Introducing the URJ’s 2020 Vision: A Clear View of Our Future

When Rabbi Rick Jacobs assumed the presidency of the Union for Reform Judaism two years ago, the URJ committed to develop more coherent and aligned services that not only would significantly strengthen Reform congregations and the pressing issues they face, but also would advance the mission and ideals of Reform Judaism.

To understand the needs of congregations of all sizes and from all over the continent, Rabbi Jacobs and I, as well as other members of the URJ’s senior lay and professional leadership visited with congregations, communities, and key leaders throughout North America, engaging in a comprehensive listening tour. Nearly 80% of the Movement’s congregations weighed in — telling the team about life in your communities, about your creative approaches to challenges, and about your concerns for Jewish life in the future. Using all your input as data, we have formulated the URJ’s 2020 Vision: A Clear View of Our Future, a framework that we believe will help us share your successes, learn from one another, and provide new ideas to solve congregational and Movement-wide challenges. Read more…

Twenty Becomes One: Seeing Our Congregations as Family, Especially During Hardship

In the fall of 2008, I was the executive director of a 1,000-household synagogue. We had recently finished a major sanctuary renovation, and our membership numbers were on an encouraging upward trend. Our finances were sound, and we had big plans for the year ahead. The new president of our board was writing her first Yom Kippur appeal as I was busily taking care of the last details of our High Holiday preparation.

Then, two weeks before Rosh HaShanah, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, after which the bank loan market crashed. Banks large and small suffered huge losses, and during the first week of October, the stock market experienced a sharp downward spiral. That week was was Kol Nidre, and our president ascended the bimah (pulpit) to deliver an appeal for donations on the very day on which many in our congregation had lost a significant amount of money – money they were counting on for homes, for retirement, for food.

The president delivered a masterful appeal that evening, and even on that worst of economic days, we collected Yom Kippur appeal monies in excess of what we had collected the previous year. The next day, on Yom Kippur, the stock market fell 700 points, sending the entire country into a recession that, some would argue, continues to this day. Read more…

Reform Movement Expresses Concern Over Separate Bus Lines for Israeli Jewish Settlers and Palestinian Workers

Regarding recent news of separate bus lines for Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian workers in the West Bank, Rabbi Rick Jacobs,l president of the Union for Reform Judaism, today made the following statement:

We are deeply concerned regarding the recent decree by Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, stating that there will be separate bus lines for Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian workers traveling from central Israel to their homes in the West Bank.

Despite the Defense Minister’s assertion, there appears to be no security reason for this new policy, based on statements by top IDF security officials. According to reports from the IDF Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, Palestinian workers entering Israel are not a security threat since they receive pre-approval from the Shin Bet and the Israel Police in order to receive their work permits. Authorized workers, with permits, have not been implicated in terrorist attacks inside Israel according to the Central Command.

The Attorney General of Israel has now asked that the Defense Minister explain and justify his actions. We hope that the Prime Minister supports the Attorney General’s efforts.

Israel’s democracy is one of her greatest strengths, and we fear that Minister Ya’alon’s proposal threatens that democracy.

A New Sound for a New Generation: NFTY’s Music in the 2000s

by Caryn Roman

There was a time when the term “Jewish Rock” might have been considered an oxymoron.

In my own NFTY and camp days in the mid-to-late 90s, most of the music in services and song sessions reflected the Movement’s folk roots and didn’t sound much like what we listened to on the radio or our Sony Discmen. Sure, we all loved Debbie Friedman’s prayer settings and Bob Dylan’s protest songs, but we didn’t have any Jewish music comparable to Green Day or even Dave Matthews. Unlike the generations before us, rabbis and cantors playing guitar and singing ‘camp’ songs on the bimah were common occurrences. But just like our predecessors, we sought a new sound around which to build a Jewish youth community. Read more…

Shaping Israel’s Soul is Up to Us

by Rabbi Bennett Miller

Earlier this month, Jews the world over poured into synagogues to “afflict our souls” on the holy day of Yom Kippur – to search within ourselves to atone, forgive, and ultimately emerge renewed.

K’lal Yisrael (the community of Israel) is afflicting its own soul right now, too. Both real and existential struggles are being fought on many fronts, and the outcomes will determine much about the future of Israel and the Jewish people. Will gender equality be the norm – where men and women can pray and live as equals? Will our society respect and treat fairly all denominations, regardless of our level of observance? Will we see lasting peace – security and stability for Israel? Read more…

Saying YES to Youth

by Rosanne Selfon

Over 100 years ago, 156 American women representing 5,000 women in 51 sisterhoods gathered to found the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), renamed Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) in 1993. These women united to fortify their Jewish identities, perform mitzvot, and collectively support the Reform movement. One of their first endeavors was to establish a scholarship fund to benefit Hebrew Union College (HUC) students. Not only did the women successfully raise scholarship money, they built the Sisterhood dorm on HUC-Cincinnati’s campus. Their largesse expanded during the Great Depression when they financially rescued the college. To this day, WRJ is HUC’s largest cumulative scholarship donor.

