Green Eggs and Hamantaschen: Creative Purim Gift Bags Bring a Community Together

by Betsy Zalaznick Purim at Or Chadash, in Flemington, N.J., includes many of the usual traditions: putting on a Purim spiel (play), using boxes of pasta as gragers, baking hamantaschen with our students, reading the Megillah, and hosting a spectacular carnival that features Esther’s Salon, Mordecai’s March Madness, a photo booth, and plenty of prizes […]

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On 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the RAC Talks Civil Rights

As the newly appointed director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I am inspired by the storied history of our role in the critical social justice battles of our time. In fact, the RAC was founded at the height of the Civil Rights Movement to provide an outlet for Reform Jews to express […]

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This Month in The Tent: Preparing for Passover

As your congregation prepares for Passover, find terrific holiday resources throughout The Tent, the Reform Movement’s communication and collaboration platform. In The Tent, you’ll find ideas, materials, and opportunities for clergy and lay leaders to share expertise and experiences about all facets of congregational life. This year, Passover begins on Friday, April 3. Because it […]

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Extending NFTY’s Tabernacle: A D’var Torah for Parashah T’rumah

by Logan Kramer Over the past three years, NFTY has taken me to plenty of random places. I’ve held events with my temple youth group in public parks, enjoyed extensive layovers in airports across the country, gone to socials at amusement parks, and visited more congregations than I can count. As I’ve traveled to all […]

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We’re Youth Professionals, Not Youth Workers



by Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman

What went on at the Youth Summit? Yes, learning. Yes, networking. Yes, collaboration. But so much more. Experimentation. Visioning. Celebration. Inspiration. In addition to watching NFTY teens celebrate and pray together, we too needed this opportunity to join as a community.

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Understanding Teen Brains, Creating Jewish Adults



Imagine it.  A group of teens, sitting together, talking Torah, or current events, or tzedakah.  It’s what we all hope for, aspire to, in youth group.

Imagine it.  A group of adults, sitting together, talking Torah, or current events or Tzedakah.

Oddly, the first scene is one we do imagine.  And the second scene feels less likely.  Or not our responsibility.

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The Joy of Generational Leadership



by Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz

It’s the summer of 1983. I’m a 28-year-old student at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) preparing for a career in Jewish education, and spending my summer on staff at URJ Camp Swig (presently URJ Camp Newman) in Saratoga, California.

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Striking the Balance Between Formal and Informal Learning



By Adam Organ

During NFTY Youth’s text study, Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of HUC-JIR (and former Regional Board member of NFTY-NAR, former trip leader for NFTY in Israel, and former Regional Advisor of NFTY-MAR) lead a discussion titled “The Study of Torah is Equal to Them All,” based on the teachings of RaMBam (Maimonides). The conversation focused on the obligation of every person to not only study Torah, but teach, too. After ruminating on the D’var Torah, I came away with some thoughts and ideas that apply to professionals who work with youth.  Below are some pieces of text followed by a Jewish youth professional analysis:

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Why BBYO is Our Partner



12 years ago, as we prepared to send our long-struggling NFTY chapter off into the sunset, Todd Markley, our Rabbinic Intern, now Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, said: “Mercaz is our Youth Group.” WRT has enjoyed a long history of engaging our teens in our educational program, Mercaz, meaning “Center,” a community hub where our teens can “center” themselves during their over-programmed and often stressed-out lives. We still retain 40% of our teens after B’nei Mitzvah, engaging them in an educational program that includes a range of elective classes including: Jewish Cooking, Holocaust studies, and deep engagement with classical Jewish texts.    While this exceeds the Reform Movement’s average (25% retention) for post-B’nei Mitzvah engagement, I believe we can do a lot better, and our present work reflects this hope. Read more…

Questioning the Essence of the B’nai Mitzvah



At a recent breakfast with the chair of the senior rabbi search committee, Congregation Har HaShem’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Core Team had the opportunity to speak about what kind of rabbi we were seeking. Our requirements: the rabbi should be willing to embrace change; be willing to partner with us in continuing our exploration of imagining what b’nai mitzvah can be; and must understand that at Har HaShem, professionals and lay leaders do things together. BMR is our joint project. Read more…

Asefa: A Training Ground for Future Management Consultants?



