Tag: URJ

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?

URJ Kutz Camp Set Me On My Jewish Path

That’s me at the front of the boat

You could say that the texture of my life was molded during six summers I spent at the URJ Kutz Camp: NFTY Leadership Experience. Those summers – two as a Program Participant, two as a Resident Advisor/Program Director, and two as Head RA – set my life on a course that would weave together an intense love of Judaism, a versatility with creative and innovative programming, and a deeper appreciation of who I am. So much of what I do today as a rabbi draws on the nurturing and nourishment I received at Kutz.

I went to Kutz because my youth region NEFTY (now NFTY-Northeast) and my temple rabbis presented Kutz as the ultimate teen leadership experience. Kutz, I was told, was an incubator for future leaders of the adult Jewish community. So That summer I headed off to Warwick, NY.

At Kutz I Found a Second Home
There I made Jewish connections that defined me. There I experienced a whole bunch of really intense relationships. There I honed a set of informal educational programming skills that propelled me into rabbinical school, through a Masters in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, and ultimately into my current synagogue. In fact, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA derives much of its ta’am (flavor) and focus from the welcoming warmth and innovative Judaism that I experienced at Kutz.

Kutz Expanded my Horizons
At Kutz I met the giants of Reform Judaism. We studied Jewish prayer with HUC-JIR’s Dr. Larry Hoffman, Talmud with orthodox Rabbi professor Michael Chernick, Jewish philosophy with Dr. Eugene Borowitz and the Biblical Five Megillot with UAHC leader Rabbi Bernie Zlotowitz. UAHC president Alexander Schindler spoke an inspired us, UAHC VP Danny Syme warned us about the dangers of cults and other Reform Movement dignitaries shared with us issues at the heart of what it means to be a Reform Jew.

At Kutz, we heard from Abbie Nathan, the renegade Voice of Israel radio personality, we connected to Israel through shlichim David and Miri Varon, and we were regaled with musical compositions by a Russian immigrant/former refusenick who conducted the Moscow orchestra.

Kutz Refined Jewish Leadership Skills
Smitty (Rabbi Allan Smith, UAHC Youth Division Director ) guided my development as a youth worker, PJR (Paul J. Reichenbach, now URJ director of Camping and Israel Programs ) nurtured my programming abilities, and Rabbi Ramie Arian (then NFTY Director) led me to develop the beginnings of a philosophy of youth engagement. With dear friend Elaine Zecher, we created a programming partnership that continued into our rabbinates and our work in the CCAR.

Empowered through Song
At Kutz, music spoke louder than words as we sang together under the musical leadership of Merri Arian and Jewish composer and HUC-JIR professor Benji Schiller. Successive, talented song leaders taught us the latest Jewish and Israeli tunes. I learned so many Jewish values through song, texts from Pirkei Avot, Talmud, liturgy, and Tanakh that to this day animate my moral core.

Inspired by Rabbis
At Kutz I met and connected with energetic, creative, youth-focused rabbis and rabbinic students who led me on journeys into aspects of Judaism I might not have encountered until years later. Rooted in Jewish texts and social justice values, they instilled within me a conviction that Judaism speaks to every issue – religious, social, sexual, public policy, economic and more. There I first encountered the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which years later would provide me with a life focusing internship. And more, at Kutz I learned that one day I wanted to inspire teens just like they inspired me.

Faced Teen Issues
At Kutz, guided by Social Worker Ira Schwietzer (Ducky), we face a whole array of teen issues. We wrestled with the intersection between sex and love, the need to break a friend’s confidentiality if she is contemplating suicide, and the importance of dating and marrying Jews. We talked about peer pressure, body image and relationships with parents.

Found Abiding Love
Oh, and at Kutz, my life was forever enhanced when I met my wife Michelle November, then Director of the UAHC College Department. A year later, connecting at a Youth Division conference, we agreed to go on a second date (the date which sealed our relationship).

Kutz Molded Me
Yes, the URJ Kutz Camp: NFTY Leadership Experience molded me into the Jewish leader I have become. It prepared me in many ways for this role. It pointed me toward issues in the Jewish and secular worlds that still consume my interest and time.

