As the academic year comes to a close, we’ve rounded up resources for your congregation to stay connected with your campers throughout the summer. The tips and resources here will assist your congregation in leveraging the learning, joy and relationships developed at camp during the summer. We hope you find a few of these recommendations helpful in deepening their love of Jewish living and learning when they return home.
Before the summer…
During the summer…
After the summer/in the fall…
More resources on bringing camp into the congregation:
by Andy Wayne
As the cake arrived, glowing with candles, the group of nearly 40 women began to sing “Happy Birthday” to the lone man at the table. Their smiles lit up the room as their voices came together in celebration. True, they had only met the man two days before, but their happiness and well wishes were genuine.
That was back in 2010, when I attended my first conference with the Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ), which was then known as Program Directors of Reform Judaism. Although I was not new to my congregation, I was new to the role of program director, and I was excited to learn from and with colleagues from Reform congregations around the country and Canada. I had not previously worked with other program directors, and I was interested to see what successes and challenges they had found. And so, I headed to Dallas, TX –not far from my roots in Houston – for the conference.
Sitting in our opening mixer, I knew each person in the room would remember my name – mostly because I was the only man in the room. Though slightly uncomfortable with my minority status, the feeling subsided as each of my new colleagues endeavored to welcome me, learn about me, and introduce me to various aspects of the organization. As the conference progressed, I grew more comfortable and engaged in PEP-RJ, learning, schmoozing, networking, and, yes, commiserating with my new friends. On the last night, I celebrated my birthday with 40 amazing professionals who, just days before, had been strangers to me.
Five years later, I am honored to serve as PEP-RJ’s president.
PEP-RJ is a stellar example of the Reform Movement’s commitment to “audacious hospitality.” Indeed, why wouldn’t it be? The organization comprises synagogue professionals whose primary focus is to welcome and engage congregants and the greater community. From my first moments at that conference in Dallas, I knew these people practiced what they preached – and yet, their work is not preaching. Rather, our members seek to deepen people’s connections to their synagogues through engagement, programming, communications, marketing, and membership efforts.
In my own synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation – a storied, dynamic Jewish community in an interesting city – we are doing just that. Last year, we joined The Engagement Partnership, a project funded through The Associated (Baltimore’s Jewish Federation), which seeks to deepen members’ involvement with our congregation. After months of discussion, we decided to create a listening campaign that uses one-on-one conversations to glean the stories, ideas, and hopes of our congregants.
To date, these conversations have yielded a lot of interesting and meaningful information, but three ideas, in particular, stand out to me, perhaps because they are the roots of connection to one’s congregational community. They are:
We know that strong relationships can bind us to our faith and our community. Meaningful experiences can shape the path we take within our congregations. And, now more than ever, we tend to examine the total value of our connection to the synagogue. It is not a simple equation, but I know that the members of PEP-RJ and many other Jewish professionals are exploring the roots of connection in order to chart a course for our synagogues and communities to attract and engage members.
At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation one Friday several months ago, I caught myself mindlessly whistling a song while I worked. I stopped and realized it was “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha,” which I had not heard anywhere recently. When I stepped into one of our rabbis’ offices to ask if she could remind me of the translation of the song, she replied, “Serve God with gladness. Come before God’s presence with singing.”
It was a striking moment for me. Although I do not always think of my work as serving God, the truth is that congregational engagement is indeed holy work. The many professionals and lay leaders involved in this work – including my PEP-RJ colleagues, who serve with enthusiasm, dedication, and gladness – are not just bettering their congregants; their commitment and focus are also ensuring a bright future for Reform Judaism.
by Janet Buckstein
Most membership-based organizations, including congregations and temple sisterhoods, use a variety of methods to communicate with current and prospective members. These may include printed and online material, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and even phone calls, presentations, and personal meetings. However, the standard material typically includes brochures/pamphlets, letters, membership forms and applications, fact sheets, program and event flyers, and postcards, posters, and volunteer opportunities. Even if you already have developed this material, is it as effective as it could be? Consider the following in reviewing and creating material.
What is the purpose of the piece? If you are simply providing information, your content should be clear and concise. Bullets and lists work well. However, if you are seeking to persuade your audience, such as in attracting program attendees, recruiting new members or creating a specific image of your group, you will need to effectively communicate the benefits to them.
The easiest way to define benefits is to ask yourself why the reader would care about your message. For example, your “mission statement” is not necessarily important to prospective members, but learning that they will make new friends, have fun, make a difference in the community, or learn new skills could be.
Ask yourself: Who do you want to reach? Existing members, prospective members, temple congregants and leaders, and the local community may all be groups you choose to communicate with, but they also will have different information needs for different benefits. Even within these groups you can find differences. For example, you may serve different membership groups (e.g. parents with young children, empty nesters, or seniors) and they will have different needs and preferences.
Is it visually stimulating? You may have the best text in the world, but the piece needs to draw in the reader. Flyers, postcards, posters, and brochures should be colorful, but not cluttered. White space (open area) improves readability. Use photos and graphics to make your point. Instead of talking about a meeting, show a picture of it.
Create a consistent look. Do you have a logo or brand/design for your sisterhood or specific campaigns? If so, use it consistently. The beauty of a brand is that it creates understanding and familiarity with no explanation.
It’s not just about print anymore. Today email is a widely accepted, if not preferred, form of communication. Even if you mail a yearly letter for things like membership renewal, you should also consider email distribution and a webpage. Being able to join and pay online is a definite plus. If you do not have a dedicated website, your congregation’s site might allow this.
