News Feeds

Christian Leaders Offer Prayers, Consolation after Kansas Shooting

URJ Blog - Thu, 04/17/2014 - 10:39

Our friends from the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offered their sympathy this week for those affected by Sunday’s deadly shootings at two Jewish communities in a suburb of Kansas City, KS. As you surely know, three people were killed by gunfire, including a grandfather and his 14-year-old grandson. Overland Park police are investigating the crime as a hate crime and criminal act.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, and the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Disciples of Christ, condemned the act, emphasizing that during these holy seasons for both Christians and Jews, every human is a child of God and is undeserving of harm carried out under religious pretense. The reverends called on Christian leaders to publicly decry any notion, even those from Christian traditions, which maligns people of Jewish faith and threatens their safety.

I urge you to read their powerful statement:

Our hearts break for the families and friends of the three people murdered at a Jewish Community Center and senior home in Overland Park on Sunday. We lift them in prayer. We mourn with our Jewish brothers and sisters for this brutal assault on their community. We hold them in prayer. We stand in solidarity with them in this tragic, frightening moment, particularly coming at the holy seasons for both Christians and Jews.

We are appalled at the killer’s callous disregard for precious human life and the hateful ideology that motivated him. We condemn the deep-seated anti-Semitism that has so long lain at the heart of Western culture.

We acknowledge, as well, the central role Christian tradition has played in promoting the mistrust and hatred of Jews. The ugly truth is that Christian Holy Week, the annual commemoration of the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, has often been the occasion for mob violence against Jewish communities, as priests and pastors preached sermons blaming all Jews throughout history for the death of Jesus. Roman authorities alone had the power to crucify. Pontius Pilate, who issued the execution order, was notorious for his brutality and his insensitivity to the religious and cultural sensibilities of the Jewish population he ruled. And he was particularly harsh during Passover, when Jews came to Jerusalem to commemorate God’s liberation of their ancestors from enslavement to a foreign imperial power. Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus and other Jews at the time of Passover to terrorize and demoralize Jewish pilgrims and inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is a cruel irony, and one of the church’s deepest sins, that so many of our teachers and preachers have twisted history to blame the very people who were targeted by Pilate’s act of state terrorism.

As we journey through this week of reflection and repentance, we urge Christian leaders to actively and publicly renounce the destructive and false narrative that vilifies Jewish faith and all-too-often threatens the life and safety of our Jewish neighbors and friends.

The fact that all three of the victims in Overland Park were Christian, including the son and great grandson of a beloved Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, underlines both the indiscriminant irrationality of such acts of hatred and the deep connection between our Jewish and Christian communities. That which harms either of us, harms both of us.

It is our prayer in this season of Passover and Easter that God will deliver us from the slavery of anti-Semitism and from hatreds of all kinds, that life may triumph over death and we all may know the glorious joy of freedom.

Categories: URJ News

URJ Books and Music Releases the Ultimate Debbie Friedman Anthology

URJ Blog - Wed, 04/16/2014 - 10:39

URJ Books and Music is proud to release the ultimate anthology of the musical works of Debbie Friedman, z”l (1951 – 2011). Regarded as one of the most influential Jewish singer-songwriters in history, Debbie is known for her timeless Jewish folk music, filled with peaceful and universal messages, which have been adopted by Jewish congregations and summer camps around the world. Now, for the first time, that music has been gathered together in one definitive, comprehensive collection – Debbie’s original works, preserved just as she created them.

Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology is a tribute to Debbie’s life and music, featuring every song she wrote and recorded (plus more than 30 songs previously unavailable) in lead sheet format, with complete lyrics, melody line, guitar chords, Hebrew lyrics, transliteration, and English translation. This incredible collection of more than 215 songs was meticulously edited by composer and publisher Joel N. Eglash, formerly managing director of Transcontinental Music Publications and URJ Press, with assistance from Debbie’s sister Cheryl Friedman and other family, friends, and lifelong colleagues. The book includes more than 400 pages of music, photographs, biographical information, memories of Debbie, and tributes to her legacy.

