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Practicing Audacious Hospitality on Sukkot

URJ - Fri, 09/25/2015 - 12:35

I cherish the holiday of Sukkot. It beautifully encapsulates the quintessential magic of this bountiful time of year. We see that we can build a holy space with our own hands, and experience the pride, warmth, and contentment that welcoming people into our sukkah and wholeheartedly celebrating the holiday together engenders. Who will you welcome into the sukkah, and your congregation, this year?

Nearly two months ago, I joined the URJ as its inaugural vice president of audacious hospitality. Audacious hospitality is a bold, new, and multi-faceted URJ initiative that encompasses some of our tradition’s most treasured values—loving kindness, respect, and tikkun olam (repair of our world). It is all about putting the ideas of diversity, outreach, and inclusion into action in a framework that addresses both today’s Jewish communal needs and our highest aspirations. At the core of audacious hospitality is the belief that we will be a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community when we welcome and embrace the diversity that is the reality — and future — of modern Jewish life.

In her book, Kabbalah Month by Month: A Year of Spiritual Practice and Personal Transformation, Melinda Ribner writes,

“During the holiday of Succot, Jews wave the lulav… These four species are said to represent the four personality types… Others say these species represent parts of a single person.”

In the spirit of audacious hospitality, I offer these Sukkot-inspired recommendations to help your work and community thrive.

  • Lulav is the spine”: Center and ground yourself in your unique and empowered identity. A fundamental element of effective Jewish outreach and inclusion is self-awareness. It is important for us to honor our own heritage, as well as others’ in our community.
  • “…the hadas the eyes”: Take time to observe: who is in your community? How can we not only see with our eyes, but also see through spiritual eyes of intuition and empathy? Often members in our community have differences in racial background, family make-up, gender and sexuality, or ability from our own. Pause and take note of the unique attributes of our fellow community members because they are important and can enrich our Jewish experience.
  • “…the aravah the mouth”: We are a diverse community. Honor and celebrate that! Some of our diversity can only be learned of through authentic conversation and deep listening. In addition to greeting people with a warm “Welcome!” or “Shabbat shalom!” we can go deeper. We can share more about ourselves and, without asking questions that are too personal such as “How are you Jewish?”, invite others to tell us more about them. One good question to ask is, “What inspired you to be part of this community?”
  • “…and the etrog the heart.”: Practicing audacious hospitality is meaningful and important, but not always easy. Audacious hospitality is a spiritual practice that encourages us to not simply open our doors, but also proactively open our hearts to strangers and members of our communities whose customs or identity may differ from ours. We all have much to teach one another.

This piece originally appeared in Women of Reform Judaism‘s email blast on Sept. 25, 2015.

URJ Statement on Anti-Muslim Rhetoric in the Current Political Discourse

URJ - Thu, 09/24/2015 - 16:46

Celebrating the constitutional commitment to religious liberty for all, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, released the following statement today:

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, I am honored to wish our Muslim brothers and sisters a blessed Eid al-Adha. This holy celebration, so central to the Islamic faith, falls this year at the same time as our own High Holy Day celebrations and reflects the many commonalities we share as Muslims and Jews.

Today we also send our condolences to the families of those who died, and pray for those who were wounded, on their holy pilgrimage to Mecca.

The ability of all people to openly observe the holidays of their faith is rooted in the United States’ historic commitment to religious freedom. Since our earliest days as a nation, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Americans of all faiths have found in the U.S. a haven from religious persecution. So it is with great heartache and pain that we have heard the rancorous language about religious tests for office and plain anti-Muslim rhetoric that permeates the current political discourse.

The Constitution of the United States makes clear that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The Bill of Rights make equally clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These basic national principles should be familiar to every public official and person seeking public office. And they are principles every elected representative, from the local level to president of the United States, must be willing to uphold.

We call on Americans of all faith and no faith, public officials and private citizens alike, to reject words and actions that divide this nation along religious lines. We call on them instead to celebrate the constitutional commitment to religious liberty that has been a source of strength to our nation for the past 239 years.

Our Second Annual Rosh Hashanah Sermon Round-Up

URJ - Thu, 09/24/2015 - 12:19

This was the year that Reform rabbis spoke about race. More than 200 rabbis participated the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, and it gave rise to some powerful sermons. (Read on for links to sermons by Eli Kramer and rabbis Biatch, Chasen,  Knight and Herzog Cohen, Miller, Perlman, Soffer, Spinrad, and Stein.) There were many more, but because there were so many, when I had a choice between two sermons from a rabbi, I chose the one on another topic.

The other leading topic was the Iran deal. Most rabbis who addressed this topic (see sermons from rabbi Blake, Feder, Groper, A. Hirsch, and Latz) focused as much on the nature of the debate in the American Jewish community as on the substance of the agreement itself.

Other sermons I particularly enjoyed:

  • Perhaps the most powerful sermon on race came from the only non-rabbi in this compilation, Eli Kramer, who spoke at Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis.
  • Rabbi Marc Katz and Rabbi Mark Israel both used the movie Inside Out to address the power and importance of understanding all our emotions, including sadness.
  • Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, reflecting on his first full year as an emeritus, and Rabbi Laura Geller, in her last High Holidays as senior rabbi, offered profound observations about organizing our spiritual lives. Rabbi Danny Zemel’s explication of his personal theology did the same.
  • Rabbi Rick Block’s exploration of the “uses of adversity” stood out not only because it was an unusual topic, but because it did such a remarkable job using his own story to illustrate universal lessons.

A note about process (repeated from last year’s roundup): Again, I thought it would be interesting and fun to collect Rosh Hashanah sermons given by Reform rabbis this year. I was half right. It was tremendously interesting.

It was less fun than I had hoped because collecting sermons is harder than it looks. Congregations hide sermons in different places on their websites. They post them in different media (text, audio, video). Even those who post texts do so in an impressive variety of formats.

This is, to be clear, an idiosyncratic and personal collection of sermons. It is by no means representative or comprehensive – but neither is it selective. I have included every sermon I received. My research methods (if they can be called that) were simply to post a request on the Reform rabbis email list, and to look at those sermons I found in my regular online travels. That means that a rabbi is far more likely to be included in this roundup if, for example, she is a Facebook friend of mine or worked with me at the Religious Action Center.

Further, I have only included sermons for which I was able to obtain a written text. Although many rabbis have now made audio and video of their sermons available, and while I’m sure that is a far better way to experience them than reading them, it’s hard to edit video and certainly to do so (as I have done most of this project) while participating in a series of conference calls. Other congregations do not post sermons immediately.

To give readers a feel for each sermon, I have selected a paragraph (sometimes more) to include here. I want to be clear that the sections are mine alone; I am sure that in some cases, the rabbi might take issue with the paragraph I have chosen to represent their sermon. That points to another challenge with this project: Many of the best sermons do not lend themselves well to this format. In some cases, a sermon is so tightly constructed that excerpting one paragraph (sometimes a bit more) makes no sense. That also means that sometimes I have had to choose between selections that really capture the essence of the sermon and those that make sense standing on their own.

I hope you will enjoy all these sermons, and find them as meaningful as I did.


Sermons are listed alphabetically by rabbis’ last names.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel, “Praise God & God Prays”
Temple Emanu-El (Tucson, AZ)

Why pray? Because, we benefit from prayer. The Hebrew word for to pray L’hitpalleil – is a reflexive verb form that means to stand in judgment of ourselves. When we take time to pray, for introspection, for reflection, we can become better people. And what about those who do not believe in God? Taking time from our lives for reflection, for introspection, for meditation, for balance, is a worthwhile investment with or without God. When we worship together, we can also connect with our family, our friends, and our community, even if we do not believe in God.

Rabbi Peter Berg, “Three Ways Into the New Year”
The Temple (Atlanta, GA)

With our faith in God to guide us, we can open ourselves to new ways to confront the issues of our time –whether it be the abundance of gun violence in our society, race relations, the growth of anti-Semitism, the refugee crisis, or the very real and existential threat of a nuclear Iran.

We cannot ignore, neither can we jump into quick solutions. Rather, by affirming our faith, we can take lessons from the past, let go of old ways, and be open to find our generations water in the desert. And we each approach this season with our personal deserts, too. For some, it is caring for spouses and loved ones who are ill. Alzheimer’s or cancer or mental illness consume and paralyze us. Others are unemployed or underemployed or unsure of what they want to do or be. How many of us would like to have a fresh start? A fresh start to marriage or family, to finances or work? Just a fresh start in life? Setbacks and failures have caused much heart ache and pain, guilt and iniquity…. that burden the soul, quench our passion, and delay our dreams.

Rabbi Michael Cahana, “God is Still Speaking – Climate Change”
Congregation Beth Israel (Portland, OR)

Some people ask about the purpose of religion. Why do we need the ceremony, ritual, and especially the God talk. I believe that religion, whether Catholic, UCC, Muslim, Buddhist or Jewish – and all the many I’ve not mentioned – I believe that religion teaches us arrogant, skyscraper building human beings to be grateful. To be humble. To think of ourselves as connected, not just to those we know and love, but to all of humanity. Not everyone preaches the message and not everyone hears it. But if we listen carefully, we recognize that even the greatest problems facing humanity – including Global Climate Change – can and should be faced together, as humans, divinely inspired with strengths and abilities given to no other being on this planet. Together we can take care of this planet, our only home, our common home. Our mother, our sister; the support for all of us.

Rabbi Benjamin David, “Rosh Hashanah Sermon”
Adath Emanul-El (Mount Laurel, N.J.)

One day your family will erect a marker for you. And on that stone will be room enough for a limited number of words, maybe six words. Those words will somehow summarize who you were and that marker will tell the story of the mark you left on all of us. What would you want those words to be?

I imagine it shouldn’t be: Worked really hard, boss was proud. Never lost an argument; always won. Held a grudge to the end. Lived with great hate in heart. He was never willing to change. Refused to learn from her mistakes. Was never up for a challenge. Always took herself seriously, very seriously. Would never let his guard down. Was always too afraid to try.

It could be: Trying to be the best me. Or it could be, borrowing from my friend, Dan Nichols, and I have to tell you I love this one, “I am beautiful and broken too.” Or maybe it could be Shema, that you always heard others, that you lived with faith, that you remembered to remember, and yes, you were always trying, even just trying, to be present.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, “Realizing the Real and Original American Dream”
Temple Beth El (Madison, WI)

Most of us might never realize it, but it is white privilege to go shopping in any retail establishment and not have to worry about being followed and observed. And it is white privilege to not have to be concerned about educating ones children about the gang bangers that are waiting out there to pounce on unsuspecting young black children and teens. And it is white privilege to swear aloud, or dress in second hand clothes, or not comport as society expects, without having people attribute these behaviors to the bad morals, or the poverty, or the so-called “illiteracy” of ones ethnic or racial group.

Rabbi Joe Black, “Why We Need Synagogues and Religion”
Temple Emanuel (Denver, CO)

Why do we need a synagogue? Why do we need religion? Why do we come to this place every year on the High Holidays and recite prayers, and listen to ancient texts and melodies that, for many of us, do not reflect our daily experience? If the purpose of the Synagogue is to be a religious center, is that still relevant today? I think it is. And here’s why.

The purpose of a synagogue – the Kehilla Kedosha – is to become a place where we bring religious values to life. It is in the Synagogue that we nurture the best in ourselves and our community while, at the same time, working together to improve the imperfect world around us. It is here that we learn about and celebrate the possibilities for holiness in our lives.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, “From Orthodox to Paradox”
Westchester Reform Temple (Scarsdale, N.Y.)

Today we sit, supporters of the [Iran] deal praying alongside those who oppose it. Will we let partisan politics come between us? Between Washington and Jerusalem? Will we add insult to injury?

When Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel, is subjected to death threats and compared to Jewish SS guards for championing the deal, we have failed. When Chuck Schumer, who opposes the Deal, is accused of “dual loyalty,” a euphemism for treason that reeks of Anti-Semitism, we have failed. When “fascist Nazi pig” becomes an epithet that Jews feel comfortable using against other Jews—congregants against their rabbis no less, as a number of my colleagues have reported—we have failed.

Above all, when we mistake Jewish unity for Jewish unanimity, we have failed. Jewish unity has never implied unanimity…. We have to pivot from orthodox thinking to paradox thinking. There, in the paradox, only there, can we become whole again. Shalom, our word for peace, really means completeness, wholeness. What is the secret of peace?” asks Rabbi David Aaron. “Peace is not when everybody agrees…. Peace is the ability to realize that all the various perspectives are only partial perspectives of the whole picture. The truth is greater than the sum of all those parts.” The path to peace is the definition of paradox.

