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 Centers Engaging Families with Young Children Engaging Young Adults Reimagining Financial Support […]

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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 […]

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Introducing the URJ’s 2020 Vision: A Clear View of Our Future

When Rabbi Rick Jacobs assumed the presidency of the Union for Reform Judaism two years ago, the URJ committed to develop more coherent and aligned services that not only would significantly strengthen Reform congregations and the pressing issues they face, but also would advance the mission and ideals of Reform Judaism. To understand the needs […]

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Twenty Becomes One: Seeing Our Congregations as Family, Especially During Hardship

In the fall of 2008, I was the executive director of a 1,000-household synagogue. We had recently finished a major sanctuary renovation, and our membership numbers were on an encouraging upward trend. Our finances were sound, and we had big plans for the year ahead. The new president of our board was writing her first […]

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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 She was different from the other kids, withdrawn and separated from the group.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…

My Double Major in Communications and Jewish Life



by Liza Moskowitz

Five years ago – amidst AP classes, piano lessons, soccer games, and responsibilities as my temple’s youth group president – I began the college search process. My “wish list” was simple: big school in a big city with a large Jewish population. I was undecided about my academic desires, but I knew I needed a sizeable Jewish community on campus to feed my passion for Jewish life. 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…

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…

Reform Movement Expresses Concern Over Separate Bus Lines for Israeli Jewish Settlers and Palestinian Workers



Regarding recent news of separate bus lines for Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian workers in the West Bank, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,l president of the Union for Reform Judaism, today made the following statement:

We are deeply concerned regarding the recent decree by Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, stating that there will be separate bus lines for Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian workers traveling from central Israel to their homes in the West Bank.

Despite the Defense Minister’s assertion, there appears to be no security reason for this new policy, based on statements by top IDF security officials. According to reports from the IDF Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, Palestinian workers entering Israel are not a security threat since they receive pre-approval from the Shin Bet and the Israel Police in order to receive their work permits. Authorized workers, with permits, have not been implicated in terrorist attacks inside Israel according to the Central Command.

The Attorney General of Israel has now asked that the Defense Minister explain and justify his actions. We hope that the Prime Minister supports the Attorney General’s efforts.

Israel’s democracy is one of her greatest strengths, and we fear that Minister Ya’alon’s proposal threatens that democracy.

A New Sound for a New Generation: NFTY’s Music in the 2000s



by Caryn Roman

There was a time when the term “Jewish Rock” might have been considered an oxymoron.

In my own NFTY and camp days in the mid-to-late 90s, most of the music in services and song sessions reflected the Movement’s folk roots and didn’t sound much like what we listened to on the radio or our Sony Discmen. Sure, we all loved Debbie Friedman’s prayer settings and Bob Dylan’s protest songs, but we didn’t have any Jewish music comparable to Green Day or even Dave Matthews. Unlike the generations before us, rabbis and cantors playing guitar and singing ‘camp’ songs on the bimah were common occurrences. But just like our predecessors, we sought a new sound around which to build a Jewish youth community. Read more…

Shaping Israel’s Soul is Up to Us



by Rabbi Bennett Miller

Earlier this month, Jews the world over poured into synagogues to “afflict our souls” on the holy day of Yom Kippur – to search within ourselves to atone, forgive, and ultimately emerge renewed.

K’lal Yisrael (the community of Israel) is afflicting its own soul right now, too. Both real and existential struggles are being fought on many fronts, and the outcomes will determine much about the future of Israel and the Jewish people. Will gender equality be the norm – where men and women can pray and live as equals? Will our society respect and treat fairly all denominations, regardless of our level of observance? Will we see lasting peace – security and stability for Israel? Read more…

Saying YES to Youth



by Rosanne Selfon

Over 100 years ago, 156 American women representing 5,000 women in 51 sisterhoods gathered to found the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), renamed Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) in 1993. These women united to fortify their Jewish identities, perform mitzvot, and collectively support the Reform movement. One of their first endeavors was to establish a scholarship fund to benefit Hebrew Union College (HUC) students. Not only did the women successfully raise scholarship money, they built the Sisterhood dorm on HUC-Cincinnati’s campus. Their largesse expanded during the Great Depression when they financially rescued the college. To this day, WRJ is HUC’s largest cumulative scholarship donor.

In 1955, NFTS determined that broader support for youth was essential. The women established the YES Fund to underwrite youth activities, educational projects, and special initiatives. The acronym YES became the fund’s familiar name (Y for youth, E for education, S for special projects). Women’s generosity to the YES Fund continues today.

During the last decade of the 20th century, WRJ produced a video to showcase its accomplishments, in which Rabbi Alan Smith, former director of the UAHC (now URJ) Youth Department, comments,

Ask any of the kids what the YES Fund is, and they can immediately tell you—YES means Youth, Education, and Special Projects. The YES Fund makes things happen. Every kid in NFTY knows what the YES Fund is.

Was Rabbi Smith correct? Well, perhaps he exaggerated just a bit.

