Reform Leaders Commend President Obama’s Commitment to Stopping the Spread of ISIS

In response to President Obama’s announcement of an expanded military effort against ISIS, Reform Movement leaders issued the following statement:

We commend President Obama’s commitment to stopping the spread of ISIS, which has imposed terror in the Middle East and beyond and whose actions are appalling and offensive to all who value freedom. Already, the Administration has rightly taken action to protect beleaguered religious and ethnic communities suffering under ISIS’s domination. Recognizing that the threat from ISIS is not limited to the region it currently occupies, we applaud President Obama’s leadership in recruiting a global coalition to, in his own words, “degrade and destroy” ISIS. The spread of extremism anywhere is a threat to human rights everywhere, and we pray for all of the victims and their families who have been affected by the ISIS regime. We pray too for the safety of American and coalition troops on the front lines of this effort.  As the U.S. continues to lead the international community in addressing the threat from ISIS, we encourage the President and Congress to work closely together to ensure a united front in this vital effort.

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Teen Talk: What We Can Learn from the Marketing Techniques of the Ice Bucket Challenge

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.

The reality of today’s online participatory culture, is that teens (and yes, adults, too) like to show what they’re doing. While sometimes this can be a “for better or worse” situation, when it comes to raising awareness for a good cause, you can’t find a better place to rally for attention than on the stream of your Facebook mini-feed. We saw this rapidly unfold with the enormously successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraising campaign. The challenge was successful for a multitude of reasons—but what’s significant to us is the way in which some of these Ice Bucket Challenge marketing tools can be used to help us better understand and engage our own teens. Read more…

A New Vision for Youth Shabbat

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.

Nearly four years ago, I walked into the youth lounge at The Community Synagogue, excited to spend one of our monthly “lounge nights” with a small and mighty group of POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth) teens. I observed the members of our program as they sat, surrounded by the embrace of our safe and cozy space, happily expressing their thoughts and feelings over shared snacks and treats. I saw them laughing and enjoying the company of Jewish friends, developing their identities as people, and as Jews.

While reflecting on our small community that met one Tuesday per month for “lounge night” – bonding time that supplements our larger youth events and programs – I saw an opportunity to expand and enrich programs we were already providing our members. If the teens were happy to spend their evenings with their Jewish friends, committing their personal time to a relaxing evening spent breaking bread and learning and laughing together, why was I hosting a lounge night on a Tuesday? Why wasn’t I able to find a way to adjust these evenings so that they provided more Jewish content, more meaning, and more fun?  Why shouldn’t I be hosting a POWTY Shabbat program on a Friday? Read more…

“Ruach Rock” Tefilah: Engaging Teens in Creating Meaningful Prayer Experiences

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.

Are you an educator or youth professional seeking an innovative approach to teaching teens about prayer? Project-based learning is a great way for teens to explore their own spirituality and create meaningful prayer experiences for themselves and their fellow students.  My advice would be to start by sharing what you find meaningful, as a role model to inspire your students.

Last year, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Master of Arts in Religious Education (MARE) program at HUC-JIR, I completed my Capstone Curriculum, titled “Ruach Rock” Tefilah: A Creative Prayer Curriculum for Teens.” Designed specifically for 7th-10th graders, I used my “Ruach Rock” Tefilah as the kickoff session for a semester-long exploration of the reform service liturgy in which teens are encouraged to learn more about the prayers in order to create their own interpretations of them. Read more…

Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self

By Alex Rogers, Avra Bossov, and Matt Liebman

As a central tenet of Reform Judaism, tikkun olam – repairing the world – can seem overwhelming. How does one take on such a task as an individual? For over 50 years, Mitzvah Corps has empowered Jewish teenagers across the continent to infuse this concept into their daily lives. Mitzvah Corps has impacted numerous communities and has thousands of alumni that continue the work that started during their Mitzvah Corps program.

With the Campaign for Youth Engagement’s growing focus on new entry points for teenagers to engage in Jewish life, this summer Mitzvah Corps expanded to include eight sites with over 190 participants. In other words, record levels of engagement. The beauty of Mitzvah Corps is that each summer, around the world, groups of strangers come together to build a kehilah kedosha, a holy community. We pray together, make difficult decisions together, and find the best versions of ourselves while being surrounded by bustling communities moving through their day. In essence, it brings the best of Jewish immersive experiences into the day-to-day experience of cities across the globe. Read more…

The NFTY Alumni Gap

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.

