Five Great Congregational Programs All About Building Strong Relationships

Congregations increasingly recognize and understand that it is personal relationships that keep members committed and engaged with the community. These relationships – with clergy, staff, and each other – promote a sense of belonging, value, and meaning, and ultimately, an investment in the overall strength and success of the community.

A number of Reform congregations recently received Belin Outreach and Membership Awards or honorable mentions from the URJ for their work to promote authentic, meaningful relationships among members. They are experimenting with various models (and, yes, programs!) that empower congregants to nurture relationships on their own and to connect with others in the larger congregational community.

These peer-to-peer program models encourage congregants to facilitate small-scale programs – sometimes even in their own homes.

  • Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, N.J., created Hanukkah in the ‘Hood, at which members hosted other members, unaffiliated friends, and community members in their homes for festival candle lighting. In addition to positioning lay leaders as ritual and religious leaders in their own homes, the initiative promoted a sense of community beyond the synagogue walls.
  • Shalom @ Home, a program of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA, invited every adult congregant to, during the course of a year, attend a small social gathering hosted by another member. Guest lists for each event were carefully compiled so that each congregant knew at least one other person attending and had an opportunity to meet others. The synagogue’s senior staff members facilitated meaningful discussions designed to help guests reflect on their relationship to the community, as well as expand and deepen their connections to others.

Staff-initiated program models developed in several congregations were particularly innovative in their content:

  • Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, launched Bumps, Babies, and Beyond to provide a context in which Jewish families with young children could forge key relationships within a synagogue environment. Offering classes for every developmental stage, beginning with parenting classes for first-time expecting couples and continuing for three years, the congregation offers free classes for a year to families that join the synagogue.
  • Rabbi’s Coffee Klatch was born when Jews-by-choice at Congregation Oheb Sholom, in Reading, PA, expressed how much they missed the private learning sessions with the rabbi that had been part of their conversion process. Meeting as a group allowed members to form relationships with each other, strengthen their ties to the congregation, and feel supported by the rabbi in the years after their formal conversion.
  • Drawing on the time-honored Texas tradition of football to bring people together, Adat Chaverim in Plano, TX, hosts Super Shabbat, a football-themed Shabbat. In addition to worship, the annual event includes team jerseys, a “tailgate” dinner, and a special oneg, complete with trivia and an amateur photo booth. Super Shabbat is now an important part of the community’s minhag (tradition), bringing together most of the Adat Chaverim families and inspiring a few new ones to join each year.

Creating opportunities for members and potential members to gather, meet, and engage with one another in meaningful ways is essential for synagogue success. Thoughtful and innovative initiatives that foster these relationships and connections are sure to enrich the congregations – and the individuals involved in the activities.

The URJ’s Belin Outreach and Membership Awards – funded through the generosity of David Belin, z”l – are presented to up to 16 congregations for initiatives that demonstrate the concept of audacious hospitality by actively welcoming and integrating those new to Judaism, creating relationship-based engagement models, or engaging and retaining members with innovative practices. This post is one in a series highlighting Belin Award-winning programs and the principles that guided their development. 

To learn more about audacious hospitality strategies and tools, attend the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial 2015, from November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. With 5,000 attendees from around the world, the Biennial is the largest Jewish gathering in North America. Learn more and register at

What Makes Jewish Science Camp So Special?

by Stephen Weitzman

At the beginning of many episodes of his epic Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling would often intone,

“You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

That description could be printed in a brochure or painted on a wall to describe URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, where imagination, mind, and Judaism were all present this summer as 5th – 10th grade campers energetically and joyfully learned Jewish values while participating in robotics, video game design, web and graphic design, earth and sky, forensics, digital film, and rocketry.

In the course of each day at Governor’s Academy in Byfield, MA, campers were constantly reminded of the goals of camp: sakranut, curiosity; kesher, connection; taglit, discovery; savlanut, patience; and kavod, respect. These values were present in everything they did, including the morning’s “Boker Big Bang” opening, at each meal, in the workshops, in the chugim (workshops), during sports time, and during menucha (rest time). Read more…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Two-Fold High Holiday Prep: Our Congregations and Ourselves

As congregational leaders, you may find that the month of Elul and the High Holidays fly by in a whirl of logistical details – arranging for tickets, ensuring enough chairs, assigning aliyot, planning the community’s break-the-fast – necessary to ensure meaningful worship for members and visitors alike. That is indeed holy work.

