The Value of Our Teens’ Time

For a unique teen perspective on the pressure to achieve, check out “School” a documentary made by Sophia Anderson, Beth Am teen and the inspiration for this article.

This is the paradox of youth professionals everywhere:

We want to help our teens de-stress from their very busy lives by participating in enriching and restoring activities at their synagogue.  How do we get them here without making their lives busier or adding more to their already over-programmed schedules? Is that even possible? Read more…

Practicing Audacious Hospitality on Sukkot

I cherish the holiday of Sukkot. It beautifully encapsulates the quintessential magic of this bountiful time of year. We see that we can build a holy space with our own hands, and experience the pride, warmth, and contentment that welcoming people into our sukkah and wholeheartedly celebrating the holiday together engenders. Who will you welcome into the sukkah, and your congregation, this year?

Nearly two months ago, I joined the URJ as its inaugural vice president of audacious hospitality. Audacious hospitality is a bold, new, and multi-faceted URJ initiative that encompasses some of our tradition’s most treasured values—loving kindness, 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. At the core of audacious hospitality is the belief that we will be a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community when we welcome and embrace the diversity that is the reality — and future — of modern Jewish life. Read more…

Conversations with Engagement Innovators: Rabbi PJ Schwartz


  1. How have you engaged your community around youth? We have always had a successful and vibrant youth program, and it continues to grow. Because youth engagement is a passion of mine, I am very involved in programming, both formally and informally. In some sense, I have become a vessel between generations. Congregants know how much I love youth. They know that they can most likely find me in the Religious School lobby during weekday mornings, greeting our preschoolers, and in the afternoons my office might be filled with kids hanging out before Religious School. At the same time, they know that they can come to me for their own [adult] needs, as well.

Read more…

URJ Statement on Anti-Muslim Rhetoric in the Current Political Discourse

Celebrating the constitutional commitment to religious liberty for all, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, released the following statement today:

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, I am honored to wish our Muslim brothers and sisters a blessed Eid al-Adha. This holy celebration, so central to the Islamic faith, falls this year at the same time as our own High Holy Day celebrations and reflects the many commonalities we share as Muslims and Jews.

Today we also send our condolences to the families of those who died, and pray for those who were wounded, on their holy pilgrimage to Mecca.

The ability of all people to openly observe the holidays of their faith is rooted in the United States’ historic commitment to religious freedom. Since our earliest days as a nation, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Americans of all faiths have found in the U.S. a haven from religious persecution. So it is with great heartache and pain that we have heard the rancorous language about religious tests for office and plain anti-Muslim rhetoric that permeates the current political discourse. Read more…

Our Second Annual Rosh Hashanah Sermon Round-Up

This was the year that Reform rabbis spoke about race. More than 200 rabbis participated the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, and it gave rise to some powerful sermons. (Read on for links to sermons by Eli Kramer and rabbis Biatch, Chasen,  Knight and Herzog Cohen, Miller, Perlman, Soffer, Spinrad, and Stein.) There were many more, but because there were so many, when I had a choice between two sermons from a rabbi, I chose the one on another topic.

The other leading topic was the Iran deal. Most rabbis who addressed this topic (see sermons from rabbi Blake, Feder, Groper, A. Hirsch, and Latz) focused as much on the nature of the debate in the American Jewish community as on the substance of the agreement itself.

Other sermons I particularly enjoyed: Read more…

The Ripple Effects of Peer-to-Peer Mentorship

When I recently asked a group of colleagues to help me think about examples from pop culture in which teens mentor other teens, we found it surprisingly difficult to come up with genuine examples.

In the movie Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) becomes the self-appointed fashion mentor to a new girl at school in order to help propel said new girl up the social ladder. In the Broadway show Wicked, a similar dynamic is at play when Glinda and Elphaba overcome their dislike of each other and Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover. We came up with a few similar examples, but none quite fit the bill. Read more…

These Shoes are Made for Walking: Our Collective Path in the New Year

TOMS Shoes have fascinated me for years. I am taken by the company’s business model and how it brought social entrepreneurship into every day vernacular. I am also grateful the shoes are priced reasonably, given my daughter wears them all the time and it makes us both feel good there is social benefit to the transaction.
Read more…

Three Congregational Programs that Prove We’re Stronger Together

In Jewish tradition, the theme of partnership is one that arises again and again: Adam seeks an appropriate partner from among God’s creations; Moses and Aaron are two brothers whose strengths and leadership skills complement each other; King Saul and King David both depend on Samuel the prophet to make them better rulers. Indeed, even our Reform Jewish values assert our belief that we are God’s partners in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

In our ever-changing, interdependent world, congregations are increasingly looking outside themselves for partners in the community that can enhance their programmatic offerings and increase their overall impact.

A number of Reform congregations selected as URJ Belin Outreach and Membership Award winners and honorable mention recipients are working successfully with local partners to transform their congregations: Read more…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Fathers and Sons

The story of the binding of Isaac (the Akeidah) never fails to get inside us because death hangs in every verse. Will the boy die? Will the dad become a mourner? If this drama doesn’t give you chills, you probably aren’t listening. I know we’re supposed to be focusing on Abraham and Isaac, but I can’t stop thinking of my dad and me. Read more…

6 “Can’t Miss” Youth Engagement Opportunities at the 2015 URJ Biennial

These days, it’s tough to go five minutes without buzzing. Technology is everywhere, and with it comes a constant connection to everyone’s favorite: social networks. Here at the URJ, we are proud to offer programs and camps to form a different kind of social network. One where cell phones are replaced by laughter around a dining hall table and Facebook is set aside for an old-fashioned game of cards. Read more…

Learning Their “Truths” – Talking to Kids About Camp

by Michelle Shapiro Abraham

Several weeks ago, I had the honor to learn with teen leaders from two of our NFTY regions. I asked them to share with me their truths – the things they have learned about themselves and the world, that are central to the way they live. Truths can be found in questions like: What do you stand for? What do you value? What are your boundaries? Who are you aspiring to become?  Read more…

This Month in The Tent: Policies and Ideas for Your Congregation

As 5776 gets into gear, congregational leaders are asking lots of terrific questions in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum. In response, those leaders with relevant experiences, practical information, and useful suggestions are sharing their expertise.

These topics, in particular, are fueling interesting dialogue: Read more…

Learning Opportunity: Closing the Gap between Good Intentions and Bad Results

This fall, the URJ’s Leadership Institute is offering a series of three sessions about key concepts that we hope will inspire sacred action within congregations. In this post, Allison Fine discusses values alignment and “matterness.” To learn more, listen to the recording of her session “Making People Matter – More than Just Something We Say.”

By Allison Fine

Nearly every synagogue faces enormous pressure to recruit and retain members. Yet, when Big Tent Judaism conducted its signature research project (the Environmental Community Outreach Scan) in northern Westchester county last year to test, among other things, how “warm and welcoming” synagogues were, an overwhelming number of synagogues failed to respond to emails and calls from prospective members. While there were nuances, the bottom line is that synagogues are not as responsive as they think we are.

These failures reflect the enormous gap between the good intentions of people running synagogues and the actual experiences of new or existing members. People have lots of choices about where and how to spend their time and money, and increasingly, they reject institutions that use a secret language, make them feel anonymous and unimportant, talk at them rather than with them, and only seem to need them when their dues are late. Read more…

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. Read more…