As someone who has worked with NFTYites for nearly 20 years, I cherish the long term relationships I continue to have with my former youth groupers. I try to keep an eye on their progression through college, their entry into the work force and eventually their weddings, the birth of their children and all of the various life moments, happy and sad, that occur. No matter what their age or stage in life, I always think of them as “former NFTYites.”

I am continually amazed at the impact of NFTY and NFTY friendships on these individuals. It is their NFTY friends who keep appearing in photo albums as the years go by.  I am touched at the number of these former NFTYites who reach out to me, and other youth group advisors, for guidance and advice as they move through life.  I am flattered that these now college students and young adults want to keep up with my life and know my family as it grows along with theirs. Read more…

Now Introducing Bonim Kehilah for Jewish Young Adults

Much has been written about millennials and how they’re constructing adult lives: They live at home longer, marry later, and are less likely to affiliate with political and religious institutions than ever before.

It follows that those young adults looking for sustained, meaningful Jewish engagement find few entry points into the current communal landscape. Without parents or Hillel to lead the way into Jewish social, educational, and leadership opportunities, many young adults who grew up engaged in Jewish programming lack a Jewish outlet in their adult lives. While many plan to join congregations once they start their own family, the road to significant Jewish engagement in the years between college and parenthood is less obvious. Taglit-Birthright Israel, Moishe Houses, and many other “next-gen” outreach programs provide introductory opportunities for young adults to engage Jewishly, but what do we offer those seeking higher-level opportunities for learning and leading? Read more…

A Force to be Reckoned With

by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute… Read more…

Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics. Read more…

The Challenges of Teaching about Israel

by Jack Wertheimer

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world? Read more…

Engage Jewish Youth During the High Holiday Season

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables:

  1. Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to the arts, service, current events, and connections to their own passions, hobbies, and commitments.
  2. Consider the program location. It’s important that teens feel comfortable in the synagogue, but by utilizing different locations, we will open programming to a broader group of teens.
  3. Timing, schedule, and duration make a huge impact. It’s essential that what we are offering takes place at different times of the day, and for a variety of durations, in order to connect with the greatest number of young people.
  4. Tap older teens to help plan and recruit their younger peers. We all respond best to personal invitations, and younger teens are always excited when personally invited by an older peer.

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NFTY Regions – It Takes a Village and We are a Village

by Julie Marsh

Many people wonder about the “magic” of NFTY, the power to bring teenagers together, create a holy community, and create lasting relationships. As a regional advisor, I am often asked how, when, and who creates that NFTY “magic.” To many, these questions are complicated, and to be honest, when it comes to my Florida region, NFTY-Southern Tropical Region (NFTY-STR), the answers are simple. The success and “magic” of NFTY-STR is the result of a vast support network. The adage, “It takes a village” could not be truer for us. Our NFTY-STR village is made up of NFTYites, alumni, congregations, and additional stakeholders who we have welcomed into our community over the years. Read more…

The Porch: It’s Southern, It’s Open, and It’s Jewish

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

When I was ordained a cantor in 2011, I never imagined that leading a congregation’s young adult group would fall within my professional portfolio. I’d never taken the much-lauded community organizing class and I didn’t think informal education was my thing. (In retrospect, it would have been great to have developed community organizing and informal education skills in advance.) As a part-time assistant cantor in Charlotte, NC, I expected to teach b’nai mitzvah kids and adult ed, lead services, and attend lots of meetings – all of which I do.

Even a year after moving to Charlotte, however, I didn’t have many local friends, and I missed the ones I’d left behind in New York. Looking to enrich my life, I asked to take on our young adult group and our Tot Shabbat group. Despite regular attendance at events, neither group was creating meaningful community among members and before long, I was experimenting with doing just that.

At the same time, the URJ invited synagogues to join its Communities of Practice (CoP) initiative, bringing together lay and professional leaders from Reform congregations across North America for 18 months of shared learning, networking, and experimenting, all with a specific focus. I was thrilled when our congregation applied and was selected to participate in the Families with Young Children cohort, knowing that I could apply whatever skills and ideas I learned to our young adult population as well.

