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Honoring Congregations that are Leading the Way on Disabilities Inclusion

URJ - Thu, 07/30/2015 - 18:48

The Reform Movement is exceptionally proud of Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, senior advisor on disabilities issues at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who was recently presented with the Thornburgh Family Award in recognition of her years of service on behalf of people with disabilities. As the inaugural recipient of this award, Rabbi Landsberg was honored on July 26, 2015, the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a letter read at the interfaith service at which she was honored, President Barack Obama wrote to Rabbi Landsberg,

“…you have shaped a more inclusive future for generations to come. Your leadership reflects essential beliefs at the core of our Nation’s creed: that all things are possible for all people, and that we all do better when we lift each other up. While our work to uphold fairness and equality is unending, our country is stronger and truer to itself because of the progress leaders like you have inspired.’

Indeed, “shaping a more inclusive future for generations to come” is a value central to the Reform Movement’s work as we create congregational communities that are open and welcoming to all. In honor of this momentous anniversary guaranteeing the legal rights of people with disabilities – and in honor of Rabbi Landsberg’s leadership and contribution – we want to recognize and share the exemplary efforts of our congregations who have made significant effort to become places where people of all abilities can fully participate and belong.

Accordingly, we will be highlighting the achievements of Reform congregations in the area of disabilities inclusion at the URJ Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. At the Biennial, URJ member congregations that have made exemplary efforts to increase inclusion in one or more areas of synagogue life will be awarded certificates of recognition.

If this sounds like your congregation, we urge you to apply to become part of this “honor roll.” To learn more, please visit or contact Rabbi Edythe Mencher or Joseph Robbins.

10 Ways to Welcome Teens at the High Holidays

URJ - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 17:35

Looking for innovative opportunities to engage your teens around the High Holy Days? These ten ideas come directly from the source – youth professionals around North America.

1. Communicate in their medium. Use text messages, Instagram and other teen-friendly channels for communicating directly with your teens about teen-specific opportunities. Follow up with parent-friendly emails.

2. Invite teens to be ushers. Start the welcoming at the door by inviting teens to be ushers, where they’ll be visible, interact with people of all ages, and have an integral role during our holiest day of the year.

3. Set aside space for them. Let’s face it: sitting through services for an extended period of time is challenging, especially for high-energy, growing adolescents! Setting aside space for teens to retreat, reflect and recharge helps sustain their energy and make the days enjoyable.

4. Invite them onto the Bimah. Invite teens onto the Bimah for an Aliyah, blessing or other worship role.

5. Involve teens in creating youth-specific experiences… Involve teens in planning a service for younger children, or crafting a teen service or Torah study.

6. …but don’t sequester them! Create opportunities for teens to be together as a community during festive meals, breaks, or other events, but also encourage them to attend congregational services and celebrations to be part of the full community.

7. Set expectations: What’s important is not necessarily coming to services. Engage them in reflection about why the holidays are meaningful for them.

8. Engage them in tzedakah. Involve them in planning and implementing a social justice project for the entire congregation to participate in.

9. Location, location, location. Sit near the doors of the sanctuary so you can schmooze with kids, teens and parents as they’re entering and exiting services.

10. Network. Do you have a youth group board, or a cadre of teen leaders? Provide them with business cards, flyers and calendars to ensure that every teen gets a personal invitation to the next event.

Want more? Continue this conversation in the Youth Engagement group in The Tent.

Many thanks to the following youth professionals, educators and rabbis for sharing their ideas!

Andy Harkavy, NFTY Ohio Valley Region, Cincinnati, OH
Barak Malkin, Temple Sinai, Glendale, CA
Barrett Harr, NFTY Michigan Region, Detroit, MI
Brett Lubarsky, Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, MA
Carly Cera, Temple Beth Israel, Austin, TX
Dan Lange, Union for Reform Judaism, New York, NY
Hope Chernak, Temple Shaaray Tefila, New York, NY
Ira Miller, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, D.C.
Jessie Downey, University Synagogue, Venice, CA
Rabbi PJ Schwartz, Temple Israel, Westport, CT

Tishah B’Av, the Grateful Dead, and the Power of Our Youth Work – Let’s continue it at the Biennial

URJ - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 15:12

“Wave that flag, wave it wide and high. Summertime done come and gone, my, oh, my…” –The Grateful Dead, “U.S. Blues”

A few weeks ago, the Grateful Dead held their last concert celebrating 50 years. I, like so many of you, was a fan of the Dead. I think I was attracted to them because I was a seeker in search of creating a more humane and just world, and the Grateful Dead allowed me to leave the conventional world behind in search of a sound and spirit that captured the possibilities of how alluring and joyful life could be.

