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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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? […]

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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!

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, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

Last week we marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As you said in your eloquent statement that day, “Yom HaShoah is a day to reaffirm our responsibilities to ourselves and future generations. It is incumbent upon us to make real those timeless words, ‘Never forget. Never again.’”

In that spirit, and mindful of our community’s sacred obligation to make sure that the “timeless words” you invoked are not empty phrases, we write to you today concerning the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Read more…

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 in your Congregation
  • Pursuing Justice: Becoming a Community of Action (with the Religious Action Center)
  • Finding the Sacred in the Mundane: Reimagining Financial Support
  • Engaging Congregants: Small Groups With Meaning

Read more…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Op-Ed: Strength and Humility are Key in Defending the Jewish State



Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, published an op-ed today in Haaretz titled “Strength and humility: the key to defending the Jewish State.” He writes,

It would be all too easy to spend Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) debating the rights and wrongs of the complex political issues that have absorbed Jewish communities of late. I wonder, though, whether it would be possible to forego debates on these issues – from stopping Iran’s rush to nuclear weapons, to the formation of a new Israeli coalition after a divisive election campaign – and instead spend these back-to-back observances reconnecting with the Israel we love.

Perhaps it’s the first trip you took to Israel, or the first moment of deep solidarity you felt for its population. Whatever be the case, it feels to me that without the core connections between Diaspora Jews and the holy land, we get lost in politics. Don’t get me wrong, these political issues matter greatly. But underneath our intense arguments must be a true love and commitment to the Jewish State.

With the onset of Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for those brave souls who died creating and protecting the State of Israel over the past 67 years, we enter a phase of darkness. This year, there are many fresh graves to visit, following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. For those of us in North America, it is hard not to think of Max Steinberg z”l, the young man from Los Angeles whose love of Israel was kindled during his Birthright trip. He joined the Israel Defense Forces to express his commitment to the Jewish State and was killed in the Gaza Strip. He died as a lone soldier, meaning a young man who made the commitment to move to Israel without his family and serve in the military there. Thousands attended his funeral to mourn and to declare that, spiritually, there is no such thing as a lone soldier: he was and remains a part of the larger Jewish family.

Read the entire op-ed on Haaretz.com.

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 back to the very roots of our spiritual heritage.”

– Congregational President, Bet Shalom, Minnetonka, MN

What does it mean to be a leader, and how does one learn to be a great leader? Whether you’re born into leadership or rise through the ranks, leadership comes with certain responsibilities. In our congregations, all leaders are responsible for ensuring that individuals feel that they matter and are connected to the core values of the community.

Indeed, being a congregational leader is different than being a leader within a corporation, or even another non-profit organization. How? Considering these differences is vital for all those who assume leadership positions in our congregations, because what we do in our congregations is sacred and holy work. The ways we approach and interact with each another and the community we create together has both practical and spiritual dimensions. This duality is present in the work of congregational leaders at all levels – from the new committee chair getting involved for the very first time to the seasoned veteran who has “done it all” at the congregation. Read more…

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…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Op-Ed: Go Ahead and Debate the Middle East at Your Passover Seder



Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, published an op-ed today in the Washington Post titled “Go ahead and debate the Middle East at your Passover Seder.” He writes,

Millions of people around the world — including President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — will host Passover Seders on Friday and Saturday. But, as we ask traditionally in Hebrew on this holiday, “Mah nishtanah?”: Why will this year’s Seder be different from all others?

This year, we need our Seder ritual more than ever. This holiday season, far too many Jews are feeling disheartened and divided from their faith, their people and their homeland. But now isn’t the time to turn away from fundamental questions about the world around us — the Seder actually requires engaging with them. And this year, there’s no shortage of such questions.

Will an agreement with Iran bring security or increased danger to Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world? Will ongoing political divisions — between Israel and the United States, Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Likud, AIPAC and J Street — signal an unraveling of the Jewish people? Will Israel turn from building more settlements to building the infrastructure for the peace she so desperately needs? Will the plagues of violence and war ever cease in favor of two states for two peoples, living side by side in security and peace? Will recent murderous attacks on Jews in a French kosher market and a Danish synagogue convince the world that antisemitic threats are real and deadly?

Read the full op-ed from the Washington Post.

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.

Read more…

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.

Read more…

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…