YamJam in The Tent: A Real-Time Resource for Synagogue Leaders

As summer looms, congregational leaders are thinking about how to welcome potential members into our synagogues. What do they see when they visit our websites? What do they hear when they call the temple office? Who do they meet when they walk through the lobby during their first visit? How can we give everyone who […]

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An Open Letter to President Obama About the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), sent a letter to President Obama about the upcoming commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, invoking the timeless words “Never forget. Never again.” The full text of the letter follows. President Barack Obama The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW Washington, […]

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Communities of Practice: Learning, Change, and Other Benefits that Strengthen Congregations

by Amy Asin and Rabbi Esther L. Lederman On May 5th, the URJ will launch applications for a new set of Communities of Practice (CoPs). Topics will include: Building a Brand: Excellence in Reform Movement Early Childhood Engagement Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children (for congregations without Early Childhood Centers) Strengthening Israel Engagement […]

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The Scheidt Seminar: Shaping Leaders for a Sacred Task

“The Scheidt Seminar for Congregational Presidents and President-Elects seminar was one of the most meaningful professional development experiences of my entire career….Not only was this an inspiring leadership development experience, but it was a meaningful Jewish experience as well. By praying and studying together, my fellow presidents and presidents-elect formed a connection that links us […]

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This Month in The Tent: Being a More Welcoming Congregation

Membership specialists and committee chairs will tell you the three tenets of congregational membership are recruitment, integration/engagement, and retention. In all three areas, one key to success is making people feel like your congregation is a place for them – in other words, being welcoming.

What, specifically, can you and your fellow leaders do to model audacious hospitality and make your congregation as welcoming as possible?

If you want prospective members to know your congregation is the place for them, say so in your membership brochures and on your website. Consider including language that expressly states that your community includes – and welcomes –young adults, LGBT members, people with disabilities, and all others seeking a connection to Jewish life.

You might also review your membership forms (whether for new or current members) and other applications, and revise them so the language is gender neutral. For example, on a school form, use the term “parent” rather than “mother” or “father” so families with two moms or two dads feel recognized. Highlight the fact that your facilities are wheelchair accessible, have elevators, or include other disability-friendly resources. Publicize a list of your congregation’s active chavurot so people know there are others in your community with interests similar to theirs.

In The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, you’ll find discussions and resources about successful membership and outreach strategies. Leaders in The Tent are discussing how to: form chavurot; refer to members of interfaith families; update and/or improve their membership application; and more. Browse the Membership and Outreach groups to find a conversation or resource, and be sure to check out the URJ’s customizable ads, including these (search “#URJ Ad” to find more):

Congregational leaders involved in outreach efforts might also be interested in knowing about two URJ offerings:

  1. The Belin Outreach and Membership Awards recognize congregations that have developed outstanding outreach or membership programming. Eight congregations will receive a $1,000 award and will be honored at the 2015 URJ Biennial in November.
  2. A Taste of Judaism® Advertising Grants help congregations advertise their upcoming A Taste of Judaism® Learn more in The Tent.

Seasonal Info: June is LGBT Pride Month. Prepare by reviewing your congregation’s policies and practices to make sure they create a welcoming environment for LGBT members. See “18+ Ways to Make Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Members Feel Welcome” for some hints and tips, and visit the Religious Action Center’s LGBT Rights page to stay up-to-date on related advocacy efforts.

Tent Tip: Let’s talk #topics! Adding topics to your post or resource will make it easier for others to find that conversation or file. Similar to the way hashtags are used on Twitter, topics act as keywords to connect Tent activity. When creating a post, simply click the “Add topics” link below the “Update” field. As you type, existing topics will appear.

Join the conversation and access these and other great resources in The Tent.


Counting Days and Making Days Count

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering-the day after the Shabbat – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. -Leviticus (23:15-16)

This is my favorite time of year. A time of renewal and rebirth. Spring is in the air and as The Song of Songs reminds us, the time of singing has come. It is now just after the beginning of Passover that we begin the count-up to Shavuot, when, according to our Biblical tradition, we bring our first fruits, and according to our Rabbinic tradition, we received Torah at Sinai. Read more…

Relational Judaism: How Building Community Helped Us Change Our Dues Model

By Dani Robbins

My career has taken me to multiple cities in several states, and each time I’ve moved, I’ve looked for a new religious home by calling around to local synagogues. I found it off-putting, however, when the people on the other end talked to me about money before they welcomed me or invited me to visit. By the third or fourth call, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way our congregations welcome prospective members.

Imagine my delight, then, in learning that my current congregation, Congregation Beth Tikvah, was considering changing its dues model – really turning it on its head. I’ve been reimagining the financial future of Jewish congregations for years, so I was thrilled to participate in the congregation’s efforts to do so.