More IS Better! Your material should be available wherever your target audience is. This could include lobby posters, bulletin boards, in new member packets, sent home with religious school students, in temple newsletters and emails, and in the gift shop and temple office.
Finally, remember that your material is a reflection of your organization. Just as you change, so should your pieces. Letters and forms probably require a yearly update to reflect correct dates, dues, and volunteer opportunities. However, even brochures and pamphlets could probably be enhanced with review by a new board member or committee chair who was not involved in developing the existing piece.
Janet Buckstein is the WRJ Midwest District 1st Vice President & a WRJ Board Member. This piece originally appeared in Women of Reform Judaism‘s email blast on May 22, 2015.
Today, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press and NBC News political director, will host leading 2016 presidential candidates in a forum in Orlando, FL, at the URJ Biennial 2015. Todd will interview each candidate one-on-one and will cover a wide range of topics, including both domestic and foreign policy. Candidates will also respond to questions from URJ leadership and Biennial delegates.
The URJ Biennial 2015 will bring together 5,000 Reform Jews to strengthen congregational life, celebrate with friends, and explore the most pressing issues of the day. The URJ Biennial will be held at the Orlando World Center Marriott from November 4 – 8. The presidential candidates’ forum with Chuck Todd will take place November 7 at 8:30 pm at the same location. It is open to working, credentialed press and coverage is invited.
“URJ’s Biennial, because of its timing, location and audience, will be a must-attend event for the top presidential candidates. Florida has long been a key state in presidential elections, and I am very much looking forward to this unique presidential forum.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, said,
“When it comes to interviewing people vying for the most powerful office in the world, we are very excited to have Chuck Todd at our 73rd Biennial, the largest gathering of its kind. The Reform Movement has a deep history in political engagement and we are eager to hear from the leading presidential candidates from both parties. Invitations will be extended shortly and we look forward to the candidates’ positive responses.”
Beyond the candidates’ forum, Biennial programming will be tailored to congregational leadership (lay, professional, clergy, and up-and-coming leaders), and will feature learning sessions, networking opportunities, and plenaries, bookended by worship and evening entertainment. Four intensive tracks will focus on strengthening congregations, audacious hospitality, tikkun olam (repairing the world), and Jewish learning. Biennial registration will open in early June; for more information please visit: www.urj.org/biennial.
In just a few days, we will conclude this year’s counting of the Omer with the celebration of Shavuot, the first of our tradition’s three annual pilgrimage festivals, and the one that has come to be associated with the giving of Torah atop Mt.Sinai, as well as with confirmation and post b’nai mitzvah study. The Festival of Weeks also seamlessly embodies two of the strategic priorities of the URJ’s 2020 Vision: audacious hospitality and tikkun olam (social justice).
Indeed, our Movement’s commitment to audacious hospitality (including interfaith outreach and more) draws deeply from the Book of Ruth, which traditionally is associated with Shavuot. As Ruth the Moabite cleaves to Naomi and the Jewish people, it is significant that not only were the Moabites among the Israelites’ staunchest enemies, but also, and most inspiringly, that Ruth would go on to become the great-grandmother of King David and thus, according to our tradition, an ancestor of the Messiah.
This story from our history highlights for me just how essential it is that all of us in the Reform Movement endeavor tirelessly to offer unyielding welcome, and to demonstrate the value and respect we have for the many, many Ruths among us today, regardless of where they are in their Jewish journeys. In fact, fully 17 percent of American Jews – although raised in other traditions, according to the recently released study by the Pew Research Center, America’s Changing Religious Landscape – have chosen to make their spiritual home with the Jewish people.
Only when our congregations and communities intentionally and wholeheartedly welcome, nurture, and build genuine relationships with these individuals – the spouses and partners of Jews-by-birth, the parents of children in our religious schools and youth groups, millennials raised in interfaith homes, as well as the rest of the diverse array of spiritual seekers and explorers who find their way to our synagogues’ doorsteps (and those who don’t) – can we ensure that the Jewish people will grow, thrive, and be continually strengthened, inspired, and enriched for generations to come.
In the realm of tikkun olam, two commandments in Leviticus, which mandate that we leave crops at the corners of the fields (pei’ah) and fallen grain (sh’chicah) for the poor, are associated with Shavuot and our responsibility to feed the hungry. Whether they want for food to nourish their bodies or are searching instead for sustenance for their souls, it is the task of all of us in the Reform Movement to work to alleviate hunger – physical or spiritual – in the bodies and souls of those around us.
Even as we in the Reform Jewish community continue to make progress fulfilling our commitment to audacious hospitality and to the commandments of pei’ah and sh’chicah, much work remains. Indeed, there is no better time than Shavuot to rededicate ourselves to Torah, to audacious hospitality, and to ensuring the strength, vitality, and spiritual satiety of all within our midst.
The Journal of Youth Engagement checks in with Benjamin Singer, who shared his secret for engaging young people in synagogue life: Torah. The article “How to Get Youth Into Your Synagogue” originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement in August 2014.
In your original article, you cited the central role of Torah in guiding your work with Common Cause of Illinois. What have you been up to since then?
As you read, I’ve long felt that big money in politics corrupts our government, and stands in the way of enacting just policies–whether on taxes, the environment, health care, or foreign policy. I’m now the Campaign Manager of MAYDAY.US. We’re a bipartisan organization supporting candidates for Congress who want to reform the way we fund our elections, in order to empower working Americans. To sloganize it, we are a “SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs.”