Rabbi Barry Block, “Every Single Sheep”
Congregation B’nai Israel (Little Rock, AR)

As we assemble for our community’s largest gathering of the year, to welcome the New Year together, let us ask ourselves: How would we respond, if the next [Jewish educator who had Tourette’s syndrome as a child] Pam Schuler were in our Sanctuary tonight, intermittently barking like a dog? Would we gently encourage her to leave these sacred precincts, or would we find a way to make music from her discordant sound?

When we meet somebody who comes to our Temple from a non-Jewish background, from another neighborhood, or from a rural town where we imagine that Jews do not live, do we ask ourselves what she could possibly want with us; or are we thrilled by what she might add to our congregation?

Let us heed Pam Schuler’s counsel. We must stop seeing people who are different from us as “them.” We are all “us.” Congregation B’nai Israel, inside these walls and beyond them, is one, a magnificent mixture, with each and every person having something to offer. Differences enhance and beautify our community, just as each distinct color in our Holy Ark’s tapestry adds to its magnificence.

Rabbi Richard Block, “The Uses of Adversity”
The Temple – Tifereth Israel (Beachwood, OH)

[…] I believe the rabbis of old were teaching an important truth [about suffering]. They were realists. They knew the world is far from perfect, that existence can be unjust, and downright cruel, and that every life is touched by suffering, grief, and pain, even if not in fair or equal measure. Still, they held that we will be healthier, happier and find life more meaningful if we resist bitterness and cultivate instead “an attitude of gratitude.” And they took it one step farther, insisting, “Those who refuse to learn from their suffering suffer doubly for their stubbornness.” When adversity afflicts us, even undeservedly, we compound it if we fail to discern something useful and redemptive. How might unwarranted suffering or unavoidable hardship be of benefit? By stimulating humility, deepening empathy, helping us to appreciate our blessings and acquire wisdom.

Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl, “Crowns of Torah: Re-forming Judaism”
Central Synagogue (New York, N.Y.)

Can you imagine if Moses were to walk into the back of Avery Fisher Hall here and witness this community’s observance of Rosh HaShanah? What would he make of this diverse crowd of thousands? What would he make of the singers and instruments on stage? What would he make of the “Jumbotron”? Or this rabbi? I am venturing a guess that he would not recognize it.

…But Moses would see that this—all of this—is still the Judaism he began. He would see that every time we lift up our Torah scroll and sing V’Zot HaTorah, we say, “This is the Torah which Moses placed before the People Israel.” And then he would be not only reassured, but inspired; he’d realize, “Ah—these are the new crowns being etched upon our Torah scroll.”

Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, “Our Story, Our Mission, Our Fight”
Leo Baeck Temple (Los Angeles, CA)

We are perfectly nice people. And we embrace the color-blind ideal more than we probably even realize. After all, there has to be some reason why those seven unarmed black men went to their deaths at the hands of white policemen, while Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black churchgoers in cold blood was captured alive, provided with some free Burger King by the officers who brought him in, and assigned a judge who expressed concern for his family. If you want to take a guess at what that does to black families in our country, imagine once again that it was seven unarmed Jews who were killed by police, and a neo-Nazi mass murderer of Jews who was provided with Burger King on his way to jail. Even if that’s standard operating procedure for an arrest like this – a way to get the suspect talking – imagine how it feels for an African-American to read that story in a year like this one?

It’s not our fault that we were born into a system that advantaged us. But it will surely be our fault if we neglect to use our advantage to make things more fair, either because we choose to remain sightless… or heaven forbid, because we like being advantaged in the system, and we want to retain that advantage for our kids and grandkids.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, “The Necessary Chutzpah of Saving Refugees”
Temple Emanu-El (Tucson, AZ)

It is, of course, pure chutzpah to seek to use moral authority and insist that we directly act to solve this gigantic refugee crisis. It is also the single most Jewish act we can fulfill over this High Holy Day period.

… [O]ur tradition tells us, our own father was a wandering Aramean—from, well, Syria. We have been Wandering Jews throughout history. We know what it is like to be a refugee without finding any country willing to welcome us, or even accept us. We remember the 6 million Jews who could find no country willing to accept them, and who died in the Shoah.

This is the right thing to do. It is the essential thing to do. And it must be done now. And done with energy, with commitment, with great chutzpah.

Rabbi Dan Feder, “Why Israel Matters”
Peninsula Temple Sholom (Burlingame, CA)

When I hear Jews say that it would not bother them if Israel did not exist anymore, it breaks my heart. Personally, when I think of a world without Israel, I ache inside. The world would be impoverished without Israel, because Israel has contributed so much to the wellbeing of the world. And as Jews, we would be diminished beyond imagination without Israel.         

That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t be critical of Israel at times. We are stakeholders in the Zionist dream and we’re going to be upset when Israel isn’t living up to our values. At those times, we absolutely should let our voices be heard. But we should also take as much pleasure in praising and advocating for Israel as we do criticizing it. While we are only a fraction of world Jewry we have the loudest and most listened-to Jewish voices. How we use those voices is critically important. We therefore should take as much time reading about and speaking about positive developments in Israel as we do about the negative. You may need to look a little harder, because the positive news about Israel is not always the neatly, packaged story on TV or the above-the-fold story in the paper, but it’s there.

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, “Creation Starts With Brokenness”
Temple Beth El (Charlotte, N.C.)

Every one of us is broken. We all bear scars, some internal and some external. We are all broken vessels containing shards of the divine. We all bear the history of our difficulties, our conflicts, our struggles. We do this as individuals and we do this as the people Israel. Israel is the name we bear from Jacob who earned it by struggling with an angel and walking with a limp from that experience for the rest of his life.

From each moment and encounter of breaking we can create. We are the seeds that grow from broken shells. We bear the elements of broken stars that exploded and spread through the galaxy billions of years ago. We see with reason, feel with poetry, and bring them together to build a better whole. We are the remnants of shattered vessels from which we gain the strength and inspiration to participate in the completion of all creation. We can become the partners that God sought by helping alleviate loneliness around us.

Rabbi Laura Geller, “Books Close and New Books Open”
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills, CA)

Some contemporary issues change, some don’t; but what doesn’t change is our need for other people with whom to do the work, and the strength that comes from a synagogue community to confront the challenges. Synagogues change, but what doesn’t change is our need for a connection to tradition, memory and ways to pass what matters most to us on to the next generations. Prayer books change, but what doesn’t change is our need to come together to pray. Our lives change, but what doesn’t change is the need to celebrate our transitions with ritual, ceremony and a connection to the Divine. We change, but what doesn’t change is our need to continue to grow and to do the work of these High Holy Days, of chesbon ha nefesh, taking an account of our souls, really wrestling with how to repair relationships with people we have loved, how to forgive, how to open our hearts to each other and how live with compassion and gratitude. We change, but what doesn’t change is our need to confront the fundamental questions of what it means to be a human being: how to find meaning and purpose in lives that we know are fleeting and fragile.

Rabbi Daniel Gropper, “Hear the Call, Be the Call”
Community Synagogue of Rye (Rye, N.Y.)

Let’s save the conversation on the Iran deal for our lunch conversations and our discussion period on Yom Kippur afternoon. What I do need to address is how this deal polarized the American Jewish community. What should have been a policy debate devolved into something much more pernicious. It pitted Jew against Jew, conservatives against liberals, hawks against doves. It pitted donors against professionals, rabbis against their flock and in recent days rabbis against rabbis. It feels like we are actually living in a time of radical sinat hinam, radical baseless hatred between Jews, in a time that is hard and trampled, in a time where flowers will never grow.

But I think we must go farther than just stepping back, taking a deep breath, acknowledging that those who disagree with us may have done so for honorable reasons and seeking each other out to ask forgiveness for our words and actions. We must go farther because the sin of baseless hatred affects more than one generation. It imprints on our communal genetic code, affecting how future generations treat each other and what they think of Judaism in general.

Rabbi Jen Gubitz, Yom Yevava: Whole, Broken, Whole Again”
Temple Shir Tikva (Wayland, MA)

Tears and Joy. They come together. The mystical Zohar teaches, in fact, that “weeping is lodged in one side of my heart, and joy is lodged in the other.”

Don’t we all enter this sanctuary over these days holding a little bit of both? Just as at our birth when we enter into the world in the same way. Even for those who needed a little slap on the back, we came in with a wail, a sob, a scream – a red-faced desire to turn back – all the while held in the arms of possibility and potential. Every day of creation comes with some sense of loss. At every birthday, every wedding, every new year, something new is created, something that once was is no more. And like little ones we cry and we scream and – Yevava – we sob in cathartic release until eventually soothed by the joy and possibility of what is to come…

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, “The Iran Deal: Liberal Dilemmas”
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (New York, NY)

If you support the Iran deal because, in part, you believe it is good for Israel – good for you. If you oppose the Iran deal because, in part, you believe it is not good for Israel – good for you. It is entirely legitimate and natural to take the well-being of Israel into account. What would be unnatural for American Jews is not to take Israel into account.                 

And there is nothing disloyal or illiberal about our commitment to Jewish life and to Jewish continuity. Jews do not have to disappear from the world in order to prove our liberal bona fides. We do not have to abandon particularism to prove our commitment to universalism. Is the era of Jewish distinctiveness over? That’s it: our work is done? We have completed our historical task?

Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch, Besherit Moments”
Hevreh (Great Barrington, MA)

So what is the meaning behind these moments of grace, of chance, of serendipity, of besherit? I really do believe are moments filled with God’s presence. When we wake up from the dream, we are called to say, “Surely God is in this place, and I, I did not know it.” Besherit moments are God-winks, evidence of God’s reality in our world. Serendipitous moments are nice. Beshereit experiences bring a smile to our faces. They are moments of the reality of God’s presence in our lives. And they validate the good things that happen to us.

However, I also struggle with the concept of besherit. It’s easy to describe something as besherit when it’s pleasant and a happy occurrence. We reject the notion that something was meant to be when tragedy befalls us. It’s cruel to imagine that bad things happen for a reason, and I for one, cannot and do not pray to a God who predestines tragedy….I cannot entertain the idea that the finger of God brings about the tragic and the horrific. I do see God, though, in our human reactions to the brokenness of our world, and I do see God in those moments that seem pregnant with blessing.

Rabbi Marc Israel, “Inside Out: Becoming a More Inclusive Community”
Temple Beth Hillel – Beth El (Wynnewood, PA)

None of us are without blemish – we all have our skills and we all have our challenges and the way that we move forward together as a whole community is first to acknowledge that there is a real tension even in speaking about people with disabilities, and then to realize that there are no clear- cut divisions between who is disabled and who is abled. For some people, their abilities can mask their disabilities, while for others, their disabilities mask their abilities. Our job is to try and see the whole picture – blemishes and all – both within ourselves and in others. And to consider that which we perceive to be a “blemish” not as a blemish at all – because sometimes, differences are merely that: differences. And the ways in which we work to overcome the challenges that are in our lives very often turn out to be the most defining part of who we are.      

Rabbi Rachel Joseph, “Hineni”
Congregation Beth Israel (Portland, OR)

Jewish communal life can offer us a shelter against the perfect storm that is the intersection of hyper-individualism and challenging economics. The point of a synagogue community is that we are meant to support each other – it’s a place where we can bring our entire selves – all of our emotions – all of our strengths and weakness – our hopes and fears – our noblest self and our pettiness. We can bemoan what is broken or we can do something. We actually can have a vision of a communal future that is inspiring and engaging.

Rabbi Beth Kalisch, “Illuminate, Savor, Sweeten”
Beth David Reform Congregation (Gladwyne, PA)

Shabbat is about finding ways of cultivating joy and sweetness on a regular basis. Not “we’ll celebrate when we find the time,” but “we’ll celebrate right now” – a special occasion that comes around every week. Take the time on Shabbat to nourish your soul with the kinds of gifts you don’t always get around to during the week: a bike ride in the park with your kids, a bubble bath, a round of golf, an afternoon listening to beautiful music or relaxing with someone you love. Any of these could be your weekly Shabbat ritual. With or without the challah.

Rabbi Marc Katz, “Rosh HaShanah Sermon”
Congregation Beth Elohim (Brooklyn, NY)

My divorce made me a better rabbi, because through it, I better understand pain. It made me more sensitive to the sadnesses others face and more perceptive to their suffering. We all have small and large tragedies in our lives, be they sickness, loss, or loneliness. By not being afraid of them when they come and by letting ourselves experience them fully we show others that it is possible to carry our burdens and come out the other side. And by opening up and sharing our experiences of sadness we let others who may be suffering know that we have walked in their shoes. We remind them that though their sadness may feel like an island, they are not alone

Rabbi David Kaufman, “Faith, Trust, Skepticism and Doubt”
Temple B’nai Jeshurun (Des Moines, IA)

Let me suggest that the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is the time when we should take the time to listen to contrary voices, voices that make us question. The Hebrew term “Noraim” has within it the root for the verb “to look,” ra’eh. In fact, one could see “noraim” as a sort of causative reflexive, something that could make the term Yamim Noraim mean something like, “The days that cause us to look at ourselves.”