Our CoP kicked off in January 2013 and my lay partner and I traveled to Chicago for the event, an invaluable experience that provided me with three main takeaways:

  • Don’t be afraid to completely break down what is and start from scratch. Both Rabbi Benay Lappe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs stressed that if that’s the right thing to do, just do it. Do it with all your will, and do not be afraid.
  • We must know the lives of those we serve. To truly help them, we need to be aware and extremely mindful of their needs.
  • It’s never about how many people show up, but rather about how much the people who show up take away.

With the Chicago takeaways fresh in my mind, we convened as many thoughtful, interesting people as we could find – singles, families with kids, those who are deeply committed to Jewish life, and those who swore they’d never join a synagogue. One by one, we asked them to come help build the Jewish world they want to see. Through those first conversations, our dedicated lay leadership team was born, and The Porch, Temple Beth El’s Young Adults and Young Families Community, followed.

Seeking to create an open, accessible community devoted to promoting connections among young singles, young couples, and young families, we carefully constructed “hybrid” events — picnics, bowling, and late afternoon Shabbat activities that conclude with Havdalah – that appeal equally to 20-something singles and 30-something parents with young kids. After all, who isn’t up for an opportunity to relax with a beer and hang-out with friends? We also offer events for specific cohorts within the community: happy hour, Tot Shabbat, and Torah study, among others. In all our community building efforts, we rely on social media and personal outreach to foster relationships, build trust, and encourage participation.

In March 2014, we launched Shabbat Supper Club, the epitome of The Porch and, I believe, what the synagogue of the future can be.


Using social media, email, and personal asks, we convened groups of people – singles, couples, and families with young children – willing to have Shabbat dinner together once a month. Members of each group take turns planning and hosting dinners – mostly in homes, but sometimes in restaurants or parks. Regardless of the setting, all the events are beautiful because they build Jewish lives, Jewish observance, and Jewish community in an ongoing way (and explicitly give people permission to skip services). In fact, Shabbat Supper Club members often ask how they can incorporate more Judaism into their time together. Although I don’t attend the dinners, as the groups’ members connect to each other and to Judaism, I work to maintain their connections to the synagogue. Building on the Shabbat Supper Club’s initial success, this year we will expand it to families with school-aged children.

Thanks to our participation in a URJ Community of Practice cohort, which inspired the Shabbat Supper Club and all of The Porch initiatives, not only are we strengthened by the engaged community we’re building, but we’re empowered to figure out what it means to be a synagogue that nurtures ongoing relationships outside the walls of the building. I am deeply moved by what The Porch has become and eager to watch its continued growth and success.

We aren’t done yet. Big things are coming, and I can’t wait!

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas is the associate cantor at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC. She is grateful to reside in a blue house with her awesome husband Matt and two small, blonde people: Johannah, 3, and Ezra, 1.

Jewish Women Innovators: The Next Generation

by Sam Kazer

This week, the WRJ Blog features a series of articles about the newest URJ Camp: URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and WRJ’s efforts to increase the presence of girls at the camp and, by extension, support women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Our girls’ dorm, Rosie, is named after Rosalind Franklin, a biologist whose critical work with X-Ray Diffraction led to the understanding of the double helix structure of DNA. By choosing this name for the dorm, we hope to inspire our campers to shoot for the stars as empowered women, scientists and innovators. Yesterday, I sat down with two exuberant campers from Rosie, Hannah and Mia, who received YES grants to attend Sci-Tech from WRJ.

For Hannah and Mia, science and technology is their bread and butter. Besides technology being the “best way to communicate with [her] friends,” Mia has a distinct passion for robotics. In middle school, Mia won the science fair with another girl by making a robot  that blew bubbles. Although she “doesn’t always like the programming,” she is invested in exploring robotics because “Robots can (or will) do things like save people from earthquakes and natural disasters.” Hannah has split passions; she triumphantly explained that “as a future director and biologist, [she has] always liked animals and [she has] always been in love with taking picture because [she has] thought of pictures as memories.” Like Mia, Hannah finds that “making videos is a social experience” and that digital media allows her to “think outside of the box” and spur “conversations about art.”

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