I have not been to Kutz for over a decade; my camping attention is focused on URJ Camp Newman where I am Dean of Faculty, and where our three kids have gained similar values and experiences.

But I will always cherish Kutz as an important center for Jewish leadership development and as the place that made me… Me.

How did Kutz Camp help mold you into the person you are today?

Out Come the Sandals: Camp Newman is Beginning

Soon I trade my shoes in for sandals and my briefcase in for a backpack. Pants are replaced by shorts; a baseball cap I place of my kippah. The change in clothing reflects a change in the location of my work from the synagogue in Calabasas to a summer camp in Santa Rosa. While my outer garments are significantly more relaxed than my regular temple clothes, they do not indicate a more relaxed few weeks for me. Rather the change in clothing just makes it easier to “get down and dirty” with the 350+ young people who attend and the 150 college students who lead the camp. 
At camp I lead multiple three session series of outdoor activities – entitled OMG WTF (Oh My God, Where’s Thy Faith). These sessions, held under the blue sky on the hilltops of Sonoma, guide 8th and 9th graders to encounter the Holy One. Together  they meet such Jewish thinkers as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel; in small groups they plan and lead t’filah (worship services).  Our Torat Chayim bunk activity provides us with a chance to wrestle with the challenging messages of the weekly Torah portion. As significantly, it offers the young people with a chance to ask their most burning questions to a patient rabbi who cares. We mentor college student counselors and graduate school Rashim (unit heads) as they nurture young Jews. And we refresh our own souls. 
For the last 16 summers, my wife Michelle November and I have traveled to Camp Newman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s summer camp in Santa Rosa, CA. There, we chaperone our synagogue’s delegation of 45 youth and adults. 
We go because Congregation Or Ami highly values the Jewish summer camp experience, recognizing camp as one of the most significant Jewish enculturation and identity building modalities, second only to an active Jewish home. We go because we were shaped as Jews by the URJ summer camps – Michelle at Camp Swig and me at Kutz Camp. We go because camp is part of a quartet of Jewish influences which nurtured our four children: camp, Israel, Jewish day/high schools, and our synagogue Congregation Or Ami. 
For many people, summer is about relaxing. For us, our children, our congregation, and the delegation we chaperone, summer is a time for engaging Jewishly, searching deeply for our spiritual path, and for rejuvenating our souls. 
Come back to my blog for more updates from URJ Camp Newman. 

NFTY Convention: Where Prayer is Spine-Tingling, Bone-Shakingly Inspiring

Teens can be so surprisingly inspiring.

At home, we sometimes used to struggle to feed balanced meals to our 3 teenagers. Imagine trying to feed 1000 as these Jewish teens sat together to for Shabbat dinner. And that was only the beginning.

We are gathered at a hotel in Los Angeles for the NFTY Convention, perhaps the largest Jewish teen gathering around. NFTY, of which our kids are third generation members, has brought together teens from all over the US and Canada (and also, I heard, teens from Israel and a half dozen other countries) for five days of fun, socializing, Jewish learning, energetic music, teen issues, social justice activism, eating, talking, laughing, singing, dancing, praying …

Oh, the praying…

This is not your Grandfather’s Davening (worship)
Growing up in many a synagogue, most teens experience prayer as a formalized experience. Lots of responsive readings mixed in with serious music. Over time, our Ashkenazi ancestors, and their American Reformer descendants, articulated a formalized experience, with precise words and structure, and instructions of when to stand and sit, and just how to bow. Services at the NFTY convention were anything but that. I imagine some of our Jewish ancestors might be turning over in their graves if they watched these 1000 NFTYites pray.


Because our teens sang energetically, chanted meaningfully and swayed with joy and abandon. It was meaningful. It was exciting. And just so inspiring. It was more early chassidism then early reformer.

The early European chassidim transformed the Jewish prayer experience from the staid to the emotional. They taught their adherents to open themselves up by singing and dancing, to lift themselves beyond the “here and now” to the hopeful and the passionate.

Prayer can be spine-tingling, bone-shakingly uplifting
Yes, spread out all over the ballroom floor, our teens sat and sang a beautifully melodic prayer. But as the energy built up, the inspiration ramped up, and before we knew it, kids popped up onto their feet. Singing and swaying, dancing and clapping, they became the modern definition of hitlahavut, joyous enflamed passion.