For years, Congregation Beth Tikvah, which was founded upon and employs egalitarian values in all its endeavors, has been moving toward a relationship-based model – one in which the congregation builds a community of enhanced relationships, both among members and with the congregation, moving away from fee-based dues and tickets. Although we didn’t know it at the time, relational Judaism was the lens we used when we eliminated the committee that approved dues reductions, selected our new rabbi, and began to consider whether a new funding model was right for us.

Upon his arrival in 2011, Rabbi Rick Kellner helped us put relational thinking at the forefront of our actions and vocabulary, and encouraged us to adopt it within our community. Under his leadership, we expanded programming for young children and seniors, and finished building a new sanctuary and social hall that had begun before he arrived. Both efforts attracted new families, and our community grew.

Along the way, we found that our existing financial model no longer fit our needs. Eager to learn about alternatives, when the URJ announced its new Community of Practice (CoP), Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation, we signed on. Launched in March 2013, the CoP enabled us to learn from one another, other congregations, and experts brought in by the URJ. Ours was one of 17 congregations in the two-year guided program, which included an in-person gathering, periodic webinars, individual check-ins, and shared resources.

Our CoP committee explored various financial models. We looked at our congregation’s history and culture. We discussed definitions of “dues,” “member,” and “transaction.” We challenged, argued, and debated each other, ultimately building consensus. Though we started out talking about money, we ended up talking about community. We studied congregations that implemented new models, reading their literature and interviewing their members. We talked about who we wanted to be and to what kind of community we wanted to belong. We held formal and informal gatherings to engage constituents. We wrote letters and articles. We sought and received feedback.

We learned that promoting engagement and providing connections among members are more vital than any funding discussion possibly could be. In fact, at one point, we committed to changing our language, and now are moving toward deepening relationships and engaging with each other, our congregation, and our faith. Our goal was no longer about changing congregational dues models; it was – and is – about changing our congregational culture. Finally, we made formal recommendations to our board, and presentations to our fellow congregants, received suggestions, and revised our recommendations accordingly.

It was daunting, nonetheless, to recommend a process that potentially would allow people to participate in our congregation without supporting it financially. We knew various outcomes were possible: we could lose significant income, gain significant income, lose income but gain members, or lose members but gain income (though we all doubted that this last possibility would come to pass). We trusted that if we created a place and a space in which everyone belongs, something magical would happen, and everyone would, indeed, feel like they belong.

So we jumped, and the net appeared.

Our plan included changing our language to change our culture, evolving from the word “dues” to the term “membership commitment.” Importantly, we provided guidance about the annual costs to sustain programming, as well as how people could give below, at, or above that level.

What happened? Some people gave less, and some people gave nothing but still joined, which also was part of the goal. Some people gave more, and some gave a lot more. One thing is for sure: We’ve left the transactional model behind. No one who calls our congregation to inquire about joining is told about dues.

We’re not finished yet. Our movement toward relational Judaism laid the foundation for a culture of philanthropy that will continue to evolve. It remains to be seen whether we will need to introduce a more formal process to engage donors. For now, though, it’s safe to say that our committee is delighted with where we are and where we’re going. We are currently just one family shy of last year’s membership numbers, with almost exactly the same income. We did it!

We changed our words. We changed our culture. But we didn’t change our income.

Dani Robbins is part of the Reimagining Financial Support Community of Practice Committee at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, OH. She grew up in New Rochelle, NY, in a fiercely secular Jewish household. Her parents were always worried the Italian boys she dated would convert her. Today, she serves as a nonprofit leadership consultant and is happily married to a man who is neither Jewish nor Italian. Her daughter becomes a bat mitzvah later this year.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Unconditionally Loving Israel and Jewish Values

This speech was given tonight at the JStreet Conference in Washington, D.C.

We gather at a pivotal moment in the history of Israel.

It is precisely at such a time that the North American Jewish community is in desperate need of an open, honest and serious conversation about the Jewish state. I believe that this 5th J Street conference is fertile ground for such dialogue.

Hear the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai: “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring…” But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.” Indeed, righteous certainty leads to closed -mindedness and stalemate; self-doubt and love open up real possibilities for peace.

So let us voice our differences and speak our minds without casting aspersions upon each other’s motivations, aspirations and ahavat yisrael—love of Israel.

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Show Us Your Audacious Hospitality: Apply for a URJ Belin Outreach and Membership Award

“Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of community – and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process.”

– Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism

It’s not always easy to offer the sort of “audacious hospitality” Rabbi Jacobs encourages, but many Reform congregations are rising to the challenge. These exceptional congregations excel at welcoming seekers and engaging prospective and current members – and the URJ is looking for the ones that do it best. Once again this year, we’ll honor eight congregations with Belin Outreach and Membership Awards for creative, original, and outstanding initiatives that promote audacious hospitality. From now through May 21, your congregation can submit an application for a 2015 Belin Outreach and Membership Award. Winning congregations will receive a $1,000 cash award and will be recognized at the URJ Biennial in Orlando, FL, in November.