When we last checked in, you articulated some big questions for our community of adults working with youth: How do we get millennials to go to Hebrew school? Or go to Hillel in college? Or join a synagogue after graduation.
Your answer was simple: Torah. Can you share an example of how Torah has guided your justice work in the past year?
We must hear the small just as the great, as we read in D’varim. Following through on those values, I felt a need to help fix our political system because it’s become ruled by big money, instead of by every person’s voice.
And as stated by a group of rabbis in Chicago before the recent election, “A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakras hatov–recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedom we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to…vote.”
So I wanted to be part of this change by actually participating in our democracy. We are a citizens’ movement in every sense of the word. People-powered, people-run, and strategically focused to pursue justice.
You identified as a Jewish young person upset by injustice. What advice do you have for others who identify this way?
Great question. I say look to the root cause of the injustice. Not “how can I give that hungry person food?” but instead, “Why does that hungry person not have food?” I think it’s important to think strategically about what is standing in the way, and seek out the most effective way to create that justice sustainably. Remember, we don’t just say “justice shall you pursue.” The rabbis teach that we say the word “justice” twice to emphasize the importance of just systems in order to achieve just outcomes.
Where can we go if we want to learn more about your work, or find opportunities for tikkun olam in our own communities?
If young people are disillusioned by the political process, it’s for good reason. Luckily, we can be part of disrupting it and making it what it should be, with some fundamental change. Right now we already have 148 allies in Congress, and growing. As I said, we are a citizens’ movement: people-powered and strategically focused to pursue justice. If you want to fix the issue that’s at the root of all other issues, it’s time to start doing something about it. Sign up to be part of the movement at http://MAYDAY.US.
Looking for additional resources to pursue justice? Check out these resources from the Reform Movement.
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – Advocacy & Activism, Teen Seminars, and College Internships
Mitzvah Corps – Hands-on Social Justice Service Programs for Teens
ReformJudaism.org – Resources and Jewish perspectives on issues of justice
The Community Synagogue of Port Washington has previously shared strategies for innovation in youth worship and lowering barriers to participation by rethinking “membership” in youth group. This month, we check in with Lindsay Ganci and Rabbi Danny Burkeman following a recent congregational trip to Israel that leverages what they’ve learned.
Many people have traveled to Israel on a family trip, many have taken part in teen trips to Israel, and a lucky few have traveled on both. This past February, we organized a congregational Israel trip that would blend the experiences of a family and teen trip into one hybrid adventure.
When our congregation began talking about a family trip to Israel, one of our congregants approached us and asked about the possibility of offering a parallel teenage trip for our youth program, POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth). This was around the same time that Taglit-Birthright expanded their eligibility criteria so that teenagers who went on an educational trip to Israel during high school would still be eligible to a place on a free trip. This removed what had previously been a major barrier to synagogue teen trips to Israel, and gave us a special opportunity to dream about and experiment with a new model for Israel travel and engagement for our congregants.
We envisioned a trip where most of the experiences would be spent together as a large hybrid group of families and teens. Within that larger trip, we would offer opportunities for the teenagers to experience Israel as a smaller group, wherein their unique interests and passions could be focused on more specifically. We carefully designed our itinerary to reflect such a trip, one in which was much to be shared, and much to be enjoyed based on each group’s needs and wants. In the middle of February, we set off for Israel, accompanied by 24 participants on our family trip, including a number of young teenagers, and six POWTY members in 10th, 11th and 12th grades on our teen tour. And our Family and Teen Trip to Israel was born!
For our teenage participants, their experience in Israel was unique to others they may have had in the past, and unique to any they will have in the future. We charged each teen with the role of peer leader, which empowered them as we journeyed through Israel. They rose to the opportunities associated with this role: They were warm and welcoming to our younger participants, funny and uplifting for our adults. They invited younger kids to join them at meals, and welcomed them to walk and talk through the streets of Israel side by side. They played games in our hotel lobby during an unprecedented Jerusalem snowstorm, and underneath a Bedouin tent while the rain poured down outside in the middle of the desert.
Our teens modeled maturity and intellectual curiosity for the younger participants by encouraging them to listen closely when there were chances to learn, to ask questions when they wanted to know more, and to experiment and take risks that tasted, felt, and looked new and different in the best ways. Our teens discussed their learning and experiences with anyone who wanted to listen, connecting with the adults on our trip as well.
In short, they reminded everyone of how incredible teenagers are: excited to learn, up for every adventure, willing to experiment and constantly questioning. They brought humor, energy, excitement and emotion to our experience, and we are proud and energized through knowing that every one of our family trip travelers would say that the trip was extra special because our teenagers took part in it.
Now that we have arrived home, the affect that Israel had on our teenage participants is palpable, exhibited in their words, actions, and deeds. One teen created a video of our trip participants tasting Israeli foods for the first time, and another is working on a slideshow of photos to share. One set up a Facebook group for us to all stay connected, and another is actively planning an Israeli reunion dinner for us to share together. Israel moved, inspired, and taught our teenage participants in impactful ways that we continue to be blessed by now that we are home.
For the participants on our family component of the trip, the presence of POWTY teens served to enrich the experience. One participant, Kate, who went on the trip with her husband and two children said: “it was great to travel with the teens on the family trip to Israel. Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. The teens’ interest in Israel and their own Jewish identity was great for my children to see. My children came home saying that it was the best trip of their lives and they hope there will be a teen trip when they are in high school.”