Rabbi Elisa Koppel, “Once Upon a Time…”
Congregation Beth Emeth (Wilmington, DE)

Once upon a time, Moses freed the slaves through tales of freedom. And once upon a time from generation to generation, we’ve told and retold that story so that we can continue to inspire more freedom in this world. And maybe, once upon a time in the future, we’ll know a world where no one is treated as the stranger. In the meantime, we’ll tell the stories that can help to bring us there. That’s the power of stories. And that’s the responsibility of having heard them.

Once upon a time, we heard a story. And it inspired us to do something, and that inspired us to do something else, and somewhere along the way, we gained a new story. And then we started to tell and retell it. And it was sufficient

Rabbi Asher Knight and Rabbi Kim Herzog Cohen, “Emerging from our Cave of Comfort”
Temple Emanu-El (Dallas, TX)

For me, racism had been about racist people acting in immoral ways. As a moral, upstanding person, I wasn’t racist. Clearly, I’m not advocating for a whiter America! I wasn’t the white store clerk, calling security to follow a black patron, simply because of the color of his skin and what he was wearing.

But in that exchange, my eyes were opened to something profound: I’m white. I’ve lived with many privileges. Even though my Jewish family has worked hard for what we have, I really don’t know what’s it’s like to be a black man. As stigmatized and as targeted as we may have been throughout Jewish history, being a white Jewish man, born in the United States, I became accustomed to my privileges. In fact, I became comfortable overlooking the subtle and not so subtle ways they shaped me. Living in a cave can be comfortable

Eli Kramer, “Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon”
Shir Tikvah Congregation (Minneapolis, MN)

But I’m also starting to make sense of the fact that it’s not all my fault.

It’s not my fault that I was born into a world that sees me as white, and fears blackness.

It’s not all my fault that I was born into a country that enslaved its own people for hundreds of years before fighting a bloody war over whether enslaving its own people was a reasonable thing to do. All only 150 years ago.

But, what I’ve also started to realize is that what is up to me is whether I do something to combat our legacy of institutionalized racism in America. I can either take institutionalized racism as a given in this country, and go along for the ride, or I can fight against it.

Rabbi Steven Kushner, “Finding Hope in Brokenness”
Congregation Ner Tamid (Bloomfield, NJ)

Brokenness is not simply a matter of fact, it is more than just a reality with which we must deal. Brokenness is, for humans, a goal. Because, don’t we know, the act of loving necessitates a breaking of a shell. We are like eggs. The color, the nutrition is on the inside. But it is trapped by the shell. In order to get to it you must first break the shell. Like an egg cracking in order for the chick to be born, in order for me to give birth to my own goodness, in order for me to allow the love within me to emerge and touch others, in order for me to release the spark hidden inside, I must first shatter my shell. I must destroy the walls I have erected. I must destroy my self-righteousness and pride.

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, “The Place Where We are Right: Iran, the Jewish Community & Healthy Dialogue”
Shir Tikvah Congregation (Minneapolis, MN)

What am I most deeply concerned about after we peel back the particulars of the [Iran] deal and the toxic communal discourse? Ultimately, when we caricaturize people – when people on the left call people on the right war mongers and people on the right call those on the left naïve and weak – by a decision they’ve made, we damage our own souls. I’m focused not only on the harm we do to our relationships with each other, but also to the desperate cost to our own humanity when we dismiss one another when we disagree.

Rabbi Seth Limmer, “Moving Beyond Magnificent Myths”
Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago, IL)

If we want to change the conversation with our children about Israel, we cannot tell them why they are wrong. We need to listen to them. We need to learn from them. We need to give them straight and honest answers, so we can continue to a deeper conversation about values. We can move past arguments of interpreting history to a focused discussion of how to ensure Israel can become a thriving, democratic—and potentially redemptive—State, despite the realities that today prevent Israel from attaining our highest aspirations.

Rabbi Ari S. Lorge, “I Seek Your Face”
Central Synagogue (New York, N.Y.)

America is out of practice at showing up in person. We are accustomed to online activism where entire movements get organized on Twitter, with faceless donate buttons, with crowdfunding campaigns devoid of personal contact. We are more likely to share an article on social media than share an evening in dialogue or a day marching. We have become hashtag activists.

It is not for lack of care. We all care deeply. But these kinds of actions demand less and risk less. Why go anywhere? We can sit at our laptops and participate—as much or as little as we choose. My activism can be as inactive as ordering takeout from Seamless. My generation has seen that we can love our neighbor without breaking a sweat; I can join a movement without moving.

But Judaism teaches that we have to move. We have to show up. We have to go.

Rabbi Heather Miller, “Honoring the Sixth Day Creations”
Beth Chayim Chadashim (Los Angeles, CA)

Yes, all lives matter but there is a cartoon that shows two houses– one that is ablaze and one that is not on fire and the firefighters are pouring water on the one house that is not on fire. And the caption is “All Houses Matter.” This image teaches us that we shouldn’t pay attention to the houses that are doing alright. When there is an emergency, we need to pay attention and apply resources where they are needed.

All lives matter, but the Torah itself specifies that we should care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan. The Torah doesn’t say that ALL lives matter. That is self-evident. Rather, concentration is paid to those lives that are the most vulnerable. Once upon a time, we, in the Gay community were once told that the phrase “Gay Pride” was an anti-straight movement. That gay marriage would somehow degrade straight marriage. But saying Gay lives matter does not mean that straight lives don’t matter.

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, “Never Again?”
Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple (Cleveland, OH)

Today we should be asking ourselves, are we willing to act as Moses did with strength and courage, as [Eli] Wiesel has done, with tenacity and clarity? Are we willing to take responsibility the way did, so that catastrophe affects but does not define our existence? It matters how we answer. It matters if we are willing to be strong and courageous, tenacious and clear, and not just because of Iran and Israel, America and the world. It matters because when our children raise questions, our answers to them don’t have to rely only on personal memories of victimization. Rather we can answer our questions together by acting with our children to end oppression, enslavement and catastrophe for all people, permanently.

In the New Year ahead, let us remember that although the Shoah is the single story by which the world knows us, we Jews know that surviving the Shoah wasn’t an end in itself. We didn’t just survive for our own sake. Rather we survived it so that we might do what our faith demands: to mend this broken world, and not to neglect the memory of catastrophe, even our immense catastrophe… But rather to know that there are other stories, like the one we want our children to be able to tell- of how we prevented a Shoah from ever happening again, to anyone.

Rabbi Jill Perlman, “Journeying for Racial Justice, Marching for Us All”
Temple Isaiah (Lexington, MA)

The experience of standing with and beside someone whose life history is not your own, whose oppression is not your own – that has long been a part of the Jewish foundation. We’re taught over and over again to remember that we were once strangers in a strange land, that we were slaves – and that notion, that utter embrace of that sense of ourselves as ‘other’ – that is the frame for how we are to treat those around us, those who have been other-ed at various times and in various places throughout history.                                     

It’s the foundation for our narrative as the Jewish people and in my own formation as a Jew and as a Reform Jew and as a Reform rabbi and as a human being.

Rabbi Gary Pokras, “Being Human Together”
Temple Beth Zion (Buffalo, N.Y.)

For real change, we must work to develop justice in our local relationships with our neighbors; and that means acknowledging our own hidden racism, buried deep within us. If we ignore that racism, we simply give it permission to carry on as usual. This is incredibly difficult, not only because it is not culturally acceptable, but because it is personally painful. Yet, as Mordecai Kaplan so wisely taught, teshuvah is nothing less than “the continual remaking of human nature.”

We are no better, no worse than anyone else. When we recognize this not only in our minds but in our hearts, when we feel the outrages with which our neighbors live day in and day out, then our hearts will surely break. And with broken hearts we will hear the shofar’s call to justice, and move through the broken notes of shevarim and teruah towards the long unbroken tekiah gedolah – the sound of extended wholeness, of the world as God intended it to be. Then truly, the year 5776 will become a shanah tovah.

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit, “A Prayer for the Children”
Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos Hills, CA)

We are a time-tested religion that has something to teach the world. Not only is our Torah a beacon for moral action, but so is our history. Think about Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Wiesel is not simply a chronicler of Jewish suffering and champion of Jewish survival though if he were, dayenu. He is advocate of all who are vulnerable, he shows solidarity with all who are at risk. As he said on receiving his Nobel Prize “Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, “Life Frames of Reference”
Central Synagogue (New York, N.Y.)

Ritual – you and I being here this morning – binds us to Jewish life. We are a people that transcend time and transcend geography. As a result none of us, none of us is ever alone. the hundreds of thousands of wandering homeless refugees around this world, remembering that almost all of us are descended from refugees.

Rabbi John Rosove, “Radiance in an Austere World”
Temple Israel (Hollywood, CA)

I believe that what we need in all our communications with each other these days, in face to face meetings, voice to voice, and in the ether of the multitude of communications media available to us, not only is a greater effort for us all to be kind, but a higher order of our language too. Vulgarity is neither a sign of strength or truth, and it reflects a coarse and hardened heart.

Rabbi David Segal, “A Value-Added Life”
Aspen Jewish Congregation (Aspen, CO)

Here lies an irony in synagogue life. We work so hard at marketing ourselves. We ask: How can we sell our product to the unaffiliated? We position ourselves as here to serve your needs, as if you are a consumer of the services we provide. To some extent, I suppose that’s true. But too often we lose sight of our transcendent mission. We forget that the key to a life of meaning is showing up for others. It may be countercultural, particularly in this valley, where people come to disconnect and get away from it all — especially organized religion. But Jews have always been countercultural. And so we stand proudly for the belief that the deepest way to serve you is to make demands of you. Let me say that again: The deepest way to serve you is to make demands of you. If I’m selling anything, it’s the idea that your life will be enriched when you live for others. We have to train ourselves to stop asking, “What can the community do for me?” Instead we should ask, “How can I give to others?” The ultimate irony is that if we focus on creating a culture of giving, the question of “what’s in it for me?” will take care of itself.

Rabbi Matt Soffer, “All Standing Trial”
Temple Israel (Boston, MA)

Mass incarceration is getting a whole lot of coverage, we see it, but the eyes of our eyes, remain closed to seeing our Joseph in the pit. We hear stories on the news, but the ears of our ears, are so far removed from the cries that are frankly-so close in proximity. A mile or two in each direction from where we pray, from where we recite the words of Unetaneh Tokef – our poem about criminal justice – are communities in which everyone knows someone locked up—a best friend, a cousin, a brother, a father. But the social walls between us are virtually soundproof.

Rabbi David Spinrad, “When You Will Lead and I Will Follow”
The Temple (Atlanta, GA)

Our status, though, comes at a price. Once, we surveyed the ills of society through the lens of what Rabbi Emanuel Rackman called “empathic justice.” We entered the fray with either first or second hand knowledge, as immigrants or as the children of immigrants. We knew discrimination and the personal impact of antisemitism. With empathic justice we identified with the needs, hopes, and aspirations of Black America. We shared in their defeats and frustrations. We marched arm-in-arm because we knew the “distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, [and] we projected ourselves into [the black] soul and made their plight our own.”                        

But that was then. This may yet prove to be but a window in time, but today rarely does our Jewish faith interfere with our unfettered freedom. Our hearts no longer beat for the stranger with the same emotional intensity. We are no longer strangers in the land of Egypt for we have become like Joseph in this land of opportunity.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton, “A Rosh HaShanah Sermon on Gender Equality”
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (Short Hills, N.J.)

As we engage in the process of t’shuvah, of behavioral turning and spiritual return, we can’t afford to overlook the role of gender anymore. We reduce our freedom of self-expression and ability to return to our truest selves when we tell others or ourselves that we should act a particular way simply because we are men or women.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the ways we are socialized to think about our gender play a central role in many social ills. Gender norms lead us astray and cause us to engage in harmful behaviors that we would not otherwise – even behaviors that on the surface seem relatively innocuous.

Rabbi Peter Stein, “Here Comes Moses’ People: Carrying the Torah on the Journey for Justice”
Temple B’rith Kodesh (Rochester, NY)

I spent a lot of time during the [Journey for Justice] March talking to one man, like me a father. With pain and pride in his eyes, he asked me: If I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m walking down the street minding my own business, how should I respond if the police question me about what’s in my pockets? I understand and admire and respect the incredible challenges faced by the brave men and women serving in law enforcement. I also understand, though, from the life of this African American man, the reality that he knows: the fear of harassment or worse as he goes about his life with black skin.