The same weekend the Dead had their final concert, URJ Kutz Camp celebrated 50 years.

Kutz alumni are quite similar to Deadheads in that they, too, sought and pursued – and continue to seek and pursue – a more just and humane world. They, too, left the conventional world behind to study, experiment, and live a life in search of a sound and spirit that allowed them to capture how alluring and joyful life could be.

And it’s not just Kutz. At all our URJ Camps, in our Mitzvah Corps and Israel programs, and in NFTY, we embrace the search for and creation of a better world of justice, security, and peace for all.

Our youth communities and Grateful Dead culture are both spirited, dynamic communities who find great significance in life, caring, sharing, celebration, and written and oral traditions in the hope of making the world a more joyous and peaceful place for all. But as Jews, our commitment to Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasidim is what sets us apart and insures that our communities will continue to thrive and grow.  The Dead played their last concert, but our youth programs continue strong, growing by day.

As I prepared for the Jewish holiday of Tishah B’Av I was reminded why Judaism won’t have a “final concert”.  The First and Second Temples no longer exist and as a people we have survived more calamities than most.  We have persevered because our Judaism teaches us about the need for strength and vulnerability, when to fear and when to have hope, how to embrace confidence and insecurity, along with the importance of welcoming new ways of seeing the world. It is these messages that resonates for our children and it is a gift that we can teach to them. Mickey Hart, on percussion, said it beautifully “The feeling we have here — remember it, take it home and do some good with it,  I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.” Or as the shema says:

V’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta
bam b’shivt’cha b’veitecha uv’lecht’cha
vaderech uv’shochb’cha uv’kumecha.

I hope you can join me at the Biennial as we “Wave that flag, wave it wide and high…” as we continue our work together to grow our community.

How to Effectively Manage a Board or Committee Meeting

URJ - Thu, 07/23/2015 - 09:00

by fredi Bleeker Franks

Mazel tov! You’re in charge of the next meeting of your congregation or sisterhood. Before panic sets in, take a deep breath and read on for some great suggestions and things to consider to help you win friends, influence people, and run a great meeting.

  • Consider your physical setting: Think about the work your group will be doing and consider not only the space you will be using, but also the setup of the room. Depending on what you’re doing, the space should be structured enough to conduct the business you need to, but informal enough to be welcoming and inclusive.
  • Appoint a parliamentarian: Having someone else be mindful of the rules relieves you of that role. Just make sure he or she is familiar with Roberts Rules of Order!

  • Start on time: Also, begin with the end in mind. In other words, begin with a short prayer or d’var Torah, which is a great way to involve your board or committee members as well as a way to remind the group that the work we do is sacred work.
  • Set ground rules: At the beginning of each meeting, discuss a few simple rules, such as not talking over each other; respecting other’s views; remembering to discuss ideas and not people; be additive, not repetitive; and being respectful of those talking (no sidebar conversations).
  • Allow time for socialization: Include time, either at the beginning or end of your meeting, for coffee and conversation. Include that information in your call to the meeting.
  • Set (and stick to) an agenda: Every meeting, even a task force or committee meeting, should have an agenda. Create an agenda that lays out everything you plan to cover in the meeting, along with a timeline that allots a certain number of minutes to each item, and email it to people in advance – then adhere to it!
  • Be prepared: Ask for agenda items in advance of the meeting. Send out any information (committee reports, requests for funding) in advance, to allow people to come to the meeting prepared to discuss, vote, etc. Seek out key people and discuss issues that may come up in advance of the meeting so that a consensus can be reached during the meeting.
  • New business: New business items are those that have not been discussed by meeting attendees previously and that do not belong in a committee report. If you have asked for agenda items in advance, there should be very little new business that you are not aware of in advance. Often, new business is something that can be assigned to a committee or task force to research and report back on. Don’t be pressured into handling new business immediately.
  • Take control: Remember that you are in charge of the meeting. Nothing derails a meeting faster than one or two people who talk just to hear themselves talk. Feel free to say something like, “Thanks for your contribution, but let’s hear from someone now who hasn’t had a chance to speak yet,” or, “If you have something new to add to the discussion, please raise your hand.” Then, follow through. Don’t be afraid to politely interrupt to remind the person speaking that you are asking for new ideas.
  • Ban technology: Laptops and iPads are great tools, but not at your meetings (unless you are using one to go through your agenda or record notes). Cell phones should be silenced and put away. Social media, texts, and emails are too easily distracting for your members.
  • End on time: Give a brief summary of decisions that have been made and any items that have been tabled or require further discussion. Thank everyone for attending.

