In response to several anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine, the site of ongoing social upheaval, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released the following statement: The events in Ukraine are deeply concerning for all who value human rights. We pray that the unrest will be resolved in a peaceful and […]Read more
The following was sent on Friday afternoon as an email on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The bottom of this post includes a link to donate to help Jewish communities in Ukraine during this time of crisis. This morning, as our community members arrived at the synagogue center in Simferopol, they discovered […]Read more
The URJ is proud to announce an innovative Camper Incentive Program for Jewish Military Families on Active Duty, open to Jewish families with at least one parent on Active Duty in the United States Armed Forces. The program will be offered at the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, which has served more […]Read more
Earlier this winter, my synagogue played host to NFTY-NAR’s Winter Kallah. Because we’re of the “go big or go home” belief, our cantor arranged for Jewish musician Dan Nichols to be our artist-in-residence the same weekend. Ever a consummate mensch, Dan participated the entire weekend in activities with NFTY, the religious school, and programs for […]Read more
By Steve Eisenbach-Budner
Tivnu: Building Justice is a new organization based in Portland, Oregon. Tivnu is proud to partner with URJ’s Mitzvah Corps Portland this summer, and, this fall Tivnu is launching the first stateside Jewish gap year program. Both our summer and gap year programs combine social advocacy, Jewish learning and living, and construction work and training with affordable-housing organizations like Habitat for Humanity.
We believe that it is important for Jews to engage in social justice work not just as individuals, but as representatives of the Jewish community in partnership with other communities. For us, creating meaningful social justice initiatives involves:
- Integration. Our program combines body, mind, and heart. Different modes will speak to different participants, but we believe that every participant should be exposed to them all. Something special happens when thoughts, feelings, and physical effort are all working together.
- Relationships. Our participants will work at direct-service organizations alongside people who are currently experiencing homelessness. By “acting with” instead of “doing for,” our teens will come to understand these individuals’ humanity and gain a visceral appreciation of their life experiences.
- Real stakes. In addition to building their own two- or three-unit dwelling at a Habitat development site, our participants will engage in genuine legislative and other initiatives with nonprofits that are working on local and national issues on the ground here in Portland. They will learn first-hand about a number of such organizations from activists who are actually involved in leading them.
Tivnu draws from many wells: both the early Zionist movement and the American labor movement in their respect for physical work, the rich history of American Jewish involvement in a broad variety of progressive causes, and the many Jewish texts that grapple with issues of collective responsibility.
Our programs are designed to capitalize on the value of immersive experiences for deepening learning:
- immersing our participants in their own communal living experience. As they organize their households, cook meals together, and celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, they are going to be hashing out their ideas of what it means to live a Jewish life.
- involving our participants with members of the local Jewish community. We will bring in adults to help them learn how to cook. We will be connecting them with Hillel as well as with Jewish young adults from Portland synagogues.
- Gap year participants will help run our short-term programs as they acquire leadership and construction skills throughout the year.
- Providing opportunities for participants to engage challenging issues as a group: What responsibility do we have to others in our community? Whom do we see as being in our community, and whom not? How have Jewish communities dealt with these issues before?
Ultimately, we believe all of this will allow our participants to explore and develop their identity as American Jews. For more information about either the Tivnu: Building Justice Mitzvah Corps Portland or Gap Year Program visit tivnu.org.
Steve Eisenbach-Budner is the Founder and Executive Director of Tivnu: Building Justice. Steve won a Joshua Venture Group Fellowship in 2012 that enabled him to channel his three decades of experience as an activist, carpenter, construction trainer and informal Jewish educator into the building of Tivnu. He can be reached at Steve@tivnu.org.
