Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process. by Dr. Paula Sayag As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, […]

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Engage Jewish Youth During the High Holiday Season

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables: Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to […]

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The Porch: It’s Southern, It’s Open, and It’s Jewish

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process. by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas When I was ordained a cantor in 2011, I never imagined […]

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Investing in the Next Generation: The URJ’s Emerging Young Adult Initiatives Community of Practice

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process. by Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Adam Freedman Judaism is constantly evolving, addressing new challenges and needs, […]

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A Force to be Reckoned With



by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute… Read more…

The Challenges of Teaching about Israel



by Jack Wertheimer

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world? Read more…

NFTY Regions – It Takes a Village and We are a Village



by Julie Marsh

Many people wonder about the “magic” of NFTY, the power to bring teenagers together, create a holy community, and create lasting relationships. As a regional advisor, I am often asked how, when, and who creates that NFTY “magic.” To many, these questions are complicated, and to be honest, when it comes to my Florida region, NFTY-Southern Tropical Region (NFTY-STR), the answers are simple. The success and “magic” of NFTY-STR is the result of a vast support network. The adage, “It takes a village” could not be truer for us. Our NFTY-STR village is made up of NFTYites, alumni, congregations, and additional stakeholders who we have welcomed into our community over the years. Read more…

Jewish Women Innovators: The Next Generation



by Sam Kazer

This week, the WRJ Blog features a series of articles about the newest URJ Camp: URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and WRJ’s efforts to increase the presence of girls at the camp and, by extension, support women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Our girls’ dorm, Rosie, is named after Rosalind Franklin, a biologist whose critical work with X-Ray Diffraction led to the understanding of the double helix structure of DNA. By choosing this name for the dorm, we hope to inspire our campers to shoot for the stars as empowered women, scientists and innovators. Yesterday, I sat down with two exuberant campers from Rosie, Hannah and Mia, who received YES grants to attend Sci-Tech from WRJ.

For Hannah and Mia, science and technology is their bread and butter. Besides technology being the “best way to communicate with [her] friends,” Mia has a distinct passion for robotics. In middle school, Mia won the science fair with another girl by making a robot  that blew bubbles. Although she “doesn’t always like the programming,” she is invested in exploring robotics because “Robots can (or will) do things like save people from earthquakes and natural disasters.” Hannah has split passions; she triumphantly explained that “as a future director and biologist, [she has] always liked animals and [she has] always been in love with taking picture because [she has] thought of pictures as memories.” Like Mia, Hannah finds that “making videos is a social experience” and that digital media allows her to “think outside of the box” and spur “conversations about art.”

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L’dor V’dor: From Adults, to Teens, to Kids, Camp Shalom Inspires



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

There’s a reason so many people have been talking about summer camp: The camp environment provides daily Jewish living experiences that often prove to be transformational. It is the place where religious school lessons come to life, where Jewish friendships begin, and where the foundation for our children’s Jewish future is laid. Indeed, study after study cites Jewish camp as a critical factor in the development of a strong Jewish identity.

As the vice president and education director, respectively, of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands, we encourage parents in our congregation to make summertime Jewish time by enrolling their children in a Jewish camp. The Woodlands, however, is a surburban community an hour and a half north of Houston and its Jewish community – too far for daily commuting by most families in our temple. Therefore, for the last decade or so, we’ve set aside two weeks in June to run Camp Shalom, creating an opportunity for our kids (ages 3 to 12) to escape the Texas heat and enjoy the benefits of Jewish camp.

A few years ago, short on adult volunteers for Camp Shalom, we invited our teens – many of whom didn’t go to a URJ camp or only attended one session – to serve as madrichim (counselors).  The educational philosophy at the Woodlands is to empower teens to continue their post B’nai Mitzvah Jewish education by educating younger children. This is the corps of our madrichim training. During the school year, on Sunday and Wednesday evenings teen’s both participate in an education program for themselves and help with the younger kids.  Trained madrichim are given the opportunity to volunteer as counselors at Camp Shalom.

