Questioning the Essence of the B’nai Mitzvah



by Kathy Schwartz

At a recent breakfast with the chair of the senior rabbi search committee, Congregation Har HaShem’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Core Team had the opportunity to speak about what kind of rabbi we were seeking. Our requirements: the rabbi should be willing to embrace change; be willing to partner with us in continuing our exploration of imagining what b’nai mitzvah can be; and must understand that at Har HaShem, professionals and lay leaders do things together. BMR is our joint project. Read more…

Asefa: A Training Ground for Future Management Consultants?



NFTY Convention (#NC15) means many things to many people. One of the key elements of every convention is Asefa, NFTY’s North American board meeting. Close to 200 teens participated in Asefa while their peers were engaged in off-site programming. Before I explain about Asefa, I want to share what the NFTY board members had to give up to participate.

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Extending NFTY’s Tabernacle: A D’var Torah for Parashah T’rumah



by Logan Kramer

Over the past three years, NFTY has taken me to plenty of random places. I’ve held events with my temple youth group in public parks, enjoyed extensive layovers in airports across the country, gone to socials at amusement parks, and visited more congregations than I can count. As I’ve traveled to all of these places, one thing seems to stay the same. I consistently attract confused looks from strangers and passersby, whether I’m chanting the blessing over a Havdalah candle or dancing with friends to NFTY-TOR’s signature “Every Time We Touch” dance.

Surprisingly enough, the moments that attract weird stares are some of my favorite things about NFTY. It’s not that I like the stares themselves, but I appreciate that NFTYites have the amazing capability of turning any space into a holy one, moving our kehilah kedoshah, our holy community, from sanctuaries to parks to airports no matter what stares we might receive along the way. What each person brings to this community is far more important than where we are located on a map. Read more…

Rabbi Jacobs Reports from NFTY Convention



I dare any of those who are uneasy about the North American Jewish future to maintain their pessimism after spending, as I have just done, 72 hours with the teen leaders of our Movement at the 2015 NFTY Convention and Youth Summit in Atlanta. I attend a lot of conferences, and I have never walked away from one feeling as inspired and energized as I am today. After spending time with 1,000 teens, upwards of 200 adults and an incredible group of more than 200 volunteers and URJ staff who live and share the values and dreams that we as Reform Jews seek to represent in the world, I am inspired by the power of our community and ready for a spirit-filled future.

I had the honor of sharing the bimah with NFTY’s extraordinary president, Debbie Rabinovich from Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, as she and I presented a joint D’var Torah on Shabbat morning. Drawing insightfully on this week’s Torah portion, Debbie observed that this convention marks a fundamental turning point for NFTY, as it embraces a more mission-driven future. “Never be afraid to go big! The more focused each of us is – the more change we can make.” she said powerfully to a sea of NFTY teens.  Read more…

Shaareinu: The “Collateral Good” Cannot be Overstated



By Eva Rubin Steen

The leaders of Temple Beth Torah, a community that always has held inclusion and acceptance as core tenets, realized a few years ago that we were not doing a good job of welcoming those who face physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges. We recognized, too, that by excluding even one family member from participating in Jewish life, we were effectively excluding the entire family. Including all who wish to join in the life of the synagogue enriches each of us, so our lack of welcome was painful for too many families, which in turn hurt our congregation and the broader Jewish community. Read more…

Don’t Forget: February is “Strengthening Congregations Webinar Month”!



As you may know, February is “Strengthening Congregations Webinar Month” here at the URJ. At the halfway point, more than 300 congregational leaders have joined live webinars to learn more about what makes a congregation strong and how the URJ is evolving to help you become or continue to be a strong congregation. The feedback and engagement on the webinars has been productive and valuable.

There are still eight live webinars that will take place over the next few weeks, and I hope you will join one. Join a webinar to learn more about how you can:

  • Connect with geographically-based URJ Communities to help your congregation’s lay leaders network and learn together
  • Join The Tent to get answers to your questions and to join discussions with peers across North America
  • Learn about the forthcoming “Leadership Institute,” which will expand leadership development opportunities for your congregation
  • Contact the Knowledge Network for answers and resources related to all aspects of congregational life (1.855.URJ.1800 or urj1800@urj.org)
  • Learn about the corps of volunteers available to run board workshops at your congregation or congregational retreat
  • Tap into the corps of experts (in conjunction with other Reform institutions and individuals) that is available for specialized advice
  • Help your congregation’s new president get off on the right foot with the specialized training available at the Scheidt Seminar (registration now open)

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How to Be a “Sponge” at the Youth Summit



by Adam Organ

In a just a few hours, I’ll be joining more than a thousand Jewish teens and youth professionals from across North America in Atlanta for five days of learning, exploration, celebration and reunion at the NFTY 2015 Convention and Youth Summit.  As a community of teens, professionals and lay leaders invested in youth, we’ll be exploring the theme, “My Self, My Community, My World.”   We’ll share Shabbat, learning sessions, music, and Havdalah.  We’ll reunite with friends from other regions and camps; we’ll meet new people and make new Jewish connections.

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Be Our Guest at NFTY Convention: The Power of Audacious Southern Hospitality



by Micol Zimmerman Burkeman

Over the last year, the Reform Movement has introduced audacious hospitality: an ongoing invitation to be part of our community. Audacious hospitality means extending a warm welcome to all individuals who seek a home within our movement—no exceptions. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of experiencing audacious southern hospitality. En route to NFTY Convention, from the moment my plane touched down at Atlanta International Airport, I was greeted by a countless smiles, offers of help, and even unsolicited assistance carrying my luggage. These all came from strangers, and yet I felt immediately welcomed into their city, and experienced firsthand the power of an audacious greeting.

