Christian Leaders Offer Prayers, Consolation after Kansas Shooting

Our friends from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offered their sympathy this week for those affected by Sunday’s deadly shootings at two Jewish communities in a suburb of Kansas City, KS. As you surely know, three people were killed by gunfire, including a grandfather and his 14-year-old grandson. […]

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URJ Books and Music Releases the Ultimate Debbie Friedman Anthology

URJ Books and Music is proud to release the ultimate anthology of the musical works of Debbie Friedman, z”l (1951 – 2011). Regarded as one of the most influential Jewish singer-songwriters in history, Debbie is known for her timeless Jewish folk music, filled with peaceful and universal messages, which have been adopted by Jewish congregations […]

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Reform Leader Responds to Tragic Shooting at Jewish Community Sites

In response to today’s shootings at several Jewish communal institutions in Overland Park, KS, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement: We mourn the tragic loss of life in today’s shootings in the Overland Park, Kansas Jewish community. Information about the perpetrator is still being uncovered, […]

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Reform Movement Horrified by Fort Hood Shooting

In response to yesterday’s tragic shooting at Fort Hood in Killeen, TX, Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement: We are deeply saddened by the tragedy that occurred yesterday at Fort Hood. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. This horror cannot […]

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“We Must Live for Today; We Must Build for Tomorrow”: Social Action in NFTY



By Sophie Foxman

The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) was introduced into Judaism in the early rabbinic period. It was introduced to me — and has shaped my life in astonishing ways since then — when I entered NFTY.

Growing up, I idealistically believed I could do anything and help everyone, a concept understood by my friends, counselors, and others at URJ Camp George, where I spent my summers.  That’s where the seeds of my desire to be part of something bigger than myself initially were planted. Read more…

Response to shooting in Kansas City: A Modern Plague of Violence



Tonight at our Seder tables teeming with life, we pause with heavy hearts as we grieve with the families of those killed yesterday in the shootings that took place in a Jewish Community Center and a nearby Jewish senior living community in Overland Park, Kansas. The shooter, a former Ku Klux Klan leader filled with hate, was bent on murdering Jews. This tragedy, as we saw, exemplifies once again hatred and gun violence know no bounds, with two of the victims members of a local Methodist church.

This time Jews were targeted, but in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, it was the Sikhs, and in Newtown, Connecticut, it was small children of different faiths, and a week ago in Chicago, it was 16-year-old football and wrestling star Michael Flournoy III.

On Passover, even as we celebrate our ancestors’ freedom, we recite the 10 plagues God unleashed on the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to free the Jews from slavery. One interpretation of why we do this is so that we remember that our freedom is not complete while others still suffer.

So tonight, safe and surrounded by our loved ones, we remember that when dozens of Americans are dying every day from gun violence, America cannot attain her highest calling of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of her people.

The “Wicked” Child of the Pew Study



by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Pesach is coming, and at s’darim across the Jewish community we will once again label four children as wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. I have always struggled with this part of the seder for two reasons. All of my work with young people has taught me that we should avoid labeling children because it gives them a negative message, often encouraging them to live up to the label we ascribe. And on a secondary level, I have always found it hard to understand why the respective questions correspond to the labels that the Hagaddah gives them.

While we could analyze each of the children and their corresponding labels, I would like to devote my focus on the wicked child. He asks: “What does this service mean to you?” The Hagaddah’s preoccupation is on the fact that the question says “you,” suggesting that this child no longer identifies with the Jewish people; he is therefore told, in no uncertain terms, that if he had been there he would not have been saved from Egypt. But in reality, one could see this as a question seeking to understand what is happening by looking at it through another person’s eyes. The “wicked” child might not feel a connection to the seder, but he is still seated around the table trying to understand the relevance and meaning for others.

In light of the recent Pew study, this question and this child have taken on a new significance for me. A great deal of attention was given to the study’s finding that 22% of the American Jewish community today identify as Jews of no religion. The study said of them that they “are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.” But despite this label, according to the study, 42% of Jews of no religion still attended a seder last year, assuming their place around the table.

With this growing group in the Jewish community, we might reconsider the question of the supposedly wicked child: “What does this service mean to you?” Using the Pew study’s categories, surely this is the question the “Jews of no religion” could conceivably ask the “Jews by religion.” In this context, the “you” in the question does not symbolize that the group no longer identifies as part of the Jewish community. Rather it symbolizes a struggle to find meaning in Jewish religious life. In seeking meaning, they are still seated around our communal table, identifying as Jews, and they ask others to help provide them with an insight into the meaning.