Says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, URJ senior vice president and a close friend of Debbie’s,

Part of the Jewish revolution of the late 1960′s and 70′s was a return to Hebrew as the primary language of Jewish singing. But Debbie’s unique contribution was the courage to blend Hebrew and English in the same song, using spiritually clear and poetic English to bring meaning to a Hebrew text or concept. Debbie’s reclamation of the vernacular to express our deepest aspirations was a tipping point in contemporary Jewish music, a profound change that has created the sound and substance of American Judaism today. My life – our lives – have been spiritually enriched by her contributions, which will continue to bless as future generations sing her songs.

Debbie once stated, “My work is my joy. It is what drives me and keeps me alive.” This collection is Debbie’s final gift to song leaders, cantors, choir directors, musicians – all who breathe new life into her music, keeping her legacy alive as they “sing unto God.”

Learn more about the anthology in this press release from the URJ and order the anthology now from URJ Books and Music.

Categories: URJ News

“We Must Live for Today; We Must Build for Tomorrow”: Social Action in NFTY

URJ Blog - Tue, 04/15/2014 - 04:00

By Sophie Foxman

The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) was introduced into Judaism in the early rabbinic period. It was introduced to me — and has shaped my life in astonishing ways since then — when I entered NFTY.

Growing up, I idealistically believed I could do anything and help everyone, a concept understood by my friends, counselors, and others at URJ Camp George, where I spent my summers.  That’s where the seeds of my desire to be part of something bigger than myself initially were planted.

Those seeds blossomed during many summers at Camp George.  By the time I was in high school, I was nearly bursting with a desire to inspire change. The only thing missing was a place where I felt comfortable enough to speak my mind. I desperately needed a community that shared my commitment to and excitement about tikkun olam.

Lucky for me, one of my best friends from Camp George reached out to me with a line I will never forget:  “Hey Sophie, you should come to NFTY.  Trust me, you’ll love it!”

To say that line was an understatement would be one itself. I dove headfirst into the NFTY community, learning, growing, and being guided by the same principles that I had been trying to incorporate into my own life.

Among NFTY’s 13 principles, three in particular stood out to me.  The first two, tikkun olam and kehilah (community) were right up my alley!  What could be better than a community dedicated to repairing the world?   The third principle that excited me was tikkun middot, which emphasizes the importance of creating an environment in which individuals can improve themselves, as well as meet and exceed their potential as Jews and citizens.

Only when saw someone with the title of Social Action Vice President at my first NFTY regional event did I realize the potential of this amazing organization. Through meaningful programming, exciting fundraisers and hands-on community service, NFTY was able to help me shift my mindset from “Wow, I want to make a difference” to “Wow, I can make a difference.”

Feeling so empowered led me to explore NFTY’s social action history.

Through my research, I learned that NFTY has always been at the forefront in supporting human rights and justice for all, and that our work in this area is inspired by the teaching in Genesis that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).  NFTY was at the March on Washington, supporting Martin Luther King Jr. in his quest for equality and civil rights. NFTY also supported Ethiopian Jews making aliyah to Israel by establishing Project REAP (Reform Movement’s Ethiopian Jewry Assistance Program).  NFTY always has been — and will continue to be — a beacon of hope, help, and understanding for those in the world who struggle for equality, for freedom, for survival.  Knowing how much of NFTY’s rich history is immersed in social action, I was thrilled to be a part of this active youth movement.

In Genesis 3:9, God asks Adam and Eve, “Ayeka?” (“Where are you?”)

Heinini!” (“Here I am.”) Adam replies.

This simple interaction encapsulates NFTY.

Where are we?

Here we are, moving forward to change the world.

Inspired by the work of NFTY and the confidence it gives its members, I decided to run for Social Action Vice President of the Northeast Lakes Region. When my peers elected me, I had yet another shift in perspective when I realized, “Wow, I am making a difference.”

Singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, z”l, in her song “And the Youth Shall See Visions,” wrote these lyrics: “We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.” Indeed, NFTY sees a vision for a brighter future, and just as Debbie’s lyrics ring out, so too do we strive to live for today and build for tomorrow.