NFTY Convention (#NC15) means many things to many people. One of the key elements of every convention is Asefa, NFTY’s North American board meeting. Close to 200 teens participated in Asefa while their peers were engaged in off-site programming. Before I explain about Asefa, I want to share what the NFTY board members had to give up to participate.

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Rabbi Jacobs Reports from NFTY Convention



I dare any of those who are uneasy about the North American Jewish future to maintain their pessimism after spending, as I have just done, 72 hours with the teen leaders of our Movement at the 2015 NFTY Convention and Youth Summit in Atlanta. I attend a lot of conferences, and I have never walked away from one feeling as inspired and energized as I am today. After spending time with 1,000 teens, upwards of 200 adults and an incredible group of more than 200 volunteers and URJ staff who live and share the values and dreams that we as Reform Jews seek to represent in the world, I am inspired by the power of our community and ready for a spirit-filled future.

I had the honor of sharing the bimah with NFTY’s extraordinary president, Debbie Rabinovich from Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, as she and I presented a joint D’var Torah on Shabbat morning. Drawing insightfully on this week’s Torah portion, Debbie observed that this convention marks a fundamental turning point for NFTY, as it embraces a more mission-driven future. “Never be afraid to go big! The more focused each of us is – the more change we can make.” she said powerfully to a sea of NFTY teens.  Read more…

Shaareinu: The “Collateral Good” Cannot be Overstated



By Eva Rubin Steen

The leaders of Temple Beth Torah, a community that always has held inclusion and acceptance as core tenets, realized a few years ago that we were not doing a good job of welcoming those who face physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges. We recognized, too, that by excluding even one family member from participating in Jewish life, we were effectively excluding the entire family. Including all who wish to join in the life of the synagogue enriches each of us, so our lack of welcome was painful for too many families, which in turn hurt our congregation and the broader Jewish community.

Once we identified the issue, our board of trustees immediately and wholeheartedly endorsed the creation of Shaareinu (Our Gateways), which strives to open new gateways for individuals (and their families) for whom participation in all aspects of synagogue life – worship, religious school, and programming – is limited by various challenges.

We established four lay-led task forces and involve more than 80 congregants as volunteers in welcoming into congregational life individuals and families who are affected by physical, emotional or cognitive challenges:

  • Our Education Task Force brings religious school teachers together with volunteers from the congregation who are trained in learning disabilities and classroom management techniques. Task force volunteers plan and present workshops for our faculty that address such topics as how best to structure the classroom, implement behavioral analysis, and deal with different learning styles and teaching strategies.
  • Our Technology Task Force installed an assistive listening system, which enables those who wear hearing aids and others with hearing loss to follow along with what goes on in the sanctuary. Although no one complained before we put in our telecoil hearing loop, as soon as the loop went in, many congregants admitted that they had hearing problems and thanked us for helping them have a better experience. We also installed a live internet streaming video system – accessible by computer, mobile device, and many television cable boxes – to bring worship and programming to congregants who are homebound.
  • Mental health issues are the focus of our Nefesh (soul) Task Force, which, together with other community groups, co-hosts panel discussions and seminars that address numerous mental health challenges related to parenting, anxiety, school violence and bullying, alcohol and drug addiction, and similar topics. These seminars often are co-sponsored by Jewish Family Services, United Hospice, or other community groups, and many of our volunteers offer their professional expertise as presenters. Nefesh also maintains an extensive list of mental health resources on the congregation’s website.
  • Our Chesed (loving-kindness) Task Force seeks to increase the sense of connectivity and community within the congregational family by supporting each other in times of sorrow and rejoicing in times of joy. In addition to reaching out to those who are celebrating a simcha, are homebound, ill, or in mourning, Chesed, together with Nefesh co-sponsors programs that address such topics as caring for the aged and visiting the sick.

The benefits of these endeavors to those with disabilities in our community should be fairly obvious. What is less obvious, however, is how extraordinarily rewarding this work is to those of us who volunteer in this initiative. As our congregation’s former leader, Rabbi Brian Beal, was fond of saying, “The collateral good of this initiative cannot be overstated.”

