What Makes Jewish Science Camp So Special?

by Stephen Weitzman At the beginning of many episodes of his epic Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling would often intone, “You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.” That description could be printed […]

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Two-Fold High Holiday Prep: Our Congregations and Ourselves

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

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Three Great Congregational Programs that Tackle the Challenge of Demographic Diversity

Today’s congregations face a wide range of changing demographics. Many communities are experiencing a geographic shift, as older adults age in place, families move into new suburban areas, and younger Jews flock to revitalized downtown areas. As a result, members of local Jewish communities are often in completely disparate locations, providing synagogues with both an […]

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How Synagogues Can Prioritize Disability Inclusion This High Holiday Season

by Jay Ruderman With the High Holidays just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking themselves how they can become more holy and inclusive communities. In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change […]

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What My Vacation Taught Me About Audacious Hospitality

by Frieda Hershman Huberman

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

1. Taking the first step toward change is difficult.

During my childhood, my family vacationed at Beach Front Gardens in Atlantic City. My parents chose to return for a week each summer because it suited our needs and was a known commodity. Our motel was just seconds from the boardwalk and ocean, had a kitchenette, and was a short walk from my grandparents’ home. I wondered, though, why we never tried a different motel or destination.Years later, my husband and I found a motel that was close to a great beach and to child-friendly attractions; it became our family summer vacation destination. Eventually, my children outgrew some of the town’s attractions and the motel became less well-maintained than it had been in the past. Still, it was familiar to us, and so one year, when I suggested a different destination, my children and husband adamantly objected. Read more…

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

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

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

Audacious Hospitality: A New Initiative for Spiritual and Social Empowerment

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

14 Ways to Make Your High Holidays Services Accessible to Everyone

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

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

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4 Ideas for Engaging Families with Young Children in Jewish Life

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

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

  1. Engagement is a congregation-wide activity, not an isolated program or department.
    Engagement must be a true value of the entire congregation, including those in leadership positions. To sustain any effort to build a community of parents with young children, congregational leadership needs to fully support these efforts, ensuring that holidays, programs, and services focus on the idea of family.
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The Loss of “Matterness” in Synagogue Life: An Interview with Allison Fine

Allison Fine, past president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y., is the co-author of The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (with Beth Kanter); author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age; and, most recently, author of Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World.

You have said that synagogues need to do things differently than in the past in order to retain and attract members.

Congregational leaders need to rethink the decades-old model of synagogues as top-down hierarchies churning out life-cycle events and programs for their membership. Synagogues are overflowing with wonderful people, but the structure – and, therefore by definition the processes and systems – demand caution and control. In this risk aversive environment, congregations suffocate creativity and lose opportunities to experiment with new ways to engage their communities. Read more…

How We’re Creating Vibrant Jewish Life in Israel and Around the World

by Rabbi Nir Barkin

The Book of Deuteronomy, my favorite, begins with this passage as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land:

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. – Through the wilderness, in the Arabah (desert)…in accordance with the instructions that God had given him for them, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching…

What is it about this opening statement that allows me to connect to it as a 21st-century Reform Jew, for whom the fate of the Jewish people is crucially important? Read more…

This Month in The Tent: Resources for the High Holidays and Beyond

With Tishah B’Av behind us, Elul and Rosh HaShanah can’t be far off!

As congregations gear up for the start of 5776 and a new year of activities, programming, and policies and procedures, these conversations in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, may prove particularly helpful in planning for the High Holiday season and beyond.

  • If your congregation is looking forward to using Mishkan Hanefesh, the new machzor (High Holiday prayerbook) this year, you may also be seeking ways to put your no-longer-needed copies of Gates of Prayer to good use. Chime in on the conversation to find a new home for your congregation’s used prayer books.
  • Many congregations offer online credit card payments as a convenience for members. To learn how other communities deal with the processing fees associated with this payment option, visit the conversation in the Technology group.
  • No doubt, your congregation will be welcoming new members in the weeks ahead. If you’re interested in exploring the possibility of offering a “pay what you can” dues structure, you can learn what other congregations have experienced when implementing such a policy.