By Ivy Cohen
Five years ago, the three Reform Synagogues in the Metropolitan New Orleans Area, each with their own unique, rich and glorious histories faced a common problem: their youth groups had shrunk to an unsustainable size. Touro Synagogue, Congregation Gates of Prayer and Congregation Temple Sinai, which each had thriving youth programs at one point, were operating with less than ten members. The synagogues each had a volunteer advisor who worked diligently to recruit and publicize their events. However, they were unable to get critical participation numbers, and the investment was outweighing the returns. There were some teens actively participating, those who were the true foundation and heartbeat of the youth group that would show up to anything branded by their respective acronym. Despite the eager few, though, the reality of the situation was grave. The congregations could no longer justify operating independent youth groups. The synagogues each agreed that they wanted teens to have access to some kind of Jewish experience, ideally grounded in the Reform community. Although there were other options in New Orleans for a post b’nai mitzvah experience, the congregations wanted to ensure that their teens had access to a uniquely Reform Jewish experience. Read more…
By Ava Kurnow
- only think about engaging post b’nai mitzvah students
- don’t look at the whole picture of their community
- don’t know what their short and long term goals are
- don’t engage the stakeholders
Is there anything above that Jewish educators don’t already know? Is there any congregation that doesn’t want to engage their members, including the youth? Is the importance of building relationships within your community a new concept?
After you answer, “No”, think about what has changed and why we’re all looking for new ways to engage our youth. What will help you and why are we all writing and reading about what everyone else is doing?
The answer to the last question is what helps me the most. If we don’t continually think about changing or adding ways to engage our youth we will be faced with sad new statistics and disappointments. I have not only learned that the same approaches don’t work for each congregation, but that they don’t always work from year to year with our own youth. There isn’t a cookie-cutter answer, which is why reading about other’s journeys can be inspiring and also be the trigger for trying something new. This is an important part of my role at Beth Israel where we revisit our existing programs, structure, and methods each year to make sure we are doing what will work for our community.
When I arrived at Beth Israel of San Diego four years ago, a congregational task force on youth engagement was wrapping up their short-term assignment to address some key concerns: dissatisfaction with post b’nai mitzvah retention, lack of communication, lack of connectedness of youth and their families and the lack of organized events to bring our youth together. One of the first action items of the plan was to hire the first full time Director of Youth Services, with the teens participating in the selection process. It was a tremendous help that our leadership had recognized the need for change and made engaging and retaining our youth one of their priorities, but we had much work to do beyond the hiring phase.
To be fair, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Our cantor had been engaging a large group of students for years through our youth choirs and band. There are almost as many teenagers in our madrichim program (many overlap) founded and supervised by our educator emerita.
That aside, we’ve still come a long way since the new youth director position was filled and then refilled and reinvented. We have utilized multi-tiered strategies that included:
- A listening campaign
- Weekly education team meetings that brought the associate rabbi, present religious school director and director emerita, early childhood director and youth director together to plan, create, collaborate and dream.
- Including other stakeholders in the visioning process. We invited board liaisons, a very small number of senior staff members and parents at all stages of life with a children of different ages.
With two eager and committed parents as co-chairs, the group of stakeholders named themselves the “Think Tank”. The Think Tank began by sharing their own stories with each other, and then sought to hear stories from a larger community of stakeholders. After much planning and a tremendous amount of hype, we hosted a town hall meeting” so that the community could share their input. At this meeting, we polled congregants to get answers to some of our questions, and then we listened to what our congregants had to say. In small groups, the “Think Tank” members asked congregants to share their feedback about a list of things that were new in religious school and a road map of our education program. The groups then opened up for discussions and feedback. The leaders reported the responses, suggestions, etc. at the next Think Tank meeting and with the congregation in a bulletin article.
At the same time all of this was happening, we were also meeting with our teens. We asked, “What do you like about being at Beth Israel?” and sought their input about why their classmates didn’t stay. After listening, we utilized their feedback to revamp the high school program (8th - 12th grades) with new food choices for dinner, new core curriculum, new electives and new teachers and staff that love our teens and know how to relate to them. The following year, the Think Tank set up a booth at the Purim Carnival, where congregants could have personal conversations and share their input about our ongoing process.
Since the launch of the Think Tank, there have been other changes in the youth-related departments inspired by our reorganization and listening campaign. Our efforts range from those aimed at the youngest children with parent-planned gatherings that bring families together, include curriculum changes that are relevant and geared to forming relationships, and the inclusion of all synagogue staff and leadership in the continuing process.
Four years into this new strategy, the Think Tank has continued to act as ambassadors. They realized early in the process that one of their guiding principles is that families need to be engaged and feel like they belong, in addition to the youth themselves. This guiding principle is what makes everyone want to come back and stay connected. The group is now “thinking” about what is next.
