Tag: URJ Biennial

So Much Space on Summer 2014 URJ Birthright Israel Trips

The URJ is offering unprecedented access to its KESHER Birthright Israel trip for summer 2014. Never before has it been easier to sign up for or participate in a URJ Kesher Birthright Israel trip.

I had the pleasure of explaining the possibilities at the URJ Biennial convention. Learn more about the process below:


Now encourage your friends, congregants and family members (who are eligible) sign up beginning February 4, 2014 at www.GoKesher.org

The Antidote to Pew Study Anxiety

Soon after I finished reading the Pew Research’s Religion and Public Life Project study – a Portrait of Jewish Americans – the first thing I did was to ensure that I was registered for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention in San Diego on Wednesday to Sunday, December 11-15, 2013. Getting together with 5,000+ committed American Jews ranks high on my short list of responses to the more worrisome portions of this landmark study of American Jewish identity and values.

To Agonize or Not to Agonize: That is the Jewish Question
The Pew study lays out its analysis of the successes and challenges facing the Jewish community. Depending upon how one reads the study, there is much to celebrate and much to fret about. The internet is replete with analyses, praises and critiques of the study and its conclusions. Of course, we can soon expect the conversation to move from where we are to what we can do to strengthen the identity and religious commitment of Jews and the Jewish community.

Experience suggests that significant responses can be discovered when we take advantage of unique opportunities to gather together with others who share these concerns. For me, this happens whenever I attend a Union for Reform Judaism Biennial convention. Each Biennial offers the Jewish spiritual high and the programmatic low down to guide front line Jewish synagogues regarding the way forward. That is why I am attending the Biennial and taking with me many of our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) leadership. And that’s why you should too.

Our Temple Transformed by Biennial Attendance
Over the years, the congregations I have served and my own Jewish life have been transformed by the Biennial. Most recently, the 2011 Biennial in Washington, DC, which challenged us to rethink our Youth Engagement activities. Following that gathering, Or Ami’s clergy and lay leadership quickly evaluated our offerings and created a new process and program. We have since enjoyed a 20% increase in post-B’nai Mitzvah youth participation and a stellar reputation for our Tracks for Temple Teens (“Triple T”) program.

Previous Biennial conventions inspired us to deepen our congregation’s accessibility for Jews with disabilities, to articulate officially our outreach to the LGBTQ Jews and Jewish families, and to pursue an energetic foray into eNewsletters and social media. Similarly, we have answered the call to innovate our worship services, expand our Torah study, and creatively embrace and educate interfaith couples.

Transdenominational Participation Promotes a Wide Variety of Perspectives
I am even more excited about this year’s Biennial in San Diego because for the first time ever, the Biennial is open to those outside the Reform Movement. Registration is open to anyone – not just to members of Reform synagogues. The cross denominational and cross organizational interactions promise to point all of us toward more comprehensive analyses of and workable responses to the challenges the Pew study illuminated.

Jews of all stripes – lay leaders and professionals, youth, congregants, and clergy – gather together to be energized, inspired and uplifted. Intellectually challenged by the high level scholars and Jewish thinkers, we participants face the challenges that the study only talks about. The ability to network with leaders and thinkers from all over the Jewish world makes the Biennial the place to retreat, respond and rejuvenate.

Bonding at Biennial
Personally, I cherish the opportunity to spend long hours in sessions, in services and over scrumptious meals with leaders of my congregation. Many a Biennial has provided just the opportunity to deepen the bonds that ensure a smooth partnership back home at our synagogue. We create a common language and shared insight on national issues and local concerns. By seeking out leaders from other parts of the country who have faced and successfully addressed the issues we have identified allowed us to return home with a “can do” attitude and a toolbox of options.

Finally, there is Shabbat. It is rare that a clergy person gets to sit and pray without the responsibility to act as Shaliach tzibur (communal worship leader). The poignancy and power of worshipping alongside 5,000 other Jews is unmatched. The kahal (community) is transformed by an emotional-spiritual high that our ancestors called hitlahavut (the passion of prayer). The study options – from the Shalom Hartman Institute, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, the Mussar Institute, and others – bring Torah to life and refill our souls with the succor from our Jewish tradition.