If we offer this group the answer suggested by the Hagaddah, not only do we fail to answer their question, but we further alienate them from Jewish religious life, and by extension the organized Jewish community. The Hagaddah solidifies a “them” and “us” approach by excluding them from the formative experience of Jewish history, our Exodus from Egypt. And once we exclude them from our communal history, what likelihood is there that they will want to be part of our shared future? Their voice will be silenced, but unlike the child who does not know how to ask, who is silent due to an inability to question, their silence will come because they have removed themselves from our communal table.

It is wonderful that in twenty-first century America, people continue to identify as Jews despite feeling no connection to the religion. In this group we can see either a threat or an opportunity. The Hagaddah’s response to the question comes from a place of fear, feeling threatened by this group and trying to coerce them back into the fold. Instead, we can see the opportunity to try and find ways to help this group find meaning in Jewish religious life. It may not have the same focus as the Judaism of our grandparents, but it can still be rooted in Jewish history and tradition, inspiring them to a deeper Jewish connection.

In this way, the question “What does this service mean to you?” is a wonderful one for us to answer. One may find meaning in the story of the Exodus as a way to find a connection to God, through God’s relationship to the Jewish people. Or perhaps the meaning comes from our slavery experience which compels us to be socially active in the world on behalf of others. Or maybe there is meaning in the seder as a chain linking us back through our history, but also forward into the future with the emphasis on teaching our children. We each can share our personal understanding of the seder to offer them a variety of ways to find a connection.

The Hagaddah provides us with just one answer. Today, with so many possible responses to this question, rather than pushing this group away, we instead can find ways to answer this question with meaning and love to deepen their Jewish connection. Then, perhaps at next year’s seder, they will not ask this question but instead answer it for others, sharing the meaning they have found.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a spiritual leader at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY. He also serves as a board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.

Originally posted at eJewish Philanthropy

10 Years of Ten Minutes of Torah

A Fifth Cup – Going Beyond What is Required



By Joshua Weinberg

Growing up, I struggled with the impression that being a Reform Jew meant that we did less. Fewer mitzvot, shorter holiday observance, and less time spent in Jewish education. It was a stigma that I carried with me as I wrestled with and contemplated my own Jewish identity. This lead me to a realm of experimentation with halachah (Jewish law) – pushing and pulling my ‘red lines’ as I grew and learned more.

Today, as many of us are busy preparing for Passover, I find myself less occupied by the meticulous aspect of the holiday’s demanded mitzvot, but searching instead for ways to supplement the narrative and to find meaning in a modern context. I commend those who find deep meaning in cleaning out their kitchens and sterilizing their homes, making sure that all leavening ceases at the 18-minute mark and [in the Ashkenazi tradition] nothing that could resemble wheat flour – such as legumes – will be consumed during Passover. However, I would like to offer an additional perspective on Passover by suggesting some meaningful ways to supplement the seder. Read more…

NFTY of the 1960s



NFTY in the 1960s was remarkably like NFTY today.  Except in those areas where it was different.

It was the same because, in most ways, kids are the same.

Adolescence is a tumultuous time when kids are suddenly vulnerable and suddenly sexual.  They are desperate to know who cares about them.  They want to find a place where they belong.  They love their parents, but also can’t stand the sight of their parents.  They care too much about clothes and body image.  They are caught up in a need to fit in, but also a need to rebel.  Read more…

A Passover Social Action Update from the RAC



Every year I look forward to Passover, when we gather with family and friends, share a festive meal, and retell the story of our exodus from Egypt – with all the lessons applied to today’s urgent moral dilemmas and to the struggles for freedom in America and across the globe.

At every seder, I am touched by the creativity of connecting symbols, old and new, on the seder plate to modern challenges – the bitter herbs for the victims of human trafficking, the symbols of the spring harvest reminding us of our responsibility to protect God’s creation for generations yet to come, and newer symbols – an orange for women’s rights, a tomato for farm workers’ rights, etc. And this year, I know, as we tell the story of our own journey to freedom, we will remember those still facing injustice and inequality – immigrants to our nation, the LGBT community, the differently abled still facing too many barriers at too many turns. And in these connections, we should take tremendous pride in knowing how our story of liberation continues to inspire all those who dream that one day soon, freedom and equality can be theirs.

