critical to the present and future of Jewish life in North America, and, likely, worldwide. But too often, it is similarly assumed that because established institutions are, well, established, they are not innovating internally. Frankly, that’s not the case.

At the URJ, we spend our days engaging with congregational leaders representing the 900 congregations of the URJ, and I can tell you that there is significant innovation happening in synagogues across North America. The conventional wisdom has shifted. No longer are congregations waiting for the conveyor belt to deliver them new members. They realize that existing solely to sustain their institutions is not a long-term prospect for growth or even for survival.

Instead, they now see that they must innovate, by transforming the way that they create sacred community and meaningful Jewish experiences to have impact on the participants and the world around them. More and more URJ congregations are experimenting, some of them on their own and some in partnership with other congregations. And it’s happening in all sizes of congregations with different demographic profiles, all over North America.

Read the full piece at eJewish Philanthropy.

Reform Movement Wins World Zionist Congress Election By Significant Margin

URJ - Fri, 06/05/2015 - 04:00

The Reform Jewish Movement was the clear winner in the critical World Zionist Congress election, according to results released today.

The ARZA slate, representing the Reform Movement, secured 56 seats out of a possible 145, winning nearly 40 percent of the votes cast in the United States – more than the amount of the next two slates combined.

The World Zionist Congress, the democratic body of the Jewish people worldwide, will meet this fall for the first time since 2010. It determines how agencies within Israel allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for religious services and civil society projects.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of Union for Reform Judaism, said of the election results,

“This overwhelming victory testifies to the power of the Reform Movement to mobilize as active partners in Israel’s present and future. As the largest and fastest-growing constituency of Jews in North America, Reform Jews recognize and value the importance of our voice in world Jewish affairs. We are mindful that our success in these elections comes at a critical moment for Israel, and we will use our influence to affect change through the vital work of the World Zionist Congress.”

And from ARZA President Rabbi Josh Weinberg,

“The sweeping victory for Progressive Judaism is a clear reflection of our love and commitment to the people and the State of Israel. It demonstrates our desire to strengthen the fundamental democratic principles of the State of Israel and work toward a more religiously pluralistic and just society. Together with the Reconstructionist Movement, we campaigned on important issues such as religious freedom, gender equality, and support for a two state solution. Now we can proudly say that our delegation – the largest of the U.S. by far – will come together in October in Jerusalem to express our passion and involvement as well as our concern for the future.”

5 Great Deals and Discounts Your Congregation Can Only Get Through the URJ

URJ - Thu, 06/04/2015 - 13:58

When talking about congregational life to members and prospective members, one of the questions that invariably comes up is, “Well, what do I get for my dues?” We talk about access to a sacred community, access to clergy for lifecycle events, and access to a Jewish education for ourselves and our children. We talk about perpetuating our heritage, and we talk about the intangible benefits of synagogue membership that aren’t found anywhere else.

When talking about the Union for Reform Judaism to our member and prospective member congregations, we often hear the same question: “What does our temple get for our dues?” We, too, talk about community, education, and heritage. We talk about our camps, which impact thousands of kids every summer; we talk about the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, which educates students to become our rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish professionals; we talk about being a connected and networked movement of Reform congregations.

But in many ways – in addition to being a sacred community for your congregants – your congregation is also a business, and a business wants to know that any investment it makes, sacred or not, is providing tangible benefits to its bottom line.

There’s more to membership with the URJ. Through our Congregational Benefits and Services program, URJ member congregations have access to meaningful discounts on a number of products and services at prices that are available only to congregations affiliated with the URJ. These deals, arranged with our congregations’ needs in mind, are yet another wonderful benefit of membership with the URJ.

Learn more about these benefits in the URJ Benefits and Services discussion group in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum.

  1. Cloud Computing with Adar IT: When moving to the cloud, your congregation will never need to buy new servers or desktop computers again. Adar IT will keep software current, maintain virus protection, make daily backups, and provide access to friendly help desk staff who can support all your computer operations. When signing up with ADAR IT though the URJ, take advantage of significant discounts on network setup and storage.
  1. Hi-Speed Internet with Comcast: Whether your congregation is large or small, Comcast offers reduced pricing on Internet packages that will increase your access speeds at affordable rates. With speeds ranging from 16 MPBS Down/3 MBPS Up to 150 MPBS Down/20 MBPS Up, you’re sure to find a package that works for your congregation.
  1. Criminal Background Checks with Intellicorp: It is critically important that congregations protect themselves when hiring new staff. By taking advantage of the URJ’s arrangement with Intellicorp, affiliated congregations can hire with confidence, knowing that every candidate will undergo a rigorous series of background checks that include motor vehicle reports, credit reports, and more.
  1. Internet Video Streaming from Streamspot: More and more congregations now stream worship and programming online, which can be costly and complicated. Through the URJ’s reduced pricing arrangement with Streamspot, affiliated congregations can stream simply and affordably.
  1. Computer Network Managed Services with Solus IT: Spend time on what’s most important to your congregation, and let Solus IT monitor and maintain your computer network. Enjoy discounts on workstation and network monitoring, application and software patch maintenance, asset and anti-virus management, and more.