With my time in NFTY ending soon, I am especially thankful for what it has given me, and for the tremendous impact it is making — and will continues to make — on the world. When asked, I still tell people that when I grow up, I want to change the world. Thanks to NFTY I have the foundation and the confidence to step up and say “Heinini!” (“Here I am to help.”)

Sophie Foxman, a senior at TanenbaumCHAT in Thornhill, Ontario, is the 2013-14 NFTY-NEL Social Action Vice President. She also is a dreamer, a mover, a shaker, and a world-changer.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Categories: URJ News

Response to shooting in Kansas City: A Modern Plague of Violence

URJ Blog - Mon, 04/14/2014 - 13:40

Tonight at our Seder tables teeming with life, we pause with heavy hearts as we grieve with the families of those killed yesterday in the shootings that took place in a Jewish Community Center and a nearby Jewish senior living community in Overland Park, Kansas. The shooter, a former Ku Klux Klan leader filled with hate, was bent on murdering Jews. This tragedy, as we saw, exemplifies once again hatred and gun violence know no bounds, with two of the victims members of a local Methodist church.

This time Jews were targeted, but in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, it was the Sikhs, and in Newtown, Connecticut, it was small children of different faiths, and a week ago in Chicago, it was 16-year-old football and wrestling star Michael Flournoy III.

On Passover, even as we celebrate our ancestors’ freedom, we recite the 10 plagues God unleashed on the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to free the Jews from slavery. One interpretation of why we do this is so that we remember that our freedom is not complete while others still suffer.

So tonight, safe and surrounded by our loved ones, we remember that when dozens of Americans are dying every day from gun violence, America cannot attain her highest calling of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of her people.

Categories: URJ News

The “Wicked” Child of the Pew Study

URJ Blog - Mon, 04/14/2014 - 08:00

by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Pesach is coming, and at s’darim across the Jewish community we will once again label four children as wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. I have always struggled with this part of the seder for two reasons. All of my work with young people has taught me that we should avoid labeling children because it gives them a negative message, often encouraging them to live up to the label we ascribe. And on a secondary level, I have always found it hard to understand why the respective questions correspond to the labels that the Hagaddah gives them.

While we could analyze each of the children and their corresponding labels, I would like to devote my focus on the wicked child. He asks: “What does this service mean to you?” The Hagaddah’s preoccupation is on the fact that the question says “you,” suggesting that this child no longer identifies with the Jewish people; he is therefore told, in no uncertain terms, that if he had been there he would not have been saved from Egypt. But in reality, one could see this as a question seeking to understand what is happening by looking at it through another person’s eyes. The “wicked” child might not feel a connection to the seder, but he is still seated around the table trying to understand the relevance and meaning for others.

In light of the recent Pew study, this question and this child have taken on a new significance for me. A great deal of attention was given to the study’s finding that 22% of the American Jewish community today identify as Jews of no religion. The study said of them that they “are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.” But despite this label, according to the study, 42% of Jews of no religion still attended a seder last year, assuming their place around the table.

With this growing group in the Jewish community, we might reconsider the question of the supposedly wicked child: “What does this service mean to you?” Using the Pew study’s categories, surely this is the question the “Jews of no religion” could conceivably ask the “Jews by religion.” In this context, the “you” in the question does not symbolize that the group no longer identifies as part of the Jewish community. Rather it symbolizes a struggle to find meaning in Jewish religious life. In seeking meaning, they are still seated around our communal table, identifying as Jews, and they ask others to help provide them with an insight into the meaning.

If we offer this group the answer suggested by the Hagaddah, not only do we fail to answer their question, but we further alienate them from Jewish religious life, and by extension the organized Jewish community. The Hagaddah solidifies a “them” and “us” approach by excluding them from the formative experience of Jewish history, our Exodus from Egypt. And once we exclude them from our communal history, what likelihood is there that they will want to be part of our shared future? Their voice will be silenced, but unlike the child who does not know how to ask, who is silent due to an inability to question, their silence will come because they have removed themselves from our communal table.

