Op-ed: “Conventional Wisdom Has Shifted” Regarding Congregational Life

Amy Asin, vice president of strengthening congregations for the URJ, has an op-ed in eJewish Philanthropy aptly titled “Strengthening Congregations,” highlighting the many ways the URJ is helping its 900 congregations across North America grow and flourish. Asin writes,

A lot of attention is paid these days to innovative start-ups in the Jewish world. And much of this attention is well-deserved. The energy and creativity being unleashed are both extraordinary and critical to the present and future of Jewish life in North America, and, likely, worldwide. But too often, it is similarly assumed that because established institutions are, well, established, they are not innovating internally. Frankly, that’s not the case.

At the URJ, we spend our days engaging with congregational leaders representing the 900 congregations of the URJ, and I can tell you that there is significant innovation happening in synagogues across North America. The conventional wisdom has shifted. No longer are congregations waiting for the conveyor belt to deliver them new members. They realize that existing solely to sustain their institutions is not a long-term prospect for growth or even for survival.

Instead, they now see that they must innovate, by transforming the way that they create sacred community and meaningful Jewish experiences to have impact on the participants and the world around them. More and more URJ congregations are experimenting, some of them on their own and some in partnership with other congregations. And it’s happening in all sizes of congregations with different demographic profiles, all over North America.

Read the full piece at eJewish Philanthropy.

Reform Movement Wins World Zionist Congress Election By Significant Margin

The Reform Jewish Movement was the clear winner in the critical World Zionist Congress election, according to results released today.

The ARZA slate, representing the Reform Movement, secured 56 seats out of a possible 145, winning nearly 40 percent of the votes cast in the United States – more than the amount of the next two slates combined.

The World Zionist Congress, the democratic body of the Jewish people worldwide, will meet this fall for the first time since 2010. It determines how agencies within Israel allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for religious services and civil society projects.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of Union for Reform Judaism, said of the election results,

“This overwhelming victory testifies to the power of the Reform Movement to mobilize as active partners in Israel’s present and future. As the largest and fastest-growing constituency of Jews in North America, Reform Jews recognize and value the importance of our voice in world Jewish affairs. We are mindful that our success in these elections comes at a critical moment for Israel, and we will use our influence to affect change through the vital work of the World Zionist Congress.”

Read more…

URJ Staffer Receives Prestigious Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education

We at the URJ are proud to announce that Michelle Shapiro Abraham, our director of program development for the Campaign for Youth Engagement, is the recipient of a 2015 Covenant Award for her work creating change and driving impact in Jewish education. Abraham joins 74 other Jewish educators honored by the Covenant Foundation since the award was established in 1991. Mazal tov, Michelle!

In her role for the Campaign for Youth Engagement, and before that as a consulting partner, Abraham creates unique programs and experiences that transform the lives of thousands of Reform Jewish youth, teen leaders, camp staff, and congregational educators. Working in partnership with youth and camp leadership, her achievements at the URJ include:

  • Directing Service Corps Fellows, placing college-age camp staff in congregations year-round to lead innovative camp-inspired programs, an effort which has contributed to 700 new camp enrollments.
  • Supporting and developing Olim Fellows, a two-year staff fellowship focusing on leadership skills for five URJ camps that takes place year-round and includes two retreats annually.
  • Overseeing the launch of NFTY678, an expansion of NFTY programming to involve younger participants (6th-8th graders), resulting in a 15% increase in NFTY registration last year.
  • Designing Jewish values-based curricula customized for URJ specialty camps, including 6 Points Sports Academy and 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, which now boasts a 70% return rate.

Read more…

June 17: Join Us for a Live Online Q&A About High Holiday Hospitality

Early last month, the URJ hosted its very first “YamJam in The Tent,” a live, moderated Q&A session in the URJ’s online collaborative social media platform, The Tent. URJ moderators posed questions, and everyone in virtual attendance has the opportunity to respond to share information and expertise.

Our first YamJam focused on the different ways congregations welcome new members, and I had the incredible honor of hosting it with friends and colleagues from Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ) and the National Association of Temple Administration (NATA). We were all a little nervous before the event began; we had never done this before, and we didn’t know if anyone would even show up! Participation in these live Q&As doesn’t require a reservation, so we were just going on faith that people would show up and share their experiences.

And they did! Read more…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Leadership Development: Experience the Continuum and Commitment at Biennial 2015

In my experience, synagogue leaders are among the most committed and devoted lifelong learners. With that in mind, I’m especially pleased that a large segment of the Biennial 2015 programming will offer congregational leaders the real-world skills and cutting-edge tools necessary to effect tangible and lasting change in their communities. In fact, the first two-and-a-half days of the event will focus specifically on providing how-tos and hands-on learning for leaders and up-and-coming leaders.

One such initiative is our Communities of Practice (CoPs), which comprise members of various congregations brought together for 18-24 months in cohorts for guided learning around congregational change and a particular shared topic of interest (finance, early engagement, etc.). Supported by URJ staff, field experts, and other members in the cohort, participating congregations will launch their own pilots, advancing their endeavors around the group’s topic of interest, and broadening the knowledge base of the Reform Movement.

