Countdown to NFTY Convention 2015: How NFTY Inspired My Daughter

As every parent knows, when your child’s heart is bursting for joy, yours is, too. When your child’s heart is bursting for joy in anticipation before an event occurs, you’ve scored a gold mine. We’re at the “gold mine” level right now, as our daughter Shelby counts down to the upcoming NFTY Convention 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia! As I write this, the convention is just under four months away.

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Support the URJ on #GivingTuesday

Thanksgiving used to be a day unto itself; now we have a whole Thanksgiving season! Americans’ shopping habits brought us catchily-named, add-on “holidays” like Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. In the last couple of years, we’ve thankfully (no pun intended) added a new day to the mix: #GivingTuesday. On this special day, […]

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Building a Robust, Reform Shabbat Community

by Harry Frischer Imagine a room filled to capacity each Shabbat with worshippers who derive deep satisfaction from regular communal worship. Imagine the ruach (spirit) of many voices lifted together each week in energetic, musical, participatory prayer. Imagine a community whose members enjoy rich, rewarding spiritual lives, nourished by regular prayer, ritual, and learning. Imagine […]

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Five Lessons Learned: How the URJ’s Communities of Practice Strengthen Congregations

by Amy Asin and Lisa Lieberman Barzilai Two years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism launched its Communities of Practice (CoP) initiative. We began with five separate cohorts, comprising lay and professional leaders from congregations throughout North America: Pursuing Excellence in Your Early Childhood Centers Engaging Families with Young Children Engaging Young Adults Reimagining Financial […]

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Because of NFTY, I Learned…



By Amy Bebchick

I was never a member of the NFTY North American Board or Regional Board. I attended some NEFTY (now NFTY-NE) regional events, but I can’t remember which ones or where. I didn’t meet my husband at a NFTY event, and my closest friends are not from my NFTY years. But my local Temple Youth Group, NFTY weekends, NFTY in Israel trip, and URJ Kutz Camp were transformational experiences for me that undoubtedly shaped the person that I am today. Read more…

Sacred Partnership: Achieving the Right Balance in Your Congregation



Mazel tov! You’ve just been elected to your first term as a trustee on the temple board. Together with your fellow congregational lay leaders, you struggle with the challenges surrounding member engagement, finances, and sustainable growth. More often than not, a part of each board meeting centers around discussing various creative ideas that you hope will produce meaningful results.

One idea is to ask the rabbi to set aside 20 minutes a day – for however many days it takes – to call every household in the congregation. You and your board colleagues believe that the key to member engagement and giving is the rabbi, a beloved community leader. Through a connection with the rabbi, the thinking goes, members will feel more engaged, they will be more likely to be involved, and they will feel more compelled to give voluntary financial support when asked.

Another is to give the executive director a financial bonus if certain membership goals are met. The temple wants more members, and the executive director wants more salary, so it follows that such an incentive will be a “win-win” situation for all.

Indeed, both ideas are creative, and fully recognize that without strong, capable professional and lay leaders, the congregation will not grow.

However, by placing so much of the responsibility and reward for the success of your congregation on clergy and staff, the board disregards the concept of sacred partnership, which asserts that synagogues – and other Jewish non-profit, member based organizations – are most successful when lay leaders, professional staff, and clergy work together in the spirit of Jewish teachings and traditions to manage day-to-day operations.

Imagine two different membership scenarios:

In the first one, your temple’s membership grows and, as a result, the executive director receives a bonus. But then, the rabbi leaves suddenly, two board colleagues compete publicly for the presidency, dues are raised to fix a leaky roof, and, once again, membership numbers dip.

Should the executive director return the bonus? Should his or her pay be reduced? Of course not. Each of the factors contributing to both the synagogue’s growth – and then its decline – was beyond the control of the executive director and, in fact, beyond the control of any one individual.

In the second scenario, a parent decides to practice guitar in the lobby while he waits for his son in religious school. Hearing him play, another congregant brings her ukulele the next week and plays along with him. Soon, there’s an impromptu jam session at the temple every Thursday night. Word of this organic music fest spreads, and before long, the congregation has acquired not only a reputation for promoting community and music, but new members as well. In this instance, the congregation’s growth evolved in ways that no one person could have planned, and for which no one person can take credit.

If all responsibility and reward for membership growth fall to the executive director or the rabbi, the community-at-large is marginalized and its potential impact on membership is minimal. Although the executive director and the rabbi certainly play a critical role in fostering a welcoming Jewish environment, people join our communities because of many different people – the rabbi, the religious school director, the volunteer who answers the phones on Tuesday mornings, the guitar-playing guy in the lobby, the Saturday morning Torah study “regulars,” and you! Staff, clergy, volunteers, worshipers, seekers, leaders, and learners are all part of the community. Only when everyone works together in the spirit of sacred partnership, can we cultivate healthy, growing and successful congregations.

Mazel tov again on joining the leadership ranks of your congregation! May your work as a leader help forge stronger connections, deeper relationships, and robust growth for your congregation and community.

What’s Jewish About These Laws?