So Stop Worrying
We have been here before, worried about the present, anxious about the Jewish future. With the instantaneous conversations afforded by the internet and social media, those worries are compounded and seemingly all pervasive. Yet, I am breathing easy. Not because I know the way forward. Not because I understand fully the problems we face. Rather, because as the Jewish world continues to get worked up about the Pew study on American Jews – trying to wring meaning from it and prophesy the path(s) ahead, I know that I will be at the best place I can be to address these issues: spending five days with 5,000 thinking Jewish leaders at the URJ Biennial Convention in San Diego.

Maybe you will join me as well?

Realigning the Jewish GPS

Serenity. Inspiration. Exhaustion. Uplift. Shalom.
Choice words to describe the essentially indescribable feelings which permeate my heart, soul and mind as I depart five days of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention outside of Washington DC.  With six thousand Jews gathering to learn, dream, celebrate and plan for the Jewish future, the experience was also profoundly overwhelming.  
A Shmorgasbord of Spirituality
Whether singing Kiddush during the largest Shabbat dinner ever in existence, charting a new course with Dr. Wendy Mogul to engage Jewish youth more deeply, exploring our shared values of Tikun Olam (social justice) with President Barak Obama, embodying simcha (joy) through rocking out with singer/songwriters Dan Nichols, Doug Cotler and Michelle Citrin, exploring tachlis (hands on, how to) topics such as creating a “social media sermon” and “redefining Jewish adolescents through Jewish summer camps,” or just connecting one-to-one with dozens of old friends, colleagues or new friends, the URJ Biennial gave me so much to enjoy and so much more to consider.  
Realigning the Jewish GPS
Most of all, the Biennial experience recharged our batteries and realigned our Jewish GPS.  Out wandering as individuals in the wilderness of communal life, we sometimes lose sight of the difference between the important and abiding, and the small stuff. Each Biennial Meet Up, each conversation, each session pointed the way forward by anchoring in the past and dreaming toward the future.  
The Biennial brought me back toward these insights: 
  • I believe with all my heart and soul that Judaism – our teachings, our values, our Torah, our tradition, our people, our homeland, our beliefs, our culture, our religion, our… – exist to transform us into Am Kadosh (holy people) and our world into a Makom Kadosh (a holy people).  
  • We people called Yisrael are those destined to yisra (struggle with) El (our existence within Existence).  Our world – the beautiful, the material, the broken and the whole – exists to be a Makom Kadosh (a place of holiness), where every thing and every moment can connect to every other thing and every other moment.  Past to future, tree to sky, street to building, you to me.  
  • Israel, the land and state, is central to our spirit and story, that its wellbeing is our concern, that its future as a democratic/Jewish home must be assured in conjunction with real peace with a neighboring Palestine, and that more of our peeps must get over to visit her.
  • The synagogue is THE primary gateway to the Jewish past, present and future, and if open enough, innovative enough, simcha-dik (joyous) enough and thoughtful enough, the synagogue can touch deeply so many more Jews and Jewish families.
  • Engaging youth needs to become our mantra as we create places and spaces for them to struggle, connect, be nurtured and grow.  It is not pediatric Judaism we pursue; it is the Jewish future.
  • As Am HaSefer, the people of the book, we express ourselves and continue the holy conversation through the written word.  Whether that written word be on two tablets, animal skin scrolls, paper back books or the 1’s and 0’s on the computer screen, the emes (truth) becomes clearer, the deeper we delve into the words past down midor lador (from generation to generation). 

Watch the Speakers; Read the Sermons
A picture speaks 1,000 words, so I wish I could download my short-term memory bring to life the still and moving images swirling in my head.  Since our technological wizards have not yet discovered the process by which to do that, I instead invite you to venture over to the Union for Reform Judaism’s website to see what I saw and hear what I heard.  
Then, we can together continue the conversation, and thereby find Serenity. Inspiration. Exhaustion. Uplift. And Shalom.  
Seeking Your Insights
For those who attended, what were your favorite moments from the Biennial?

