URJ Biennial 2015: NBC News’ Chuck Todd to Host 2016 Presidential Candidates

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press and NBC News political director, will host leading 2016 presidential candidates in a forum in Orlando, FL, at the URJ Biennial 2015. Todd will interview each candidate one-on-one and will cover a wide range of topics, including both domestic […]

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Shavuot: Celebration and Obligation

In just a few days, we will conclude this year’s counting of the Omer with the celebration of Shavuot, the first of our tradition’s three annual pilgrimage festivals, and the one that has come to be associated with the giving of Torah atop Mt.Sinai, as well as with confirmation and post b’nai mitzvah study. The […]

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Seeing is Believing: Visual T’filot and the Future of Jewish Worship

Rabbi Lance Sussman, the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA,  wrote a piece published today in eJewish Philanthropy titled “Seeing is Believing: Visual T’filot and the Future of Jewish Worship.” He begins, Three years ago, my synagogue agreed to install large retractable screens on either side of the Ark and […]

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June 3 is Worldwide Unity Day: Promoting the Jewish People as One

In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teens – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel – were kidnapped by terrorists on their way home from school. Jews from around the world came together to search, pray, and offer support. The building sense of Jewish unity while the boys were held captive reached its peak […]

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Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

The Journal of Youth Engagement checks in with Benjamin Singer, who shared his secret for engaging young people in synagogue life: Torah. The article “How to Get Youth Into Your Synagogue” originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement in August 2014. 

In your original article, you cited the central role of Torah in guiding your work with Common Cause of Illinois. What have you been up to since then?

As you read, I’ve long felt that big money in politics corrupts our government, and stands in the way of enacting just policies–whether on taxes, the environment, health care, or foreign policy. I’m now the Campaign Manager of MAYDAY.US. We’re a bipartisan organization supporting candidates for Congress who want to reform the way we fund our elections, in order to empower working Americans. To sloganize it, we are a “SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs.”

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Together in Israel: Reimagining the Congregational Israel Trip

The Community Synagogue of Port Washington has previously shared strategies for innovation in youth worship and lowering barriers to participation by rethinking “membership” in youth group. This month, we check in with Lindsay Ganci and Rabbi Danny Burkeman following a recent congregational trip to Israel that leverages what they’ve learned.

Many people have traveled to Israel on a family trip, many have taken part in teen trips to Israel, and a lucky few have traveled on both. This past February, we organized a congregational Israel trip that would blend the experiences of a family and teen trip into one hybrid adventure.

When our congregation began talking about a family trip to Israel, one of our congregants approached us and asked about the possibility of offering a parallel teenage trip for our youth program, POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth). This was around the same time that Taglit-Birthright expanded their eligibility criteria so that teenagers who went on an educational trip to Israel during high school would still be eligible to a place on a free trip.  This removed what had previously been a major barrier to synagogue teen trips to Israel, and gave us a special opportunity to dream about and experiment with a new model for Israel travel and engagement for our congregants. Read more…

Permission Granted: How the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Impacted Our Congregation

The Journal of Youth Engagement checks in with Rabbi Ben David, whose congregation has been participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The article “What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is, and Is Not” originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement in October 2013.

In your original article, “What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is (and Is Not)” you highlighted what “revolution” meant for your congregation. We want to know: now that significant time has passed, what, if anything, has changed in your b’nai mitzvah process?

Our B’nai Mitzvah program continues to evolve.  Most specifically, we continue to look for ways to allow the students and their families to own the process.  For the students, this means not only picking their mitzvah project, but allowing them to select the verses they will chant from the Torah and what the music will be for their morning.  We honor them in our Teen Night program the week before and after their simcha.  Even these elements help them to feel ownership.  We continue to work on family education as it pertains to not only B’nei Mitzvah, but all transitional moments across Jewish life.