“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it either.”
- Rabbi Tarfon (Pirke Avot: 2:21)
We are still gathering and dreaming…
Ava Kurnow joined the Lee and Frank Goldberg Family Religious School staff as Director of Judaic Studies and assumed the role of Director of Religious School Education in 2011. Before joining Beth Israel, Ava worked as director of lifelong learning at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For 23 years before that, she was director of education at Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona. While in Phoenix she also served on the city’s Educator’s Forum and taught workshops for new Jewish principals and other colleagues at conferences and at Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) biennials.
By Melissa Frey
When Hattie and Milton Kutz gifted $100,000 of their estate toward the creation of a Reform Movement leadership training summer program for teens, the impact of their vision likely could not have been imagined. Tens of thousands of people, both young and young at heart, including many of the most influential professional and volunteer leaders in our movement, are products of the URJ Kutz Camp. Forty-nine summers after opening the gates at 46 Bowen Road in Warwick, New York, Kutz has secured its place as the flagship center of inspired engagement. Each of these milestones and successes has happened because of and in partnership with NFTY.
Recently, I attended the funeral of Mark Levy, z”l, in Los Angeles and had the honor of celebrating his life. Mark and his wife, Peachy, have been deeply committed to the future of the Jewish people for decades. Through their incredible leadership, they have distinguished themselves as two of the Reform Movement’s most generous donors. Particularly devoted to camp and youth initiatives, the Levys provided scholarships that enabled thousands of students to attend the URJ’s west coast camps (camps Newman and Kalsman) and NFTY events, and they expanded the URJ’s camping network to include URJ Camp Kalsman, named for Peachy’s parents.
Last year Mark and Peachy, widely beloved for their tremendous warmth, menschlichkeit and generosity, were honored as lifetime members of NFTY. This video provides a glimpse of the warmth of the Levys and the love they receive from our young people. Indeed, our Movement is diminished by the loss of Mark. May his memory be for a blessing, and may Peachy and their family – and all of us – find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
by Jay Ruderman
Wikipedia defines social justice as, “the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.” This definition can be broken down into three parts: realizing potential, in society, and where they live. For Jewish people with disabilities, each of these parts presents a challenge – and for the rest of us, they present an opportunity.
The full inclusion of people with disabilities in society is a matter of social justice, civil rights, and fairness. Every Jew counts, every Jew has something unique to offer our community, and every Jew is created in the image of God, no matter how they look or express themselves. Approximately 1,000,000 Jews in the United States have some form of disability. Look at that number again: 1,000,000 people, in our community alone. Our job must be to invite them in, not put up barriers to keep them out. Read more…
By Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin
I found myself (quite literally) at Reform Jewish summer camp. More than anything, it was the music that drew me into experiencing Jewish life with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might. How did music in youth grouping touch something Jewish so deep inside me? The experience was more than nifty . . . it was NFTY.
Our participatory musical style in synagogue services grew out of the creative liturgy of youth camps. The use of folk guitar in religious school, in the youth service, and (more and more) in adult worship can be traced back to NFTY’s roots, which were planted 75 years ago, but which evolved from earlier models. Read more…
The following was sent on Friday afternoon as an email on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The bottom of this post includes a link to donate to help Jewish communities in Ukraine during this time of crisis.
Dear World Union Family,
We all share family in Kiev and throughout Ukraine, and that makes the crisis there personal. The headlines do not tell the full story of the fears our congregants are facing, nor the underlying threat to our community. Help is needed.
As we write, Rabbi Alexander Duhkovny, rabbi of our Progressive communities in Kiev and Ukraine, expresses hope that the situation on the ground will improve as the Ukrainian Parliament has approved a restoration of the Constitution of 2004 which limits Presidential power. Yet, we know that in recent days the situation was tragic. Unconfirmed reports indicate that nearly 100 people were killed on Thursday, many of whom were victims of police snipers shooting from rooftops. Fires were spreading, electricity is still unreliable, food is scarce, and the banks and public transportation were closed. Read more…
by Nancy Crown
When I was called to meet with a member of my synagogue’s Congregation-Based Community Organizing Committee, I almost declined. I was asked to think about what the temple could do that it was not already doing. My main reaction was to reflect on the many opportunities for learning, worship, and community that I wasn’t partaking of, due to limited time and a longstanding “outsider” feeling when it comes to religion. Like many others, my upbringing did not include much meaningful participation in the spiritual aspects of Judaism.