In your role, it is all too easy to get caught up in the “to-do mode.” Often, we fail to devote adequate time and attention to cheshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of the soul) – the act of taking stock of the spiritual health of both ourselves as individuals and our congregations.

Adult education sessions, board discussions, and/or Selichot programming and worship are among the varied ways you and your fellow lay and professional leaders can perform this communal stock-taking. These practices can help to identify community-wide qualities to celebrate, as well as challenges for which the congregation might wish to explore improvements or solutions to implement in the coming year.

But we must not forget to take care of ourselves spiritually, too, just as we do physically. Read more…

Three Great Congregational Programs that Tackle the Challenge of Demographic Diversity

Today’s congregations face a wide range of changing demographics. Many communities are experiencing a geographic shift, as older adults age in place, families move into new suburban areas, and younger Jews flock to revitalized downtown areas.

As a result, members of local Jewish communities are often in completely disparate locations, providing synagogues with both an opportunity and a challenge: With limited resources spread in more directions than ever, how can congregations experiment with new models of engagement to draw in their target audiences?

Three Reform congregations received URJ Belin Awards or honorable mentions for the ways they’re “meeting people where they are” – creatively adapting their engagement strategies in response to local community needs, thereby enabling their congregations to successfully meet and engage people where they live and work. Read more…

How Synagogues Can Prioritize Disability Inclusion This High Holiday Season

by Jay Ruderman

With the High Holidays just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking themselves how they can become more holy and inclusive communities.

In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change often occurs because a rabbi, a professional or a lay leader understands the value of inclusion of all people and makes it a priority. If there ever was a time for leaders to step up to the plate and help their synagogues become more inclusive — to welcome diverse people with varying abilities and find a place for them in the community — it’s during the Days of Awe. Read more…

What My Vacation Taught Me About Audacious Hospitality

by Frieda Hershman Huberman

Vacation enables us to reflect, rejuvenate, recharge our batteries, and look at life from a fresh perspective – and sometimes, it’s the actual vacation experience itself that becomes a learning opportunity. While on a short getaway this summer, I gleaned new insights on audacious hospitality, one of the Reform Movement’s top priorities.

1. Taking the first step toward change is difficult.

During my childhood, my family vacationed at Beach Front Gardens in Atlantic City. My parents chose to return for a week each summer because it suited our needs and was a known commodity. Our motel was just seconds from the boardwalk and ocean, had a kitchenette, and was a short walk from my grandparents’ home. I wondered, though, why we never tried a different motel or destination.Years later, my husband and I found a motel that was close to a great beach and to child-friendly attractions; it became our family summer vacation destination. Eventually, my children outgrew some of the town’s attractions and the motel became less well-maintained than it had been in the past. Still, it was familiar to us, and so one year, when I suggested a different destination, my children and husband adamantly objected. Read more…

Reform Jewish Movement Response to Iran Deal: Address Important Concerns, Focus on the Day After

Following extensive consultations with experts from across the political spectrum in both the United States and Israel, and thoughtful conversation with North American Reform Jewish leaders, the Reform Jewish Movement today issued a leadership statement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The statement – released today by the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and ARZA – concludes that “there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position ‘for’ or ‘against’ the JCPOA itself.” Rather, the statement emphasizes, “Our focus must be on two questions: First, how is it possible to address our concerns about the JCPOA? Second, if the agreement is finalized, what happens the day after? Specifically, how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?” Read more…

Audacious Hospitality: A New Initiative for Spiritual and Social Empowerment

Two weeks ago, I joined the URJ as its inaugural vice president of audacious hospitality. Upon hearing my job title, people immediately inquire about the meaning of “audacious hospitality.” It is a bold, new, and multi-faceted URJ initiative that encompasses some of our tradition’s most treasured values – lovingkindness, respect, and tikkun olam (repair of our world). It is all about putting the ideas of diversity, outreach and inclusion into action – in a framework that addresses both today’s Jewish communal needs and our highest aspirations. Read more…

14 Ways to Make Your High Holidays Services Accessible to Everyone

A sweet new year begins with audacious hospitality, making sure everyone feels welcome in the Jewish community. As part of High Holiday preparation, congregations can take a number of simple steps to help create an accessible and sacred space for people of all abilities so that everyone can fully participate.