Let me also suggest a way at this time of year, you can help strengthen the social justice program of your synagogue: By ensuring that a congregational leader – or better yet, a delegation – attend the RAC’s major social justice happening of the year, a Social Action Skills Training & Advocacy Day, May 18-20 in Washington, D.C. Read more…

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah



By Alexa Maltby

It isn’t every day that you have a life-changing experience, so to say I had a life-changing summer is a blessing. Urban Mitzvah Corps could easily be described as a six-week Jewish social action summer program. But life changing experiences aren’t that easy to describe.

For the past two summers I took the long 15-minute drive from my average hometown to the city of New Brunswick, NJ. I lived in a sorority house on the Rutgers campus and worked in the New Brunswick area. What made the experience unique was working with groups of people who I never would have interacted with before. But that is the beauty of Mitzvah Corps. It is an organization that pushes its participants to be brave and kind hearted. Read more…

Christian and Jewish Leaders Achieve Breakthrough, Resuming Dialogue and Engagement



The heads of Jewish and Christian organizations and denominations met in an unprecedented summit in New York City today to discuss strategies to strengthen and maintain relationships even in the face of significant disagreements. The gathering to discuss relationships and how we treat each other was the first to bring together these groups since a letter was sent on October 5, 2012 by Christian groups calling on Congress to investigate Israel’s use of U.S. military aid.

At today’s meeting, participants made a commitment to developing an effective and ongoing national dialogue of Christian and Jewish leaders: Read more…

WRJ Grants Encourage Female Enrollment at URJ Sci-Tech Academy



As the enrollment level of boys surpasses that of girls for the inaugural summer at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has made a $5,000 grant from its YES (Youth, Education, & Special Projects) Fund to provide scholarships for female campers.

The scholarships are meant to encourage and support the participation of girls in science and technology, which have traditionally been male-dominated fields. Each scholarship recipient will receive $500 toward registration at the camp this summer.

To be considered for a scholarship, applicants must be enrolled at the camp between March 1 and April 30, entering grades 5-9 in Fall 2014, and belong to a URJ congregation. Read more…

SING OUT! The Beginnings of NFTY Music: A Look at the First Songs We Sang, Part Two



By Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin

The music and the style of song leading as it has been popularized among Reform youth has moved the Jewish world. Music in NFTY and Reform camps, which began in 1951 in Wisconsin, seems to have been defined by the era in which it was sung, affected greatly by world events, politics, and technology. Camps were where adolescents gathered to form communities: mini-societies. Singing begins as a family activity, and this “family” atmosphere is created in the camp community.

Repertoire at the West Coast’s Camp Saratoga, which was established in 1951 (and later became UAHC Camp Swig and then URJ Camp Newman), was chosen from American folk songs, some Hebrew, a little Yiddish, and hymns from the old Union Songster. The first songleader at Swig in 1955 was Cantor William Sharlin, an accomplished composer in his mid-30s, who had been to the Union Institute in Wisconsin the previous few summers. He was the first staff member with a professional music background, and was hired to take singing to the next level. Since Cantor Sharlin had come from the only other Union Institute, the repertoire of both was virtually the same. The songbook that Camp Saratoga used was from the Jewish Agency from the 1940s. No set curriculum was instituted, although most of the song sessions helped prepare for Shabbat. By the second summer Saratoga was in session, the natural phenomenon of “tradition” had come into play: what was sung the first summer was “how we’ve always done it.” The kavanah [spontaneity] of the first campers had become the keva [fixed] of the second summer. This circumstance has been both a blessing and a curse to the camping movement ever since. Read more…

60+ Reform Rabbis to Shave Their Heads in Support of Pediatric Cancer Research



During the 125th annual Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Convention, more than 60 Reform rabbis will shave their heads to raise awareness of and funding for pediatric cancer research. As the religious leadership of Reform Judaism, the CCAR Rabbis strive for justice and wholeness and health in the world in for all people. At the same time, through the CCAR, the rabbis support one another in their rabbinic and personal lives. Shave for the Brave has been a catalyst in uniting members of the rabbinic community who have lost children and brought the entire community together to support each other.

The convention brings together members of the CCAR, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, with more than 2,000 Reform rabbis providing religious leadership in all walks of life. The connection between the Reform rabbinic community and pediatric cancer advocacy began with the story of Samuel “Superman Sam” Sommer (pictured here), the son of Reform rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer. Sam succumbed to leukemia in December 2013. The Sommers documented Sam’s battle with cancer on their blog, Superman Sam. Read more…

URJ Continues Disaster Relief Funding



This week, the Union for Reform Judaism disbursed its second round of disaster relief funding to support rebuilding efforts following Typhoon Haiyan. To date, the URJ has released nearly $250,000 for the relief efforts, and we continue to partner with both North America and Philippines-based NGOs to support the most critical needs related to the recovery. Here is a summary of the March 2014 allocations: Read more…

Community. Prayer. Holiness.