Today, the madrichim, with adult supervision, run the camp – organizing and supervising swimming, relay races, a movie night, craft projects, and Shabbat worship.

The beauty of Camp Shalom is empowering teens to administer and run the program.  Prior to the beginning of each camp session, the teens and adults meet to plan the daily schedule.  Immediately following each camp day, both teens and adults participate in a staff meeting. This allows continuity from one day to the next including evaluation and planning. Teens have the opportunity to discuss both the pros and the cons from the day and the ownership to adjust as needed.  As challenges arise, teens and adults develop solutions together.

High retention of post B’nai Mitzvah teens is a significant goal of our education program and we believe that Camp Shalom is a key factor in our success.

Camp Shalom provides an opportunity for the teens – who often are one of only a handful of Jews in their schools – to be together, to build friendships and to bond with one another. During camp we realized that teens organized social activities beyond camp hours.  Feeling that the temple is their home, inspiring them to engage Jewishly, and honing their leadership skills so they can take on other leadership roles in NFTY and in our temple are other benefits Camp Shalom offers them.

As one madrich put it, “Camp Shalom is special to me because I like to spend time with awesome children and teach them new things.” And that is just what he is doing. After an all-day trip to the lake, a 5-year-old camper insisted none of us could leave for home until we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Upon its conclusion, the camper added, “Now the Jewish one…”

Indeed, making a Jewish difference in our young people is what Camp Shalom is all about.

Maura Schofield is a vice president at Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands in Texas. Helen Richard is the director of education and Camp Shalom at the congregation.

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A Jewish Junta



By Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Who recruited you into NFTY?

Who invited you to your first event?

Who tapped you on the shoulder, and suggested you should become involved in a Jewish youth group?

I remember them. They called themselves “The Junta.” Sometimes they were referred to as a “gang of four.” They were the four high school seniors who were the founders of the Village Temple Youth Group back in 1983. To those of us who were younger, they were the coolest kids you could imagine. And because of their efforts, an entire generation of Jewish teens found a home in Jewish life.

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Asking Big Questions: Applying Design Thinking to Working with Teens



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

We are asking big questions in Boston and we are inviting, encouraging and supporting our teens to ask them with us. This spring a group of teens asked, “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” This was not a question that was handed to them on a piece of paper; this was a question that evolved out of some very meaningful work in the Design Lab pilot.

The Design Lab is an innovative model of teen engagement that is a partnership between the URJ, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Brandeis University Office of High School Programs with partial funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation. It is a wonderful new example of collaboration as we all work together to engage a larger group of teens to delve more deeply into Judaism, and to support and enable them to engage their friends and be co-creators of their own meaningful Jewish experiences. It is an experiment in bringing the principles of Design Thinking to our work with teens. Design Thinking was first articulated and developed by a Silicon Valley design Firm, IDEO, as a framework to design physical objects. However, its applications are growing, and it is now being used in a number of settings as a way to design experiences of all sorts.

Design Thinking is a mode of problem solving that has several steps, including:

  1. Empathize/Understand/Immerse
  2. Frame/Define
  3. Ideate/Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Our belief is that by teaching teens design thinking, and providing them time, space and support, they can and will engage their peers and develop experiences for change in their communities.

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For the pilot this spring we worked with consultants from Upstart Bay Area to help us in our thinking and learning. Our pilot group included teen cohorts from Temple Shir Tikva. Wayland and Temple Emanuel. Newton – two communities who enthusiastically experimented with us. Although the time framework for our pilot did not allow the 18 teen participants to fully answer the question that evolved  – “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” – it did allow time and space for a substantial amount of reflection and learning from one another using the principles and stages of Design Thinking.   Design thinking by nature is often ambiguous, and learning to live with that ambiguity, without a known result, was an important learning for all.  The process is a winding and weaving road, not necessarily visible from the start.  It is a continuous looping through the stages.