Running an effective meeting is more than sending out a notice of the meeting: Effective meetings require structure and order. Without these elements, they can go on forever and not accomplish a thing, but by following these suggestions and leading by example, you are well on your way to chairing great meetings.

Ask questions and share your tools and tips in the Leadership and Governance group in The Tent, the Reform Movement’s online collaborative platform for congregational leaders.

fredi Bleeker Franks is Women of Reform Judaism’s vice president of affiliate services. This piece first appeared in WRJ’s May 29, 2015 email newsletter.

4 Surprising Ways Camp Connects Us All

URJ - Tue, 07/21/2015 - 13:29

Sports, games, art and science projects. Swimming, hiking, climbing. Laughing, learning, sharing. It’s these activities, and more, that transform summer camp into one of the strongest links in the Reform Movement’s chain of connections. In fact, summertime for the URJ is like one huge game of connect-the-dots. Connecting current campers with alumni. Connecting clergy with worshippers. Connecting songleaders with singers. Connecting students with teachers. Connecting our Jewish past to our Jewish present and future.

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent time at several of our overnight camps – URJ Kutz Camp, URJ Greene Family Camp, and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy – and I’m headed to GUCI this weekend and to URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in early August. Being at camp is a joy. It’s a reminder of what was most special to me as a camper – feeling for the first time a brand new excitement about Shabbat, the Birkat HaMazon, and standing up for social justice.

Kabbalat Shabbat in the woods is enchanting. We wear white, yet the energetic dancing, enthusiastic singing, and feeling of being carried away brings Shabbat into vivid Technicolor. It’s a wholly different experience than Shabbat back home. Indeed, the flames of camp’s Shabbat candles ignited a spark in me. And when I visit camp now, I see thousands of young Jewish people in whom sparks are being kindled. Camp is a precious doorway into a lifelong love of Reform Judaism.

As a place of nexus, camp is uniquely rich. The ways camp connects to our children are obvious – by inspiring the next generations of our Movement, and our future leaders. Although some of the ways our camps connect others may be less apparent, they are no less powerful – even for Reform Jews who never spend one minute in a bunk.

Camp Connects to Congregations

Camp activities and staff reach beyond the boundaries of camp, delivering the joys of Jewish life year-round. Rabbis, cantors, educators, youth professionals, and local congregational leaders active in youth programming at camp also share ideas for teaching and guiding their entire congregations. NFTY leaders meet to discuss ways to bring ideas back to their youth groups. Teen Collective initiatives bring tikkun olam and teen leadership to the forefront at a crucial time for participants, stressing that healing the world is both a Jewish imperative and a lifelong pursuit. The URJ’s Service Corps Fellowships place veteran camp staff in congregations year-round to lead innovative camp-inspired programs that engage every congregational cohort.

Camp Connects to Israel

Israel engagement is symbiotic at camp. We introduce our youth to sabras who provide a personal connection to the Jewish state. Simultaneously, we implant in those Israelis an incredible love of Reform Judaism that they excitedly bring back home. We are enriching our Movement’s commitment to, understanding of, and love for Israel just as surely as our camps’ nature counselors are tending to the bounty of their community gardens. Also, many of our camps lead straight to a summer experience in Israel for teens and their camp friends, which for most is a first, and transformative trip.

Camp Connects to Families

The magic of summer camp is invoked often. There is magic, too, when parents and children are reunited after a summer, having had time apart to recharge and to grow by pursuing their own passions. Kids return home steeped in Reform Judaism as part of daily life, sure of their place in the world, which helps tether each families’ bonds. Lifelong friendships are formed between campers’ families that weave Reform Jews together, strengthening our communities, and enriching our entire Movement.

Camp Connects to “What’s Next” in Jewish Life

So much of what prompts change within the spiritual life of our Movement starts at camp. The biggest influence to Reform Jewish music, in the name of Debbie Friedman, z’l, was nurtured at our camps. Anyone who is moved by our songs has been touched by camp.

The URJ invests in immersive experiences – overnight camp as well as Israel programs, trips to Washington, DC for advocacy training, and volunteer travel opportunities – not only because they work. These experiences connect individuals to each other, to the congregational community, and to their personal Jewish identity.

Even if you have no obvious connection to our camps, perhaps in thinking about these ideas, you can seek out ways to connect yourself to camp. And please comment below to let me know about the connections you make.