Jewish Education is Dead; Long Live Jewish Education

I wish I had coined that phrase: “Jewish Education is Dead; Long Live Jewish Education.”  But in truth, this is the title of the talk by Dr. Jonathan Woocher, the Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA, the Jewish Educational Service of North America.  Dr. Woocher, whom I have followed through his writings for years, spoke at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Education Summit 2011, as part of the URJ Biennial Convention 2011. (Yada yada yada.)

To quote one of my tweets: “I was so inspired by Dr. Woocher’s talk that I could barely breathe.”

Dr. Woocher, in his own piercingly insightful way, challenged us to allow old paradigms about Jewish education to quietly go to sleep, as we embrace new realities and new paradigms for the Jewish present and future.  His talk, combining the best of technology including real time polling and engaging videos, offered a compelling critique of the present and a glance into the future of Jewish education.

The Case for Change
Said Woocher, these are the elements that make the case for change:

  • Success of assimilation: we are assimilated. We have not given up our Jewish identities doing so. 
  • Hybrid identities: Our kids (and we) have multiple identities, are fully involved but are asking what Judaism means to them. 
  • We are many things at once. How does that Jewish component speaks? 
  • Diversity of our community. Enuf said!?! 
  • The “sovereign self” – we are all “choosing Jews” 
  • “Patch dynamics”. Never one thing happening at a time. Rather many things happening at once 
  • Prosumerism: simultaneouslsy producers and consumers of our experiences people want to co-produce their Jewish experiences 
  • Institutional loyalty is declining 
  • Constant Busyness and pressure to achieve – how can we carve out space for their busy learning. 
  • Technology – not cause of any of these changes but an accelerant. Helping us to be less dependent on intermediary institutions.

This is Abiding
Not everything has changed.  These factors still remain:
  • Our search for meaning and purpose 
  • Our desire for connections and relationships 
  • Our satisfaction from accomplishment and growth.

Necessary Paradigm Shifts for the Future of Jewish Education
We need to:

  • Put learners at center of Jewish education.  Not institution or leaders 
  • Empowering learners and families
    Educating the whole person. Not just the “Jewish” part. 
  • Educate whole persons, making meaning and impacting lives not jut imparting content and promoting continuity 
  • Engage multiple intelligences 
  • Emphasize relationships 
  • Widen landscape of learning: concerts, media, trips, radio, etc. 
  • Create multiple points of entry
    Bringing innovation in from the edges 
  • Redefine the role of educators as guides, help others to find their way on the Jewish journeys 
  • Break down the silos and forging synergies.

What Should We Do?
Dr. Woocher suggests these new models and collaborations:

  • Magnet programs 
  • Link camps and congregations and year round youth activities 
  • Explicit pathways from early childhood education to next stages of learning. 
  • Day schools as community education centers.
  • Learner- and family-generated learning options 
  • Using technology anywhere and everywhere.
How wonderful to be able to offer you now a clear, well thought out synthesis of Dr. Woocher’s talk.  Yet it is 1:00 am, and it is just the first day of this amazing Education Summit.
Suffice it to say that Dr. Woocher’s talk, and the whole introduction and subsequent sessions of the Education Summit goad me (and our lay leaders and other rabbi) to rethink the whole enterprise of Jewish education within our synagogue.

It is one thing to kvell about what we are doing.  It is another thing to be open to reexamining every element of our program and vision to dream about what could and what should.

Bravo to the Union for Reform Judaism, and especially Rabbi Laura Novak Winer and her team for all they are doing to challenge and inspire us!

How do we Connect, Inspire, and Engage Kids: What We’ve Learned from Camp

Counting the days until the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial convention outside of Washington DC became that much more exciting
after a planning session with some colleagues.  Gathering together by telephone from all across the US, we –
three camp directors, three rabbis, and one talented URJ specialist – put our
heads together to plan a biennial session on the “magic of camp.” (I am a URJ Camp alum, parent of 3 campers, and Camp Newman Rabbinic Faculty dean each summer – here’s my Camp blog.)  Who would
have thought that just the planning process alone would illuminate why we all love
URJ Jewish summer camping so much.