When we last heard from you, your congregation was asking many questions, such as, Read more…

The Torah of Coalition

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

When Eliezer Ben Yehuda set out to assemble a new, Hebrew language dictionary, he needed to create terminology for modern day concepts that are not found in our ancient sources.  Although many of his words caught on and are used regularly, many others did not.  Recently, I was reminded of two words for which there are no Hebrew equivalents, leaving us no choice but to use the Latin terms: koalitziyah and the less popular oppositziyah. 

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This Month in The Tent: Engaging Families with Young Children

“Sooner. Stronger. Deeper. Longer.” That’s the motto that guides Nancy Bossov through her work as an early childhood education and engagement professional. Now the director of early childhood education at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., Nancy came up with this motto while serving as the director of early childhood education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. In practice, it means that engaging families in congregational life sooner rather than later fosters stronger connections to the congregation. This leads to a deeper experience for members, which translates into longer member-synagogue relationships.

Almost all synagogue leaders are concerned with their congregations’ membership numbers, and those same leaders report drastic drop-off rates for families whose children have completed their formal religious education. Although there isn’t a magical cure-all for membership retention, early engagement has proven to be a successful tactic.

Knowing this, the URJ gathered leaders from 28 congregations to participate in two early childhood-related Communities of Practice, Successfully Engaging Families with Young Children and Pursuing Excellence in Your Early Childhood Center. For 18 months, these leaders explored strategies and programs for achieving that “sooner, stronger, deeper, longer” member connection. Read more…

Applications are Now Open for the URJ Communities of Practice!

Is your congregation ready to learn and innovate? Are you prepared to grapple with challenging but important issues and questions, but aren’t quite sure where to begin?

The URJ is thrilled to announce that applications are now open for the URJ Communities of Practice, and we invite your congregation to apply. Communities of Practice (CoPs) are an opportunity for your congregation to come together with others around a topic of shared interest. For 18-24 months, participating congregations will learn from experts in the field, ask big questions, share ideas and best practices, apply these lessons through experimentation, and as a result, strengthen their communities.

We have been so inspired by stories we’ve heard from synagogues across North America that have been transformed by their involvement in past CoPs. One such story comes from Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, a small congregation that realized it was uniquely positioned to fill the needs of young, unaffiliated families seeking a Jewish community. As they worked to support these families, the congregation expanded in membership and in self-identity. Read more of their powerful story. Read more…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Reform Jewish Leaders: Strong, Creative, and Inspiring Agents of Change

I have been fortunate to spend time in recent weeks with an array of Reform leaders, including nearly 100 congregational presidents at our annual Schiedt Seminar and many of the newest and soon-to-be HUC ordinees and graduates – clergy, educators, and Jewish professionals who are eager and exceedingly well qualified to help reshape the Reform Jewish future.

Two days ago, as I confirmed the ordinations of my newest colleagues, I urged them to resist being caretakers of the status quo, and to love our people, especially those who pray, vote, believe, and think differently than they do. I charged them to bind our communities to each other and to Israel, to cast a wide net in defining “pro-Israel” and “Jewishness,” and, perhaps most important as they step up to lead, to have the courage of their convictions, but never to hesitate to let go of outdated ideas or practices.

I am confident that this year’s class will bring new levels of creativity, imagination and holiness to the task, and I look forward to the exceptional changes that will flow from their endeavors.  Indeed, my charge and my certainty in their commitment and abilities apply, too, to our Movement’s other leaders with whom I have met in recent days.

The temple presidents I met at this year’s Scheidt Seminar are similarly poised to instigate change within their communities. I was incredibly moved, as I always am, by the the new presidents’ commitment and passion.  Combined with the knowledge, tools, and resources the URJ provides, their ongoing support for each other, and the powerful, sacred partnerships they’re building with their clergy, these Reform leaders, too, are undertaking holy work that is sure to strengthen and enhance all aspects of synagogue life.

Finally, at the recently concluded Consultation on Conscience, the Reform Movement, once again, demonstrated its leadership, in providing members – professional and lay – with strategies and tactics to apply the insights of our tradition to the real problems in today’s world. By honing their voices on topics as diverse as race relations, economic justice, civil rights, and humanitarian aid, attendees returned home with newfound skills that make them particularly well-suited to galvanize others in the essential work of tikkun olam.