In 1955, NFTS determined that broader support for youth was essential. The women established the YES Fund to underwrite youth activities, educational projects, and special initiatives. The acronym YES became the fund’s familiar name (Y for youth, E for education, S for special projects). Women’s generosity to the YES Fund continues today.

During the last decade of the 20th century, WRJ produced a video to showcase its accomplishments, in which Rabbi Alan Smith, former director of the UAHC (now URJ) Youth Department, comments,

Ask any of the kids what the YES Fund is, and they can immediately tell you—YES means Youth, Education, and Special Projects. The YES Fund makes things happen. Every kid in NFTY knows what the YES Fund is.

Was Rabbi Smith correct? Well, perhaps he exaggerated just a bit.

Why would teenagers know anything about the YES Fund, sisterhood, NFTS or WRJ? NFTYites know their history. They proudly note that NFTY was created due to persistent women. For many years, Jean Wise May, daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, badgered Union leaders, lay and professional, to maintain youth on the Union’s agenda. Her distinguished pedigree often gained her entry into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated Union leadership. May, a member of the first women’s college basketball team, was a proven powerhouse who advocated for women’s suffrage and even women’s ordination. Taking on the Union’s leadership to create a national Reform youth movement became her passion—she simply wore them down!

In 1926, Jean Wise May convinced NFTS leaders to establish a committee to foster an organization of temple-based youth groups; it became a permanent committee a year later and funding followed. The women also understood the necessity of creating leadership-training opportunities. In each instance, funding always followed ideas.

In 1930, NFTS earmarked $5,000 to support the salary of a full-time youth division at the Union. In 1937, the NFTS Board of Directors endorsed the creation of a national youth movement. Never underestimate the power of a single person, let alone thousands of Jewish mothers.

How does the YES Fund enable today’s youth? Most recently, WRJ pledged $75,000 to fund NFTY6 Fellows, an innovative program designed to target sixth graders. After Hurricane Sandy, WRJ provided $10,000 to underwrite attendance at NFTY events for teens affected by the hurricane. Last summer, WRJ granted $5,000 for girls’ scholarships to attend the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in its inaugural year. Youth programs and projects like these are underwritten by the YES Fund donations every year.

How does this affect individual teens and their families? Consider Stacey Kapushy and her daughters Maddie, a senior, and Sammie, a freshman who live in Lancaster, PA, which has a small Jewish population, a strong Reform congregation, a rabbi who passionately advocates for youth, and an engaged sisterhood. Maddie, president of her local temple youth group, has attended Camp Harlam, multiple NFTY events, and EIE High School in Israel. Sammie, new to NFTY this year, has attended Camp Harlam, Six Points Sports Academy, and Six Points Sci-Tech Academy. Both girls have received significant financial support enabling their participation.

“The WRJ Sci-Tech Scholarship allowed me to focus on science, to be with girls who had that same focus, and to find a connection point in our Jewishness,” said Sammie. “This is the place I want to return to, my escape.”

Maddie notes, “Sisterhood provided accessibility to all of my experiences. I wouldn’t have been able to participate without its financial support. Stipends have made a huge difference for my family.”

And what does Mom Stacey, a full-time working, single mom who is currently sisterhood president, say?

Because of the Yes Fund and the generosity of our sisterhood, I am rearing two daughters whose Jewish identity has been intentionally developed. They will grow up to be contributing members of society, strong, confident and morally grounded. They have experienced a tutorial in giving back. I know they will pay it forward when they can. Thank you WRJ and sisterhood for the critical life lessons you have taught my daughters.

Indeed, the YES Fund impacts NFTYites individually as well as collectively. The YES Fund reflects our priorities: women understand that the future of the Jewish people resides in creating a passion for Judaism in young people. In the next hundred years, WRJ pledges to continue what its founding matriarchs initiated, a partnership with our youth to build a dynamic Jewish future.

Rosanne Selfon served as WRJ President from 2005-2009. Most recently, she was WRJ Centennial Chair and is a lifetime member of the WRJ Board of Directors. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees since 1994 and today is Chair of the Camp Harlam Council and Vice-Chair of the NAC, North American Camping and Israel Programs.

Correction: In the September 9th edition of 10 Minutes of Torah, “Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self”, there was an oversight in noting Mitzvah Corps Portland’s partnership with Tivnu: Building Justice. Tivnu offers a gap year program in Portland for young adults interested in a Jewish, hands-on approach to social justice.

