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Four Questions to Ask Ourselves When It Comes to Youth Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Month in The Tent: Useful Mission Statements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform Youth Leaders Debrief AIPAC Conference

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

By Debbie Rabinovich, Andrew Keene, and Jeremy Cronig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindling the Flame of Education in Our Students

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

by Emily Messinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life As A Youth Summit Intern

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

by Rachael Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Betsy Zalaznick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Purim Sameach!

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

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



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

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

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

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

How can you participate?

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

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

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

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

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

We’re Youth Professionals, Not Youth Workers

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

by Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Month in The Tent: Preparing for Passover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Teen Brains, Creating Jewish Adults

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Joy of Generational Leadership

URJ - Tue, 02/24/2015 - 12:57

by Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz

It’s the summer of 1983. I’m a 28-year-old student at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) preparing for a career in Jewish education, and spending my summer on staff at URJ Camp Swig (presently URJ Camp Newman) in Saratoga, California.

I had an experience, the power of which remains with me to this day. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the former name of the URJ) came to camp. He and I co-led a program in the then newly dedicated Holocaust Memorial. Needless to say, I offered to let him lead the program on his own, as he was – well, he was the leading figure of American Jewry at the time– but he insisted that we do it together. Rabbi Schindler, this wise, insightful, compassionate rabbinic leader – and me, this relatively new Jewish educational leader — led the program together. He could easily have done this on his own but he made room for me, sending the message to all that there was immense power in this shared, generational leadership. I never forgot that moment.

Fast-forward to NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit nearly 32 years later. Once again I am co-leading an important program on adaptive leadership with another wise, insightful, and compassionate (maybe someday rabbinic!) leader – Evan Traylor – who is a past president of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement; in fact, he conceived the program idea. When I read his proposal for the program on Adaptive Leadership – a key topic in my leadership course for rabbinic students – I asked him if I could co-teach it with him at the Youth Summit.  As he and I stood together, teaching this past Shabbat in Atlanta, I was reminded of my experience with Rabbi Schindler. Our leadership – in 1983 and this past weekend – was seamless, despite the age gaps and the very distinct differences in our life experience and professional circumstances.

What joyous experiences in generational leadership with Rabbi Schindler and Evan Traylor. These unique, extremely meaningful opportunities are far and few between. It’s at places like the Youth Summit where possibilities like this are endless and plentiful.


Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz is the Associate Dean at HUC-JIR-Los Angeles

Asefa: A Training Ground for Future Management Consultants?

URJ - Fri, 02/20/2015 - 12:44

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.



Extending NFTY’s Tabernacle: A D’var Torah for Parashah T’rumah

URJ - Wed, 02/18/2015 - 10:36

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.

Shabbat shalom.

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).

Rabbi Jacobs Reports from NFTY Convention

URJ - Tue, 02/17/2015 - 17:27

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.

Shaareinu: The “Collateral Good” Cannot be Overstated

URJ - Tue, 02/17/2015 - 16:10

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:

  • Our Education Task Force brings religious school teachers together with volunteers from the congregation who are trained in learning disabilities and classroom management techniques. Task force volunteers plan and present workshops for our faculty that address such topics as how best to structure the classroom, implement behavioral analysis, and deal with different learning styles and teaching strategies.
  • Our Technology Task Force installed an assistive listening system, which enables those who wear hearing aids and others with hearing loss to follow along with what goes on in the sanctuary. Although no one complained before we put in our telecoil hearing loop, as soon as the loop went in, many congregants admitted that they had hearing problems and thanked us for helping them have a better experience. We also installed a live internet streaming video system – accessible by computer, mobile device, and many television cable boxes – to bring worship and programming to congregants who are homebound.
  • Mental health issues are the focus of our Nefesh (soul) Task Force, which, together with other community groups, co-hosts panel discussions and seminars that address numerous mental health challenges related to parenting, anxiety, school violence and bullying, alcohol and drug addiction, and similar topics. These seminars often are co-sponsored by Jewish Family Services, United Hospice, or other community groups, and many of our volunteers offer their professional expertise as presenters. Nefesh also maintains an extensive list of mental health resources on the congregation’s website.
  • Our Chesed (loving-kindness) Task Force seeks to increase the sense of connectivity and community within the congregational family by supporting each other in times of sorrow and rejoicing in times of joy. In addition to reaching out to those who are celebrating a simcha, are homebound, ill, or in mourning, Chesed, together with Nefesh co-sponsors programs that address such topics as caring for the aged and visiting the sick.

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

Don’t Forget: February is “Strengthening Congregations Webinar Month”!

URJ - Tue, 02/17/2015 - 13:30

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:

  • Connect with geographically-based URJ Communities to help your congregation’s lay leaders network and learn together
  • Join The Tent to get answers to your questions and to join discussions with peers across North America
  • Learn about the forthcoming “Leadership Institute,” which will expand leadership development opportunities for your congregation
  • Contact the Knowledge Network for answers and resources related to all aspects of congregational life (1.855.URJ.1800 or
  • Learn about the corps of volunteers available to run board workshops at your congregation or congregational retreat
  • Tap into the corps of experts (in conjunction with other Reform institutions and individuals) that is available for specialized advice
  • Help your congregation’s new president get off on the right foot with the specialized training available at the Scheidt Seminar (registration now open)

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.

How to Be a “Sponge” at the Youth Summit

URJ - Fri, 02/13/2015 - 20:35

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.

Be Our Guest at NFTY Convention: The Power of Audacious Southern Hospitality

URJ - Fri, 02/13/2015 - 12:57

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.

A Rabbi’s Excitement for NFTY Convention

URJ - Fri, 02/13/2015 - 11:18

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.

Mining Diamonds in the Land of Milk and Honey

URJ - Wed, 02/11/2015 - 05:00

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.


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