  1. Ask people what they need. The best way to make sure that everyone can participate is to ask people what will make this possible for them. Congregations can invite feedback through emails, registration, and membership forms, as well as in bulletins and handouts at services.
  1. Use “people-first language” when referring to people with disabilities. Put the person before their disability, i.e. “This congregant is blind and needs a Braille prayer book” rather than “This blind congregant needs a Braille prayer book.” Better yet, just say, “This congregant needs a Braille prayer book”!
  1. Publicize accessibility and accommodations. Mention available accommodations in your online and Shabbat bulletins, even if this information is also included on ticket request forms (as it should be!). List a contact person for sign language interpreters, loop systems, large-print or Braille prayer books, iPads for large-print downloadable prayer books, etc. Indicate, too, how people with disabilities and their families can secure reserved seating, parking spaces, and volunteer assistance.

Read more…

4 Ideas for Engaging Families with Young Children in Jewish Life

Every new parent understands the pressure and stress associated with finding the best ways to create a rich and fulfilling future for their children. Faced with societal expectations, money constraints, and more programmatic opportunities than ever for their young ones, Jewish life may not always make it to the top of the priority list.

As a part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Communities of Practice work, we’re partnering with congregations (both those with and without preschools) to further and more effectively engage families with young children in congregational life. The full results of this work can be found in a new resource, Engaging Families with Young Children. Here’s a look at some of the best principles:

  1. Engagement is a congregation-wide activity, not an isolated program or department.
    Engagement must be a true value of the entire congregation, including those in leadership positions. To sustain any effort to build a community of parents with young children, congregational leadership needs to fully support these efforts, ensuring that holidays, programs, and services focus on the idea of family.
    Read more…

The Loss of “Matterness” in Synagogue Life: An Interview with Allison Fine

Allison Fine, past president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y., is the co-author of The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (with Beth Kanter); author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age; and, most recently, author of Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World.

You have said that synagogues need to do things differently than in the past in order to retain and attract members.

Congregational leaders need to rethink the decades-old model of synagogues as top-down hierarchies churning out life-cycle events and programs for their membership. Synagogues are overflowing with wonderful people, but the structure – and, therefore by definition the processes and systems – demand caution and control. In this risk aversive environment, congregations suffocate creativity and lose opportunities to experiment with new ways to engage their communities. Read more…

How We’re Creating Vibrant Jewish Life in Israel and Around the World

by Rabbi Nir Barkin

The Book of Deuteronomy, my favorite, begins with this passage as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land:

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. – Through the wilderness, in the Arabah (desert)…in accordance with the instructions that God had given him for them, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching…

What is it about this opening statement that allows me to connect to it as a 21st-century Reform Jew, for whom the fate of the Jewish people is crucially important? Read more…

This Month in The Tent: Resources for the High Holidays and Beyond

With Tishah B’Av behind us, Elul and Rosh HaShanah can’t be far off!

As congregations gear up for the start of 5776 and a new year of activities, programming, and policies and procedures, these conversations in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, may prove particularly helpful in planning for the High Holiday season and beyond.

  • If your congregation is looking forward to using Mishkan Hanefesh, the new machzor (High Holiday prayerbook) this year, you may also be seeking ways to put your no-longer-needed copies of Gates of Prayer to good use. Chime in on the conversation to find a new home for your congregation’s used prayer books.
  • Many congregations offer online credit card payments as a convenience for members. To learn how other communities deal with the processing fees associated with this payment option, visit the conversation in the Technology group.
  • No doubt, your congregation will be welcoming new members in the weeks ahead. If you’re interested in exploring the possibility of offering a “pay what you can” dues structure, you can learn what other congregations have experienced when implementing such a policy.

When questions or challenges arise as you plan for the coming year, make The Tent your first stop for answers. It’s the best place to pose questions, share resources, and compare notes with other congregational leaders who, like you, are dealing with an array of topics and issues around synagogue life. For additional support, contact the URJ Knowledge Network team

Returning to One Another: Five Holiday Resources for Teens

As we prepare to celebrate the Jewish holidays, we get ready to journey through an arc of communal and personal experiences. As an educator who is fascinated by the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), I also find this month-long period an interesting dance between introversion and extroversion. Read more…