Our initial plan incorporated a series of seven minutes
frontal presentations, mixing the reflections of the camp rabbis with the
insights of a collection of talented camp directors. Reserve some time for Q
& A, and the session would quickly be over.  Our planning session could have ended then and there. 
That is, until Ruben Arquilevich, Director of Northern
California’s URJ Camp Newman challenged us to fashion our program session in
the image of what happens effortlessly at camp. With that one comment, the
ideas started flying.  How do we
craft a presentation session for the biennial that captures and shares the
“magic” of camp?
Any camp staffer knows that what might appear to be
effortless fun and recreation at a Jewish summer camp is actually quite
intentional, as camp staff work diligently (and late into the night) to create
strong interpersonal relationships and communities of meaning.  
Ruben’s piercing comment got us all thinking, and in
minutes, the program transformed: Let’s begin with some music; singing is
camp’s spiritual glue. How about adding in some personal stories of how camp
has transformed the life of one former camper, now camp parent/camp rabbi!  Oh, let’s gather participants with like-minded
people – former campers together, congregational leadership wondering how to
invigorate their camp delegations, people who don’t know what Jewish camping is
about, camp leaders/staff – and have them talk about something in small
groups.  After all, camp is all
about meeting new people and making new friends.
Oh, burning questions. Invite people to share their burning
questions with the group by means of old-fashioned poster board technology.
Then the camp directors can respond to real questions and concerns, raised by
real people to ensure that everyone walks away with better understandings of the
strategies and tools used at camp to connect, inspire, and engage kids in
Jewish life and learning.  To set
the mood, we can throw into the background some pictures, quotes and
mini-videos from summer camp 2011. How about ending with a big friendship
circle, singing Hashkiveinu, like
most camps end each day?  
In just an hour, our draft plan for serial frontal
presentations transformed into a musical, experiential, informational, and
technological camp-like program. 
And we on the call were reinvigorated by an energetic camp programming
process to recreate camp for biennial participants.  I cannot wait for URJ Biennial to start!
So don’t miss our session – How do we Connect, Inspire, and Engage Kids: What We’ve Learned from
– on Thursday, December 15, 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM (during Learning
sessions Block C).  Once you sign
up, help us focus our program even more. 
Go to our session page on the URJ Biennial website and leave a comment
on why you chose to attend this session
and/or what burning questions do you bring to it
.  We will use your responses to better prepare an engaging
We – Camp Newman Camp Director Ruben Arquilevich, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Greene Family Camp Asst. Director Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Camp Harlam Director Aaron Selkow, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, and URJ Associate Director of Camping Lisa David – look forward to seeing you there. 

Ima on (and off) the Bima: New (sometimes) Blogging Buddy

My new (sometimes) blogging buddy, Ima on (and off) the Bima, was also at the URJ Biennial convention. Though we failed to actually link up in person, we passed blog comments and emails throughout the convention. Right now, this sort-of internet pal is freezing her tuchis off in Chicago, while mine’s just soaking wet in Calabasas.

She has set of cool blogs – Ima on (and off) the Bimah and Thoughts from Rabbi Phyllis. In fact, I added some features to my blog which I copied from hers.

I loved her recent post, 13 Random Things I’ve Learned So Far at the Biennial. Check it out!

Israeli Research into Treating Parkinson’s Makes Scientific American’s Top 50 Breakthroughs

Following Michael J. Fox’s poignant speech to the URJ Biennial regarding research with Stem Cells, it was rewarding to read in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (12/18/07) that:

Israeli research among ’50 most significant scientific breakthroughs in 2007′

A groundbreaking discovery in the field of artificial intelligence, conducted by two Tel Aviv University academics, and Israeli research into treating Parkinson’s disease, have been selected as among the past year’s greatest advancements in science by a top U.S. periodical. Scientific American magazine placed Professor Eshel Ben-Jacob and Dr. Itay Baruchi’s creation of a type of organic memory chip on its list of the year’s 50 most significant scientific discoveries.