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, “A Letter to Hertzl”
Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA)

Theodor, I think you and I might understand one another. The challenge for me is to translate your dream and the reality of the Israel that I know and love into a vital part of the life of my congregants. I get it. Sometimes Israel can be infuriating. When politicians win elections and support ideals that challenge what we think is right, it can be hard to love Israel yet we must. When our Reform Jewish values like equality and egalitarianism are tested at our tradition’s holiest sites, it hurts. And still my congregation and I must continue to dream, plan for and build the Israel that we envision. And we must kvell for Israel. When the technologies in our smart phones and in the medications that keep us alive are improved upon and reimagined altogether by Israelis we must take immense pride. Theodor, if only I could bring my entire congregation to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and all of the glorious cities in the beautiful land, warts and all perhaps they would understand this love.

Rabbi David Thomas, “Reverence for Tradition, Commitment to Innovation”
Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley (Sudbury, MA)

There is no future without the past. Yet the past is gone, so the future is all we have. This is the paradox of our existence.

From the beginning of time, Judaism has survived and thrived on account of our ability and willingness to change. Renewal and change are crucial to the vibrancy of our communities, vital to our own religious practices and central to our own personal Jewish identities. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the perpetual cycle of rebirth and renewal of life. Let us embrace it and go forward in joy.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, “On The Day You Were Born”
Congregation Beth Elohim (Brooklyn, NY)

Looking deeply at injustice is devastating. I remember thinking that there was no place for joy in a world with so much suffering. The world felt so broken and the brokenness felt so entrenched. I watched friends become bitter and burn out, lose hope, give up. We were angry at the world. Sometimes we turned that anger on ourselves and each other.

Gratefully, just a few years into this work, I found within myself a deep yearning for a spiritual life, and I learned in time that joy is not optional. Joy is essential. Joy is what we have to balance despair. Cultivating joy enables us to bring energy and hope to a world that needs it.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, “Shanah Tovah – To a Good Year”
Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos Hills, CA)

So when we say to each other Shanah Tovah, it isn’t just a wish, we’re actually reminding each other of a challenge; the sacred work of the High Holy Days. To look for the light, whatever the circumstances in our lives. Each year, we sing in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer: “Avinu Malkeinu, chadesh aleinu Shanah Tovah, Avinu Malkeinu, renew us for a year of goodness.” Each year, this prayer calls us to renew ourselves, not just by noticing what’s good, but also by doing what’s good. In the last line, we implore: “Aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed, Save us through acts of justice and love.” But we could also translate this last line as do tzedakah and chesed with us; “USE US as instruments for justice and love.” Our tradition teaches us that if we want good things to happen, WE must be a force for goodness in the world.

Rabbi Steve Weisman, “Affirmative Judaism: Not a New Movement, But a New Moment”
Temple Solel (Bowie, MD)

My Affirmative Judaism, our Judaism, is often most strongly defined, motivated, most positively lived through relationships. Affirmative Judaism helps me to see the world through positive eyes; it encourages me to take action; it allows me to do so in a way that connects me to the past, even as I strive to live in the present and embrace the future.

As an Affirmative Jew I am empowered not only by new language, not only by a new name, but by the process of introspection and affirmation that led me to dare to suggest it in public. I hope that we all can recognize, both in my words and in my process, that each of us, too, either already is, or seeks to be, an Affirmative Jew.

Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel, “My Jewish Theology”
Temple Micah (Washington, DC)

But it is not only the imagined communities of the past that lay claim to my being, my loyalty, my actions and beliefs. It is the imagined communities of a future that I will never know. They too haunt my sleep. The eternal God cares deeply about the world beyond my own tomorrow. This is the God of judgment. For it is the present that always stands in judgment on the past. Just as we, for example, as Americans live with the burdens and challenges left to us by the American racism of the past, and just as we live as Jews with the tragedies, hauntings, challenges and the opportunities bequeathed to us, the past is always judged by the present.

My unborn grandchildren’s grandchildren will certainly judge us and our world. Their imagined voice speaks to me in a booming thunder. Am I part of a generation that is despoiling their planet? Am I preserving with integrity an inherited legacy that came to me through the accident of birth but whose history bequeathed to the world such noble ideas as the sanctity of life, freedom, justice and the rule of law? Are we able to see beyond our own needs? I feel keenly my obligation to the imagined community of the future. This, for me, is a voice of God.


These Shoes are Made for Walking: Our Collective Path in the New Year

URJ - Thu, 09/17/2015 - 16:25

TOMS Shoes have fascinated me for years. I am taken by the company’s business model and how it brought social entrepreneurship into every day vernacular. I am also grateful the shoes are priced reasonably, given my daughter wears them all the time and it makes us both feel good there is social benefit to the transaction.

When leafing through last month’s catalog I noticed these quotes:

“When people come together, they share their ideas. With collaboration, truly great things can happen.” – Elliott Bisnow, Founder, Summit.   

“Just imagine what will happen when everyone realizes their potential for good” – Toby Storie-Pugh, Explorer & Social Entrepreneur, Walk the Congo

Smart marketing? Perhaps. A pair of shoes evoking a mission and a lifestyle. So much so, that they were able to inspire me to consider how we present the impact of our work and how we tell our story. Reform Judaism is a tradition, community, and profound way of life, offering meaning and purpose through Torah. In part, our mission is to better translate how Judaism relates to each individual’s identity by being able to resonate, lift, and engage.

Two weeks ago, the URJ Youth team gathered for a Leadership Development Retreat at our own Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York. Appropriately, we stayed at camp. Immersing ourselves in the work that we do.

We took part in skill building sessions on Israel engagement, inclusion and tikkun olam. We focused on developing our teams to view challenges as opportunities for growth. As the Retreat continued, the passion for our work and determination to make a difference was so strong, it became palpable and contagious. In sync with the Jewish calendar and the month of Elul, our time of reflection was both an ending of summer and a breakthrough for new year-long beginnings.

One of our staff members mentioned that when our teens leave a NFTY retreat or URJ camp at the end of summer, they often have a transitioning moment when they say in yearning – “it’s time to go back to the Real World.” They begin the school year, delve into homework, and daily routine, with memories on their mind, the connections they’ve made, and the individual each of them grew to be through their experience.

In the same breath – that staff member, Alexa Broida, our Assistant Director of Mitzvah Corps, reminded us that this is our “Real World.” You – and I – as a collective team, get to create and shape life-changing experiences for our youth, and our priority is to expand them so their Judaism is an ongoing reality. Not just during an event, or during the summer, and not limited to just camp.

We have the opportunity to create connections this year through so many different, extraordinary facets. Our year-round offerings like the Better Together program, bridge older generations with our youth through mutual interests, while NFTY678 opens the doors of Jewish engagement to younger age groups. In our Service Corps program we tie camp to our local synagogue communities. This is our Real World. And it’s a higher call to collaborate and expand with each other.

In a way, our work is a journey. Sometimes, we need to reflect and look at our footsteps, to see how far we have come and plan the next steps ahead. I offer you this piece at a time of transition, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Growth happens in the most unexpected settings, but most of all, I think we can learn from our youth that we grow the most when we truly enjoy what we do, and have fun. Let this be a time of renewal for you and your communities, and a chance to use our tools – our offerings and programs – to walk the path.

L’Shana Tova,

Miriam Chilton

Three Congregational Programs that Prove We’re Stronger Together

URJ - Thu, 09/17/2015 - 09:00

In Jewish tradition, the theme of partnership is one that arises again and again: Adam seeks an appropriate partner from among God’s creations; Moses and Aaron are two brothers whose strengths and leadership skills complement each other; King Saul and King David both depend on Samuel the prophet to make them better rulers. Indeed, even our Reform Jewish values assert our belief that we are God’s partners in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

In our ever-changing, interdependent world, congregations are increasingly looking outside themselves for partners in the community that can enhance their programmatic offerings and increase their overall impact.

A number of Reform congregations selected as URJ Belin Outreach and Membership Award winners and honorable mention recipients are working successfully with local partners to transform their congregations:

  • Partnering with other congregations: Central Synagogue of Nassau County in Rockville Centre, N.Y., partnered with the nearby Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Emeth to create the 430 DeMott Initiative, a transformative approach to congregational programming. Events regularly take place outside the synagogues’ walls, including Shabbat on the Beach, a Hanukkah craft event held at a local craft store, and a Sukkot event with organizations working to combat homelessness in the area. The group uses social media extensively to publicize the programs to members and within the broader local Jewish community.
  • Partnering with other Jewish organizations: Temple Sholom in Vancouver, B.C., works with its local Federation and a Federation-run group for Jewish young adults to create stronger communal Jewish life in Vancouver. With the creation of East Side Jews, a series of innovative Shabbat, holiday, and social justice events run in a wide variety of settings, the congregation meets people where they are and builds relationships among local Jewish families.
  • Partnering with the larger Jewish community: Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA, hosted a conference called “Kindness Counts: Welcoming and Inclusion of LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan,” conceptualized in partnership with PROUD, the Philadelphia’s Jewish LGBTQ consortium. The conference engaged area synagogues of all denominations, whose participation led to thoughtful, inspiring ideas and concrete next steps for creating a more welcoming, inclusive Jewish community.

Whether your congregation is in a city with many other synagogues and Jewish organizations, or in a town with a small Jewish population and few Jewish communal resources, opportunities for meaningful partnerships abound, if you’re open to them.

First, identify your congregation’s shared goals and topics for collaboration, then reach out to possible partners to build successful relationships that respect differences and maintain individual congregational authenticity. As these award-winning congregational programs demonstrate, we can be stronger together.

The URJ’s Belin Outreach and Membership Awards – funded through the generosity of David Belin, z”l – are presented to up to 16 congregations for initiatives that demonstrate the concept of audacious hospitality by actively welcoming and integrating those new to Judaism, creating relationship-based engagement models, or engaging and retaining members with innovative practices. This post is the third in a series highlighting Belin Award-winning programs and the principles that guided their development. 

To learn more about audacious hospitality strategies and tools, attend the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial 2015, from November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. With 5,000 attendees from around the world, the Biennial is the largest Jewish gathering in North America. Learn more and register at

Fathers and Sons

URJ - Wed, 09/16/2015 - 12:10

The story of the binding of Isaac (the Akeidah) never fails to get inside us because death hangs in every verse. Will the boy die? Will the dad become a mourner? If this drama doesn’t give you chills, you probably aren’t listening. I know we’re supposed to be focusing on Abraham and Isaac, but I can’t stop thinking of my dad and me.

My dad took his last breath a few weeks ago after a decade of declining health. He was part of the “Greatest Generation,” the men and women who fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.” Under General Patton, my dad commanded a tank in the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest and bloodiest single battle American soldiers ever fought. After the war, he was part of an elite unit that hunted Nazis who were trying to trying to lay low. His memory, along with so many other parents and grandparents, is an everlasting blessing.

My father’s death was sad but not tragic.

On the other hand, Abdallah Kurdi’s story is, in fact, tragic. Abdallah is mourning his 3-year-old son, Aylan. Aylan’s body washed up on a Turkish beach after their dinghy, packed with Syrians desperate for a safe harbor, capsized in rough seas.

We still feel the shudders that image sent throughout the world.

Who is this Muslim Syrian boy to us? Surely, he is part of our circle of responsibility.

Having just read the Akeidah as part of our celebration of the day of remembrance and introspection, Aylan’s death cries out particularly loudly to us. He’s not solely our responsibility, of course, and though the back-story is complicated, it’s also very simple – just as it was during World War II, when righteous gentiles opened their homes to people, our people, fleeing for their lives. And, just as they refused to stand idly by, so too must we refuse to do so today.

The White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives all need to know, “not on our watch,” which is what prompted me, on behalf of our Reform Movement, to send this letter to President Obama and leaders of the Senate and House, urging swift and meaningful action to address the refugee crisis rapidly unfolding in the Middle East and Europe.

Indeed, the U.S. Administration announced last week that this country would take in 10,000 additional refugees – up from just over 1500, most of whom have come here during the last year – but we must do better. Regardless of the fact that the Gulf States have not lifted a finger to help, their inaction cannot stop us from doing the right thing.

According to our tradition angels, unlike we human beings, cannot be late. Indeed, in the Akeidah narrative, an angel of the most high arrives just in time to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac.

Tragically, we woke up too late to save Aylan Kurdi.

And in an ironic twist that my dad never would have believed, it is Germany that is leading the moral charge to accept today’s Syrian refuges.

Even as we know that the Akeidah tests Abraham, let us not be fooled: it is our moral credibility that’s on the line today.

Neither lethargy nor complicated international and political analyses must keep us from stepping up now.

* * *

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has created resources and opportunities to enable every individual to step up in response to this humanitarian crisis:

  1. Learn more about the refugee crisis, its roots, and the global response.
  2. Add a special prayer to your High Holiday observance.
  3. Urge lawmakers to respond.
  4. For Canadian congregations: sponsor a refugee family.  (Current U.S. law does not allow congregations to sponsor refugees, and changing the U.S. law likely will take significant time. For now, our recommendations include other direct actions congregations and families can take to help individual refugees or families.)