Alongside the positive experience of the teens in Israel, we have also seen the impact since returning to Port Washington. Another participant Lauren said of her two sons’ experience: “My kids were wide-eyed and engaged every day and I feel excited for their future of passion for their faith and for the complicated and beautiful land we discovered with our congregation and our extended family. Through his experience of the POWTY teens on the trip my eldest has already begun attending youth group regularly and went to his first NFTY residential event. All of this has come about in large part because of the connections he made on our Israel trip.” We know the power of an Israel trip to inspire Jewish engagement and commitment, and we also know the power of teenagers to inspire other young people through peer leadership – the combination of these two elements made for a very successful Israel experience for everyone involved.
We are fortunate to be leaders of a congregation that is growing, thriving, and energized. That said, we have struggled in the past when we have tried to organize family trips to Israel. The numbers involved in a congregational trip often mean the costs are prohibitive. Our hybrid trip to Israel not only worked beautifully for us programmatically, but it also enabled us to jump the financial barrier put up by the prospect of smaller trips, and helped us bring both families and teens to experience Israel together. It also laid the groundwork for deeper engagement in synagogue life when we returned home.
We have already began planning for our next Teen-Family Israel program, and we believe that this model is one that can be replicated elsewhere with tremendous results for the participants and the synagogues involved.
To learn more about the Community Synagogue’s hybrid Israel trip, visit their website.
Lindsay Ganci, Director of Youth Engagement, The Community Synagogue
Rabbi Danny Burkeman, The Community Synagogue
The Journal of Youth Engagement checks in with Rabbi Ben David, whose congregation has been participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The article “What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is, and Is Not” originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement in October 2013.
In your original article, “What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is (and Is Not)” you highlighted what “revolution” meant for your congregation. We want to know: now that significant time has passed, what, if anything, has changed in your b’nai mitzvah process?
Our B’nai Mitzvah program continues to evolve. Most specifically, we continue to look for ways to allow the students and their families to own the process. For the students, this means not only picking their mitzvah project, but allowing them to select the verses they will chant from the Torah and what the music will be for their morning. We honor them in our Teen Night program the week before and after their simcha. Even these elements help them to feel ownership. We continue to work on family education as it pertains to not only B’nei Mitzvah, but all transitional moments across Jewish life.
When we last heard from you, your congregation was asking many questions, such as,
Can you share anything about the answers you came up with to these questions?
In sixth grade, we are emphasizing family education more and more. We are increasingly convinced that experiential learning is ideal, especially for this age group as it allows them to live Jewish practices in a way that is not at all theoretical or pedantic. It’s a good age also to have students really transition to a place of their own, personal Judaism.
To this end, having families experiencing Shabbat together in conventional ways, such as Shabbat services and dinner, and slightly less conventional ways, including through art and social justice, has been really positive for all of us.
How has participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution influenced your thinking around other areas of congregational life? What key components have you carried into work beyond b’nai mitzvah?
B’nai Mitzvah Revolution has given us permissions to tinker. To use a baseball metaphor, not every change has to be a big home run. Singles and doubles go a long way toward updating a program. It all adds up.
Benjamin David is the Rabbi of Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, N.J. He is the co-founder of the Running Rabbis, a global social justice initiative. He and his wife Lisa are the proud parents of Noa, Elijah, and Samuel.
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
When Eliezer Ben Yehuda set out to assemble a new, Hebrew language dictionary, he needed to create terminology for modern day concepts that are not found in our ancient sources. Although many of his words caught on and are used regularly, many others did not. Recently, I was reminded of two words for which there are no Hebrew equivalents, leaving us no choice but to use the Latin terms: koalitziyah and the less popular oppositziyah.
Last week – literally at the 11th hour – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escaped political collapse by signing agreements with four different partners to form a narrow coalition with 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members. Although this strategy has been used before, such a coalition is both fragile and extremely difficult to maintain. What will happen, for example, if a single Knesset member is absent for an important vote? Although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that because there is no Hebrew word for coalition it’s not a Jewish concept, there has been only one instance in the past in which a 61member majority came together in agreement – passing the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.
This new koalitziyah was made possible because Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), two ultra-Orthodox parties, have returned from “exile,” which did not serve them well in the past. We in the Reform Movement are distressed by this deal, however, because it promises management of the rabbinical courts to the ultra-Orthodox. Although the Justice Ministry has overseen the standards and ethics of rabbinical court judges for the last decade, supervision of the courts will be wrestled away from this ministry and returned to the Religious Services Ministry, which Shas controls.
The coalition agreement with UTJ includes a clause that calls for a larger committee responsible for appointing rabbinical court judges, meaning there will be more coalition politicians and fewer women on the panel. UTJ also has been promised that orders requiring tiered burial – a massive waste of land compared to in-ground burial – will be canceled in ultra-Orthodox cities. In addition, appropriations to yeshivot will increase, the conversion bill will be reversed, and the issues surrounding the draft and the ultra-Orthodox will resurface.
And so it continues.
In his effort to form a coalition, Netanyahu took a page from the playbook of Israeli politics of old: Sell out to the Haredim because secular Jews don’t care about those things anyway. For Netanyahu, it’s all about holding on to power. In fact, on September 23, 2018, a date he eagerly awaits, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving leader.