Heart Soaring and Head Spinning. The Biennial Closes

The Biennial wrapping up. My head is spinning even as my heart is soaring. Heart soaring because, with my family and dear members of our Or Ami congregational family, we experienced two very moving Shabbat services filled with uplifting Shabbat music and inspiring leadership. Heart soaring because of the incredible music of Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Joe Black, Josh Nelson, and others (ask me about the Gospel Shabbat by a black Jewish group).

My head is spinning because being at this extended weekend convention was like walking along a never-ending shmorgasbord of synagogue/Jewish/community/ritual/social justice/educational/Shabbat/youth side dishes. Each is a meal of opportunities to deepen personal Jewish spirituality and meaningful synagogue life. How do we digest this, prioritize the ideas and initiatives and move forward? (I am guessing that the Biennial delegates with gather this week to consider and prioritize our ideas.)

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ, spoke Shabbat morning about the need for deeper Shabbat celebration, about a State by State Health Care initiative, and about creating a new Muslim-Jewish dialogue between moderate Jews and moderate Muslims. You can read Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon here.

So much learned, so much to do, so glad to be part of a Congregation Or Ami which is part of this larger, morally-focused, creative movement called the Union for Reform Judaism!

Just Congregations: A New Old Way of Changing the World

I’m sitting in a session on Just Congregations, a social justice project that is focused around one on one conversations between individuals. When you and I begin to talk about what concerns us, what keeps us up at night, and then we talk to two others, and so on and so on, certain community-wide burning issues rise up. Soon, we begin to realize that a large group is ready to take action, to make a move that changes the community beyond Or Ami. Now imagine if you connected the one on one conversations of one congregation with those of another. All of a sudden, we realize that people of different faiths share concerns. Imagine how we might change the world. Susan Gould and I were transfixed by this process. Does this interest anyone? If so, let’s talk about helping make this happen. Email me.

Michael J. Fox on Parkinson’s, Stem Cell Research and His Reform Jewish Family

Michael J. Fox, upon receiving the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, spoke about his own journey with Parkinson’s disease, about creating his foundation, and about how it is so difficult to move scientific research from an idea toward a cure.

Words of wisdom from Mr. Fox:

On Parkinson’s disease: It’s a gift. (On reflection he said) It’s a gift that keeps on taking.

If you contemplate the worst case scenario and it happens, you have lived it twice.

God gave us hands and feet and brains. We need to use them.

Some suggest that Stem Cell research must not occur because embryos are life. Jews think differently. We believe that life begins after the fetus leaves the body. According to Judaism, an embryo is not a fetus. It is not life. Judaism supports stem cell research. Jews believe that the government should not limit Stem Cell research, even on embryos.

Read more about Michael J. Fox’s life and work here.

New Rabbis, Educators, Rabbinical Students, and Education Students: The Light of Or Ami Continues to Shine

Gather 5000 Jews together in one place and you are bound to bump into old friends, camp cabinmates, former classmates, and past students. Hanging at the Reform Movement’s Biennial convention in San Diego is an experience of Jewish Facebook come alive.

Perhaps the most fascinating part has been bumping into generations of former Or Ami interns and faculty members. Catching up over lunch with Rabbi Alissa Forrest now of northern California, I came to realize just how poignant the Or Ami internship experience has been. Our small synagogue, 11 years old, has provided deeply meaningful learning laboratories for scores of future Jewish professionals. We afford them much leeway to experiment; we kvell when they find success; and we show patience when ideas do not pan out as they would have hoped. Our interns have helped deepen Mishpacha, create Temple Teen Night, develop the Shabbat morning service, reinvigorate our youth group, write Religious School curriculum, lead services, provide coverage when our rabbi is at convention or vacation, brainstorm new ideas and more. Or Ami has shined brightly because of their contributions. We all are hearing how meaningful our former interns found their experiences.