This article is adapted from remarks Rabbi Jacobs delivered on the first day of Rosh HaShanah at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.

6 “Can’t Miss” Youth Engagement Opportunities at the 2015 URJ Biennial

URJ - Mon, 09/14/2015 - 16:22

These days, it’s tough to go five minutes without buzzing. Technology is everywhere, and with it comes a constant connection to everyone’s favorite: social networks. Here at the URJ, we are proud to offer programs and camps to form a different kind of social network. One where cell phones are replaced by laughter around a dining hall table and Facebook is set aside for an old-fashioned game of cards.

As the in-person social network of your child’s life, with more than 15,000 participants each year, we understand the power of youth engagement. Join us at the URJ Biennial on November 4-8, 2015, as we explore ways to bring young people together:

  • Delve into sessions covering topics from inclusion strategies to innovative models of synagogue-based youth engagement. Learn about design thinking, partnership opportunities, and more. (See partial list of sessions below).
  • Join our youth and social justice experts to learn about reaching more of your synagogue’s young people through social action modalities. David Bryfman, Chief Learning Officer at the Jewish Education Project, Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center, and Miriam Chilton, Vice President of Youth at the URJ, will guide us through an exciting and thoughtful afternoon. Bring your creative ideas and be prepared to share them!
  • Take a trip down memory lane to revisit the major accomplishments of Reform Jewish young people through history. From the Civil Rights movement to Soviet Jewry – our youth have been taking part in changing the world for almost a hundred years. Cap off the experience with an interactive look at NFTY’s current world-changing campaign, focused on gun violence prevention in the United States.
  • Learn alongside the brightest young leaders in our movement, as we open the full Biennial experience to youth and invite high school students to join as delegates.
  • If you have a teen yourself, consider bringing them along. High school delegates will have the opportunity to learn, share opinions, celebrate Shabbat, and get to know North American leaders of the Reform movement. As part of a special “High School Cohort”, NFTY staff professionals will serve as mentors, helping teens navigate the Biennial, choose sessions, and create a micro-community to debrief and check-in throughout the event. View more details on high school attendees.
  • Bring the younger kids, too! This year, we’re introducing Biennial Camp – a unique experience for children entering pre-K through 8th grade. Designed to make the URJ Biennial a full family event, Biennial Camp will offer many of the best aspects of URJ camping for various age groups, while allowing parents to attend sessions. Camp staff are planning the fun, and they can’t wait to welcome the campers!

So go ahead: log off and come experience the best in-person social network out there.

List of Youth related sessions:

  • Forging Partnerships Between Camps and Congregations
  • Full-Time Jewish Youth Professionals: Finding Good People and Keeping Them There!
  • Making B’nei Mitzvah Meaningful for All Students: Inclusion in Religious School and the Service
  • Not Just Sunday School: Creative Models for Congregational Student Learning
  • Redefining the B’nai Mitzvah Project
  • Actualizing Audacious Hospitality through Adaptive Leadership
  • Beyond Buzzwords: Engaging in Gun Violence Prevention with your Congregation and NFTY
  • B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Laboratory
  • Engaging and Embracing All of Our Families from Early Childhood through Confirmation
  • Synagogue and Day School Partnerships: A Means to Support Families, Engage Youth and Enrich Community
  • Innovative Models of Synagogue-Based Youth Engagement


Dan Lange is the Associate Director of Camping at the Union for Reform Judaism. He is a filmmaker, a Jewish educator, and a summer camp enthusiast. Dan holds an MBA and a Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Leadership from Brandeis University, where he was named a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar. Prior to joining the URJ professional team, Dan was a Youth Director at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA and the Associate Director of NFTY Convention, NFTY’s biannual gathering of Reform Jewish teens from across North America.

Learning Their “Truths” – Talking to Kids About Camp

URJ - Sun, 09/13/2015 - 16:23

Several weeks ago, I had the honor to learn with teen leaders from two of our NFTY regions. I asked them to share with me their truths – the things they have learned about themselves and the world, that are central to the way they live. Truths can be found in questions like: What do you stand for? What do you value? What are your boundaries? Who are you aspiring to become? 

As the teens shared with me what they believed, I was struck by the depth of their views and the sophistication with which they spoke. It dawned on me that this is what holy community is – a place where your truths are nurtured, celebrated and shared.

We know that camp does an amazing job of building this community – this holy place where our participants can share and celebrate their truths.   Congregational professionals often share with me that one of the most gratifying aspects of their work is talking to kids about camp and helping them find their “summer home.”

Service Corps, a program started by the URJ two years ago that is generously supported by an anonymous donor, brings camp staff to congregations for four to five hours a week in the months of September to June. Staff members create informal, camp-like programming, and essentially – connect camp to the congregation and the congregation to camp. They create the “backdrop” and cultivate the relationships to have meaningful conversations with kids and parents about camp. Our Service Corps Fellows have used lots of great programs and strategies – many of which are outlined in our Service Corps Idea Book. I wanted to share with you four ways to engage kids about camp that have been especially successful, so that you may use them as ideas for your own congregation:

  1. Camp Vacation Days – an idea that came to us from Seth Marion at Larchmont Temple, New York. Realizing many schools have half days during the year that parents aren’t sure what to do with, the congregation created “Camp LT” – an afternoon “taste of camp.” Kids enjoyed lunch together and activities like 6 Points Sci-Tech experimenting, team building field games from Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, ga-ga, and camp crafts. During the program, Seth was able to talk to the kids about camp, Sci-Tech, and finding their people in a summer community.
  2. Camp Shabbat – Many congregations seek to host a camp-style Shabbat for families. Partnered with congregational leadership, our Service Corps Fellows decorated halls with vintage camp t-shirts, served camp desserts like smores and ice cream, and engaged kids to share camp stories during services. They led Israeli dance, did tye-dying during oneg and handed out camp flyers and gear to families. The Fellows recruited “parent ambassadors” who spread the word and invited more people.
  3. Camp Play Areas – When we think about camp recruitment, we may think of starting with our second and third graders. However, it may be helpful to get camp on the radar earlier. Sarina Lapin at Congregation B’nei Shalom in Westborough, Massachusetts, helped create a camp pre-school play area, complete with clipboards, photos, camp t-shirts, camp music, craft supplies, and books about sleepaway camp. It served as a great starting point for talking to young families about camp and the future impact it can have on their children and family.
  4. Wear Your Camp Shirt – Our Service Corps Fellows, along with the professional staff at their congregations, have been wearing their camp t-shirts a lot more.  Whether at experiential education programs, family picnics, or sukkah parties, they have found that the t-shirt can be a great conversation starter with families who are thinking about camp, but aren’t sure where to start. And to take it a step further – bring some extras to hand out to your kids!


Michelle Shapiro Abraham is the Director of Program Development for URJ Youth. Michelle received her Masters in Jewish Education from the HUC Los Angeles and has since worked as a synagogue educator, consultant, mentor, author and speaker.  She is the author of the URJ CHAI Family Education curriculum, the new CCAR Press Mishkan T’fillah for Children, as well as numerous other curricula and children’s books.  In addition to her other consulting work, Michelle currently serves as the Senior Program Manager for URJ Camping and is on the Clinical Faculty of the HUC Executive Master’s in Jewish Education Program.  

This Month in The Tent: Policies and Ideas for Your Congregation

URJ - Fri, 09/11/2015 - 12:00

As 5776 gets into gear, congregational leaders are asking lots of terrific questions in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum. In response, those leaders with relevant experiences, practical information, and useful suggestions are sharing their expertise.

These topics, in particular, are fueling interesting dialogue:

  • Does your congregation have policies about its membership roster? Can members access it for professional networking, marketing, or other purposes? Is it off-limits, or is it printed and distributed to congregants? Check out the conversation to learn more.
  • Are you looking for something other than the president’s Kol Nidre appeal to kick off this year’s giving? Or perhaps you’ve found an especially effective annual appeal technique that other congregations might replicate. Join the conversation to share your experience.
  • If your congregation streams worship services, are you aware of the associated copyright clearance issues related to worship music? Learn how other synagogues manage this challenge.
  • What are your congregation’s policies regarding children in the synagogue preschool? Do their families have to be members? Chime in on the conversation.

During this busy High Holiday season, feel free to come on into The Tent to join the conversations and explore the wealth of resources and information available around all aspects of congregational life. For additional support, contact the URJ Knowledge Network team.

Learning Opportunity: Closing the Gap between Good Intentions and Bad Results

URJ - Thu, 09/10/2015 - 15:00

In the coming months, the URJ’s Leadership Institute will offer a Scholar Series on Leadership, in which three experts each will lead a virtual discussion about a topic relevant to congregational leadership. The first scholar is Allison Fine, who will discuss value alignment and “matterness.” Here, she offers a sneak peek into her session.

By Allison Fine

Nearly every synagogue faces enormous pressure to recruit and retain members. Yet, when Big Tent Judaism conducted its signature research project (the Environmental Community Outreach Scan) in northern Westchester county last year to test, among other things, how “warm and welcoming” synagogues were, an overwhelming number of synagogues failed to respond to emails and calls from prospective members. While there were nuances, the bottom line is that synagogues are not as responsive as they think we are.

These failures reflect the enormous gap between the good intentions of people running synagogues and the actual experiences of new or existing members. People have lots of choices about where and how to spend their time and money, and increasingly, they reject institutions that use a secret language, make them feel anonymous and unimportant, talk at them rather than with them, and only seem to need them when their dues are late.

This behavior confounds the synagogue leaders who are working so hard to keep people engaged and informed. “We’re busy every day!” they say – answering calls, sending out letters and bills, getting kids ready for their b’nai mitzvah. Yet it is exactly this internal busy-ness, the fear of losing control and the obsession with efficiency, that pushes people farther away.

There is an alternative to this way of thinking and working that I call “matterness.”

Matterness means refocusing efforts to make sure people feel known, acknowledged, and powerful. It happens everywhere – online and on land, in the hallways, in boardrooms, and in living rooms.

Matterness means asking more than telling, putting aside the old management mantras that staff are supposed to have all of the answers and that working fast is the same as working smart.

Here are a few steps congregations can take to increase matterness and begin to close the gap between the values synagogues espouse and the experience of potential and existing members:

1. Check your default settings.

The culture of an institution reflects the values and assumptions of its leaders. If leaders are afraid to let go – if they assume that the answers are all inside and never outside – then the default settings, automatic responses, and processes become closed rather than open. The result is that synagogues become fortresses in which it is difficult for prospective members to know what goes on inside, much less get in to see for themselves. It is the reason so much time is spent in meetings discussing what could possibly go wrong – if the likelihood of that happening is very small.

These defaults need to be questioned to figure out what is powering the to-do list. Questions can include:

  • What are we doing to encourage or discourage new ideas and experiments?
  • To whom do we talk regularly? If it’s the same people over and over again, how can we break this pattern?
  • Do we create new programs behind closed doors rather than talk to our congregants about developing new ones together? Do we even need new programs, or could we just get together and socialize without agendas and curricula and speakers?
2. Work with your people, not at them.

Too often, annual programming becomes a cycle of doing the same thing as last year, with few changes. Time to wake up from business-as-usual!Figuring out what’s going to happen next year shouldn’t just happen behind closed doors, especially when there’s a wealth of latent capital sitting untapped in your congregation.

Ask congregants for their reaction to programming ideas online before they’re set in stone. You can even run a Sunday afternoon programming day where congregants can participate in developing programs that interest them and that they spearhead. Your congregants have skills, passions, creativity, and connections that will be unleashed only when you start co-creating programs with rather than at.

3. Measure matterness.

Synagogues often measure outputs: how many people show up to events, how many new members join, how much was donated to our annual fund. These are useful proxies for satisfaction, but they aren’t enough.

Congregations need to know whether and how they are making people feel known, cared for, and empowered. The questions have to be asked explicitly: “How do we make you feel?” Do you feel like you are known and appreciated here? “When and how do we make you feel like an ATM?” And, of course, “How could we make you feel like you matter more to us?”

Synagogues are vitally important in communities, but before you create one more program or have one more staff meeting that focuses on what could possibly go wrong, stop and ask yourself this question: How would working this way make you feel if you were on the outside looking in?

To learn more about values alignment and matterness, register now for Allison Fine’s online scholarsession Making People Matter – More than Just Something We Say,” Wednesday, September 30th at 8 p.m. EDT.

Allison Fine is among the preeminent guides to the social media revolution. She is author of Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World. In addition, she is the author of the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, co-author of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit.  She is a member of the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism and serves on the boards of Civic Hall, NARAL, and The Sunlight Foundation

Five Great Congregational Programs are All About Building Strong Relationships

URJ - Tue, 09/08/2015 - 09:00

Congregations increasingly recognize and understand that it is personal relationships that keep members committed and engaged with the community. These relationships – with clergy, staff, and each other – promote a sense of belonging, value, and meaning, and ultimately, an investment in the overall strength and success of the community.