It is wonderful that in twenty-first century America, people continue to identify as Jews despite feeling no connection to the religion. In this group we can see either a threat or an opportunity. The Hagaddah’s response to the question comes from a place of fear, feeling threatened by this group and trying to coerce them back into the fold. Instead, we can see the opportunity to try and find ways to help this group find meaning in Jewish religious life. It may not have the same focus as the Judaism of our grandparents, but it can still be rooted in Jewish history and tradition, inspiring them to a deeper Jewish connection.

In this way, the question “What does this service mean to you?” is a wonderful one for us to answer. One may find meaning in the story of the Exodus as a way to find a connection to God, through God’s relationship to the Jewish people. Or perhaps the meaning comes from our slavery experience which compels us to be socially active in the world on behalf of others. Or maybe there is meaning in the seder as a chain linking us back through our history, but also forward into the future with the emphasis on teaching our children. We each can share our personal understanding of the seder to offer them a variety of ways to find a connection.

The Hagaddah provides us with just one answer. Today, with so many possible responses to this question, rather than pushing this group away, we instead can find ways to answer this question with meaning and love to deepen their Jewish connection. Then, perhaps at next year’s seder, they will not ask this question but instead answer it for others, sharing the meaning they have found.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a spiritual leader at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY. He also serves as a board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.

Originally posted at eJewish Philanthropy

Categories: URJ News

Reform Leader Responds to Tragic Shooting at Jewish Community Sites

URJ Blog - Sun, 04/13/2014 - 10:39

In response to today’s shootings at several Jewish communal institutions in Overland Park, KS, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We mourn the tragic loss of life in today’s shootings in the Overland Park, Kansas Jewish community. Information about the perpetrator is still being uncovered, but early reports indicate that anti-Semitism may have been a factor. If so, it is a tragic reminder, this day before Jews around the world observe Passover, of the hatred that continues to plague our world. It is also yet another horrific instance of an act of senseless violence involving the use of guns to take innocent lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and injured in today’s shootings. May the memories of those lost be forever a blessing.

Categories: URJ News

A Fifth Cup – Going Beyond What is Required

URJ Blog - Wed, 04/09/2014 - 04:00

By Joshua Weinberg

Growing up, I struggled with the impression that being a Reform Jew meant that we did less. Fewer mitzvot, shorter holiday observance, and less time spent in Jewish education. It was a stigma that I carried with me as I wrestled with and contemplated my own Jewish identity. This lead me to a realm of experimentation with halachah (Jewish law) – pushing and pulling my ‘red lines’ as I grew and learned more.

Today, as many of us are busy preparing for Passover, I find myself less occupied by the meticulous aspect of the holiday’s demanded mitzvot, but searching instead for ways to supplement the narrative and to find meaning in a modern context. I commend those who find deep meaning in cleaning out their kitchens and sterilizing their homes, making sure that all leavening ceases at the 18-minute mark and [in the Ashkenazi tradition] nothing that could resemble wheat flour – such as legumes – will be consumed during Passover. However, I would like to offer an additional perspective on Passover by suggesting some meaningful ways to supplement the seder.

Zionism and living in Israel were the answers to my search for Jewish identity, and to me, Passover became a holiday of peoplehood. The central narrative became the one that we clearly state after we sing Dayenu,that B’khol Dor VaDor: “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt.” In the traditional Haggadah this statement is followed by a biblical and liturgical reading.

In the recently published Israeli Reform Haggadah, A Haggadah for Our Day, each page is supplemented with modern readings and interpretations. It includes a wonderful poem by Amir Gilboa (who many of us will recognize from the music set by Shlomo Artzi) entitled Shir Baboker BaBoker(Song of the Morning). In his interpretation of history, Gilboa talks about a man who “suddenly wakes up in the morning, feels that he is a nation and begins to walk. And everyone who he meets on his way he calls out to them ‘Shalom.’” The poem ends with the same narrative — that this man has woken with the newfound revelation of nationhood — and he sees that the spring has returned and the tree is turning green since last fall’s tree-shedding of leaves.” There’s no more appropriate metaphor for Passover in my mind than the Spring being a time for awakening, discovery, and the realization that we are indeed a people and have the opportunity to come out of “Egypt” (literally ‘out of narrow places’) and enter the Land of Israel as a nation.