There was Shaina Wasserman, family educator in a huge synagogue in Palo Alto. Rachel Margolis (formerly Rachel Isaacson, our Mishpacha Coordinator) speaks of the exciting work she is doing as educator at University Synagogue in Brentwood. Here is Josh Barkin, a significant player now in the Jewish educational publishing world at Torah Aura; our current Mishpacha co-chair Sara Mason (incidentally Josh’s future bride) is gathering best practice concepts for use in our Mishpacha program. Rabbi Brett Krichiver is at Stephen S. Wise Temple now; his wife Tami Krichiver leads music as Cantorial Soloist at Or Ami’s Shabbat Morning Service. People are kvelling at the thoughtful, engaging d’var Torah that our current Rabbinic/Education intern Lydia Bloom Medwin gave at a service yesterday; her husband Dan Medwin, our other current Mishpacha co-coordinator, was overheard kvelling about his current experience and gathering ideas to bring back to the synagogue. Here were former faculty members (Kate Spizer and Jake Singer); there are current faculty members (Rachel Ackerman and Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch, who also serves on staff for this Biennial).

Fascinating Presentations; Great Friends

In the midst of a scintillating presentation by the UN ambassador, five of my rabbinic friends came by and ambushed me. Torn between listening to the speaker and talking with my friends, I took a moment to capture the moment and then went back to listening.

With me, from left to right, are Rabbis Elaine Zecher (Boston), Paul Cohen (Chicago), Joe Black (Albuquerque), Rosie Haim (Cleveland) and David Lyon (Houston). Elaine and I worked at Kutz Camp and the CCAR convention program committee for years; we also engage in “phone text” each spring, studying the Sefirah texts from our RAbbinical School. Michelle and I started dating right after Elaine’s birthday party years ago; Elaine officiated at our wedding. Rosie and I were in Israel together between High School and College. Joe Black’s music has gotten me through many a writer’s block. Paul and David are newer friends.

I shared breakfast with a colleague with whom I collaborated on a project, but who – because of long distance communications – never actually met. We shared pictures of the kids, spoke about our great jobs, and caught up on new times.

President Susan Gould Mixes Warmth and Wisdom in Biennial Presentation

I’m sitting here with Or Ami congregant Kim Gubner, as we listen to our President Susan Gould talk about our national award-winning program, No One is More Welcomed at Or Ami Than You. It won a Belin Outreach Award from the Union of Reform Judaism. The program is really a website that focuses on warmly welcoming interfaith couples and families.

Susan is mixing warmth, humor (her own wonderful sense of humor)… Oops, she just pointed me out and now she thinks I’m not listening to her. (Susan, I am… actually I’m writing about your wonderful presentation!)

People are transfixed by her presentation. They are taking notes. Susan is great.

Let’s see if our interfaith webpage gets more hits after the Biennial.

Rabbi Kipnes Presents New Media and Technology Workshop

At the recent Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, I co-led a workshop on integrating new media and technology. I worked with Sean Thibault at the Religious Action Center: [email protected]. That little Or Ami was invited to present at such a workshop is a source of great nachas (pride/joy).
The workshop was really cool. As we presented, we created a blog together (which includes all of our notes). Check out the BiennialBits blog.
Sean taught us how to make a podcast.

I loved participating and showing off Or Ami’s eNewsletters, website, and my blog. Here are my notes:eNewsletters

Creativenet: www.Creativenet.net (I work with Steve Besser)
Constant Contact: www.constantcontact.com
Group Mail: www.group-mail.com

Or Ami eNewsletters:
Illuminating News from Or Ami, weekly newsletter
During the Southern California Fires:
Rabbi’s Tisch Learning eNewsletter, occasional teaching
Talking to Kids about Drugs and Alcohol: http://www.oramimail.org/newsletter/index.php?id=187
Can I Pray that the Red Sox will Win the World Series?

Family Learning program weekly newsletter

Other examples:

FAIR.ORG: http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3226


rabbipaul.blogspot.com – for Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ blog Or Ami I?
Israel Trip blog: http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com/search/label/Israel%20Trip%202006
Camp Newman: http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com/search/label/Camp%20Newman%20URJ