By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

May it be Thy will, my God and the God of my fathers, to protect me against the impudent and against impudence, from bad men and bad companions, from severe sentences and severe plaintiffs, whether a son of the covenant or not.

– The personal prayer of Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, BT B’rachot 16b

I. Non-Orthodox Weddings in Israel

Last June, I officiated at a wedding in Israel for close friends, who were subsequently married in a civil union abroad in order to have their marriage recognized in Israel. A pending bill now in the Knesset calls for hundreds of rabbis and officiants like me to be jailed for such offenses. Jewish Home Member of Knesset Eli Ben-Dahan, the bill’s original author, rationalizes this unnerving legislation by explaining its purpose as ‘acting to aid those women who have been refused a get (certificate of divorce) by their husbands and for whom the rabbinate is unable to assist’. The stated goal is also to assist victims of other precarious matrimonial predicaments resulting specifically from outside-the-Rabbinate marriage authorities. (Currently, only the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate can marry Jewish couples.) Many of us believe that this bill is an attempt to level a blow t0 the growing phenomenon of young Israeli couples who seek their own Jewish religious wedding ceremonies—Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and the rabbis who accommodate them–threatening the Rabbinate’s control. While this bill is unlikely to pass in the Knesset, it joins a growing list of bills that are of grave concern.

II. The Jewish Nation-State Bill

This much-discussed bill, delayed in the Knesset, seeks to define the identity of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This is not only superfluous, but seeks to place values of democracy and equality as secondary to those of Jewish nationality. The bill also attempts to establish Jewish law as a source of inspiration for the Knesset–which, in many instances, it already is in the Israeli Supreme Court. As the bill morphs from one version to another, we must watch closely.

III. Rounding up infiltrators or persecuting the strangers in our midst?

The original intent of the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law was to prevent the entry of Palestinian terrorists. The law was never lifted. The third amendment to this law, passed on January 10, 2012, and implemented in June 2013 expanded the definition of “infiltrator” to include Africans entering Israel through the border with Egypt. According to this amendment, infiltrators could be detained up to three years, and those from any country considered a “hostile enemy state” (including those fleeing genocide or oppressive regimes) could be detained indefinitely. A group of asylum seekers and human rights organizations brought charges against the state to the High Court of Justice in response to this amendment. In September 2013 the High Court of Justice voided Amendment 3, stating that the law “disproportionately limits the constitutional right to liberty determined in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” (High Court of Justice [Israel], 2013).

The volley between the Parliament and human rights organizations did not stop there. Parliament passed Amendment 4 in December 2013, which determined that “infiltrators” entering Israel after this date could be detained without trial for up to one year. After one year they would be transferred to Holot, an open-detention camp, and held until they could be deported–either as the result of an improvement in the political situation in their country of origin, or until they signed a ‘voluntary’ return agreement. The distinction between full detention and open camps is that those in open camps may leave the premises, but must return three times a day for roll call and must stay overnight in the facility, which is closed from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. In effect, this prevents detainees from working, since the punishment for failing to attend roll call is to be sent back to a full-detention camp. In addition to picking up asylum seekers at the border, the government began to round up asylum seekers who had entered before December 2013, and placing them in Holot, causing panic among the asylum-seeking community.

In September 2014 Amendment 4 was struck down by the High Court of Justice, ordering the closure of Holot and voiding the one-year mandatory detention period for new entrants. In the decision, Justice Fogelman stated:

Every person, by virtue of being a person, has the right to human dignity…and infiltrators are people. And that needs explanation, let’s say it explicitly: infiltrators do not lose one ounce of their right to human dignity just because they reached the country in this way or another.

The 5th Amendment—passed two days ago—reinstates Holot as an open-detention center, reduces confinement to 20 months (with an evening roll call), and prohibits detainees from working. There is evidence that Likud’s Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, and Knesset Interior Committee Chairwoman Miri Regev are working together to push the amendment through the Knesset before its impending dissolution. On October 26, 2014, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to approve a bill that would allow the Knesset to override rulings by the High Court of Justice. This is seen as a direct response to the High Court of Justice rulings on Amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Bill. A day later, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of 138 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who have been held in Holot for over two years, prior to the High Court’s rejection of the 3rd Amendment, which ordered the release of all detainees.

Earlier this week, outgoing Finance Minister Yair Lapid said, “We have to treat refugees from Darfur as Holocaust survivors.” In that case, let’s not lock them up. The bill, hastily put together before impending Knesset dissolution, passed a key Knesset committee on Monday, paving the way to be voted into law.

While attention will focus on the upcoming Israeli elections of March 17th, we must not ignore what is happening now. These issues touch on the foundation of what it means to have a Jewish State and a Jewish society. Of course we will have our own opportunity to vote and have our voices heard in Israel. This matters, and we must stand up and be counted.

Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

The Mi Shebeirach Quilt



by Shelley Schweitzer

May the Source of strength,
Who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,
And let us say: Amen.