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Why My Congregation Hosts “A Taste of Judaism®” Classes – and Yours Should, Too

by Rabbi Marc Katz

Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of hosting A Taste of Judaism® classes at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first time was at a local restaurant; the second was in the synagogue building. Over the course of teaching this class, I have learned a number of important lessons and have seen many benefits. When it works, here is what congregations and participants can get out of the class. Read more…

Making Change Where it Counts: Voting for the Prophetic Ideals of Liberal Judaism in Israel

by Rabbi Jack Luxemburg

“And Moses assembled the entirety of the Jewish people …” (Exodus 35:1)

Whether a Tabernacle in the desert or at the Temple in Jerusalem, vast numbers of our people would gather to celebrate and experience Jewish life on a grand scale. This past February, I had a somewhat comparable experience. It was exhilarating (occasionally frustrating), and confirmed the critical importance of Reform Judaism having a strong, purposeful presence on the world’s Jewish and Zionist scene. Read more…

Four Questions to Ask Ourselves When It Comes to Youth Engagement

After spending time with more than 3,000 teens – as well as many youth professionals and other stakeholders – at the 2015 NFTY Convention and Youth Summit, I am more convinced than ever that everybody is a winner when it comes to youth engagement.

I don’t mean that we all get little plastic trophies to keep on our shelves, nor do I mean that we will divide and distribute the prize so that we each get a bit of cake or a trinket. What I mean is that it is in the interest of the entire Jewish community to engage our young people and to build a strong youth community. When we delve deeply into the “why” of youth engagement, we find that doing so creates profound meaning for teens, their parents, and their families, for the professionals who work with them, for their congregational communities, and for the larger Jewish community.

The reasons to allocate time and resources to build a vibrant Jewish youth community aren’t complex, but those of us who are passionate about youth engagement don’t always state our case simply enough. With Passover approaching, I came up with four questions – and their answers – that may help us make our case. Read more…

This Month in The Tent: Useful Mission Statements

A congregation’s mission statement is often one of its founding documents, setting forth a vision for the congregation and serving as a guiding document as leaders manage the sacred. Yet a lot can happen in 15, 50, or even 100 years, and so congregational leaders may wish to periodically revisit the synagogue’s mission statement as a regular part of strategic planning.

When reviewing your congregation’s mission statement, keep in mind that effective mission statements:

  • Express the core values of the synagogue, including who the members are, which member needs the synagogue is attempting to fulfill, and how the synagogue plans to conduct its business
  • Articulate attainable goals
  • Provide a template that leaders and others can use to make decisions

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Reform Youth Leaders Debrief AIPAC Conference

By Debbie Rabinovich, Andrew Keene, and Jeremy Cronig

American Jews are extremely passionate about Israel. Regardless of sect, political affiliation, or region of the country, 16,000 people came to Washington, D.C., for the AIPAC Policy Conference for the sole purpose of advocating for Israel. The enormity of this event was a physical representation of the care that American Jews have for our homeland. This was remarkable, and it was also clear that Israel unites people outside the Jewish community as well. AIPAC draws on a diverse audience, from college students to retirees, people of the Jewish, Christian, and African American communities, as well as policymakers, law enforcement officials, and community leaders, all of whom gather to support Israel uniquely. This blend of voices elevates the fact that Israel means something different to every person: for some it is an ancestral homeland and for others it is a place of budding innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more…

Kindling the Flame of Education in Our Students

by Emily Messinger

Philosophers – Jewish and otherwise – have long shared their individual insights into the philosophy of education. For educators, such insights can teach us about our students, how we relate to them, the challenges we offer them, and the ways we shape them into the best they can be. Read more…

Life As A Youth Summit Intern

by Rachael Harvey

As an individual who is passionate about the Movement and youth engagement, the Youth Summit marked the next big step towards my intentional career path of becoming a Jewish professional. I had never been to a Youth professional conference before, or even a NFTY Convention. Overall, I was not sure what to expect from this conference. However, I did know that this was something I was meant to do. Being an inaugural Youth Summit intern this year was exactly what I needed to immerse myself in the Movement that has contributed so much to my Jewish learning, education and leadership development. Not only did this experience contribute further to my value for the Reform Movement and its forward-thinking Campaign for Youth Engagement, but I also was able to directly contribute to this progression by working through a professional lens.

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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 and food. Read more…

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 their deep commitment to equality and justice in our society.

Next weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, which was one in a series of Selma-to-Montgomery marches demanding voting rights for African-Americans. Like Reform Jews 50 years ago, my colleagues and I will be in Selma – alongside President Barack Obama, Rep. John Lewis, a number of congregational and community leaders and civil rights activists. Read more…