Conversations with Engagement Innovators: Alison Kur
Have you ever wondered about the stories and people behind major innovations in our field? The Journal of Youth Engagement is kicking off an occasional series, Conversations with Engagement Innovators, which will give us a window into the thinking and processes that inspire, motivate, and drive these individuals.
For our first Conversation, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, URJ Director of Youth Engagement, spoke with Alison Kur, one of the 2014 recipients of The Covenant Foundation’s Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. The Covenant Foundation’s recognition of Ali, who holds the position of Executive Director of Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, spotlights her as an innovator not just in the Reform movement but throughout the field of Jewish Education. Below are highlights of the conversation or you can listen to a recording of the entire interview.
We want to hear from you: let us know innovators and change agents who you would like to see spotlighted in this column.
Conversation with Engagement Innovators: Alison Kur, Executive Director of Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, MA
Rabbi Bradley Solmsen: You have a law degree, what led you to a full-time graduate program in Jewish education?
Alison Kur: Jewish education is something I had thought about as an undergrad. While I was in school I had an internship that led me on the path to law school and child advocacy work. I served as the Chair of the board of The Rashi School (Reform Jewish Day School in Boston, MA) and was part of the Wexner Heritage program. This re-inspired me to do this work more full-time. I saw it as an incredible opportunity to live in Jewish time. I knew that for my own sense of confidence, skills, and network that it would be worth my while to spend some time really focused on Jewish education, which was not my background. I knew the formal learning and thinking about education would help me a lot going into the field. And, I wanted the education to help me change gears from how I was thinking as a lawyer to how I needed to think as a Jewish professional. I knew that I didn’t want to come into the field without thinking about what I cared about and what I wanted to bring
RBS: You have mentioned Jewish education, Jewish communal work, and youth work. How do you describe what you do?
AK: Most of what I do is about thinking about how to connect people to each other and Jewish life. Some of that has to do with learning. A lot of that has to do with community organizing in a funny kind of way. A lot has to do with caring for people. I try to think about it in an integrated way. I work with people as they enter into a journey and help them make connections: some connections are person-to-person, some connections are with cohorts, and some connections are community-wide.
RBS: What brought you to your current position at Temple Beth Elohim and how has it evolved?
AK: When I was at the Hornstein program (Brandeis University) I decided that I wanted to be a congregational educator. The vast majority of our kids are educated in congregations and I felt there was a lot of unrealized opportunity for excellence. My first job out of Hornstein was at CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, MA). I had my eye on the TBE job but they weren’t quite ready to move to a congregational learning model. They were working on how to have the conversation about why they needed a congregational learning model. When I joined TBE I was originally focused on transformation of all kids’ learning programs. I worked with adult learners as well, but change was focused on the kids’ learning arena. The job has continued to evolve as our learning programs have changed and evolved. In the learning arena, we have changed everything we do. The congregation is doing nothing now that it was doing 11 years ago. As we integrated kids learning, we looked to integrate adult learning as well. The move from congregational learning to Jewish living began when we started asking: How do we stop thinking about our values (learning, spiritual pursuit and worship, caring for each other and acts of loving kindness) as pillars and start thinking about them as pathways? To look at our Jewish lives more holistically. Segregating learning from worship and spiritual pursuit and caring for each other and tikkun olam didn’t make sense anymore, this is how the shift happened.
RBS: Both you and Temple Beth Elohim seem to not only embrace change, but proactively pursue it. How do you get to be an institution that embraces change?
AK: The congregation was already on the path to change when I arrived. There is an entrepreneurial spirit here which is no accident as we have lots of entrepreneurs in the congregation. Larry Hoffman (a Professor at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York) inspired us to think about what the possibilities were. Once there is change in the system it is possible to capitalize on that culturally. To sustain a sense of change we are dedicated to evaluation and assessment. When an evaluation is not good, it is not a personal thing, it is a factual thing. If you view this as an opportunity and not a failure you can be open to changing all the time. The congregation has been open to experimentation. We call new things “pilots” which sends the message that we are trying this out and we are open to your feedback. We work as teams in collaboration with staff and lay volunteers.
RBS: What’s your thinking onengagement vs. education?
AK: I don’t like the word “education”—it’s a noun. Education feels static—once you “get” it you are done. I like the word “learning”. We believe that learning is one possible way to achieve engagement but it is not the only way. Learning can happen in any setting with any backdrop of Jewish life. Hopefully, if we are engaging in a tikkun olam opportunity there is learning happening. Engagement can happen in a variety of ways in a variety of different connections along Jewish life. Learning is a component of that, sometimes formal and sometimes informal. We engage our teens through experience; learning is a part of it.
RBS: Talk about your commitment to creating safe space for youth.
AK: Kids need to feel safe. They need people to talk to outside of the pressures of their life and school communities. Synagogues are positioned to do that if they can. Our families come from 30 different communities. Because of that we work hard to build community. In some ways it is easier that they don’t come here with the kids they see all the time in school. This is a place where you can check your baggage at the door. Our staff is available all the time to speak with kids. When a kid makes a mistake, it’s a mistake and we draw them closer. We can help them connect to other kids. Help them find their passions so they can help lead the way in something they are passionate about. It’s about a lot of love. Each kid is created in the image of God and that’s how we treat them. We hope they will pay it forward in their life.
RBS: What challenges are you tackling with your youth programming?
AK: Our goal is integration of our youth program the way we have integrated in other parts of the congregation. How does our affinity groups/chavurot program connect to the youth group? So this year there will be no youth group board. Instead, a Havayah Leadership Team so youth group and youth group leaders won’t feel separate. We are redesigning what it means to be a leader in our community. We know our programming is best when kids are involved in the planning. We want the kids to have the broadest vision. This came from them. Last year the youth group board had 30 kids and they felt it was unwieldy. And, they felt it was too separate from Havayah. Everyone was ready for the change. There is a lot of excitement from the kids about what it means to chart a journey for themselves.
RBS: Share a new project that you are working on.
AK: We have grown quickly. It is a good thing, but we don’t want to feel like we are a “too big” congregation for the kids or for the adults. We want to maintain a sense of intimacy, to be a place where people feel known when they walk thru the door. We are dedicating the next 12-18 months to significant community building. We’ll have opportunities to put people in small groups where they can meet people they wouldn’t have otherwise met so everyone will have the opportunity to share their stories. We’ll have the opportunity to do some communal work together so we have a common purpose. We’ll see what comes out of it.