Each step of our process was taught and experienced through design “sprints” as well as through deep questioning, exploring and testing of our assumptions. One of the primary tenets of Design Thinking involves developing empathy and understanding (of the “user”) and connecting that empathy and understanding to the design of objects and experiences. In our first meeting we designed wallets. Designing a wallet might sound simple, but as we reflected on our needs for a wallet, then shared our thoughts with a partner and listened to how they used their wallet, the ways in which their wallet could be improved and what their wallet meant to them (many were gifts and had meaning beyond what one could imagine), we were struck by the simplicity with which we had first seen the issue. After deeply exploring the many issues, we began to imagine a new wallet for our partners that truly reflected what we had learned about them.

We followed up by making wallet prototypes for our partners using play dough, pipe cleaners, feathers, glue sticks, yarn, construction paper, duct tap, etc. Very few of the prototypes looked anything like what we had initially assumed a wallet should be. Some had multiple slots, some had places for keys and/or phones to attach, one was built into a pocket of a pair of pants, one had modules that could be taken apart.  That exercise began to truly expand and change the way many in the room viewed designed objects and experiences.

Throughout the five sessions we continued to link back to the issue of spirituality and what that meant to each individual. Participants began to reflect on times, spaces and experiences that felt spiritual and began expanding their thinking about what it means to come of age. The participants filled the room with photos and post-it notes of all colors with thoughts, questions, ideas and musings that related to spirituality.

We also learned a lot about words.  We focused on the concept of “and” rather than “but.” “And” is additive while “but” can be restrictive. In many ways, this related to our learning that it is possible to expand on someone’s idea, rather than to narrow or eliminate it if we thought we had a better idea. We used words like “might” as in “how might we create an experience?” By using the word “might” we did not have to be constrained by practicalities.

The energy, enthusiasm and variety of ideas generated through these exercises were extraordinary. We spent time thinking about ways to create interfaith meals and dialogues into our communities, we expanded our thinking about youth group activities and ultimately focused on an idea called Torah Trek. This is a concept that brings nature and physical movement, among other things, into each Torah portion and ultimately to the B’nai Mitzvah experience.

Although the five sessions allotted and committed to by the participants did not allow enough time to fully flesh out this idea, follow-up to the pilot is an important piece of our model. We are hopeful that a group of these teens will continue to work together with us to apply design thinking to their communities and to continue to develop ideas. We still have many unanswered questions about the best ways to refine and grow this model. However, in keeping with Design Thinking we are OK with that. We know that by continuing to listen, learn, immerse, frame, imagine, prototype and test we will enhance our toolbox in Boston and have an opportunity to greatly impact the community. We are excited about our continuing to work with this group, while simultaneously cultivating a new cohort of teens and communities to work with us, and continuing to ask big questions.

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How to Get Youth Into Your Synagogue



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Millennials. We’re all grappling with similar questions: How do we get them to go to Hebrew school? Or go to Hillel once they’re in college? Or services after that?

I can only answer from my own (millennial) perspective, but my experience has been profound. It is not unique and it is, in fact, deeply rooted in Torah.

“The worship of God,” wrote Mordecai Kaplan, “though desirable as an end in itself, can somehow never be in the right spirit unless it impels one to the service of man.”

Kaplan seemed ahead of his time, but he was just drawing on Torah–a trailblazing force of social justice. The oft-quoted “justice, justice shall you pursue” (D’varim 16:20) says the word twice because, according to commentators, the first time deals with laws of what is right, while the second time refers to the system of how we achieve it: the Torah’s commandments of fair courts and procedures for judgment.

So when, as young people, we do see injustice in the world—when we see violations of the Torah’s vision of not unfairly favoring one person over another, or not “hearing the small just as the great” (D’varim 1:17), it’s a very Jewish thing to react.