In each of these inspiring encounters with Reform leaders, I was reminded of just how proud I am – and we all can be – of the outstanding training, expertise, and guidance offered by our Union and our Movement. As we welcome the newest cohort of leaders into our midst at this season, I am – and I hope you are, too – increasingly hopeful, optimistic, and energized about the future of Reform Jewish life in North America.

Op-Ed: Striking Down Marriage Equality Bans Would Protect Religious Liberty

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, had an op-ed published last week in the Jewish Journal titled “Op-Ed: Striking Down Marriage Equality Bans Would Protect Religious Liberty.” He writes,

Love. Commitment. Trust. These are the values that form the basis of a marriage. Yet, the equal right to civil marriage has been denied to loving, committed same-sex couples throughout our country’s history.  As the Supreme Court considers oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that could result in civil marriage equality in all fifty U.S. states, the country stands at a crossroads: will the nine Justices finally decide to uphold the civil right of same-sex couples to marry?

As a Rabbi and the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the largest Jewish denomination in America, I am inspired and motivated by the commandment “you shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong… nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exodus 23:2-3). We are not commanded to pursue justice for ourselves. The justice that we must pursue is a universal justice—a justice for all people.

For too long, our country has dealt unjustly with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Marriage equality bans are just one of the many ways in which states have sought to enshrine discrimination into law simply based on who people are and the gender they are attracted to.

Continue reading in the Jewish Journal.

The Scheidt Seminar: Learning and Bonding With My Peers

by Jonathan Cheris

After two years as executive vice president of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, I am about to become president of this sacred place that is my home away from home. Thanks to the work of the incredible leaders in whose footsteps I follow, our membership numbers are growing and our programs are thriving – all evidence that a brick-and-mortar religious institution still matters in a digital world. With the encouragement of my rabbi, Michael White, I recently attended the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar for incoming congregational presidents, a weekend-long retreat held at a suburban conference center outside Atlanta, GA.

For two years, I’ve been outlining the High Holiday speech I plan to deliver this fall. For two months, I’ve been engaging more deeply with temple elders, seeking an easy and rapid transition into the temple presidency. For two weeks, I’ve been feeling increasingly stressed as I begin to deal with some major issues that will need to be addressed during my two-year term.

A member of the congregation since 2001, I was drawn into the temple’s leadership shortly after the death of my father in 2003, grateful for the support the temple community had provided to me and my family during his illness. Joining the temple’s leadership ranks was a natural extension of other volunteer activities I was already pursuing. Since then, I’ve served as brotherhood president and held other posts related to the congregation’s membership, administration, and marketing. Ten years ago, I helped to rebrand the temple as “My Sinai,” and worked to empower staff and other leaders to brand around this wonderful name. My family, too, is happily engaged with our Temple Sinai family: My now 17- and 20-year-old children benefitted greatly from their religious education and the temple’s incredible teen programs, and eight years ago, my wife became an adult bat mitzvah. Read more…

How Tots Helped Our Small Congregation Grow

By Harriet Skelly

In 2013, Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, was at its lowest membership in 15 years. Several years earlier, we had implemented a new, low-cost dues structure in the hopes that it would help increase the membership. At about the same time, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, visited the Bay Area and spoke with local congregational presidents about audacious hospitality, relational Judaism, and “going outside the walls.” I was intrigued by his language, but still didn’t really get it. I was just stuck on how to find unaffiliated Jews in our area to bring into our congregation. Read more…

Had’rachah: Inspiring Congregants to Lead

by Ken Hahn

Last summer, I spent five days at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), one of the URJ’s 15 summer camps across North America that runs programs for Jewish youth from elementary school through high school. But I’m not a camper, nor am I a camp parent – so why was I there? I joined 15 other people at camp for Had’rachah, a URJ-led seminar designed to teach lay leaders to conduct worship services and lifecycle events. We all wanted to help our small congregations (mine has 80 households), some of which have one full-time clergy member and some of which have none. The program was pivotal for me.