The year was 1999 and the NFTY-Northeast Lakes (NFTY-NEL) community learned that there were big changes ahead. Long-time regional advisors Terry Pollack and Neil Poch would be retiring at the end of the calendar year. As the community’s members began to process that news, they learned, too, that a member of their NFTY family was ill – Terry’s wife Maxine had cancer. Teens from around the region wanted to do something, and youth workers were looking for ways to help the NFTY-NELers respond in a Jewish way. Read more…

Camp Chazak: Fulfilling God’s Plan for Kids with Disabilities



by Emily Gergen and Stephen Weitzman

According to Jewish tradition, the number three has special significance implying completeness and stability. Examples of this importance include the expression “and God blessed,” which occurs three times in Genesis; the word “holy,” which is recited three times during kedusha, the priestly benediction which consists of three sections; the three Patriarchs; and the three pilgrimage festivals.

Considering the power of three, we have been on the staff and faculty of Camp Chazak, the URJ’s camp for children who have social adjustment delays, for the past three years. As a result, we have directly witnessed tremendous spiritual growth and personal changes on the part of campers, regardless of whether they were new to the program or were repeat participants. Read more…

Dancing My Way Into NFTY



by Sarah Ruben

I am a third-generation NFTYite and URJ camper, so it was a given that once I was old enough, I, too, would participate in NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement. When the time came for my first regional event, however, despite my familiarity with NFTY and my excitement at finally being a part of it, I was shy and nervous.

Until the dance session. When it was announced, I perked up, excited by the idea of doing something I’d been doing since childhood. Read more…

Finding My Voice and Connecting with God



By Josh Nelson

I could see her sitting against the wall. She was different from the other kids, withdrawn and separated from the group. My grandmother would have called her “a bit of an odd duck.” She was just… other.

The kids leapt into the air, singing at the top of their lungs. “Ivdu et haShem b’simcha…” (Worship God with gladness) Arms intertwined, they called out with joy, lost in the extraordinary moment that is a Friday evening song session. Read more…

How We Brought Camp Into our Religious School



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.

Over the past five years, our congregation has endeavored to answer the question: “What do our parents want their children to get out of Religious School?” We have held meetings with parents across the congregation to better understand what they want. As a result of our meetings, we identified the following main goals:

  • That they make friends
  • That they have fun while learning at Religious School
  • That their Jewish identity be developed through Jewish cultural and social experiences – time with friends doing Jewish activities such as cooking and singing.

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How We Tapped Into The Potential Energy of Jewish Leadership



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.

By Samuel Barnett, NFTY NAR President

“Leadership is about moving the stored energy in society to where it can be best utilized,” said community organizer Andrew Slack at the inaugural New York Area Jewish Teen Leadership Summit. As Jews, we are responsible for questioning the world around us. At the summit, we asked ourselves: How can our leadership change the world? Read more…

The Most Useful Things I know About Outreach…I Learned as a Stockbroker



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.

By Rabbi David Gerber

This year, after years of decline, our post-b’nei mitzvah engagement numbers exceeded 120% compared to our projections. Our recent success is a result of a number of factors including but not limited to: improved programming, a dynamic professional staff, and a deeper financial commitment to youth engagement.  While it can be difficult to replicate programming and success due to the unique nature of our staffs, congregants, and resources, I do believe that our approach to outreach is the heart of our recent turnaround, and that our approach has lessons to offer anyone pursuing congregational transformation. Read more…

The Real Hannah Senesh



By Josh Weinberg

It was 70 years ago this week, according to the Hebrew calendar, that a young Jewish girl named Hannah Senesh was executed by firing squad by the Hungarian-Nazi police force. She had been captured after parachuting into Europe with a group of Jewish paratroopers of the Haganah who were sent to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine. Read more…

Chicago’s Innovative Approach to Engaging Young Families



by Nancy Manewith

It all began with an amazing meeting – a discussion, really – with Susan Zukrow, the URJ’s project director for the Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI). This new program, funded by the Crown Family Philanthropies and facilitated by the URJ, brings together 12 cross-denominational Jewish early childhood centers from the Chicago area to strengthen their work of engaging young children and their families through program excellence, while building and sustaining meaningful relationships. Though not an educator herself, Susan painstakingly took the time to learn the history and workings of the Chicago Metro area’s Jewish early childhood community, in order to lead this groundbreaking early engagement leadership initiative. Read more…

Chaveirai n’vareich – Let’s Praise Birkon Mikdash M’at: NFTY’s Bencher



By Jeremy Gimbel

That is how a leader begins the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing recited after a meal. When I think about the process that led to the publication of Birkon Mikdash M’at: NFTY’s Bencher, this proclamation resonates like the beautiful walls of sound created by NFTYites and campers as they sing this blessing. Read more…

If Not Now, When? NFTY’s Role in Freeing Soviet Jews



by Rachel Mersky Woda

Growing up in a Reform Jewish household meant that you learned at an early age the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. In our home, we were surrounded by opportunities for activism, and the one that occupied us for years was the plight of the Jews in  Russia.

In the early 1980s, those of us preparing to become b’nai mitzvah were paired with a “twin,” a Russian refusenik (one who was refused a visa to exit the USSR) who didn’t have the opportunity to achieve this milestone. It was up to us to prepare for this important day with our twins standing on our shoulders so we could enter the Jewish community as young adults in their honor as well. Read more…