What has motivated me as a Jewish young person is that in every issue I’ve worked on, I encountered the particular injustice of society not hearing the small and the great alike. Let me explain. My journey has taken me from starting a Jewish environmental group in college, to volunteer lobbying with American Jewish World Service, to directing communications for a homelessness non-profit. My homeless services and housing agency was constantly getting its government funding cut despite its incredible success in helping the homeless become contributing, permanently housed, members of society thus saving taxpayers money on incarceration, health care, and foster care. While we didn’t have money in the state budget for these services, somehow lawmakers found a few hundred million dollars here or there in special tax deals to hand out to well-connected corporate lobbies. In my experience, more often than not, the “small” are the vast majority of people using their common sense, and the “great” are using their outsized influence to sway public policy away from the public interest and towards their own narrower interests. And this, to me, is a direct violation of what we learn in Torah.

As a Jewish young person upset by injustice, I decided to take action in my own community. I joined my synagogue’s social action team to meet more community members. I officially joined the synagogue, and soon thereafter gave a d’var Torah on how affordable housing in our neighborhood was being gobbled up and flipped by developers who had an “in” with the alderman, to whom they’d made campaign contributions. Three people approached me immediately afterwards, concerned about what is happening in our backyard, and I took that as a sign that the community may want to do something.

One of the congregation’s rabbis, a fellow millennial, took it upon himself to organize a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of action. About 80 people attended and we held five break-out sessions with organizers of different campaigns. I led a session on the intersection of civil rights, over-incarceration, and the campaign contributions of private prisons, all of which leads to harsher sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, at taxpayer expense.

From that session, we found a leader who helped organize a future demonstration. From a subsequent event, we found a student who wanted to intern. At all of these events, millennials were well represented and deeply interested and engaged with the issues. They were looking for an outlet for their social concern, and they found it in a synagogue.

The Torah may have blazed a trail for justice, but other traditions have learned and are expanding on the model of how, as religious people, we can continue that tradition. Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the international interfaith youth movement, figured out why young people weren’t showing up at interfaith gatherings. These gatherings largely consisted of self-congratulatory panels and ceremonies, with no meaningful action steps available. So Eboo Patel created IFYC to provide young people of diverse religions the opportunity to do service together. The organization grew, and soon, each young person was not only attending these service opportunities, but also taking a renewed interest in his or her own religion.

I believe that the best way to ensure a strong future for the Jewish people is simple: provide opportunities for youth to engage deeply in an important part of our tradition. The Jewish environmental group I co-founded at Hillel attracted Jews who otherwise would not have stepped into the building. Scores of millennials here in the city of Chicago—myself included—have become paying members of congregations where we feel like worship and service go hand-in-hand.

If you’re nervous about activism on core Torah principles of justice, such as giving voice to the small and great alike, remember—God created the world using the power of the word. If we want the next generation of the Jewish people to take on the responsibility of tikkun olam, helping complete God’s creation, they cannot do so without expressing their voices.

And, quite appropriately, their voices can find a natural home in our own synagogues.

Benjamin D. Singer is the Campaign Director for Common Cause Illinois and serves on the Na’aseh social action committee at Anshe Emet Synagogue. Previously, he co-founded ECO Hillel at Northwestern before directing communications for A Safe Haven and then consulting for U.S. Senate candidates while living in Moishe House Chicago.

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Natan Sharansky Speaks to URJ Camp Staffers About the Conflict in Israel



by Hanoch Greenberg

The URJ’s shlichim (Israeli emissaries) were privileged last month to participate in a webinar with Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in which he discussed the ongoing Operation Protective Edge and its implications for the shlichim, who were working in the Diaspora as conflict escalated in Israel.

For me, an Israeli and a 13-year staff member at URJ Camp Coleman, this summer has been one of the most challenging I’ve ever faced – and I know many of my fellow shlichim feel the same way. Being at camp while our friends and families struggle at home is devastating. The webinar was helpful for the shlichim because it addressed the main questions and struggles that we find ourselves grappling with: how to do our daily job in camp while we worry about everything transpiring back home; how to explain and educate campers and staff about the ongoing situation in Israel; and how to cultivate a support system in and outside of camp. Read more…

Encouraging Leadership with Both Hands



By Celia Tedde and Jeremy Cronig

Da lifnei mi atah omeid–know before whom you stand.” This quote from Talmud B’rachot 28b has been the central focus of our experience in the Leadership Academy at the URJ Kutz Camp.