As it happens, OSRUI is the place where Jewish musician Debbie Friedman, z’l, did much of her work with music, and it’s where the rabbi of my Northampton, MA, synagogue attended camp for many years throughout her childhood. I love Debbie Friedman’s music and have high regard for my rabbi, so my own OSRUI experience seemed predisposed for a good outcome.

On the first night, the program leader, Rabbi David Fine, asked each of us what we hoped to gain from our time at Had’rachah. Some participants wanted to learn to officiate at a funeral or a shiva minyan, others wanted to get ideas about how to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and still others wanted coaching on how to write a d’rash. When my turn came, I said I was “looking for inspiration.” Of course my answer didn’t mean I didn’t want help with any of those other things; it just meant that more than anything, I was looking for some new directions. Read more…

Where to Donate to Nepalese Earthquake Relief Efforts

Following a deadly 7.9-magnitude earthquake on Saturday, April 25, 2015 – the worst to hit that Nepal since 1934 – thousands of people in Nepal and in neighboring India are in need of immediate help. The United Nations predicts that tens of thousands are likely dead or injured and that up to one million people will become homeless as a result of the devastation. Reports on the ground say that historic buildings and seven major temples have been destroyed near Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and that the force of the quake triggered a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.

The Reform Movement encourages donations to the following organizations providing disaster relief on the ground in Nepal and India:

  • American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: JDC is mobilizing its emergency teams and coordinating with local authorities, the Nepalese and Indian governments, and global partners to assess the unfolding situation and ensure survivors’ immediate needs are addressed. Click through for details on JDC’s disaster relief work.
  • American Jewish World Service: With its longstanding commitment to disaster relief in the developing world, AJWS has set up an Earthquake Emergency Relief Fund to help ensure that the thousands of people affected by this earthquake receive the support they desperately need.
  • Doctors Without Borders: Doctors Without Borders is sending eight teams to assist those affected by the earthquake. Four teams departed this morning and are currently at the border with Nepal clearing with authorities before heading to affected areas. Read more about how the organization is helping in Nepal and India.

Liturgist Alden Solovy offers two prayers to say in our communities as we pray for the people of Nepal and India.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Op-Ed Calls on Jews to Reject Anti-Muslim Sentiments on NYC Bus Ads

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, published an op-ed today in the New York Daily News titled “Jews, reject Pamela Geller’s anti-Muslim venom.” He writes,

She’s back. Under the auspices of something deemed the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the infamous fearmonger Pamela Geller has reasserted provocative hatred onto New York City streets — with new anti-Muslim ads that could appear on city buses.

“Killing Jews is worship that draws us closer to Allah,” one such ad reads, alongside the image of a young man in a headscarf. It continues: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

Though the advertisements were challenged in court, the Hon. John Koeltl of the U.S. District Court, citing the First Amendment, allowed them. Partly to avoid featuring these ads, the MTA may succeed in changing its policy to bar all future political ads.

But whether they ultimately run or not, this hatred has been exposed, and New Yorkers — and the Jewish community in particular — cannot be silent.

Read the full op-ed from the New York Daily News.

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 walks through our doors the gift of audacious hospitality?

Find answers to these questions and others in the first-ever YamJam in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, on Wednesday, May 6th, at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Hosted by the URJ, in partnership with the National Association for Temple Administration (NATA) and the Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ), this event will offer an opportunity for congregational leaders and Movement experts to discuss ways our congregations can demonstrate audacious hospitality –not only to new members, but to anyone who comes through the synagogue doors.

What is a YamJam, you ask? It’s a moderated, live Q&A session on a particular topic – in this case, membership – that is open to all members of The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum. YamJams allow participants to connect with other congregational leaders in a real-time, 30-minute format to share topical information, ideas, and expertise of interest to all in attendance.

No reservations or special software needed. Just bring your ideas, suggestions, and questions, and plan to join us in the Membership group in The Tent on May 6th at 2:30 p.m. EDT. In the meantime, if you have questions about this YamJam, email us. We look forward to seeing you there!