Sacred Giving: How Reform Congregations are Reimagining Financial Support

URJ - Tue, 07/21/2015 - 04:00

Nearly every congregation today faces the challenge of trying to increase or stabilize revenue, so it’s no surprise that in the last few weeks alone, the Jewish press published three separate pieces on the subject:

And that’s not all. In February, SYNERGY, a partnership that “seeks to strengthen synagogues as vital centers of caring, learning, and spiritual renewal,” published a report titled “Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Congregation?” With more than 1,250 downloads, it’s clear that congregational leaders are in search of reliable resources to help them explore these issues within their own unique communities.

These recent articles are representative of the discussions happening on an organic, grassroots level, too. In fact, a search of the word “dues” in The Tent, the Reform Movement’s online forum for congregational leaders, results in 124 conversations, two dedicated groups, and 151 files on the topic. (We hope you will join these robust and ongoing conversations.)

It’s inspiring to see so many Jewish communities engaging in conversation, experimenting, and trying new strategies. To further the conversation and provide congregations with a tangible resource, the Union for Reform Judaism is proud to publish Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation: A Report from the 2013-2015 Community of Practice. This new, interactive resource provides tools for congregations to begin this work by codifying the findings of our pilot Community of Practice (CoP) on Re-Imagining Financial Support for your Congregation. Launched in early 2013, the CoP engaged 17 congregations in conversation and innovation in their dues structures. Some communities tried voluntary dues structures, while others took varying approaches to revenue collection.

Reimagining Financial Support details 10 of the best principles derived from these congregations and research into alternative revenue collection. These 10 concepts, which any congregation should consider when reimagining financial support, include such tactics as focusing on engagement, recognizing distinct segments of the population, removing barriers to entry, and aligning any new financial model with the congregation’s vision and values.

Though no one best principle dictates the right approach for any one congregation, thinking through the implications of each will help determine a starting point. Three very different examples illustrate this point:

  1. The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, KS, focused on reducing as many barriers to entry to congregational engagement as possible. The proceeds from selling the congregation’s urban synagogue building and instead making its suburban location the congregation’s permanent home made it possible to do away with its customary upfront building fund. In addition, members who now request dues relief will no longer be required to submit their tax information (which don’t give any indication of fixed expenses) or fill out a myriad of forms; instead, they have a friendly conversation with the executive director or a member of the board, who expresses how important the member is to the community and asks what they can do to make membership affordable for them.
  1. Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA, realized that their problem was not their financial model but the way they talked about it – so they changed course. To top donors, they expressed appreciation and then, after reviewing the congregant’s giving history and the impact it made on the congregation, offered the opportunity to make a single annual commitment rather than receiving multiple appeals throughout the year. The majority of top donors took advantage of the opportunity, and total commitments increased by 20% from the previous year. The congregation also targeted a middle tier by identifying their “sustaining amount,” dividing their total operating budget by the total number of members, and encouraging those whose past contributions were near that amount to increase to that level. Finally, recognizing that not everyone can give at the same level, they implemented an “every dollar counts” approach to acknowledging that, as long as a congregant makes a gift that is meaningful to themselves, it is meaningful to the congregation, as well.
  1. As part of their communication strategy, Congregation Shir Hadash also revealed to congregants that the synagogue was paying $25,000 per year in credit card fees, and then urged members to begin paying by check rather credit card. Making financial matters of the congregation more transparent to everyone in the community helps establish a foundation of trust. When the congregational budget and major financial decisions are visible to everyone, congregants gain a better sense of how their dues or philanthropic gift makes a difference to the health and sustainability of the congregational community. It can also lend credibility both to specific requests for support and to the case that leaders make for changing the financial support system.

The URJ is now in the process of launching a second Community of Practice on this topic with a new cohort of congregations. We look forward to sharing the results of their learning and experimentation with all congregations who are considering changes to the way they collect revenue.

Workshop sessions related to this topic will also be offered at the URJ Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. In the meantime, we encourage you to add your questions, comments, and experiences either in the comments below, or join the discussion in the Finances group in The Tent, the URJ’s online platform for congregational leaders.

Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st Century Congregation is one in a series of three publications that helps leaders strengthen their congregations by offering best principles and a range of resources. Stay tuned for blog posts about the other two resources: Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement and Engaging Families with Young Children.

Jessica Ingram, manager of the URJ’s Communities of Practice, also contributed significantly to this post, as well as to the creation of Reimagining Financial Support for your 21st-Century Congregation: A Report from the 2013-2015 Community of Practice.


This Month in The Tent: No Summer Slowdown Here!

URJ - Wed, 07/15/2015 - 09:00

Much of the world slows down during the summer, and even synagogues aren’t the hustling, bustling places they typically are during the rest of the year. Nonetheless, conversations continue unabated in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum.