As we have collectively left Egypt and entered the Land of Israel, as Reform Jews who increase our observance as we adapt to our modern circumstances, we now need a fifth cup at our s’darim (plural of seder). There are many interpretations to the additional fifth cup, including Happiness Inside the State: Toward a Liberal Theology of Israel, by Rabbi Michael Marmur.

Rabbi Marmur suggests that the fifth cup is the “Cup of Confidence,” an understanding that comes from needing “the confidence to appreciate all that has been achieved so far, and the confidence to acknowledge that which is still at fault.” I suggest that we adopt a fifth cup for the fifth “verb” of redemption, which revolves around two verses in Exodus (6:6-7) commonly referred to as “The Four Expressions of Redemption”:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. . .

However, in verse 8 there is a fifth verb used: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal.”

As Reform Jews and as Zionists let us use this verse as a way of saying that our fifth cup is the cup of peoplehood and our people are connected to the Land. This Passover, while we sit at our seder tables surrounded by family and friends, let us affirm that this is the time to remind each other that it is our obligation to go beyond our own families and communities and connect to our people and our land. And as the Haggadah says, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Chag Pesach Kasher V’Samei-ach!

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

Categories: URJ News

NFTY of the 1960s

URJ Blog - Tue, 04/08/2014 - 04:00

NFTY in the 1960s was remarkably like NFTY today.  Except in those areas where it was different.

It was the same because, in most ways, kids are the same.

Adolescence is a tumultuous time when kids are suddenly vulnerable and suddenly sexual.  They are desperate to know who cares about them.  They want to find a place where they belong.  They love their parents, but also can’t stand the sight of their parents.  They care too much about clothes and body image.  They are caught up in a need to fit in, but also a need to rebel. 

When I was in NFTY, the kids were like that.  And they are like that today.

But amidst this confusion, rebellion, and uncertainty, kids in our congregations have the most remarkable gifts.  They are hungry for direction.  They have a thirst for the noble and the spiritual.  They are disgusted by hypocrisy and half-hearted commitments.  They are willing to think about constructing new identities — including Jewish identities.  Again, this was true in the 1960s, and it is true today.

And the NFTY that I was involved in knew how to respond to these kids — and to me.  It offered me a refuge from constant adult scrutiny.  It offered me unconditional acceptance.   And it summoned me to a higher standard.  It spoke the language of service, engagement, and commitment.

And it engaged my passion.  It approached Judaism the way teenagers approach falling in love.  It spoke the language of romance, reaching out to me with music, candles, and ceremonies.  It offered me heartfelt music and prayer, authentic rituals, the experience of Shabbat, and most of all, a loving and inclusive community.  And I loved it.

Intellect was important too, of course.  It was a place where I could say whatever was on my mind and challenge everyone and anyone.  It was a place, in other words, that was a little bit subversive, and I loved that too.

But passion was most important.  And in every decade, this is what NFTY has been.  It draws kids in by making the connection between the passion of youth and the passion of Judaism.

But how was NFTY different in the 1960s?

First, youth groups were more important because life was, in many ways, simpler.  I grew up with only four or five television channels, and no DVDs or worldwide web.  And, very important, no cell phones.  When I wanted to call my mom to pick me up at a store downtown, I had to walk — yes, actually walk — to the nearest pay phone, sometimes 40 or 50 yards away.  And while there was pressure to get into college, it was nothing like what it is now:  increasing test scores, building resumes, and raising academic competencies had not become the obsession that we see today.  In my world of the 1960s, I went to youth group not only because my parents pushed me to go, but because in a less busy world, Jewish youth activities — NFTY, BBYO, Young Judea, and USY — were welcome alternatives to the relative quiet and boredom of our teenage lives.