Perhaps that best describes this indescribable experience. More than prose, this teen tefilah is poetry in its wholesomeness and all encompassing nature. It is chassidic hitlahavut, combined with Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationalism, mixed in with Debbie Friedman-inspired musicality.

I turned to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the parent body of our congregations, and the older sister to NFTY. Praising the scene we were witnessing, I shared my frustration at my inability to find the words to capture the wonderful spiritual transformation we were witnessing. He nodded knowingly, as he smiled appreciatively, clearly touched by the expansive displays of prayerfulness surrounding us. We clapped on.

God was in the House!
Most synagogues would celebrate if a dozen teenagers showed up at Shabbat services on a regular Friday night. How would it feel when 1000 attended? Awesome. Just awesome.

Rabbi Jacobs began his story drash asking, “Is NFTY in the house?” The thunderous response assured us all that they were.

Had the question been a bit different – Is God in the house? – I feel confident, the answer would have been the same.

Prayer that Wows
Thanks NFTY. Thanks URJ. Thanks Rabbi Dan Medwin of the CCAR for the Visual Tefilah. And the unnamed shlichay tzibur (prayer leaders). For a spiritual, musical, inspirational tefilah.

Yes, God was in the House!

A Teen with Asperger’s Tells Her Story to Her Peers

On the TV show Parenthood, teenager Max has Asperger’s Syndrome. While running for student body president, Max tells his classmates about his Asperger’s. The episode is riveting television, but not quite as poignant as when one of our Congregation Or Ami teens stepped up before her peers and shared her own Asperger’s story.

It all began when one of our teens and her mother watched the Parenthood episode. It inspired her to contact their rabbis to suggest that our teen tell her fellow teens about how her Asperger’s affects her. Since at Congregation Or Ami we start at “yes” – especially with regards to full accessibility for individuals and families with special needs – we moved quickly to scheduling a date for her presentation to her peers.

Our teen worked with her parents to compose a paragraph about her strengths and challenges she wanted to share with the group. To make it most comfortable for our teen, one of our rabbis was present to support her when she was speaking.

Jewish Teenager with Asperger’s Shares Her Story with Her Temple Peers

Our teen said:

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a part of me. I might think differently than you do. My brain is kind of like a MAC and everyone else is PC. I just do things a little differently. My brain functions a different way than yours does. It’s not wrong or bad to have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s just another way of thinking and being. 1 out of 88 people is on the autism spectrum. This is a recent number. Chances are you, or your mom, dad, sibling, grandparents, whichever, may know someone who works with, is friends with, or goes to school with someone on the autism spectrum. Scientists are still not sure what causes Asperger’s Syndrome. They have been working since the 1930’s to discover what it is and what causes it. 

There are people who have been suspected to have some form of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. 

  • Temple Grandin is an American doctor of animal science.
  • Bill Gates is the creator of Microsoft and is one of the richest men in the world.
  • Albert Einstein was a German/American theoretical physicist.
  • Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. 

My Strengths:

  • Artist
  • Ambitious
  • Honest
  • Loyal
  • Loves Animals, and
  • Loves Reading

My Struggles

  • I can take things out of context.
  • I may say things that might seem rude, but I don’t mean it.
  • It’s hard for me to make eye contact and make friends.
  • If it seems like I walk away sometimes, I just need a little break.

What can you do?

  • Understand that I struggle with social interaction and try to understand what I am going through.
  • Accept everyone as unique and valuable.
  • Talk to kids who seem shy. Include them.
  • Stand up for kids that are being bullied.
  • Don’t be reluctant to give friendship advice, but be kind about it.

Our teen answered some questions and the session continued with the scheduled session plan. But like the fictional Max from tv’s Parenthood, our real-life teen inspired her peers and taught us all about strength, grace and courage.

On Judaism and Accessibility

Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA has long been committed to accessibility for individuals with special needs and their families. We have a webpage emphasizing our accessibility to Jews with Disabilities. Our Brandon Kaplan Special Needs Fund helps us integrate people with special needs and their families into all aspects of our congregation. We are also the synagogue for Chaverim, a program of Jewish Family Service, for developmentally disabled adults, age 18 to 88. I blog regularly about the intersection of Judaism and Jews with Disabilities.