Why would teenagers know anything about the YES Fund, sisterhood, NFTS or WRJ? NFTYites know their history. They proudly note that NFTY was created due to persistent women. For many years, Jean Wise May, daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, badgered Union leaders, lay and professional, to maintain youth on the Union’s agenda. Her distinguished pedigree often gained her entry into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated Union leadership. May, a member of the first women’s college basketball team, was a proven powerhouse who advocated for women’s suffrage and even women’s ordination. Taking on the Union’s leadership to create a national Reform youth movement became her passion—she simply wore them down!

In 1926, Jean Wise May convinced NFTS leaders to establish a committee to foster an organization of temple-based youth groups; it became a permanent committee a year later and funding followed. The women also understood the necessity of creating leadership-training opportunities. In each instance, funding always followed ideas.

In 1930, NFTS earmarked $5,000 to support the salary of a full-time youth division at the Union. In 1937, the NFTS Board of Directors endorsed the creation of a national youth movement. Never underestimate the power of a single person, let alone thousands of Jewish mothers.

How does the YES Fund enable today’s youth? Most recently, WRJ pledged $75,000 to fund NFTY6 Fellows, an innovative program designed to target sixth graders. After Hurricane Sandy, WRJ provided $10,000 to underwrite attendance at NFTY events for teens affected by the hurricane. Last summer, WRJ granted $5,000 for girls’ scholarships to attend the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in its inaugural year. Youth programs and projects like these are underwritten by the YES Fund donations every year.

How does this affect individual teens and their families? Consider Stacey Kapushy and her daughters Maddie, a senior, and Sammie, a freshman who live in Lancaster, PA, which has a small Jewish population, a strong Reform congregation, a rabbi who passionately advocates for youth, and an engaged sisterhood. Maddie, president of her local temple youth group, has attended Camp Harlam, multiple NFTY events, and EIE High School in Israel. Sammie, new to NFTY this year, has attended Camp Harlam, Six Points Sports Academy, and Six Points Sci-Tech Academy. Both girls have received significant financial support enabling their participation.

“The WRJ Sci-Tech Scholarship allowed me to focus on science, to be with girls who had that same focus, and to find a connection point in our Jewishness,” said Sammie. “This is the place I want to return to, my escape.”

Maddie notes, “Sisterhood provided accessibility to all of my experiences. I wouldn’t have been able to participate without its financial support. Stipends have made a huge difference for my family.”

And what does Mom Stacey, a full-time working, single mom who is currently sisterhood president, say?

Because of the Yes Fund and the generosity of our sisterhood, I am rearing two daughters whose Jewish identity has been intentionally developed. They will grow up to be contributing members of society, strong, confident and morally grounded. They have experienced a tutorial in giving back. I know they will pay it forward when they can. Thank you WRJ and sisterhood for the critical life lessons you have taught my daughters.

Indeed, the YES Fund impacts NFTYites individually as well as collectively. The YES Fund reflects our priorities: women understand that the future of the Jewish people resides in creating a passion for Judaism in young people. In the next hundred years, WRJ pledges to continue what its founding matriarchs initiated, a partnership with our youth to build a dynamic Jewish future.

Rosanne Selfon served as WRJ President from 2005-2009. Most recently, she was WRJ Centennial Chair and is a lifetime member of the WRJ Board of Directors. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees since 1994 and today is Chair of the Camp Harlam Council and Vice-Chair of the NAC, North American Camping and Israel Programs.

Correction: In the September 9th edition of 10 Minutes of Torah, “Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self”, there was an oversight in noting Mitzvah Corps Portland’s partnership with Tivnu: Building Justice. Tivnu offers a gap year program in Portland for young adults interested in a Jewish, hands-on approach to social justice.

“And you shall order schnitzel…”



By Bradley Egel

People frequently talk about generational leadership. The Hebrew phrase, l’dor vador, literally means “from generation to generation,” and is most often applied to the handing down of leadership from one generation to the next. If a person is lucky enough to be present at a bar or bat mitzvah, they likely will see the symbolic “handing of the Torah” from one generation to the next. It is an ideal. It is a wonderful hope: that the next generation of Jewish leaders will take the skills and talents their mentors have passed onto them, and in turn, nourish and enrich themselves enough to continue this leadership chain as they go through life’s journey. Read more…

The Tent: Helping Jewish Leaders Look Through New Prisms



Leading a congregation can be a daunting task. Whether you lead your congregation as clergy, professional staff, or lay leadership, we all do our sacred work through different prisms.

We work through the prism of spirituality. The Torah and other teachings of our ancestors guide our communities with holiness and wisdom.

We work through the prism of the history of our congregations. Every congregation has experienced its own victories and challenges, and those experiences often inform how the congregation is led today.

We work through the prism of expertise and best practices. We bring information from our “day jobs,” and we learn from others who do the same work we do. What fresh ideas do they have? What do they do that has worked or failed? Read more…