In a democracy, power must belong to the people. Sadly, in today’s Israel, an increasing majority of citizens wants nothing to do with those who hold the power — the rabbinate, their courts, and the obligations they impose on Israelis. Thankfully, the Israeli democracy is stronger than its parts. Indeed, the Supreme Court will prevail and checks and balances will continue to do their job. What’s more, our Reform Movement will continue to lead efforts encouraging Israelis to enhance their Jewish identity – to maintain their souls, their resources, and their character – even as the grip of state-sponsored Judaism tightens around them.
Indeed, it is easy for those who sit in the oppositziyah or across the ocean to wax lyrical about the long list of grievances prompted by the recent elections. At the same time, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we are providing essential alternatives. After all, that’s what today’s Zionism is all about — altering the course of the Jewish State so that it is meaningful to all the Jewish people.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA.
Rabbi Lance Sussman, the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, wrote a piece published today in eJewish Philanthropy titled “Seeing is Believing: Visual T’filot and the Future of Jewish Worship.” He begins,
Three years ago, my synagogue agreed to install large retractable screens on either side of the Ark and mounted projectors on the back wall of our 900 seat sanctuary. With almost no resistance, we quickly transitioned from late 15th century technology to early 21th century modalities of communicating.
It was a relatively easy process. In addition to her musical talents, our Cantor discovered she had an inherent talent for developing liturgical power point. What size font, which colors, Hebrew versus transliteration, translation versus epitomes of the text, iconic images versus new art and still life versus video instantly presented themselves as questions we needed to address. One by one, we worked our way through the various technological and philosophical issues.
In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teens – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel – were kidnapped by terrorists on their way home from school. Jews from around the world came together to search, pray, and offer support. The building sense of Jewish unity while the boys were held captive reached its peak when they were found and then buried together.
A year later, the boys’ families are urging the Jewish world to participate in a call for action for their first yarzheit. Joined by the Israeli Ministry of Education, dignitaries, and Jewish institutions around the world, this call invites Jews worldwide to honor the teens’ memory by committing one day – a day of unity – to restoring a sense of togetherness and hope among Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
Unity Day will be held in every country on the 16th of Sivan 5775 – June 3rd 2015. We invite Reform congregations worldwide to participate in this important demonstration of Jewish unity.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said of the initiative,
“Unity Day provides the entire Jewish people – regardless of streams, ideologies, and politics – an opportunity to pause for a moment and remember that there is more that unites than divides us. In memory of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, I encourage all our institutions and members to take part in this worldwide day of Jewish unity and come together as one people.”Find resources to enhance your Unity Day program on the Jerusalem Unity Prize’s website. Creating, discussing, and learning will ensure that will ensure the legacy of Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali z”l lives on.
Learn more about Unity Day and how your community can participate by visiting unityprize.org/en or by contacting Martín Yafé, North American Director of Partnerships for the Jerusalem Unity Prize, at (929) 238-3244 or email@example.com.
“Sooner. Stronger. Deeper. Longer.” That’s the motto that guides Nancy Bossov through her work as an early childhood education and engagement professional. Now the director of early childhood education at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., Nancy came up with this motto while serving as the director of early childhood education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. In practice, it means that engaging families in congregational life sooner rather than later fosters stronger connections to the congregation. This leads to a deeper experience for members, which translates into longer member-synagogue relationships.
Almost all synagogue leaders are concerned with their congregations’ membership numbers, and those same leaders report drastic drop-off rates for families whose children have completed their formal religious education. Although there isn’t a magical cure-all for membership retention, early engagement has proven to be a successful tactic.
Knowing this, the URJ gathered leaders from 28 congregations to participate in two early childhood-related Communities of Practice, Successfully Engaging Families with Young Children and Pursuing Excellence in Your Early Childhood Center. For 18 months, these leaders explored strategies and programs for achieving that “sooner, stronger, deeper, longer” member connection.
The findings from those Communities of Practice have just been published and are available in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum. The guide includes best principles; a syllabus and workbook pages to help you strategize about your engagement efforts; additional research; and helpful articles and other resources.
Because learning together is so important, the URJ just launched seven new Communities of Practice, including two designed to help leaders with early engagement: Building a Brand: Excellence in Reform Movement Early Childhood Engagement (for congregations that have an early childhood center) and Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children (for congregations that do not have an early childhood center). Visit the Communities of Practice group to read about these learning opportunities, and see this ongoing conversation for answers to frequently asked questions. Applications for the new Communities of Practice will be accepted through June 15th.
Seasonal Info: We invite you to join us at the 2015 URJ Biennial, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. Registration will open later this month. In the meantime, visit urj.org/biennial to learn more.
Tent Tip: The Tent’s powerful search tool can help you find answers to your questions and resources to help manage the sacred. Before posing a question to your fellow Tent members, or if you’re not sure where to find a resource, enter your search term in the search box located at the top of every page. You then can filter search results to more easily find what you need.
Is your congregation ready to learn and innovate? Are you prepared to grapple with challenging but important issues and questions, but aren’t quite sure where to begin?
The URJ is thrilled to announce that applications are now open for the URJ Communities of Practice, and we invite your congregation to apply. Communities of Practice (CoPs) are an opportunity for your congregation to come together with others around a topic of shared interest. For 18-24 months, participating congregations will learn from experts in the field, ask big questions, share ideas and best practices, apply these lessons through experimentation, and as a result, strengthen their communities.
We have been so inspired by stories we’ve heard from synagogues across North America that have been transformed by their involvement in past CoPs. One such story comes from Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, a small congregation that realized it was uniquely positioned to fill the needs of young, unaffiliated families seeking a Jewish community. As they worked to support these families, the congregation expanded in membership and in self-identity. Read more of their powerful story.