By Rose Snitz

As people gather and voices come together in harmony, the holiness of the space begins to form. From Shabbat services in local communities to regional Havdalah services, to closing rituals during the North American Convention, there’s always an unexplainable feeling of connection and community at NFTY events.

Picture yourself overlooking a group of 300 Jewish teens. Are they in a circle with songleaders and service leaders in the center? Are they seated in traditional rows with the leaders up front? Or are they outside at a camp by the lake? NFTY has a unique way of morphing camp-style and traditional services into one, and beyond. What do you hear upon entering into the prayer space? You hear the warm sound of guitars strumming, voices singing, and people laughing.

With this image in your mind, think about what goes on behind-the-scenes for service leaders. What questions are asked? What is taken into account during the planning process? Teen service leaders work with clergy to plan the kind of service they want to create — from the theme of a service, to where the worship will take place. After that, they work with songleaders to create the ‘sound’ of the service. In NFTY, music is an essential part of worship. It’s the key to break down barriers to connect with our heritage through prayer.

Are NFTY services more engaging than other services for teens? Yes and no. Some teens connect better during NFTY worship because their peers are leading the services. Other teens feel more comfortable due to the amount of music that is present. Yet for others, services are always an internal battle. What can we do to address this? Leaders struggle with the challenge.

Last November, I served on a panel with Andrew Keene, NFTY President, Danielle Rodnizki, soloist at Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater, Florida, and Toby Pechner, a recent NFTY alum, which was facilitated by the Jewish musician Dan Nichols and Cantor Ellen Dreskin, Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music to address this very topic: How can we make worship more meaningful and engaging for youth? The four of us, as well as social media through Dan, were asked a series of questions that aren’t typically asked of young adults. For example, we were asked, “When do you feel heard? When don’t you feel heard? What do you want and need in worship?”

The most popular answers — to what we need in worship — include using music and unconventional methods of prayer. This includes services that use social media, yoga services, using secular music that relates to prayer, and singing the Hebrew words of a song (like Adon Olam) to Backstreet Boys’ music.

Our panel concluded that while these are methods that work well, the most important thing is to continue to build the relationships between adult leadership and the next generation.

NFTY is a perfect model of generationalleadership, especially in worship. Clergy members help teens, and teens help younger teens. This happens throughout the planning process and the actual service, whether it’s the service leader having their younger peer read a prayer or have an aliyah.

During the reader’s Kaddish NFTY shows how it’s a family. At a NFTY service, if a NFTYite has just lost someone, they’re remembering a yahrzeit, or even if we’ve lost someone in the greater community, it feels as if the entire congregation at the time is mourning. For example, when Sam Sommer, z’l, (a.k.a. Superman Sam) died while many of us were attending the URJ Biennial, at Shabbat services the entire NFTY section stood up during the Mourner’s Kaddish to remember him.

NFTY truly is a k’hilah kedoshah, a holy community.

Rose Snitz is an active and engaged NFTYite living in Tulsa, OK, where she is a music Madricha and Hebrew tutor at Temple Israel. She is and alumna of the URJ Greene Family Camp and NFTY in Israel. Rose currently serves as the RCVP of OKATY (Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City) as well as a NFTY-TOR Regional Songleader.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

What Is Audacious Hospitality?



The Jewish people is here today because those who came before us were audacious. By that I mean courageous, fearless, and bold.

Genesis teaches us to practice audacious hospitality. On a blisteringly hot day, Abraham runs after three desert wanderers, insisting they come inside for nourishment. What makes his act so memorable is not waiting for the wanderers to knock on his door; instead, he goes out to meet them where they are and invites them in.

Some months ago, I arrived early at one of our URJ congregations to speak on a Friday night. In the lobby, a woman wearing a nametag looked at me and barked, “What do you want?” I answered, “I want to be in a congregation filled with warmth and welcome.” She looked at me, her expression communicating, “Boy, do you have the wrong place!” Then she looked over her shoulder at the easel in the entryway, which held a picture of a guy who looked a lot like me. “Are you him?” she asked. I nodded “yes.” With suddenly discovered warmth, she said, “Well, why didn’t you say so?” Read more…