My daughter, now 28 years old, has developmental disabilities. She was keenly interested in Judaism as a young child, but as a teen, she began to talk about converting to another religion. By that time, our son was enrolled in school at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where we were members. We chose a Jewish day school for a number of reasons, including our desire for our son to feel more secure in his Jewish identity than my husband, my daughter, or I had felt. We began lighting candles on Friday nights. I took Hebrew classes. We attended services, where, at moments, I would feel an achy kind of longing, alongside a feeling of being an outsider. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite find a way in. Read more…
Over Presidents Day weekend, 130 teen leaders from our 19 NFTY regions participated in a leadership retreat and board meeting at URJ Greene Family Camp. They elected a new North American board for 2014-2015/5774-5775. We are pleased to introduce you to the NFTY board-elect. They will officially be installed during the next NFTY general board meeting in June at URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. Read more…
by Shayna Simon
My name is Shayna Simon I am 12 years old. I have attended Camp Chazak at URJ Eisner and Crane Lake in Massachusetts for the last 2 summers. This camp is for kids like me that may have some challenges and just need some direction to stay focused and enjoy this wonderful camp experience.
The best way I can describe this camp is “AWESOME” We get to play, swim, sing, cook, eat and laugh together. I especially enjoy being able to share my Jewishness with everyone through prayer & singing. I even got to play my guitar during services. This year will be my last year at Camp Chazak as I age out. Read more…
by Sarah Rosemont
This past November, I traveled to Israel as part of a NFTY delegation team in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Women of the Wall. Today, more than two months later, I still don’t know how to describe the trip in a way that will do it justice. How can I talk about the most impactful week of my life in just five minutes or 500 words? Although I can’t capture the whole trip in one sitting, I can describe the small but powerful moments that caused me to feel immense pride — and question my beliefs — in the hope that listeners will learn from my experiences and pass it on to educate others.
I felt extreme pride during Rosh Chodesh t’filah (prayer) at the Western Wall (Kotel). I was standing with hundreds of women, singing in unity, making a statement for equality through prayer, when I heard an uproar of protest from the Orthodox men on their side of the wall. I stood on tiptoe to see the Orthodox men who were attempting to push their way closer to the mechitzah (the wall separating the two sides of the Kotel). I noticed that other men, seemingly Reform and Conservative Jews, were forming a barrier to stop them. Seeing the men standing on chairs praying along with us from their side gave me a whole new perspective of the Wall. I realized that this issue resonates with more people than just the women who were around me, and that others — including men — also want to see gender equality at the Wall. Read more…
As I write this, I’m on a literal and figurative high – literal because I’m writing to you from a flight back to New York from Dallas, where I had the privilege of attending and addressing the BBYO International Convention. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, Why is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism going to a BBYO convention? Isn’t BBYO the rival of NFTY, the Reform youth movement?
I’m here to tell you – and you can quote me on it – that BBYO is not our rival. They are our partner.
NFTY and BBYO both offer significant channels for Jewish teens to have experiences that can influence lives in permanent and profound ways. Through these channels, we engage tens of thousands of teens in weekend retreats, Israel trips, summer camp programs, and other leadership experiences that research shows are the most powerful Jewish identity-building experiences that our community has to offer.
But it is still not enough. Together, NFTY and BBYO reach only 3.5 percent of North American Jewish teens. Clearly, there is so much more to be done. Read more…
by Sarah Moody
Yesterday, my boss asked me to make something go viral. I looked up from my computer. Then he said, smiling, “You know I’m kidding, right? I know that’s impossible.” I laughed.
I started thinking.
As he walked out of my office, I said, “Hey David, if I can get 10,000 likes on a picture, can we get a baby goat for the URJ Camp Kalsman farm?”
This time, he laughed. “Sure, Sarah,” he said, “10,000 likes and I’ll get you a baby goat.”
Impossible challenge accepted. Read more…