New CoPs addressing an array of topics will form over the summer. Applications will be accepted through June 15, and these CoP cohorts will come together for the first time in Orlando:

  • Building a Brand: Excellence in Reform Movement Early Childhood Engagement
  • Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children (for congregations without Early Childhood Centers)
  • Engaging Congregants: Small Groups with Meaning
  • Finding the Sacred in the Mundane: Reimagining Financial Support
  • Pursuing Justice: Becoming a Community of Action (with the Religious Action Center)
  • B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: Innovators Lab

Indeed, the Biennial is an essential component in the URJ’s continuum of and commitment to leadership development – and an outstanding opportunity for leaders to arm themselves with targeted resources and an understanding of how to use them to strengthen and enrich congregations and to reshape and refine North America’s Jewish landscape.

Register now.  I look forward to seeing you – and the rest of our Reform Jewish family – in Orlando for inspired learning, worship, celebration, and more!


Summer 2015: The Season’s Looking Bright

With just a week until the launch of the URJ’s 2015 camp season, there’s innovative programming on tap, all of which promises to make this summer the best ever! Throughout the season, we’ll engage 13,000+ campers and young adults from more than 660 congregations (along with 600 congregational clergy, educators, and youth professionals who will serve as faculty) in a wide assortment of initiatives – old favorites and creative newcomers – making this our eighth consecutive year of growth.

A few highlights… Read more…

18+ Ways to Make LGBT Members Feel Welcome in Your Congregation

June is here, and in honor of LGBT Pride Month, we’re sharing suggestions for welcoming LGBTQ members into your congregation and community. Do you have ideas to add to this list? Leave them in the comments below!

  1. Celebrate Gay Pride Month (June) with a special Shabbat service. Invite LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer) members to participate and include readings that speak to the experience of being both Jewish and LGBTQ. Consider having a guest speaker deliver a sermon or have a panel of congregants at the oneg to discuss how LGBTQ issues affect their congregational and personal lives.
  1. Phrase your congregational publicity in a way that is inviting to all people. In your congregational advertising, make sure that the LGBTQ population is specifically welcomed at all congregational events.
  1. Review your temple website to make sure that it is welcoming to LGBTQ Jews. Rather than using terms such as “alternative lifestyles” or “non-traditional families,” use language such as, “We proudly welcome members of the LGBTQ community,” or “We welcome LGBTQ Jews and their families.”

Read more…

Summertime Forever: 11 Ways Your Congregation Can Support Its Campers

As the academic year comes to a close, we’ve rounded up resources for your congregation to stay connected with your campers throughout the summer. The tips and resources here will assist your congregation in leveraging the learning, joy and relationships developed at camp during the summer. We hope you find a few of these recommendations helpful in deepening their love of Jewish living and learning when they return home.

Before the summer…

  1. Recognize those who are headed off to camp: Invite kids to the bimah for a send-off blessing. Display photos and bios of campers who are going to camp on a bulletin board and include their names in bulletins and emails.
  1. Organize a send-off party: Help campers meet new friends from their home congregations and get excited about heading to camp.
  1. Help families get ready: Share the link to resources on ReformJudaism.org, especially with first-time camp families. Identify a family in your community who can be a resource for first-timers.

Read more…

The 3 Keys to Connecting to a Congregational Community

by Andy Wayne

As the cake arrived, glowing with candles, the group of nearly 40 women began to sing “Happy Birthday” to the lone man at the table. Their smiles lit up the room as their voices came together in celebration. True, they had only met the man two days before, but their happiness and well wishes were genuine.

That was back in 2010, when I attended my first conference with the Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ), which was then known as Program Directors of Reform Judaism. Although I was not new to my congregation, I was new to the role of program director, and I was excited to learn from and with colleagues from Reform congregations around the country and Canada. I had not previously worked with other program directors, and I was interested to see what successes and challenges they had found. And so, I headed to Dallas, TX –not far from my roots in Houston – for the conference. Read more…

Strategies for Success: Reviewing Membership Materials

by Janet Buckstein

Most membership-based organizations, including congregations and temple sisterhoods, use a variety of methods to communicate with current and prospective members. These may include printed and online material, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and even phone calls, presentations, and personal meetings. However, the standard material typically includes brochures/pamphlets, letters, membership forms and applications, fact sheets, program and event flyers, and postcards, posters, and volunteer opportunities. Even if you already have developed this material, is it as effective as it could be? Consider the following in reviewing and creating material.  Read more…

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 and foreign policy. Candidates will also respond to questions from URJ leadership and Biennial delegates.

The URJ Biennial 2015 will bring together 5,000 Reform Jews to strengthen congregational life, celebrate with friends, and explore the most pressing issues of the day. The URJ Biennial will be held at the Orlando World Center Marriott from November 4 – 8. The presidential candidates’ forum with Chuck Todd will take place November 7 at 8:30 pm at the same location. It is open to working, credentialed press and coverage is invited. Read more…

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 Festival of Weeks also seamlessly embodies two of the strategic priorities of the URJ’s 2020 Vision: audacious hospitality and tikkun olam (social justice). Read more…

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.”

Read more…

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…