“And you shall order schnitzel…”

By Bradley Egel

People frequently talk about generational leadership. The Hebrew phrase, l’dor vador, literally means “from generation to generation,” and is most often applied to the handing down of leadership from one generation to the next. If a person is lucky enough to be present at a bar or bat mitzvah, they likely will see the symbolic “handing of the Torah” from one generation to the next. It is an ideal. It is a wonderful hope: that the next generation of Jewish leaders will take the skills and talents their mentors have passed onto them, and in turn, nourish and enrich themselves enough to continue this leadership chain as they go through life’s journey. Read more…

The Tent: Helping Jewish Leaders Look Through New Prisms

Leading a congregation can be a daunting task. Whether you lead your congregation as clergy, professional staff, or lay leadership, we all do our sacred work through different prisms.

We work through the prism of spirituality. The Torah and other teachings of our ancestors guide our communities with holiness and wisdom.

We work through the prism of the history of our congregations. Every congregation has experienced its own victories and challenges, and those experiences often inform how the congregation is led today.

We work through the prism of expertise and best practices. We bring information from our “day jobs,” and we learn from others who do the same work we do. What fresh ideas do they have? What do they do that has worked or failed? Read more…

A Pilgrimage for Our Day

by Rabbi Josh Weinberg

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Eternal [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.

Leviticus 23:39

Walk around Zion, circle it; count its towers, take note of its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.

Psalm 48:13-14

Read more…

Awesome Power In Numbers

By Jonathan Cohen and Beth Rodin

The first “modern” NFTY Convention was held in 1983. I was there. A sophomore from Tupelo, Mississippi, getting to attend Convention was an unbelievable thrill. I still carry vivid memories from that Convention, not the least of which being our group – the biggest number of Jewish teens, make that Jews – I had ever seen in one place at one time, singing together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Wow. Read more…

Engaging Effective Madrichim Training

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Many congregations engage teens as madrichim (“guides”) in Religious School classrooms to serve as role models of continued Jewish involvement, to assist with administrative tasks, and often to lead activities and discussions with students.  Whether your madrichim program involves 10 teens or 100, one of the most important aspects of building and maintaining a strong program is the quality of training provided to the teens.

When developing a madrichim training program, the best place to start is by thinking about what you value in your own professional development. We justify it by saying things like: “Isn’t the important thing that the teens are in the building, engaged in Jewish living and learning?  Don’t ‘required trainings’ provide an unnecessary barrier to participation?”  Well, yes and no.  For most teens, their work in the Religious School is the first job they’ll ever have, especially since many madrichim programs include students as young as 8th grade.  In addition to prepping for assigned tasks, most teens need help developing basic skills in communication, working under supervision, goal setting, and time management.  These are the foundation to their success. Read more…

MASA: A Journey to Family Engagement

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

On a Friday night this past spring, 26 families shared Shabbat in 7 homes across New York City. They said the blessings, ate their festive meals, and were joined by synagogue staff, who led the groups in activities and songs. This was the fourth such dinner last year.  Remarkably, these families were satisfying their Religious School requirement.

A growing number of families at Temple Shaaray Tefila are taking part in MASA (“Journeys” in Hebrew), our Temple’s multi-generational education program, now in its seventh year. It offers year-long family “journeys” centered on Jewish topics, as an alternative to our religious school. As part of the program, parents study both with their children and separately with our education staff and clergy, as well as participate in Shabbat and holiday celebrations together with the goal of enhancing their own knowledge and their ability to teach and model Jewish practice for their children. Read more…

Reform Leaders Protest Klinghoffer Opera

In response to recent controversy over the Metropolitan Opera’s production The Death of Klinghoffer, Reform Movement leaders sent the following letter to Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb:

Dear Mr. Gelb,

We join with other Jewish leaders in expressing our disappointment and dismay about the staging by the Metropolitan Opera of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” While we acknowledge steps you have taken to curtail the presentation of the opera to a simulcast audience and to allow the Klinghoffer family to convey their view of the opera to your audiences, we regret your decision to present the opera at the Met. Read more…

First (Probably) Annual Rosh HaShanah Sermon Round-Up

What did Reform rabbis talk to their congregations about this Rosh HaShanah? Based on my totally non-scientific survey, Israel was far and away the most popular topic. (Read on for links to sermons by rabbis Block, Bob, Davidson, Gropper, Gurvis, A. Hirsch, Kipnes, Kaufman, Ottenstein, and Prosnit.) That is true many years, and given the Gaza conflict this summer it is not surprising that it was true again this year. Many of sermons focused on what American Jews can do so support Israel. Others included a discussion of anti-Semitism as part of their analysis. Many were aimed at helping congregants better understand the situation.

Although the popularity of Israel as a topic was not a surprise, the number of rabbis who choose to speak about depression, mental illness, and suicide was. (See rabbis Bretton-Granatoor, Joseph, and Kuhn.) A few referenced the suicide this summer of actor Robin Williams; others choose to tell their own personal stories. I found these to be among the most powerful of the sermons I read. Read more…