A number of Reform congregations recently received Belin Outreach and Membership Awards or honorable mentions from the URJ for their work to promote authentic, meaningful relationships among members. They are experimenting with various models (and, yes, programs!) that empower congregants to nurture relationships on their own and to connect with others in the larger congregational community.

These peer-to-peer program models encourage congregants to facilitate small-scale programs – sometimes even in their own homes.

  • Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, N.J., created Hanukkah in the ‘Hood, at which members hosted other members, unaffiliated friends, and community members in their homes for festival candle lighting. In addition to positioning lay leaders as ritual and religious leaders in their own homes, the initiative promoted a sense of community beyond the synagogue walls.
  • Shalom @ Home, a program of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA, invited every adult congregant to, during the course of a year, attend a small social gathering hosted by another member. Guest lists for each event were carefully compiled so that each congregant knew at least one other person attending and had an opportunity to meet others. The synagogue’s senior staff members facilitated meaningful discussions designed to help guests reflect on their relationship to the community, as well as expand and deepen their connections to others.

Staff-initiated program models developed in several congregations were particularly innovative in their content:

  • Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, launched Bumps, Babies, and Beyond to provide a context in which Jewish families with young children could forge key relationships within a synagogue environment. Offering classes for every developmental stage, beginning with parenting classes for first-time expecting couples and continuing for three years, the congregation offers free classes for a year to families that join the synagogue.
  • Rabbi’s Coffee Klatch was born when Jews-by-choice at Congregation Oheb Sholom, in Reading, PA, expressed how much they missed the private learning sessions with the rabbi that had been part of their conversion process. Meeting as a group allowed members to form relationships with each other, strengthen their ties to the congregation, and feel supported by the rabbi in the years after their formal conversion.
  • Drawing on the time-honored Texas tradition of football to bring people together, Adat Chaverim in Plano, TX, hosts Super Shabbat, a football-themed Shabbat. In addition to worship, the annual event includes team jerseys, a “tailgate” dinner, and a special oneg, complete with trivia and an amateur photo booth. Super Shabbat is now an important part of the community’s minhag (tradition), bringing together most of the Adat Chaverim families and inspiring a few new ones to join each year.

Creating opportunities for members and potential members to gather, meet, and engage with one another in meaningful ways is essential for synagogue success. Thoughtful and innovative initiatives that foster these relationships and connections are sure to enrich the congregations – and the individuals involved in the activities.

The URJ’s Belin Outreach and Membership Awards – funded through the generosity of David Belin, z”l – are presented to up to 16 congregations for initiatives that demonstrate the concept of audacious hospitality by actively welcoming and integrating those new to Judaism, creating relationship-based engagement models, or engaging and retaining members with innovative practices. This post is one in a series highlighting Belin Award-winning programs and the principles that guided their development. 

To learn more about audacious hospitality strategies and tools, attend the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial 2015, from November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. With 5,000 attendees from around the world, the Biennial is the largest Jewish gathering in North America. Learn more and register at

What Makes Jewish Science Camp So Special?

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

by Stephen Weitzman

At the beginning of many episodes of his epic Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling would often intone,

“You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

That description could be printed in a brochure or painted on a wall to describe URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, where imagination, mind, and Judaism were all present this summer as 5th – 10th grade campers energetically and joyfully learned Jewish values while participating in robotics, video game design, web and graphic design, earth and sky, forensics, digital film, and rocketry.

In the course of each day at Governor’s Academy in Byfield, MA, campers were constantly reminded of the goals of camp: sakranut, curiosity; kesher, connection; taglit, discovery; savlanut, patience; and kavod, respect. These values were present in everything they did, including the morning’s “Boker Big Bang” opening, at each meal, in the workshops, in the chugim (workshops), during sports time, and during menucha (rest time).

During robotics, lead instructor Devon added a sixth goal to the mix: g’mishut, flexibility. All day, every day, everyone at camp was constantly reminded of the camp’s unique formula: Science + Judaism = Fun.

Many informally learned a seventh goal: shituf p’ulah, cooperation, and respect for other people’s opinions and ideas. Campers were always together; no camper was ever alone. Those who were considered loners at home because of their special interests or academic abilities worked in partnership with instructors and campers who spoke the same technical language.

Discovery took place everywhere.

As faculty, my role was to be a Reform Jewish role model for the campers and counselors, while bringing them knowledge of Reform Judaism through a morning drash (story) during each day’s opening exercise, during Boker Big Bang (when, yes, stuff was blown up!), through Shabbat service prep, during b’nai mitzvah tutoring, by delivering a d’var Torah on Shabbat morning, by teaching an evening workshop to the counselors and staff (I chose to discuss Jewish identity), by teaching a “Shabbat Shalective” after morning services (I did mine on Golem, Dybbuks, and other Jewish tales), and by having numerous, informal camper-generated conversations.

During these conversations, I learned about the relationship between black holes and quasars (quasars are super massive black holes emitting light from the infall of large quantities of matter), what happens if you displace a point (zero dimension), a line (one dimension), a square (two dimensions), a cube (three dimensions), or a tesseract (a four-dimensional analog of a cube). Rabbi Chanina, the great Talmudic sage, was correct when he said, “Much wisdom have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and from my students most of all.”

Being in the MIT corridor north of Boston enabled campers to participate in unusual summer camp trip experiences. No amusement parks for this group! The digital film workshop went to New England Film Studios for a firsthand look at an actual sound stage and to learn how professional lighting for films is accomplished. The forensics workshop visited the Boston University School of Medicine; web and graphic design campers toured Microsoft; video game design campers visited Turbine Games (where the campers learned the importance and significance of non-disclosure agreements); and robotics campers visited the robotics lab at Northeastern University. Each group then met at the Museum of Science in Boston and spent the afternoon viewing “The Science Behind Pixar” exhibit.

Even the trip back to camp was treated as a scientific investigation, as the buses were pelted with hail and heavy rain during a freak summer storm. The campers considered it all an experiment and tried to feel the impact of the hail on the bus roof by placing their hands against the ceiling as the downpour hit.

In the videos on the Sci-Tech blog, you can sense the excitement and joy of each camper, all of whom said they were going to urge their parents to let them return. Each 10th grade camper spoke glowingly about wanting to return as machon, counselors-in-training in two years – quite an accomplishment for a camp that had its pioneer season just last summer!

Indeed, although URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy is only in its second year of operation, it functions as though it has been in operation for a decade or more. It is a remarkable place, helping unlock the door to science and Reform Judaism with imagination. It is, as Rod Serling might have said, “a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas, a dimension of Judaism and of mind.” And it is most assuredly incredible.

Stephen Weitzman is a member of the URJ North American Board. He is also a member of the North American Camp Commission and serves as the chair of the URJ’s Special Needs Camping Committee. Weitzman is a past president of the URJ – Greater New York Council, has been a religious school teacher at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, N.Y., for 35 years, and considers it an honor and a privilege to have been a member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Faculty in both years of its operation.

Two-Fold High Holiday Prep: Our Congregations and Ourselves

URJ - Tue, 09/01/2015 - 04:00

As congregational leaders, you may find that the month of Elul and the High Holidays fly by in a whirl of logistical details – arranging for tickets, ensuring enough chairs, assigning aliyot, planning the community’s break-the-fast – necessary to ensure meaningful worship for members and visitors alike. That is indeed holy work.

In your role, it is all too easy to get caught up in the “to do mode.” Often, we fail to devote adequate time and attention to cheshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of the soul) – the act of taking stock of the spiritual health of both ourselves as individuals and our congregations.

Adult education sessions, board discussions, and/or Selichot programming and worship are among the varied ways you and your fellow lay and professional leaders can perform this communal stock-taking. These practices can help to identify community-wide qualities to celebrate, as well as challenges for which the congregation might wish to explore improvements or solutions to implement in the coming year.

But we must not forget to take care of ourselves spiritually, too, just as we do physically. Undertaking the sacred endeavor to bring yourself to a place of personal spiritual readiness for the High Holidays, as well as to continue that assessment throughout the Days of Awe, is a demanding and equally important task, especially as a congregational leader.

Marge Piercy writes eloquently about cheshbon ha’ nefesh in her poem “Coming up on September,” which says, in part:

The New Year is a great door
that stands across the evening and Yom
Kippur is the second door. Between them
are song and silence, stone and clay pot
to be filled from within myself.

I will find there both ripeness and rot,
what I have done and undone,
what I must let go with the waning days
and what I must take in. With the last
tomatoes, we harvest the fruit of our lives.

Just as ripe tomatoes are associated with late summer, pomegranates – rich in Jewish symbolism – often are linked to Rosh HaShanah, and incorporated into families’ holiday celebrations, particularly among the Sephardim. Images of pomegranates adorned the high priests’ robes in Temple times, as well as columns in King Solomon’s temple. In addition, the Hebrew word for pomegranate is rimon, which is the same as for the crowns that decorate many Torah scrolls, which contain our people’s story and guide our actions throughout the year. Today, the fruit’s many seeds are a sign of our hopes for abundant blessings and mitzvot in our midst during the new year.

As you continue to prepare your congregations and yourselves for the High Holiday season, may you take to heart the words of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook – “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be made holy” – finding meaning, fulfillment, renewal, and holiness in each of the important endeavors associated with the High Holiday season.

Having a pomegranate on our Rosh HaShanah tables might be something brand new for some of us, signaling that our spiritual growth can arise from both ancient and contemporary sources. Inspired by Rav Kook’s teaching will we be ready to consecrate new liturgical practices, new machzorim (High Holiday prayer books), new clergy and new congregational experiments – while at the very same moment finding new meaning in the familiar practices that might otherwise be performed by rote?

Just as the pomegranate overflows with seeds, may 5776, too, find you, your loved ones, and your congregational family overflowing with blessings, mitzvot, and the joys of Jewish living.

Shanah tovah um’tukah!


Three Great Congregational Programs that Tackle the Challenge of Demographic Diversity

URJ - Tue, 09/01/2015 - 04:00

Today’s congregations face a wide range of changing demographics. Many communities are experiencing a geographic shift, as older adults age in place, families move into new suburban areas, and younger Jews flock to revitalized downtown areas.

As a result, members of local Jewish communities are often in completely disparate locations, providing synagogues with both an opportunity and a challenge: With limited resources spread in more directions than ever, how can congregations experiment with new models of engagement to draw in their target audiences?

Three Reform congregations received URJ Belin Awards or honorable mentions for the ways they’re “meeting people where they are” – creatively adapting their engagement strategies in response to local community needs, thereby enabling their congregations to successfully meet and engage people where they live and work.

  1. Targeting young adults in urban areas: Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, recognized that in their Jewish community, as in so many others, young adults are increasingly moving into downtown areas, geographically removed from suburban synagogues. Through a new initiative, Sinai in the City, the congregation hosts Shabbat and holiday events in various downtown venues, providing a welcoming, low-barrier Jewish experience for city-dwelling young adults under age 40.
  1. Engaging families with young children: North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL, created Strollers, Stories, and Celebrations after learning that a critical time to connect families with Jewish networks and organizations is when children are under the age of 2. Seeking to engage both affiliated and unaffiliated families – including grandparents – the congregation began organizing monthly gatherings, both in the synagogue and in other venues families naturally visit, such as a local bookstore. This initiative offers opportunities for families to explore Jewish life through programs around Shabbat and holidays, form friendships with others, and continue learning through books or music they bring home from the event.
  1. Taking on suburban sprawl: Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO, developed Neighborhood Groups to help congregants feel connected within their sprawling congregational community. By training “neighborhood captains” who plan events that bring members together in their local area for shared activities – a Shabbat dinner, a sukkah party, hamantaschen baking, a weekend picnic in a local park, or a social action initiative – the congregation fosters small-group friendships and connections within the large congregational family. Building on these gatherings, the neighborhood groups also come together to support one another in times of both sadness and celebration.

By creatively meeting and engaging people where they are, congregations can foster relationships and connections among people that not only bring meaning to their lives, but also transform the individuals and the community as a whole.

The URJ’s Belin Outreach and Membership Awards – funded through the generosity of David Belin, z”l – are presented to up to 16 congregations for initiatives that demonstrate the concept of audacious hospitality by actively welcoming and integrating those new to Judaism, creating relationship-based engagement models, or engaging and retaining members with innovative practices. This post is one in a series highlighting Belin Award-winning programs and the principles that guided their development.

To learn more about audacious hospitality strategies and tools, attend the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial 2015, from November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. With 5,000 attendees from around the world, the Biennial is the largest Jewish gathering in North America. Learn more and register at

How Synagogues Can Prioritize Disability Inclusion This High Holiday Season

URJ - Fri, 08/28/2015 - 13:02

by Jay Ruderman

With the High Holidays just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking themselves how they can become more holy and inclusive communities.