Indeed, in addition to the personal fulfillment our many dedicated volunteers derive from this work, our congregation now excels in including all people in synagogue life. We are proud to be featured as an “exemplar congregation” on the URJ’s disabilities inclusion website, and we look forward to ongoing Shaareinu offerings this spring on such topics as positive parent-child interactions, memory improvement, eating disorders, CPR, and autism.

Eva Rubin Steen and her family are longtime, active members of Temple Beth Torah in Nyack, N.Y. A past president and former member of many committees and task forces, some of which she chaired, Eva continues to serve on the board of trustees

Don’t Forget: February is “Strengthening Congregations Webinar Month”!



As you may know, February is “Strengthening Congregations Webinar Month” here at the URJ. At the halfway point, more than 300 congregational leaders have joined live webinars to learn more about what makes a congregation strong and how the URJ is evolving to help you become or continue to be a strong congregation. The feedback and engagement on the webinars has been productive and valuable.

There are still eight live webinars that will take place over the next few weeks, and I hope you will join one. Join a webinar to learn more about how you can:

  • Connect with geographically-based URJ Communities to help your congregation’s lay leaders network and learn together
  • Join The Tent to get answers to your questions and to join discussions with peers across North America
  • Learn about the forthcoming “Leadership Institute,” which will expand leadership development opportunities for your congregation
  • Contact the Knowledge Network for answers and resources related to all aspects of congregational life (1.855.URJ.1800 or urj1800@urj.org)
  • Learn about the corps of volunteers available to run board workshops at your congregation or congregational retreat
  • Tap into the corps of experts (in conjunction with other Reform institutions and individuals) that is available for specialized advice
  • Help your congregation’s new president get off on the right foot with the specialized training available at the Scheidt Seminar (registration now open)

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How to Be a “Sponge” at the Youth Summit



by Adam Organ

In a just a few hours, I’ll be joining more than a thousand Jewish teens and youth professionals from across North America in Atlanta for five days of learning, exploration, celebration and reunion at the NFTY 2015 Convention and Youth Summit.  As a community of teens, professionals and lay leaders invested in youth, we’ll be exploring the theme, “My Self, My Community, My World.”   We’ll share Shabbat, learning sessions, music, and Havdalah.  We’ll reunite with friends from other regions and camps; we’ll meet new people and make new Jewish connections.

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Be Our Guest at NFTY Convention: The Power of Audacious Southern Hospitality



by Micol Zimmerman Burkeman

Over the last year, the Reform Movement has introduced audacious hospitality: an ongoing invitation to be part of our community. Audacious hospitality means extending a warm welcome to all individuals who seek a home within our movement—no exceptions. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of experiencing audacious southern hospitality. En route to NFTY Convention, from the moment my plane touched down at Atlanta International Airport, I was greeted by a countless smiles, offers of help, and even unsolicited assistance carrying my luggage. These all came from strangers, and yet I felt immediately welcomed into their city, and experienced firsthand the power of an audacious greeting.

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A Rabbi’s Excitement for NFTY Convention



By Josh Leighton

I’m currently in the midst of laundering, organizing, and preparing to fly off to Atlanta for NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit. Along with my clothes and NFTY “swag”, I am also packing and bringing with me my excitement for what is sure to be an amazing, insightful, and fruitful four days. In much the same way as when I was a teen, every two years as a professional I get excited about attending NFTY Convention and immersing myself in the special and unique environment that is created when 1,000 teens and 200 adults come to together to share experiences and celebrate Judaism. Of all of the collaboration, learning, and moments that I am looking forward to over this extended weekend, three stand out above the rest: reconnecting with old friends and networking with new people, being part of the NFTY-BBYO shared moments, and returning home refreshed and re-focused.

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4 Reasons to Get Excited for the Youth Summit at NFTY Convention



This weekend, nearly 200 adult professionals and stakeholders invested in our youth will meet in Atlanta at the Youth Summit for three days full of professional development, collaboration and learning. The theme of the Youth Summit, “My Self, My Community, My World,” will explore cutting-edge thinking and team building in the field of Jewish youth engagement.

The Youth Summit focuses on teaching skills and providing tools that will further our work with Jewish youth, and positively strengthening the ways our congregations and organizations function holistically. With all of the excitement surrounding what will be the biggest Youth Summit ever, it’s hard to choose only a few things to highlight. Here are four exciting things to look forward to in Atlanta!

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