Many of the current discussions focus on planning for 5776, with these conversations proving especially popular:

  • With fewer than 10 weeks until the High Holidays, synagogue leaders are engaged in an ongoing conversation about how to market worship services to unaffiliated members of the community. Do you have any advice to share? Chime in!
  • On the programming front, synagogue leaders whose congregations are immersed in hands-on social action initiatives are looking for ways to boost social action advocacy activities, including how to achieve consensus from among a diversity of opinions.
  • Are religious school fees are tax deductible? A conversation among lay leaders tackles the touchy topic of IRS rules and how to advise temple members about which synagogue expenses can (and cannot) be written off.
  • Has your synagogue come up with an interesting way to let families know about children’s b’nai mitzvah dates? How about a “Parashah Party”? Check out this conversation about creative ways to inform families of their child’s bar or bat mitzvah date.
  • Synagogue leaders are ever in search of cost savings, and this conversation about how to get discounts for software purchases can save you a bundle. Hear from congregations that are already taking advantage of these cost-effective measures to learn how yours can do the same.
  • For a bird’s-eye view of how other congregations manage all things High Holiday – from tickets and video streaming to balancing security and audacious hospitality and more – check out this summary of a recent YamJam in The Tent.

The lazy days of summer are a perfect opportunity to come on in, join the conversation, and explore the wealth of resources and information available in The Tent. For additional support, contact the URJ Knowledge Network team.

Coming Full Circle: The NFTY in Israel Tikkun Olam Experience

URJ - Wed, 07/15/2015 - 04:00

by Sharon Mann

The phrase “what goes around, comes around” came to mind recently as I remembered back five years to the time I saw my daughter, Ayelet, off on a flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto, Canada. She was headed to URJ Camp George, a Reform Jewish summer camp where she would spend the summer as a camper, part of an Israeli youth delegation from the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

Now, she’s graduated from Mechinat Gal’s Pre-Army Academy, a post-high school Israeli gap year program that emphasizes volunteer work, leadership training, and enrichment studies. As a staff member at The Hannaton Educational Center, she’s come full circle, welcoming North American teens from NFTY in Israel to her home, eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). At Hannaton, the teenagers participate in a tikkun olam chavaya (repairing the world experience) that includes hands-on volunteer work as they learn to make a positive contribution to Israel and the world.

So many of Ayelet’s experiences led her to this moment. She grew up in our congregation, Kehillat Emet VeShalom, the only synagogue in Nahariya, Israel, affiliated with Israel’s Reform Movement. She was – and still is – an active participant in synagogue life, often leading prayers at Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services, something she’s done since before her bat mitzvah. She also led the activities for children during the Tishrei holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot) for several years, and has welcomed many guests from abroad – friends, family, and visitors on congregational trips or through Partnership2Gether – to our synagogue and to our home.

Moreover, since 10th grade, Ayelet has been a member of the Aharai! (Follow Me) Youth Movement, which develops and cultivates young leaders, stressing the importance of involvement in the local community and society in general. As a senior in high school, she and a group of Aharai youth from all over Israel participated in a special leadership program, and this past year, while at Mechinat Gal, she accompanied Aharai participants on their leadership program as a “big sister.”

Having learned firsthand about North American Reform Judaism thanks to her time at URJ Camp George, Ayelet is excited to work with the North American teens who are participating in Hannaton’s experiential volunteer program this summer. Jewish tradition commands us to be concerned for others, and through the tikkun olam chavaya, the teens will participate in meaningful volunteer activities in the Galilee as a way to explore some of the challenges facing Israeli society. One project that will benefit from their service is Leket, Israel’s national food bank, whose “Gleaning the Land Project” sends volunteers into fields and orchards to gather unharvested produce for food banks and other social service organizations. The students will also volunteer at the Yuvalim School, for children with cerebral palsy, and Pitchon Lev, which aids disadvantaged people throughout Israel.

Although the results of picking crops and packaging basic necessities for families in need are quite tangible, in some of the other settings, the teens may not always feel that they’re changing people’s lives. Ayelet and the other counselors encourage them to look for small gestures – a smile or a brief conversation – that can change someone’s day. As Margaret Meade said about social change, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

With so many disadvantaged communities and people in Israel, real, meaningful change can occur when every person’s acts of chesed (loving kindness, focusing on others) are added together. Through her own work, my daughter seeks to convey that by volunteering in the tikkun olam chavaya and making a personal contribution to Israeli society, these North American teen visitors are truly helping to better lives and our world. Israel appreciates and thrives on these volunteer efforts.