Our national Reform Jewish movement – especially the Union for Reform Judaism – has a long history of working for full inclusion and openness for people with disabilities and special needs.

URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA has a dedicated Nefesh team comprised of psychologists, therapists and social workers who are at camp all summer. The Nefesh team helps the counselors and roshim (unit heads) integrate and support all children with unique situations (including emotional, physical, psycho-social and other “special needs”). Read about Ethan’s experience at Camp Newman.

“I Love Being Jewish”, Declare Camp Newman Campers

Dispatch from Camp Newman, Santa Rosa, CA

Early dinner is over (we have two seatings), and I can rest easy having checked in with every one of our younger campers. From a distance, I watched their interactions with other campers and their counselors; I made sure they are eating (everyone seemed to like the spaghetti and bread sticks; some even had full plates for the fresh salad bar). I look for smiles (there are so many). Then a quick hello, a hug for many of them, and a reassuring “Michelle and I are here and look forward to having fun with you.” (We similarly checked in with the Or Ami campers and staff at late dinner. All are well.)

Now I’m sitting here in the Beit Tefilah (outdoor amphitheater) where the whole camp community has gathered for the All Camp Welcome. After a heartfelt welcome by Camp Director Ruben Arquilevitch, each set of rashim (unit heads) introduced themselves and their eidah (unit). The energy was electrifying as campers broke out into cheering and dancing.

The directors countdown how long everyone has been at camp. They elicit special cheering as the first year campers rise up and are welcomed. As they call out from second summer campers up past ten summers and more, my wife Michelle and I quickly count up our years at Camp. Michelle counts 30 summers at Camp Newman (and its predecessor Camp Swig), which is improbable since she only just turned 34 years old (not really)!

Then, as the energy begins to peak, my ear drums almost burst amidst the cacophony as campers shout out passionately, “I love being Jewish!” It is music to my ears to hear so many young people (and high school and college students) declare the centrality of being Jewish to their lives.

Great summertime experiences.

Yep, that’s what camp is all about: vibrant youthful energy, passionate Jewish experiences, and good, clean fun.

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. 

Disability Awareness Month

18 years ago, when I became rabbi at Congregation Or Ami, I was very thoughtful about what should be  the first policies I asked the board to pass.  The policy should reflect deeply held dreams of what a congregation should care about; it should illuminate important Jewish values.

I was thrilled when the board voted that:

Any child of a member has the right to a Jewish educational experience; and any child of a member, who works to the best of his or her ability, has the right and privilege of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Or Ami. 

This policy made clear our priority that children with disabilities – and their families – have a home in this congregation and every congregation. We trumpet loudly our commitment to people with disabilities on a special needs webpage, “No one is more welcome at Or Ami than you!”  We effectuate this by making sure our staff and educators say “yes” whenever asked about whether a child with disabilities can become a Bar Mitzvah, and by ensuring that our learning programs are flexible enough to meet a variety of unique needs.  We educate toward this reality by directing our educational leadership to work with families to ensure that each child finds a productive learning experience at Or Ami.  We partner with Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, so that Or Ami is their synagogue home.  We sponsor Brandon’s Buddies, a program which brings together typical and special needs children for friendship and play.  We celebrate joyously the numerous B’nai Mitzvah of children with special needs.  We blog about special needs and disabilities regularly.

I was overjoyed to read that the RACblog (of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) was publicizing the good work of our Reform Movement congregations in the run up to February’s disability awareness month.  (BTW, if you are not a regular reader of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC) blog, you are missing some important Jewish social justice blogging.)

Perhaps you will come to Or Ami’s annual Shabbat Service celebrating people with special needs on Friday, January 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm.  Families with children with special needs are invited to register for a special Shabbat dinner beforehand at 6:00 pm (there is a fee for the dinner).  

6 Distinctive Features of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, offered these as six distinctive features of Reform Judaism:

  1. We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.
  2. We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.
  3. We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the interma
  4. We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.
  5. We see tikkun olam as an essential element of our Reform identity – in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.
  6. And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.

What do you find to be the distinctive features of Reform Judaism?