This summer, we spent four weeks in Warwick, NY learning and developing our leadership skills. The URJ Kutz Camp gives teens the opportunity to study by choosing from a variety of majors and minors, including some that focus on growing as Jewish leaders within the community.

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Unanimous Vote on Iron Dome Funding Vital to Israel’s Security; Hamas Violation of Ceasefire Condemned



In response to the unanimous U.S. Senate vote authorizing emergency aid for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

The news this morning that Hamas violated the agreed upon 72 hour humanitarian cease fire, killed two IDF soldiers, and kidnapped Givati Brigade Officer Hadar Goldin is as outrageous as it is predictable. Our thoughts and prayers are with Officer Goldin and his family, as well as the families of the all the IDF soldiers who have been killed since the start of Operation Protective Edge. We also pray for all the innocents who have suffered throughout the past several weeks of warfare. It is tragic that Hamas’ unwillingness or inability to abide by the terms of the ceasefire to which it agreed has now led directly to renewed bloodshed. Read more…

Sing Unto God, Sing a New Song! A Reflection from the Kutz Songleading Major



By Eva Turner

This summer at URJ’s Kutz Camp was the second year I chose the Songleading Major. Many people asked, “why do the same major again?” to which I always responded, “I need new music.” In truth, I decided to participate in songleading for a second time because I believe you can never learn everything and there is always room for improvement. And I was completely right. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my two years as a songleader I learned this past summer. That lesson is as follows: The most important part of songleading is education.

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Reform Rabbis Travel to Israel in Show of Solidarity



On July 27th, a group Reform Rabbis from throughout North America representing the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) plan to begin a mission to Israel in an expression of solidarity and support.

Says Rabbi Richard Block, senior rabbi of the Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, Ohio, who is president of the CCAR and a leader of the trip,

We know that the timing of this mission may not be convenient. But we also know this: Our presence in Israel, at this critical juncture, as North American Reform Rabbis, especially our interaction with some of those most directly impacted by recent events, will demonstrate more eloquently to the people of Israel than anything else we could say or do that they are not alone in this struggle, that the Central Conference of American Rabbis stands with the State of Israel and all its citizens in good times and bad.

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NFTY Alumni Profile: Jason Cohen



If you watched the Academy Awards this year, the film title Facing Fear may sound familiar. If you were in JFTY in the late 1980’s, the film’s producer/director’s name – Jason Cohen – may sound familiar. Either way we caught up with Jason (JFTY ’90) to chat about his work as a filmmaker, his exciting release of this powerful piece, and how his time in NFTY continues to influence his work.

JCindiaA New Jersey native, Cohen shared that growing up his Jewish community was NFTY. Regional conclaves opened his eyes to a bigger world and his role in making a difference.  NFTY was the place where he was introduced to and felt compelled towards social action. This new perspective remained at the forefront of his mind through college at University of Wisconsin and into his professional career. Through his career, Jason has been traveling the world uncovering stories and helping to open others’ eyes to new issues.FF

Now, partnering with the Fetzer Institute, Jason has released a film full of references to his Jewish background. Facing Fear is a story of a chance meeting of a victim of a gay hate crime and his neo-Nazi attacker 25 years after the attack. Both lives have been shaped by the event and the meeting sparks a journey of forgiveness, collaboration, and eventually (and surprisingly) friendship. Facing Fear is screening at film festivals and select theaters/events across the country.

Favorite NFTY memory: NFTY represented some of Jason’s best times in high school. He remembered feeling like he was, at times, living a double life from the guy his high school friends all knew when he would escape for the weekend to catch up with NFTY friends during conclaves. The things he did in NFTY always felt like they had a little more meaning.

Advice to NFTYites and NFTY alumni interested in the film industry: Always look for compelling stories and people. Jason seeks out subjects that he is interested in learning about so that he can learn through the process and along with his viewers. He suggests taking advantage of all of the tools that are out there – and there are many (!) – film making is much more accessible than it was when he first started.

Check out more about Jason’s film including a trailer and screening dates.