Kol hakavod (good job) to the NFTY teenagers who have chosen to go off the beaten path to gain a unique perspective on Israel and her challenges, demonstrate positive values through acts of chesed, and learn firsthand about social action. These experiences – and the entire tikkun olam chavaya – will serve them well wherever life takes them.

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

Reform Jewish Movement Responds to Proposed Nuclear Agreement with Iran

URJ - Tue, 07/14/2015 - 10:52

In response to today’s announcement by the P5+1 and Iran, leaders of the Reform Jewish Movement issued the following statement:

This morning, after extensive negotiations conducted under intense international scrutiny, P5+1 negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, announced that they have reached an agreement with Iran over that country’s nuclear program. We in the Reform Jewish Movement remain committed to our belief that the United States and its allies must do all that is possible to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, as well as to protect and enhance U.S. security and the security of our allies—particularly Israel—and promote stability in the entire Middle East.

We deeply appreciate the intense efforts of the multinational negotiators, especially the U.S. administration, for having worked so hard to try to come to a diplomatic resolution with Iran on containment of its nuclear program. As the U.S. Congress, other world leaders, and the American public, including the Jewish community, evaluate the details of the proposed agreement, we recognize that thoughtful people can and do hold strongly different opinions as to whether this agreement is the best obtainable result in securing our shared goals and upholding the ideal that solutions should be found through the negotiating process rather than a military confrontation.

During the last several months, leaders of our Reform Movement have consulted with experts and heard from advocates who both oppose and favor the framework outlined in March by the P5 +1 and Iran. We have conferred with our fellow Jewish organizations and met privately with the White House, the Secretary of State, and representatives of the State of Israel. Right now, we are continuing our ongoing dialogue with the U.S. administration, key members of Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and other prominent Israeli leaders including leaders of the opposition. One helpful touchstone for our analysis of this agreement is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations, which was endorsed by a panel of bipartisan diplomats and calls for a five-point program ensuring that Iran will not become a nuclear threshold state.

In the coming days and weeks, we will go back to our trusted experts and continue to consult with our constituencies to better understand the consequences of this proposed agreement. We urge all committed parties to take similar, carefully considered approaches before rushing to conclusions.

As Congress moves forward, we will share our opinion on the viability of this agreement to achieve our goals: that the final agreement will put the optimal standard for restraints on Iran, preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, protecting the security of the United States, Israel and our allies around the world.

Looking Back at Kutz@50… and Then Looking Forward

URJ - Tue, 07/14/2015 - 09:00

By Rabbi Michael A. White

I recently returned from a magical week as a faculty member at the URJ Kutz Camp, the Reform Movement’s teen leadership institute at the foothills of the Catskills in Warwick, N.Y. My week at Kutz brought back memories of my first visit some 37 years ago.

Nearly four decades ago, one of my high school classmates convinced me to attend a regional youth group event at Kutz, and off I went. Until that weekend, Shabbat, to me, meant sitting in a hard pew while listening to organ music. Shabbat at Kutz camp was refreshingly different, to say the least!

During Shabbat at Kutz that first year, we ate greasy chicken and delicious doughy challah. Services were energizing and informal, led by a cool guy with long hair, a mustache, and a guitar. We draped our arms around each other’s shoulders, and we sang our hearts out. We talked through the night. And just before we left, one of the leaders of the Reform Movement, Al Vorspan, challenged us to fight to end apartheid in South Africa, for women’s rights, for Israel. He told us that we were the future, that we could make a difference, and that we could heal the world.

That first weekend at camp, I became a committed, enthusiastic Reform Jew.

Like most teenagers, I was tentative, excruciatingly self-critical, easily bruised by social slights, afraid of girls, afraid of being left out, afraid of just about everything. It was in the intentional, warm, welcoming community of youth group and camp that I found my voice and my confidence, a sense of purpose and mission, and friends I came to love.

These days, I certainly do not consider myself old, but I am old enough to be concerned about Jewish leadership after I’m gone, about who will draw our kids into the nonjudgmental Reform Jewish teenage community of the next generation. That’s why I have agreed to chair “Leading the Jewish Future: The Campaign for the URJ Kutz Camp.”

At 50 years old, Kutz Camp is too small, too dated, and in need of massive refurbishment and expansion. Our collective alumni vision is to transform Kutz into a year-round center for teenagers, college students, and young adults. Throughout the year, Jewish youth will come to Kutz for exceptional leadership training; they will learn about the Torah’s commitment to heal the world, about God, prayer, Israel, and Jewish ethics. Artistic and musically inclined kids will come to create the next iteration of Jewish music and art. College kids will learn to combat the anti-Israel cancer that plagues so many of their campuses, and Birthright alumni will have their reunions at Kutz, learning to make the transition from new lovers of Israel to ardent American Zionists. And finally, youth professionals will come to gain vital professional development.