In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change often occurs because a rabbi, a professional or a lay leader understands the value of inclusion of all people and makes it a priority. If there ever was a time for leaders to step up to the plate and help their synagogues become more inclusive — to welcome diverse people with varying abilities and find a place for them in the community — it’s during the Days of Awe.

Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad, an Orthodox Union-affiliated organization that works toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, said that the High Holidays seem almost designed to raise awareness of people with disabilities. “Every aspect of the high holiday experience is infused with rituals that draw on the senses,” she said. “From the food we eat, to the sound and vibrations of the shofar, we are reminded of the varied ways people experience life.”

So how can congregations take advantage of this calling to become more inclusive communities?

The obvious answer is that they can implement best practices in making their physical spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. They can print books with larger text, embrace hearing loop technologies to assist people who are hard of hearing, train ushers to recognize and assist people with disabilities, make every part of the building wheelchair accessible, and establish an inclusion committee to continually expand inclusive practices.

The broader answer is that they can demonstrate leadership and work to create a powerful culture of inclusion among congregants so that inclusion pervades all aspects of congregational life, and thereby change basic attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Ed Frim, an inclusion specialist at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that true inclusion goes much deeper than making synagogue life accessible. “Inclusive congregations are mindful of everyone who is part of the community,” he said. “They establish a culture that takes for granted that all, including those with disabilities, have the right to fully participate as part of the congregation.”

“It’s not just about training ushers to be welcoming to people with disabilities and helping them find their way, it’s about turning the entire congregation into ushers, who seek to create a welcoming environment,” he said.

Just as important as building a culture of inclusion is affecting a shift in attitude about how we think of disabilities. Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto recalls an aha moment when his perspective on disabilities changed from seeing just the disability to seeing the whole person.

A senior in high school had come to speak at a retreat Cheses was attending. The student had a muscular disorder that required him to be in a wheelchair. It was clear from the moment he began speaking that this charismatic young man was not defined by his disability.

“He asked us to take out a piece of paper and make a list of [perceived] personal shortcomings …,” recounted Rabbi Cheses. “We were then instructed to introduce ourselves to the person next to us in the following way: “Hi, my name is X, and I have such and such ….”

“For a moment, I felt what it was like to be identified by my personal limitations…as if my passions and talents were being overshadowed and pushed aside by something beyond my control.”

It was that realization, among others, that motivated Rabbi Cheses to seek change in his congregation. The congregation made physical changes — among other things, it built an accessible ark — but the rabbi also sought to make spiritual changes and help his congregants experience the same aha moment that he had at the retreat.

Indeed, it is these spiritual changes — viewing all of God’s people as bringing unique contributions to the world — that can turn a congregation from a collection of people to a holy community. This time of reflection and renewal provides the perfect moment for such a shift to take place.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. The foundation is holding the 2015 Ruderman Inclusion Summit Nov. 1-2 in Boston. Registration information is available here. He’s on Twitter @jayruderman.

This piece originally appeared on JTA and is republished with permission.

What My Vacation Taught Me About Audacious Hospitality

URJ - Wed, 08/26/2015 - 09:00

by Frieda Hershman Huberman

Vacation enables us to reflect, rejuvenate, recharge our batteries, and look at life from a fresh perspective – and sometimes, it’s the actual vacation experience itself that becomes a learning opportunity. While on a short getaway this summer, I gleaned new insights on audacious hospitality, one of the Reform Movement’s top priorities.

  1. Taking the first step toward change is difficult.
    During my childhood, my family vacationed at Beach Front Gardens in Atlantic City. My parents chose to return for a week each summer because it suited our needs and was a known commodity. Our motel was just seconds from the boardwalk and ocean, had a kitchenette, and was a short walk from my grandparents’ home. I wondered, though, why we never tried a different motel or destination.Years later, my husband and I found a motel that was close to a great beach and to child-friendly attractions; it became our family summer vacation destination. Eventually, my children outgrew some of the town’s attractions and the motel became less well-maintained than it had been in the past. Still, it was familiar to us, and so one year, when I suggested a different destination, my children and husband adamantly objected.Two years later, though, my family agreed to make a change. Taking that first step and making a change – even if it it’s just for something low-stakes and fun – can be intimidating. So, too, can taking the first step be difficult or intimidating for a seeker interested in enrolling in an Introduction to Judaism class or contemplating attending Shabbat services for the first time (or for the first time in many years). A high school friend of mine engaged in 20 years of spiritual wrestling before finally embarking on her conversion journey. As congregational leaders, our duty is to facilitate that first step and make it as barrier-free and accessible as possible.
  2. Words matter.
    Now empty-nesters, my husband and I recently enjoyed a weekend getaway in Cape May, N.J. While strolling from our motel to the center of town, we noticed a sign outside Congress Hall, a storied hotel that read “Hospitality Since 1832.” The owners of Congress Hall might have stated “Open Since 1832,” or “In Business Since 1832,” but the word “hospitality” connotes a conscious message of welcoming.What messages are we conveying in our ads, on our temple websites and when we answer the temple’s office telephone? How hospitable are we?
  3. Beware of unintended hidden messages.
    During the four afternoons I spent on the beach in Cape May, I noticed only four families-of-color, including one Hispanic-American family and one Indian-American family. Whereas other beaches we’ve visited in the past had a broader ethnic and racial mix, I wondered why Cape May’s visitors appeared to be more homogeneous. Perusing various Cape May tourist websites, I noted that individuals pictured at restaurants, shops, hotels, pedestrian malls, and beaches were all white. I certainly hope the website designers did not intend to be exclusive, but the pictures conveyed a “whites only” message.What hidden messages may we inadvertently convey to seekers – and to our own members?
  4. The human touch can clinch the deal.
    Like thousands of other vacationers, my husband and I chose our motel and restaurants based on ratings from TripAdvisor. However, the personal attention we received —or didn’t — from staff factored into all our decisions. For example, when making a restaurant reservation, if the clerk sounded too snooty, we chose another place to dine. Conversely, when a server politely pointed out that a particular salad contained shellfish that we wanted to avoid, and continued to offer outstanding personalized service throughout our meal, my husband and I noted that we definitely would return to the restaurant on our next visit to Cape May. As the owner of our motel wisely told us, “We may be #4 on TripAdvisor, but we want to treat you as if we have been rated #1.” How many temples, early childhood programs, adult learning opportunities, and religious schools can claim the same aspirations and personal follow-up?

In all our interactions with members and seekers, let us be mindful that change is difficult, words matter, unintended messages can be harmful, and the human, personal touch is invaluable.

Frieda Hershman Huberman is the Union for Reform Judaism’s manager of Introduction to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism®, which empower seekers on their Jewish journeys.

Reform Jewish Movement Response to Iran Deal: Address Important Concerns, Focus on the Day After

URJ - Wed, 08/19/2015 - 11:38

Whether the JCPOA is approved or defeated, there will be a day after. It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews.

Following extensive consultations with experts from across the political spectrum in both the United States and Israel, and thoughtful conversation with North American Reform Jewish leaders, the Reform Jewish Movement today issued a leadership statement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The statement – released today by the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and ARZA – concludes that “there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position ‘for’ or ‘against’ the JCPOA itself.” Rather, the statement emphasizes, “Our focus must be on two questions: First, how is it possible to address our concerns about the JCPOA? Second, if the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after? Specifically, how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?”

Looking toward the “day after,” the leadership statement noted that “Whether the JCPOA is approved or defeated, there will be a day after. It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews.”

The statement also addressed the tone of the debate, saying “We call upon the Israeli leadership, the U.S. Administration and members of Congress, and those on all sides of this debate to tamp down their rhetoric. If the debate is allowed to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance, or further sharpen partisan divides over what it means to be ‘pro-Israel,’ Israel will be less secure.”

The full statement follows.

NEW YORK, NY, August 19, 2015 — Our tradition teaches us never to wage war without first seeking vigorously the possibility of peace (Deut. 20:10). In that spirit, we applaud the diplomatic efforts of the Obama Administration to keep Iran from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons. We thank President Obama for his commitment to diplomacy, and we express our gratitude to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for keeping the world focused on the danger posed by Iran.

The end product of the Administration’s diplomatic efforts – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – is challenging to analyze. Some argue that it offers the most promising path forward to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. Others argue that while the agreement has serious flaws, the consequences of rejecting it create far more perils and damage than implementing it would. Still others argue that it does not do enough to prevent and/or contain the danger that a nuclear Iran would pose. We recognize that these arguments have merit: The JCPOA does present a way forward, there are real dangers to rejecting it, and it does not foreclose Iran’s ability to become a nuclear weapons threshold state.

The Reform Movement is large and diverse. Within the Movement, reasonable people — patriotic Americans and passionate Zionists — have expressed different and valid positions on this agreement, articulating the many arguments made by others as well.

Our focus must be on two questions: First, how is it possible to address our concerns about the JCPOA? Second, if the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after? Specifically, how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?

At this time, there is no unity of opinion among the Reform Movement leadership – lay and rabbinic alike – just as there is not unity among our membership as to the JCPOA itself; but there is unity as to the important questions and concerns we pose in this statement.  Thus, there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position “for” or “against” the JCPOA itself.

The Vital Strategic Importance of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

The U.S.-Israel relationship is of historic and strategic importance. It is based on shared values and common concerns. The health of that relationship must never be jeopardized or allowed to become a partisan political issue. Now, more than ever, it is critical to solidify the unique relationship between the U.S. and Israel. The words of Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin ring in our ears: “There are three tenets to Israeli foreign policy, which are the strategic alliance with the United States, the strategic alliance with the United States, and the strategic alliance with the United States.”

We are deeply concerned about the tension, and the harsh rhetoric, in the discourse between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. We fervently hope that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will take concrete steps, transcending politics, to repair the rifts that impede this relationship between longstanding and essential allies. We say this sincerely believing that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are fully committed to the unique U.S.-Israel relationship and with appreciation for the President’s many efforts to support Israel.

It is important to emphasize that as American Jews, we are concerned about this agreement not only as Jews, but also as Americans. Iran’s regime poses a serious security threat to the people and nations of the region who continue to suffer from Iran’s support for violence and terror, including the State of Israel.

Our Concerns

We have had numerous conversations with and briefings from experts on global security and diplomacy, military experts from the U.S. and Israel, Republican and Democratic elected officials, and Israeli political leaders from the left, center, and right.  Those extensive consultations leave us with five principal areas of concern: deterrence, Iran’s support of terror, inspections, human rights and religious freedom, and the United States’ standing in the world.

Deterrence: We call on President Obama to issue an unequivocal statement that at no point will the U.S. accept a nuclear-armed Iran. The Administration must state clearly that in the short term, and more importantly, 15 years from now when key provisions of the JCPOA expire, the U.S. will take no option off the table when it comes to preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability. We also call on the U.S. to provide Israel with the support necessary, including advanced weaponry and the means to deliver it, to further deter Iran, protect Israel’s security, and maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. This could take the form of a new defense alliance between the U.S. and Israel similar to NATO.  These steps are necessary both because of the prospect of Iran developing or obtaining nuclear weapons, and the possibility of increased military activity in the region, which is an inherent and likely consequence of the inevitable lifting of sanctions that any agreement containing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would entail.

Iran’s Support of Terror: Iran’s longstanding and persistent threats against Israel, the U.S. and others, as well as its record of support for international terror organizations including Hamas and Hezbollah, are not addressed by this agreement. We urge the Administration to work with our European allies to ensure that harsh international sanctions will be adopted if Iran leverages its newfound resources to further fund terror activity. The U.S. should also commit to leading a broader international effort designed to eliminate Iran’s support of international terror.

Inspections: We share those grave concerns that arise out of the fact that Iran’s nuclear sites are currently closed to international inspection and that, even if approved, Iran may violate key provisions of the agreement thwarting inspections. Thus we call upon the Administration to commit to imposing significant additional consequences if Iran challenges the inspections regime, in addition to the “snap back” sanctions that will be imposed on Iran should it violate key provisions of the JCPOA. Doing so will ensure that Iran recognizes that there will be penalties for any violations of the agreement, even if claimed to be “minor.”

Human Rights and Religious Freedom: Iran remains one of the world’s great violators of human rights and religious freedom. The Administration has committed to keeping the sanctions related to human rights fully intact after this agreement and must further commit to marshaling international pressure on Iran to make improvements in expanding human rights, religious freedom and the development of democratic structures.