Indeed, joining a Community of Practice is an exciting and profound opportunity for synagogues and their congregational leaders, challenging participants to think congregational work in new and different ways. Participation is truly a labor of love, and the more you put in, the more you will get out. This means that, as a participating congregation, you will be expected to devote time and human capital to experimenting with and implementing the ideas you develop and nurture within the CoP. Participants must be able to devote between 4-6 hours per month to this work and attend group learning sessions – but equally critical is a commitment to bringing that learning home and figuring out how to make it relevant and useful in your congregational work.
We encourage your congregational leadership – including lay leaders, clergy, and other professionals – to have a conversation to choose one CoP topic that most interests you. If you feel that you can fully commit to participation in more than one CoP, please apply for both. Our staff will work closely with your synagogue throughout the application process to ensure that you are positioned to succeed. The deadline to apply is June 15, 2015, so apply now!
Once you’ve applied, URJ staff will reach out to set up an informal interview with your CoP team. This will be an opportunity for us to learn more about each other and begin to develop mutual goals and expectations. Congregations will be notified by mid-July if they’ve been accepted into the CoP. Our first online gathering will take place after the High Holidays, followed an in-person launch at the 2015 URJ Biennial Convention the morning of Wednesday, November 4.
We’ll then ask you to build a team that includes a lay leader with interest and involvement in the area, as well as the member of your professional staff responsible for this issue. (If you don’t have staff devoted to this topic, we welcome two lay leaders to form the core team.) These people will be your representatives in the CoP, but we also encourage you to engage others on your congregational team to help the CoP members bring the work back to your synagogue in a meaningful and impactful way.
To learn more, please sign up for an informational webinar on any of the topics being offered:CoP Topic Webinar date and time Building a Brand: Excellence in Reform Movement Early Childhood Engagement (congregations with an ECC) Wednesday, May 13, 1pm EDT Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children (congregations without ECCs) Wednesday, May 13, 1pm EDT Finding the Sacred in the Mundane: Reimagining Financial Support Thursday, May 14, 2pm EDT Strengthening Israel Engagement in your Congregation Tuesday, May 19, 12pm EDT Pursuing Justice: Becoming a Community of Action (with the Religious Action Center) Wednesday, May 20, 1pm EDT B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: Innovators Lab (application available May 20) Wednesday, May 20th, 2:30pm EDT Engaging Congregants: Small groups with Meaning Thursday, May 21, 3pm EDT
I have been fortunate to spend time in recent weeks with an array of Reform leaders, including nearly 100 congregational presidents at our annual Schiedt Seminar and many of the newest and soon-to-be HUC ordinees and graduates – clergy, educators, and Jewish professionals who are eager and exceedingly well qualified to help reshape the Reform Jewish future.
Two days ago, as I confirmed the ordinations of my newest colleagues, I urged them to resist being caretakers of the status quo, and to love our people, especially those who pray, vote, believe, and think differently than they do. I charged them to bind our communities to each other and to Israel, to cast a wide net in defining “pro-Israel” and “Jewishness,” and, perhaps most important as they step up to lead, to have the courage of their convictions, but never to hesitate to let go of outdated ideas or practices.
I am confident that this year’s class will bring new levels of creativity, imagination and holiness to the task, and I look forward to the exceptional changes that will flow from their endeavors. Indeed, my charge and my certainty in their commitment and abilities apply, too, to our Movement’s other leaders with whom I have met in recent days.
The temple presidents I met at this year’s Scheidt Seminar are similarly poised to instigate change within their communities. I was incredibly moved, as I always am, by the the new presidents’ commitment and passion. Combined with the knowledge, tools, and resources the URJ provides, their ongoing support for each other, and the powerful, sacred partnerships they’re building with their clergy, these Reform leaders, too, are undertaking holy work that is sure to strengthen and enhance all aspects of synagogue life.
Finally, at the recently concluded Consultation on Conscience, the Reform Movement, once again, demonstrated its leadership, in providing members – professional and lay – with strategies and tactics to apply the insights of our tradition to the real problems in today’s world. By honing their voices on topics as diverse as race relations, economic justice, civil rights, and humanitarian aid, attendees returned home with newfound skills that make them particularly well-suited to galvanize others in the essential work of tikkun olam.
In each of these inspiring encounters with Reform leaders, I was reminded of just how proud I am – and we all can be – of the outstanding training, expertise, and guidance offered by our Union and our Movement. As we welcome the newest cohort of leaders into our midst at this season, I am – and I hope you are, too – increasingly hopeful, optimistic, and energized about the future of Reform Jewish life in North America.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, had an op-ed published last week in the Jewish Journal titled “Op-Ed: Striking Down Marriage Equality Bans Would Protect Religious Liberty.” He writes,
Love. Commitment. Trust. These are the values that form the basis of a marriage. Yet, the equal right to civil marriage has been denied to loving, committed same-sex couples throughout our country’s history. As the Supreme Court considers oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that could result in civil marriage equality in all fifty U.S. states, the country stands at a crossroads: will the nine Justices finally decide to uphold the civil right of same-sex couples to marry?
As a Rabbi and the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the largest Jewish denomination in America, I am inspired and motivated by the commandment “you shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong… nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exodus 23:2-3). We are not commanded to pursue justice for ourselves. The justice that we must pursue is a universal justice—a justice for all people.