That is our vision for Kutz. It’s a daunting challenge, and we are just getting started, assembling a national team to find the necessary resources.

I recently wandered into the office of my colleague at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Andy Gordon, who was meeting with one of our outstanding teen leaders, Maya Faye Gordon, as she prepared to become a bat mitzvah on our congregation’s teen pilgrimage to Israel. Together, they were excitedly discussing her Torah portion, Terumahwhich translates as “sacred gifts for the construction of the temple.” Maya told me it was a perfect portion for her: “The gifts of Judaism, of Jewish community, of youth group, of Israel, the obligation to use her gifts to improve her community and world… it’s just perfect!”

Rabbi Gordon was clearly very proud of his student. For me, it was an encounter that affirmed the priority Temple Sinai pays to our teen community, and it also affirmed the importance of securing the future of URJ Kutz Camp. We need strong synagogues for all the future Mayas to find their Jewish home, and we need places like Kutz to ensure that gifted leaders and mentors will be there to inspire them.

Rabbi Michael A. White serves Temple Sinai of Roslyn in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. If you are interested in contributing to help secure the next generation of Reform Jewish leadership, please contact him by commenting on this post.

How Our Teens Built an Active Presence at Our Temple

URJ - Mon, 07/13/2015 - 09:00

by Kara Liu

Youth engagement is about more than just teens. Rather, effective youth engagement is a whole organism made up of parents, leaders, and the young people themselves.

That’s the main takeaway from my experience at a recent day of professional development at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, organized by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. At the seminar, I came to fully appreciate the network of colleagues who are doing youth engagement work – and I learned that I, too, am a bridge connecting all the entities of youth engagement to my temple family and our youth group.

Three years ago, my congregation set out on a journey to try to create an active teen presence, something our community had been missing. As a part of this effort, we sent our new ninth grade class to a regional NFTY kallah. At the event, our excited teens made new friends, experienced NFTY’s shared history and culture, and immersed themselves in the joys of Reform Judaism. They were a little bit lost when they arrived, but by the end of the weekend, the teens knew one thing: They wanted to bring the magic of NFTY back to our synagogue.

That’s how our youth group began. We call it ANDI, in memory of Andi Joustra, a dedicated teacher and mentor to our teens.

That weekend’s NFTY event marked the beginning of our teens putting down roots in our own community, Temple Israel in Long Beach, CA, and expressing themselves spiritually. Now, they have an active presence in our synagogue, where they attend board meetings, lead services, raise money for social justice causes, volunteer, create original content, and host regional NFTY678 events. Since then, they’ve traveled to Atlanta for the North American NFTY Convention, where they networked with other teens from all over the U.S. and Canada, and they’ve even traveled to Israel with NFTY, bringing back energy and ideas to share with their peers.

Through their participation in congregational life and the greater Jewish community, they’ve made a glorious declaration about their willingess to step up and be seen, heard, and accepted for all they have to offer.

It is that declaration that drives me to keep learning what I can do to empower my teens. In addition to learning from Rabbi Solmsen at the recent professional development day in Los Angeles, two other conversations from that day have stuck with me that will help me continue to do this work.

The first was with Rabbi Tali Zelkowicz, associate professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR, who shared with us the idea that “Jewish identity” is not a noun but a verb. Jewish identity is not something I can give teens; rather, it is in motion, something our teens must discover themselves. Our community provides teens with tools to explore their own identity, to express their beliefs, and to find their own Jewish spiritual life, a long-lasting and integral component of who they are and who they want to be. I am their guide and their co-creator on the journey.

The next memorable conversation was with Samantha Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and strategy at Walt Disney Studios, who explained to us how Disney Studios markets films to various groups. Together, we explored the question, “How do you get a buzz going and generate interest for the same product from vastly different individuals?” This question applies directly to our youth work. In particular, I learned to “fish where the fish are,” and to have ambassadors who will be supporters of our work. I learned about the importance of when to give people their 15 minutes of fame and when to be concise, ideas I will take home and translate into ways to help my teens enrich and enhance their dreams for our community.

As I looked around the room filled with my diverse colleagues – youth advisors, directors, rabbis, educators, activists – I realized that, like my temple community, we are all parts of one organism moving toward one goal: engaging young people in meaningful, vibrant Jewish life.