Affiliation with the Union for Reform Judaism is a serious investment for Reform congregations, and URJ-affiliated congregations have every right to expect a meaningful return on that investment. That return is evident when our kids joyfully sing around a camp bonfire. It’s evident when well-educated and inspired clergy and educators lead our congregations. And, when needed, it’s evident in the meaningful discounts on products and services you use in the day-to-day operations of your sacred institution

And this is only the beginning! We continually work to offer our communities discounts that relate to the work they do, helping to increase the return on the investment they make as URJ-affiliated congregations. Please visit the URJ Benefits and Services group in The Tent for more details and to join the conversation about other deals you might like to see made available.

URJ Staffer Receives Prestigious Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education

URJ - Wed, 06/03/2015 - 14:34

We at the URJ are proud to announce that Michelle Shapiro Abraham, our director of program development for the Campaign for Youth Engagement, is the recipient of a 2015 Covenant Award for her work creating change and driving impact in Jewish education. Abraham joins 74 other Jewish educators honored by the Covenant Foundation since the award was established in 1991. Mazal tov, Michelle!

In her role for the Campaign for Youth Engagement, and before that as a consulting partner, Abraham creates unique programs and experiences that transform the lives of thousands of Reform Jewish youth, teen leaders, camp staff, and congregational educators. Working in partnership with youth and camp leadership, her achievements at the URJ include:

  • Directing Service Corps Fellows, placing college-age camp staff in congregations year-round to lead innovative camp-inspired programs, an effort which has contributed to 700 new camp enrollments.
  • Supporting and developing Olim Fellows, a two-year staff fellowship focusing on leadership skills for five URJ camps that takes place year-round and includes two retreats annually.
  • Overseeing the launch of NFTY678, an expansion of NFTY programming to involve younger participants (6th-8th graders), resulting in a 15% increase in NFTY registration last year.
  • Designing Jewish values-based curricula customized for URJ specialty camps, including 6 Points Sports Academy and 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, which now boasts a 70% return rate.

Says Abraham of her work and this award,

“Creating youth engagement opportunities for the URJ takes me from synagogues, classrooms and offices, to camps, retreats, conferences, and preschool programs. The settings are varied but the goal is the same. My purpose as a Jewish educator is to connect, empower, partner, and cross over the boundaries, and it is truly a blessing to do this work. For the Covenant Foundation to honor my work is truly a validation of all of these settings and the many places Jewish educators can make an impact.”

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said,

“By recognizing exceptional Jewish educators, the Covenant Foundation helps ensure a strong future for the Jewish people. Michelle’s outstanding work exemplifies what the URJ does best for 900 congregations, our 19 NFTY regions and 15 camps throughout North America—as they create innovative educational and leadership opportunities that engage every cohort, and deliver strong and lasting impact. She consistently enacts bold, new ideas that represent the URJ’s vision. The entire Reform Movement wishes yashar koach to Michelle on receiving the prestigious Covenant Award. No one is more deserving.”

From URJ Vice President for Youth, Miriam Chilton:

“The URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement seeks to inspire more young Jews to embrace Jewish life as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy. Michelle takes this effort to new levels, engaging minds, souls, and hearts in a way that inspires and excites, connects and motivates. Michelle makes our sacred tradition and history central to the lives of groups, individuals, and entire communities. Her passion for this work is shared by everyone who contributes to the URJ’s robust youth engagement initiatives. This includes Israel travel and educational programs, international service learning through Mitzvah Corps, and other immersive social action opportunities in conjunction with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.”

And from Harlene Winnick Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation:

“We are proud to recognize dynamic Jewish educators, like Michelle, whose inspired teaching makes an impact along the entire Jewish educational spectrum—from the classroom to summer camps to public space.”

Abraham has spent nearly two decades as a Jewish educator in varied roles including author of children’s books, author of curricula, director of a synagogue school, and creator of summer camping programs. In addition to her role at the URJ, Abraham is also a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and a clinical faculty member in the HUC-JIR Executive Masters Program. Abraham served as Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Fanwood, N.J., for 12 years and is a graduate of HUC-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education.

The Covenant Foundation, a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies, and the Jewish community will honor Abraham at an awards dinner in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8, during the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America. This event follows immediately after the URJ Biennial 2015, the largest Jewish gathering in North America, taking place in Orlando, Florida from November 4-8. Abraham will play an important and visible role at the URJ Biennial, leading innovative learning sessions about youth engagement for 5,000 Biennial attendees. Learn more about the Covenant Award and other award winners and leave Michelle a note of congrats on the Covenant Award’s website.


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