For too long, our country has dealt unjustly with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Marriage equality bans are just one of the many ways in which states have sought to enshrine discrimination into law simply based on who people are and the gender they are attracted to.
by Jonathan Cheris
After two years as executive vice president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, I am about to become president of this sacred place that is my home away from home. Thanks to the work of the incredible leaders in whose footsteps I follow, our membership numbers are growing and our programs are thriving – all evidence that a brick-and-mortar religious institution still matters in a digital world. With the encouragement of my rabbi, Michael White, I recently attended the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar for incoming congregational presidents, a weekend-long retreat held at a suburban conference center outside Atlanta, GA.
For two years, I’ve been outlining the High Holiday speech I plan to deliver this fall. For two months, I’ve been engaging more deeply with temple elders, seeking an easy and rapid transition into the temple presidency. For two weeks, I’ve been feeling increasingly stressed as I begin to deal with some major issues that will need to be addressed during my two-year term.
A member of the congregation since 2001, I was drawn into the temple’s leadership shortly after the death of my father in 2003, grateful for the support the temple community had provided to me and my family during his illness. Joining the temple’s leadership ranks was a natural extension of other volunteer activities I was already pursuing. Since then, I’ve served as brotherhood president and held other posts related to the congregation’s membership, administration, and marketing. Ten years ago, I helped to rebrand the temple as “My Sinai,” and worked to empower staff and other leaders to brand around this wonderful name. My family, too, is happily engaged with our Temple Sinai family: My now 17- and 20-year-old children benefitted greatly from their religious education and the temple’s incredible teen programs, and eight years ago, my wife became an adult bat mitzvah.
On the way to the Scheidt Seminar, the private shuttle bus from the airport to the conference center overflowed with conversation as we began to get to know each other.
“Where are you from?”
“How big is your membership?”
“When do you become president?”
“How many rabbis do you have?”
Once at the conference center, I continued introducing myself to some of the 92 other participants who’d traveled from congregations throughout North America. I also met members of the URJ staff, and immediately felt their warmth. Now was the moment I’d been awaiting – I was at the Scheidt Seminar, meeting new people and ready to learn.
That evening, Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), spoke brilliantly, sharing leadership concepts that apply to congregational presidents and beyond. As he spoke, the stress of the previous two weeks began to lift as I realized I was among peers – a leader among leaders – and an actor on a stage larger than my own congregation or my own Long Island backyard. To gain the most from this opportunity, I decided to limit my social media usage and fully embrace the URJ training and the Judaism that came with it.
On Friday, we were grouped based on synagogue size. My group of 18 – yes, there were 18 of us – came from large synagogues and quickly bonded as friends, coworkers, warriors, debaters, scholars, all things Jewish. The day’s sessions featured wonderful teachers, leaders, warm human beings, and a lot of learning centered on leadership, financial stability, engaging young families, and real-world case studies.
URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs joined us as Shabbat began for the first of a few memorable worship services. During the aliyot on Saturday morning, attendees were called to the Torah in three distinct groups: those who had been active, engaged Reform Jewish youth leaders; those who were raised in the Reform Movement but never imagined being a congregational president; and those who were raised outside the Reform Movement. I chose the second group for myself and was surprised that the third group was the largest, which provides a glimpse into the tremendous opportunities that exist for the modern Reform Movement.
Throughout the weekend, we continued to bond – as Jews and as presidents, sharing the similarities in our lives and in our congregations. During our final session, as we locked arms and swayed to Jewish songs, I was grateful for the many sacred connections I’d made, and I embraced each one. Like the others in my Scheidt community, I returned home more confident, empowered, and ready to lead my congregation, which I now understand is an essential link in North America’s Reform Movement. I look forward to seeing many of them when we meet again in Orlando at the 2015 URJ Biennial this November.
Jonathan Cheris is the incoming president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, Roslyn Heights, NY. He tweets at @LeadingWithGuts.
By Harriet Skelly
In 2013, Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, was at its lowest membership in 15 years. Several years earlier, we had implemented a new, low-cost dues structure in the hopes that it would help increase the membership. At about the same time, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, visited the Bay Area and spoke with local congregational presidents about audacious hospitality, relational Judaism, and “going outside the walls.” I was intrigued by his language, but still didn’t really get it. I was just stuck on how to find unaffiliated Jews in our area to bring into our congregation.
A few months after the meeting with Rabbi Jacobs, I was manning Shir Ami’s booth at the Castro Valley Pride Festival when an interfaith lesbian couple with a nine-month old son approached me. As we chatted, I learned that they were looking for a place to bring their son to learn about being Jewish – but sadly, I had to tell them we didn’t have programs for children under age 5.
I encouraged them to come check us out anyway and gave them our schedule of activities, but right there and then – as they walked away from the booth – I decided that our congregation had to create something for families like theirs.
That encounter led me to understand that, as an aging community with very few students in our religious and Hebrew school, our congregation needed to attract families with young children. In September 2013, I learned that the URJ was forming Communities of Practice (CoP), bringing together members of various congregations for 18-24 months of guided learning around congregational change on a topic of shared interest. Shir Ami was accepted into the Community of Practice that focused on engaging families with young children. At the time, we had 49 member families with nine school-aged children, and we wanted to learn how to attract unaffiliated and diverse families with young children.
After meeting that young family at the Pride Festival, I’d been tossing around the idea of offering a free, monthly program for children under 5 and their parents or guardians. In addition to being fun and educational, it would provide a peer group for young families and – perhaps most significantly – get them in our doors. I invited one of the membership co-chairs to join me in this experiment, and after attending the CoP kickoff in Chicago, she presented what she’d learned to Shir Ami’s board of directors.