Sometimes, I sit back and wonder how I got here. Though I have no background or formal training for the path that has been laid out in front of me, I am learning that I am not alone. I have amazing teens to work with, a regional team like no other, and support from my synagogue community. I have the support of my temple’s educator, rabbi, and community, not to mention my teens themselves, as well as the NFTY SOCAL team and the URJ. And now, having participated in this seminar, I have access to continued encouragement and new resources from my Jewish community at large. I don’t know where this path will take me, but wherever it is, I know that this work – and my teens – are truly a gift.

Kara Liu is the eighth- and ninth-grade Torah center teacher and youth advisor for ANDI, the youth group at Temple Israel in Long Beach, CA. Kara also works with NFTY SOCAL, helping to supervise logistics, programming, and staff happiness. She is an artist, wife, and mother who enjoys drawing, ceramics, cooking, and working in her organic garden.

Kutz@50: A Gathering of the Generations

URJ - Thu, 07/09/2015 - 05:00

by Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur

It was truly a “standing at Sinai” moment.

Despite geographical challenges, limited financial resources, and a national holiday, more than 650 Reform Jews came from around the world last weekend to reconnect with URJ Kutz Camp, the sacred place so many of us have called home over the years. We numbered 350 alumni from the last 50 years of Kutz’s existence, plus 200 current high school participants and 100 dynamic, dedicated staff members.

It was a gathering of the generations unlike any other in our history.

In planning this milestone event, we made a deliberate and perhaps bold decision to hold our celebration during the regular camping season. Although this decision meant we might be limited in our ability to program – the expected attendance would double the camp’s population for the weekend – we felt it was crucial to bring Kutz’s past and present generations together.

As a result of this sacred mifgash (interaction), today’s Kutz participants came to understand that the precious days that they spend at camp will profoundly affect them for years – decades, even – to come. Equally important, our alumni witnessed the extraordinary caliber of today’s participants, and they understand that the impact of Kutz is as strong as it was for them in their day.

Together, we heard the inspiring words of former director Rabbi Allan Smith, who reminded us to “be outrageous” and not afraid to make a significant impact on the world.

We honored the steady work and strong vision of Paul Reichenbach, the URJ’s director of camp and Israel programs, who has been a mentor and friend to so many of us and who continues to play a crucial role in supporting and advising today’s Kutz leaders.

In partnership with the Campaign for Youth Engagement and NFTY, we participated in a think tank, the results of which will be models to engage NFTY and Kutz alumni in significant social activism and prayer.

We played the holy game of Shabbat softball, a Kutz tradition that links generation to generation.

We took an intentional hour to share with each other the impact this place had on us, how it continues to affect its current participants, and how our vision for its future will ensure a similar experience for generations to come.

We sat in pagodas and we studied Torah. We sang. We reconnected and forged new connections. Each of these activities is central to our collective Kutz experience.

And we listened intently as our innovative, creative director, Melissa Frey, talked about what an extraordinarily beautiful place Kutz is. From late fall into the spring thaw, she said, the camp’s gorgeous autumn leaves, white snow-capped trees, and sparkly, frozen lake make for a breathtaking view – but without those who love it walking the grounds and caring for its facilities, Kutz is simply a place.

Only in the spring and early summer, when staff and participants return through the gates, is camp’s neshama (soul) breathed back into her, and she once again becomes a home.

As someone who has been involved with camp for the last four decades, it was only after this weekend that I truly began to understand that every person who steps through the gates of the property leaves an indelible mark on the institution. Without each and every one of us, Kutz would be an ordinary piece of real estate. Instead, we have made it a holy space, and when we enter its gates – physically or spiritually – we maintain that holiness for the generations yet to come.

As a believer in the philosophy of Martin Buber, I contend that when people are in relationships filled with kindness, compassion, understanding, mutual respect, and love, God is surely present. This philosophy holds all the more true when a place is filled with such overwhelmingly positive emotions. I have no doubt, indeed, that last weekend, God came home to Kutz.

For another dimension of the Kutz@50 weekend, listen to this song, Open the Gates, written by Jacob “Spike” Kraus, a Kutz songleader and assistant director of youth engagement at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, in honor of the anniversary weekend.

Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur, a co-founder of Positive Jewish Living, is chair of URJ Kutz Camp.

Engaging and Enriching Older Immigrants to Israel

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

by Sharon Mann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing Change, the Only Constant in Today’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs,

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

Messinger said of her nomination,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published at Or Am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Rachel Stein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more could we ask for?

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

Join a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American Community

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

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

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

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

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

How to Participate

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

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

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

Liturgical Resources & Prayers Pastoral Resources

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

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

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


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