When questions or challenges arise as you plan for the coming year, make The Tent your first stop for answers. It’s the best place to pose questions, share resources, and compare notes with other congregational leaders who, like you, are dealing with an array of topics and issues around synagogue life. For additional support, contact the URJ Knowledge Network team

Returning to One Another: Five Holiday Resources for Teens

As we prepare to celebrate the Jewish holidays, we get ready to journey through an arc of communal and personal experiences. As an educator who is fascinated by the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), I also find this month-long period an interesting dance between introversion and extroversion. Read more…

Celebrating Rosh Chodesh in Your Congregation

by Annice Benamy

Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings; and they will be a memorial for you before your God.  I am the Lord your God.” —Numbers 6:6

What is Rosh Chodesh?

Rosh Chodesh means “head of the month.”  When the new moon appears, the first of each Jewish month begins. In contemporary practice, Rosh Chodesh celebrations begin the Shabbat before the new month with the Rosh Chodesh prayer at the conclusion of the Torah reading. This special prayer articulates our hopes for the month including peace and prosperity to success in business, good health, and righteousness.

This is a day associated with women’s renewal and celebration. Rosh Chodesh has been an occasion for Jewish women to gather for learning, ritual, and spirituality programs. Many sisterhoods and women’s groups have created monthly Rosh Chodesh groups to offer women an opportunity to observe the new moon in song and prayer. Some groups have focused on women’s programs, holidays, and Torah study. Read more…

Comedy, Disability, and the Inclusive Synagogue: An ELI Talk

Pam Schuller is my hero.

She’s not just my hero because she’s one of the outstanding Reform Jewish youth professionals who works day and night to connect with so many of teens and congregations in NFTY’s Garden Empire Region (which includes central and northern New Jersey and New York’s Rockland and Orange counties).

She’s not just my hero because she dressed as a peach at NFTY Convention, dancing and sharing a great schtick.

No, Pam is my hero and my teacher because of her deep and profound commitment to strengthening our communities through helping us be truly welcoming, inviting and inclusive.

Pam is my hero because she understands, through personal experience, that our communities are stronger when they are diverse, accepting, and embracing of all of their members. Read more…

The Ripple Effects of Meaningful Peer-to-Peer Mentorship

By Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

When I recently asked a group of colleagues to help me think about examples from pop culture in which teens mentor other teens, we found it surprisingly difficult to come up with genuine examples.

In the movie Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) becomes the self-appointed fashion mentor to a new girl at school in order to help propel said new girl up the social ladder. In the Broadway show Wicked, a similar dynamic is at play when Glinda and Elphaba overcome their dislike of each other and Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover. We came up with a few similar examples, but none quite fit the bill.

Where are the examples of true peer-to-peer mentorship – peers helping each other learn and grow into their best selves? Are there times when adolescents can be there for each other to create healthy bonds and build relationships with each other for the sake of positive, worthwhile connections and enrichment?

Yes, there are! We may not see it in pop culture, but it’s happening in our Jewish communities. Read more…

Get Your Teens To Teach Torah

At 17-years-old, Joseph is one of the only identified teenagers in the Torah. Joseph is a complicated teen with a fierce rivalry with his brothers and a love of clothing. Joseph’s dreams, which tradition believes came from God, lack any mention of the divine and have no connection to sacred text. That Joseph’s story was taking place in the 37th chapter of the 1st book of that sacred text might have been a reason. Read more…

8 Great Reasons to Attend the Biennial

by Jan Marion, Raymond Capelouto, and Luise Mann Burger

With an eye on the quickly approaching September 10th early bird registration deadline, we’re delighted to offer eight excellent reasons for you and your fellow congregational leaders to attend the URJ Biennial 2015 from November 4-8 at the award-winning Marriott World Center in Orlando, FL:

  1. The best board leadership training, bar none: Programming from Wednesday through Friday will be targeted specifically for you, our congregational leaders – whether you’re a current or up-and-coming lay leader, professional, clergy, or youth leader – with remarkable learning opportunities at every turn. Many synagogues use the Biennial as a cost-effective opportunity for a leadership or board retreat.
  1. Networking, networking, networking: In every setting, you’ll be rubbing elbows with leaders from other congregations throughout North America, many of whom face the same challenges you do – and perhaps have some workable solutions to share. With distinct learning tracks, you can customize your Biennial experience to address your congregation’s specific needs.

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