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A Rabbi’s Excitement for NFTY Convention



By Josh Leighton

I’m currently in the midst of laundering, organizing, and preparing to fly off to Atlanta for NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit. Along with my clothes and NFTY “swag”, I am also packing and bringing with me my excitement for what is sure to be an amazing, insightful, and fruitful four days. In much the same way as when I was a teen, every two years as a professional I get excited about attending NFTY Convention and immersing myself in the special and unique environment that is created when 1,000 teens and 200 adults come to together to share experiences and celebrate Judaism. Of all of the collaboration, learning, and moments that I am looking forward to over this extended weekend, three stand out above the rest: reconnecting with old friends and networking with new people, being part of the NFTY-BBYO shared moments, and returning home refreshed and re-focused.

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4 Reasons to Get Excited for the Youth Summit at NFTY Convention



This weekend, nearly 200 adult professionals and stakeholders invested in our youth will meet in Atlanta at the Youth Summit for three days full of professional development, collaboration and learning. The theme of the Youth Summit, “My Self, My Community, My World,” will explore cutting-edge thinking and team building in the field of Jewish youth engagement.

The Youth Summit focuses on teaching skills and providing tools that will further our work with Jewish youth, and positively strengthening the ways our congregations and organizations function holistically. With all of the excitement surrounding what will be the biggest Youth Summit ever, it’s hard to choose only a few things to highlight. Here are four exciting things to look forward to in Atlanta!

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Mining Diamonds in the Land of Milk and Honey



By Anat Hoffman

Israel is not rich in natural resources: no oil ($50/barrel) or diamonds ($10,000/karat); only milk ($3.80/gallon) and honey ($10/16-ounces).

This means that human resources are our biggest asset. Israeli men and women are who stand between Israel and its enemies, and who can transform dessert into fertile land. Every Israeli is essential in the effort to meet our country’s many challenges. How then can Israel allow itself to silence, segregate, ignore, and discriminate against more than half (51%) of its human resources – Israeli women? Read more…

At URJ Camp Harlam, Creating a Community that Supports Everyone



by Cori Miller

I recently heard about a beautiful woman who was known for, well, being beautiful. She was accustomed to being stared at and was repeatedly told, by strangers and loved ones alike, just how beautiful she was. While flattering, this constant focus on her appearance left her feeling judged solely on her looks, with no one seeing past her beauty to learn about her intelligence, her experiences, or her other contributions to society.

As the woman grew older, she continued to receive acknowledgments of her beauty, but they were less frequent and less intrusive – until she developed ALS and was confined to a wheelchair. As in her youth, people stared at her – and as in her youth, it didn’t feel good. No one saw past her disability to learn about her intelligence, her experiences, or her true contributions to society.

With some disabilities, visibility can, at times, be valuable as a means to increase awareness and prompt important discussions about disabilities and inclusion. However, we have to be able to see past the disability to learn about the person behind it. We must learn to see disabilities as just one part of an individual’s identity without letting the disability define who she is or what she can do. Read more…

How PJ Library® Helped Our Congregation Engage Families with Young Children



by Marilyn E. Gootman

Congregation Children of Israel is a 150-family congregation in Athens, GA. As a small congregation, we were looking for creative ways to welcome and engage families with young children, one of our target membership demographics. The answer came in the form of PJ Library®, which enables us to offer book subscriptions to local families raising Jewish children ages six months to 8 years.

Our congregation joined the program in 2007, and it has been a huge success. The fact that we could now offer something to families with young children at no charge and with no strings attached proved to be an offer too good to refuse. Within a year and a half, our young family memberships grew by 66%, and ever since, young families have consistently represented a sizable percentage of our new members. At the same time, community members have grown to appreciate our success in engaging young families, and “PJ parents” have gone on to become congregational leaders, improving the overall congregational attitude toward young families.

Of course, joining the initiative didn’t come without challenges. The first was obtaining financial support to fund our congregation’s participation. As the synagogue’s PJ Library® coordinator, I approached congregants, non-members, the sisterhood, and the rabbi for donations; the Harold Grinspoon Foundation matched the funds we received. Although fundraising is still an ongoing challenge, it has gotten easier since our congregation received a PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant – but more on that later. Read more…

Striving for a Self-Determined Quality of Jewish Life for Jews with Disabilities



by Shelly Christensen

“There comes a moment when you realize that what you’re advocating for is more than just accommodations. You’re really advocating for someone’s quality of life. That’s the moment you realize you won’t give up.” (Dyslexia Training Institute)

Sometimes Facebook produces surprises, like this quote I recently found while scrolling mindlessly through my news feed. These words, from the Dyslexia Training Institute, gave expression to the significance of the seventh annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) in February.

In 2009, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium held the first Jewish Disability Awareness Month in a handful of communities in the United States. Our intent was to elevate awareness that Jewish institutions were not providing meaningful Jewish experiences to Jews with disabilities. We saw JDAM as a way to come together to deliver a common message to our own community that there are indeed Jews who have disabilities, and many of them are invisible in Jewish life because of those disabilities.

Today, JDAM is recognized in Jewish communities across North America, as well as in Britain and Israel. The JDAM logo, a Magen David of intertwined blue and gold ribbons, illustrates how the inclusion of people who have disabilities must be woven into all aspects of Jewish life. Read more…