The United States’ Standing in the World: After years leading negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, U.S. credibility on the world stage and/or in the Middle East has been weakened in recent months as the American political process has unfolded. It is critical that the U.S. maintain leverage to address future international challenges in a manner that protects and advances national interests and especially promotes peace in the Middle East. We recognize that the broad international sanctions currently imposed on Iran, and which played a key role bringing Iran to the negotiating table, are in the process of collapsing with the U.N. Security Council, the Russians, Chinese, and certain Europeans moving to lift their sanctions even as we speak today. The U.S. influence and support of Israel is crucial to maintain peace in the Middle East and a safe Israel.

The Day After

Whether the JCPOA is approved or defeated, there will be a day after.

It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews. We are concerned, as well, with the possibility that some will use the debate as fuel for anti-Semitic views.

We call upon the Israeli leadership, the U.S. Administration and members of Congress, and those on all sides of this debate to tamp down their rhetoric. If the debate is allowed to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance, or further sharpen partisan divides over what it means to be “pro-Israel,” Israel will be less secure. And on the day after the vote, as on the day before, Israel will need the United States’ continued military and political support, bilaterally, in the United Nations, and more broadly on the world stage.

The Need for Civility and Open Debate

Our Movement believes in vigorous debate. But that discourse must be civil and constructive, which has too often not been the case. There must be an open and welcoming tent as we continue to debate not only the future of this agreement, but also the very nature of what it means to be pro-Israel. Our Movement is deeply pro-Israel, though we express that core conviction in many different ways. No one should be compelled to defend his or her Zionism or support for Israel as we express legitimate views, both pro and con, about this most difficult issue.

When our people gather in a little less than a month for the High Holy Days, members who support the deal will pray alongside those who do not. If the harsh judgments and rhetoric continue between Washington and Jerusalem – and within our American Jewish community – we will be deprived of a deep commonality that binds our people together. Calling those who oppose the deal “war mongers” shuts shown constructive debate; calling those who support the deal “enablers of a second Holocaust” ends thoughtful discourse.

With such significant stakes, thoughtful debate is not only warranted but also essential. That is what our tradition calls a machloket l’shem shamayim, “a debate for the sake of heaven.”


We offer these thoughts with the words of the prophet Isaiah (2:4) echoing in our hearts and in our minds: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

These coming weeks provide the Administration with an opportunity to address the JCPOA’s serious limitations, and for all parties to this discussion – the Administration, members of Congress and the opponents of the deal in the United States and Israel – to establish a tone of civility and respect on these critical matters.

As always, we pray for peace. We pray that 5776 and the years to follow are a time of peace for all people.

Union for Reform Judaism: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, and Steve Sacks, Chair of the Board

Central Conference of American Rabbis: Rabbi Denise L. Eger, President, and Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director, and Jennifer Kaufman, Chair, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Association of Reform Zionists of America: Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President, and Rabbi Bennett Miller, Chair


Audacious Hospitality: A New Initiative for Spiritual and Social Empowerment

URJ - Tue, 08/18/2015 - 04:00

Two weeks ago, I joined the URJ as its inaugural vice president of audacious hospitality. Upon hearing my job title, people immediately inquire about the meaning of “audacious hospitality.” It is a bold, new, and multi-faceted URJ initiative that encompasses some of our tradition’s most treasured values – lovingkindness, respect, and tikkun olam (repair of our world). It is all about putting the ideas of diversity, outreach and inclusion into action – in a framework that addresses both today’s Jewish communal needs and our highest aspirations.

The values we endeavor to champion through audacious hospitality are powerfully and beautifully captured in this dynamic ELI Talk by Pam Schuller, the NFTY GER Regional Director and URJ Youth Programs Inclusion Specialist. By honestly and openly sharing the challenges she’s encountered in her own journey, Pam eloquently articulates an important, nuanced understanding and call to action around disability inclusion. Indeed, Pam’s compelling – and humorously punctuated – personal narrative speaks to the heart of audacious hospitality, and we are fortunate to count her among our ranks.

As I begin my tenure with the URJ, I am hopeful that together our efforts will ensure that Reform Judaism – throughout North America and around the world – will realize its full capacity for spiritual and social empowerment. In time, our initiatives will not only exemplify and reflect audacious hospitality, but also clearly demonstrate its powerful effect.

Audacious hospitality is a work in progress, and there is much yet to discover and cultivate. For today, Pam’s talk is a fine example of our ability to uphold the highest standards of inclusion, and fully integrate everyone into all facets of Jewish communal life. Moving forward, I am eager to work with you, my URJ colleagues, and our partners to refine our vision of audacious hospitality and, together, to implement that vision.

April Baskin will be a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. With 5,000 attendees from around the world, the Biennial is the largest Jewish gathering in North America. Learn more and register at

13 Ways to Make Your High Holidays Services Accessible to Everyone

URJ - Mon, 08/17/2015 - 12:00

A sweet new year begins with audacious hospitality, making sure everyone feels welcome in the Jewish community. As part of High Holiday preparation, congregations can take a number of simple steps to help create an accessible and sacred space for people of all abilities so that everyone can fully participate.

  1. Ask people what they need. The best way to make sure that everyone can participate is to ask people what will make this possible for them. Congregations can invite feedback through emails, registration, and membership forms, as well as in bulletins and handouts at services.
  1. Use “people-first language” when referring to people with disabilities. Put the person before their disability, i.e. “This congregant is blind and needs a Braille prayer book” rather than “This blind congregant needs a Braille prayer book.” Better yet, just say, “This congregant needs a Braille prayer book”!
  1. Publicize accessibility and accommodations. Mention available accommodations in your online and Shabbat bulletins, even if this information is also included on ticket request forms (as it should be!). List a contact person for sign language interpreters, loop systems, large-print or Braille prayer books, iPads for large-print downloadable prayer books, etc. Indicate, too, how people with disabilities and their families can secure reserved seating, parking spaces, and volunteer assistance.

  1. Facilitate accessible parking. As cars enter the parking lot, have volunteers point out reserved parking for people with disabilities; some congregations even offer valet parking. Allow people with disabilities to exit their cars near the synagogue entrance, and have volunteers available to offer assistance, if it is requested.
  1. Train ushers and staff to confidently and tactfully facilitate the participation of people with disabilities. Ensure that staff and volunteers know to use people-first language and to ask people with disabilities what assistance they might need (rather than, say, automatically taking someone’s arm to guide them). Speak directly to people with disabilities, rather than to their family members, aides, or sign language interpreters. Face the person and speak in a clear and normal tone, being prepared to repeat or rephrase if necessary.
  1. Place everything at a level reachable for all worshipers. Place kippot, prayer books, and any other literature at a level that can be reached by everyone including people using wheelchairs.
  1. Try not to relegate people with disabilities to the back of the sanctuary. If the worship space allows, offer people in wheelchairs (and their families) options regarding seating, rather than automatically guiding them to the back of the sanctuary. If a sign language interpreter is present, lead people who are deaf or hard of hearing, along with their families, toward the front of the sanctuary so they can see the interpreter.
  1. Provide space for worshipers who need some time away from the service or program. Some worshipers may need a break during services because of sensory overload, allergy to fragrances, or discomfort after sitting for long periods of time. Designate a space in another room, outdoors, or otherwise removed from crowds, where worshipers may take a break. Be sure to publicize the presence of this space.
  1. Use inclusive language from the bimah. Although intended to be inclusive, phrases such as “Rise if you are able” (instead of just “Please rise”) may suggest that those who cannot stand cannot fully participate in the actions and spirit of the service. Instead, when asking worshippers to rise, add that those in wheelchairs or with difficulty standing can show their respect from their seats. This small difference in language indicates that all worshipers can fully participate.
  1. Announce page numbers, including which handouts/books are being used. This helps all worshipers to feel confident that they are following along.
  1. Provide an illustrated schedule for each service. Many people find it helpful to see an outline or picture schedule that explains the order of the service (a natural Jewish example is the listing of steps of the Passover seder, which are illustrated in most haggadot). On the High Holidays, create a handout that lists parts of the service with corresponding page numbers; distribute it as an insert or with other literature for services.
  1. Include people with disabilities in your services. Offer honors and roles during worship to people with disabilities, being sure to allow time for participants to practice their roles and become familiar with the space and accommodations available at the service.
  1. Make it physically possible for people with disabilities to lead from the front of the sanctuary. Clear a path, if necessary, to ensure that the ramp to the bimah is accessible to people with disabilities who have a role in the service. In congregations where the bimah is inaccessible (i.e. stairs but no ramp), provide a low reading table so that everyone can participate in the service.

We all share the goal of creating communities in which all worshipers feel needed, welcomed, and able to participate, not just at the High Holidays but all year long. These suggestions share approaches that people with disabilities, their families, and their congregations have found effective and respectful. Share your own tips in the comments section!

For more information, visit the URJ-Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center.

4 Ideas for Engaging Families with Young Children in Jewish Life

URJ - Mon, 08/17/2015 - 09:00

Every new parent understands the pressure and stress associated with finding the best ways to create a rich and fulfilling future for their children. Faced with societal expectations, money constraints, and more programmatic opportunities than ever for their young ones, Jewish life may not always make it to the top of the priority list.

As a part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Communities of Practice work, we’re partnering with congregations (both those with and without preschools) to further and more effectively engage families with young children in congregational life. The full results of this work can be found in a new resource, Engaging Families with Young Children. Here’s a look at some of the best principles:

  1. Engagement is a congregation-wide activity, not an isolated program or department.
    Engagement must be a true value of the entire congregation, including those in leadership positions. To sustain any effort to build a community of parents with young children, congregational leadership needs to fully support these efforts, ensuring that holidays, programs, and services focus on the idea of family.
    At Temple Emanu-El in Utica, N.Y., leaders initiated a number of changes that add up to a large impact for parents. They installed a changing table in the restroom, created a musical family service and dinner once a month before congregational services, began holding family Havdalah events and playgroups, and reconfigured the youth committee to include parents of kids up to age 18. They’re also involved in the community PJ Library® program operated by the local JCC. The rabbi, herself a young mother, has developed relationships with the other parents in the community, and parents have come to share responsibility for congregational programming. In two years, participation rates have more than doubled.Just as parents make their homes “kid-safe” before bringing children into the world, so must congregations create spaces for families that foster the understanding that they’re supported by an entire community.
  2. Focus on engagement, not enrollment.
    Community isn’t measured by how many people attend a program but by the quality and depth of the relationships between people in attendance. Your congregation can host 100 great programs a year, but if no meaningful relationships exist between the congregation and its community members, nobody benefits from great programming.Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C., has taken engagement to a new level by building The Porch, a community of young adults and parents, whose name symbolizes the hospitality and neighborliness of the South. The Porch offers a variety of weekly and monthly activities, including some for adults/parents only, some for parents to enjoy with their children, and others for the whole community together. Parents appreciate the opportunity to engage with a community of peers, and regular participants now take responsibility for planning a weekly Torah study group that meets at Whole Foods.When congregations form relationships with families with young children, they create a community for today and for the future.
  3. Do your research to figure out what young families need.
    Rather than focusing on what families with young children can contribute to the synagogue, synagogues need to see themselves as having something to offer those starting their parenting journey. Synagogues must be intentional in their efforts to meet parents’ needs, and that begins with knowing what those needs are. The last 10 years have yielded a wealth of national research into families of Jewish children, and it’s equally important to know about local trends. What venues or activities are popular for these families in your community? Where do people go for information about local community life? Which organizations currently serve this cohort well?Lisa Farber Miller of the Rose Community Foundation says, “Providing services for parents with young Jewish children presents a rare opportunity for synagogues to be relevant to young families who are looking for places to spend their child-related dollars.” Synagogues can provide inspirational Jewish experiences that engage families in meaningful ways from an early age – if they truly see it as their congregational mission.
  4. Experiment and reflect – then do it all over again!
    Congregations that have made significant strides in engaging families with young children are those that have created a culture of experimentation and reflection, where risk-taking is both supported and encouraged.The early childhood education director at Temple Sinai in Summit, N.J., wanted to do something new to engage families with young children: a Pajama Tot Shabbat. The congregation involved all of their stakeholders in the decision process, from teachers and early childhood families to clergy and lay leaders, and though some initially expressed concern that pajamas in the sanctuary would show a lack of proper decorum, Pajama Tot Shabbat was a great success representative of collaborative preparation. During the reflective conversation afterwards, the rabbi encouraged the director to schedule more such events – and even offered to wear his own pajamas!The whole community discovered the importance of staying true to the synagogue’s mission while providing families with high-quality, innovative experiences and accessible, relevant Jewish content.

Looking for more ways to engage families with young children? The URJ’s new publication, Engaging Families with Young Children, expands on all of the points here and offers five more, as well as a number of additional ideas, resources, and examples from congregations across North America.

Engaging Families with Young Children is one in a series of three publications that helps leaders strengthen their congregations by offering best principles and a range of resources. The others are Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement and Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st Century Congregation.

Elizabeth Leff, the URJ’s 2015 Strengthening Congregations CLIP Intern, also contributed significantly to this post.


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