Although the board was hesitant to offer anything for free – that was really thinking outside the box! – they gave us their blessing to implement the program I’d envisioned. For starters, we asked a few members who are parents of young children to brainstorm with us. As a result of those sessions, Tot Talk was born.
Held once a month, Tot Talk is scheduled for a Sunday when religious school is in session and a rabbinic intern is present (we don’t have full-time clergy at Shir Ami). The one-hour session starts at 11:30 a.m., the time the school breaks for oneg, which lets the tots interact with the big kids, and lets their parents check out the environment and mingle with each other before the session officially starts at about 11:45 a.m. Parents and guardians are required to participate with their children in the session, which usually includes a welcoming song, a read-aloud story tied to the theme of the day, and a hands-on project – usually making something edible! At the end of the session, every family leaves with their project and a handout that includes information about the session’s topic and links to related topics (we get a lot of our ideas from ReformJudaism.org).
The first family to attend Tot Talk in January 2014 was the interfaith family I’d met a few months earlier at the Pride Festival! Since then, tot participants have ranged in age from nine-months to 4 years in any given session, and six of the participating families have joined our congregation. This effort has boosted our membership to 65 households, with 17 students (excluding the Tot Talk children) enrolled in our religious school.
I attribute some of this growth to the Tot Talk program itself. The rest I attribute to the CoP, which is where we learned to market the congregation (using the URJ’s free marketing materials), advertise our programs on our website’s home page, and go “outside the walls” to meet people where they are. Although we know that potential congregants are not just going to show up on our doorstep, when they do, we’ll greet them with audacious hospitality!
Harriet Skelly is president of Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA.
by Ken Hahn
Last summer, I spent five days at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), one of the URJ’s 15 summer camps across North America that runs programs for Jewish youth from elementary school through high school. But I’m not a camper, nor am I a camp parent – so why was I there? I joined 15 other people at camp for Had’rachah, a URJ-led seminar designed to teach lay leaders to conduct worship services and lifecycle events. We all wanted to help our small congregations (mine has 80 households), some of which have one full-time clergy member and some of which have none. The program was pivotal for me.
As it happens, OSRUI is the place where Jewish musician Debbie Friedman, z’l, did much of her work with music, and it’s where the rabbi of my Northampton, MA, synagogue attended camp for many years throughout her childhood. I love Debbie Friedman’s music and have high regard for my rabbi, so my own OSRUI experience seemed predisposed for a good outcome.
On the first night, the program leader, Rabbi David Fine, asked each of us what we hoped to gain from our time at Had’rachah. Some participants wanted to learn to officiate at a funeral or a shiva minyan, others wanted to get ideas about how to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and still others wanted coaching on how to write a d’rash. When my turn came, I said I was “looking for inspiration.” Of course my answer didn’t mean I didn’t want help with any of those other things; it just meant that more than anything, I was looking for some new directions.
Because summer camp season was in full swing, there were a great many rabbis and cantors on staff on whom Rabbi Fine could call for workshop leadership, and the general ambience of the camp – including exuberant prayer of all kinds and with all ages – was a great backdrop for our own religious practice. One day we attended Maariv with 12-year old campers who were learning to conduct a service, and another time, we were with 17-year-old campers who had become service-leading pros. What linked every service and every age group was the amazing music, led by professional song leaders coupled with enthusiastic participation by every child. What could be more inspirational?!
In fact, I did gather lots of information about leading a shiva minyan and writing a d’rash. I also learned about how to write a eulogy and heard various perspectives about the challenges in small URJ congregations – and the resources available to help us meet those challenges. I had a most marvelous time hanging out at OSRUI, sharing, and connecting with similarly impassioned, great people from other small congregations, who continue to be resources for each other. Mostly, though, I got the inspiration I was seeking. Indeed, I gained a lot from the program – and with the newfound knowledge and skills I brought home, so, too, did my congregation.
Ken Hahn is a longtime lay leader and former president of Beit Ahavah in Northampton, MA. He currently teaches in the Hebrew School, tutors students for b’nai mitzvah, and leads services and minyanim when called upon. In his life beyond the synagogue, he consults on governance and strategic planning issues with non-profit Jewish camps.
Following a deadly 7.9-magnitude earthquake on Saturday, April 25, 2015 – the worst to hit that Nepal since 1934 – thousands of people in Nepal and in neighboring India are in need of immediate help. The United Nations predicts that tens of thousands are likely dead or injured and that up to one million people will become homeless as a result of the devastation. Reports on the ground say that historic buildings and seven major temples have been destroyed near Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and that the force of the quake triggered a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.
The Reform Movement encourages donations to the following organizations providing disaster relief on the ground in Nepal and India:
Liturgist Alden Solovy offers two prayers to say in our communities as we pray for the people of Nepal and India.
She’s back. Under the auspices of something deemed the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the infamous fearmonger Pamela Geller has reasserted provocative hatred onto New York City streets — with new anti-Muslim ads that could appear on city buses.
“Killing Jews is worship that draws us closer to Allah,” one such ad reads, alongside the image of a young man in a headscarf. It continues: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”
Though the advertisements were challenged in court, the Hon. John Koeltl of the U.S. District Court, citing the First Amendment, allowed them. Partly to avoid featuring these ads, the MTA may succeed in changing its policy to bar all future political ads.
But whether they ultimately run or not, this hatred has been exposed, and New Yorkers — and the Jewish community in particular — cannot be silent.