Second, there was a greater intensity to NFTY because walls still existed between American Jews and other Americans.  I grew up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood; furthermore, when I joined my youth group in 1962, the intermarriage rate in America was 6%.  In these circumstances, NFTY was a natural extension of my home and community; we Jews, including Jewish kids, were very much a part of America but, to some degree at least, still lived apart.  Of course, that was beginning to change in my TYG years.  I remember many heated youth group programs about whether or not dating non-Jewish kids was permissible.  Those conversations would be very different today.

Finally, social justice was the heart of NFTY in my days, the priority for every event.  It is still vital, and rightly so, but in the 60s, the country was in the midst of a debate on civil rights legislation; rights for African-Americans was a subject that consumed our youth group agenda.  And the war in Vietnam was just coming into focus.  My first really heated discussions about the justice or injustice of that war took place in youth group settings.  On one hand, we probably paid less attention than we should have to matters other than social justice, but on the other hand, youth group created a social justice consciousness that many of us carried with us into the rest of our lives.

NFTY, in many ways, made me what I am; in ways both similar and dissimilar, the same will be true for NFTYites today.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.  He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Categories: URJ News

Reform Movement Horrified by Fort Hood Shooting

URJ Blog - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 17:27

In response to yesterday’s tragic shooting at Fort Hood in Killeen, TX, Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

We are deeply saddened by the tragedy that occurred yesterday at Fort Hood. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. This horror cannot help but remind us of the 2009 shooting at the same base. Though the details about the perpetrator’s motivation and the means through which he obtained his weapon are still developing, yesterday’s events reinforce the need to ensure that common-sense gun violence prevention laws are in place to help prevent these incidents and others in which guns lead to the loss of innocent lives.

The Talmud teaches us, ‘He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe.’ The loss of so many lives is not just devastating – it is unacceptable. We call on members of Congress, the President and people committed to the well being of all Americans to find shared values on gun violence prevention measures that will help ensure the safety of us all.

Categories: URJ News

A Passover Social Action Update from the RAC

URJ Blog - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 13:42

Every year I look forward to Passover, when we gather with family and friends, share a festive meal, and retell the story of our exodus from Egypt – with all the lessons applied to today’s urgent moral dilemmas and to the struggles for freedom in America and across the globe.

At every seder, I am touched by the creativity of connecting symbols, old and new, on the seder plate to modern challenges – the bitter herbs for the victims of human trafficking, the symbols of the spring harvest reminding us of our responsibility to protect God’s creation for generations yet to come, and newer symbols – an orange for women’s rights, a tomato for farm workers’ rights, etc. And this year, I know, as we tell the story of our own journey to freedom, we will remember those still facing injustice and inequality – immigrants to our nation, the LGBT community, the differently abled still facing too many barriers at too many turns. And in these connections, we should take tremendous pride in knowing how our story of liberation continues to inspire all those who dream that one day soon, freedom and equality can be theirs.

Let me also suggest a way at this time of year, you can help strengthen the social justice program of your synagogue: By ensuring that a congregational leader – or better yet, a delegation – attend the RAC’s major social justice happening of the year, a Social Action Skills Training & Advocacy Day, May 18-20 in Washington, D.C.

Built for lay leaders, clergy and social justice activists who want to strengthen our Movement’s social justice work and bring their synagogue programs to the next level, attendees will learn from key leaders of our Movement’s social action work, teaching about current best practices and exciting new programs from coast to coast. They will in turn introduce you to leading policy experts, staff from Capitol Hill and the White House, and top social justice advocates in Washington who work on a range of issues with which your congregation either is involved or might well choose to be involved.

Your leaders will learn ways of respecting political differences and bridging ideological divides in your congregation, and will enhance their skills in every area of congregational social justice work. To conclude the program, they will join on Tuesday with members of our Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism – our Movement’s top social justice lay leadership – in meetings with key staff and members of Congress. Your attendee(s) will come home energized – and in turn be prepared to energize even your most successful local programs. Register today for yourself or recruit/designate others from your synagogue to attend.

As you know, the Passover-Easter season has exposed heightened tensions between Christians and Jews. As such, I was grateful to have participated recently in a Jewish-Christian summit that included colleagues from several other Jewish communal organizations, as well as the denominational leaders of the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestant groups. We successfully reopened ongoing relations after a tense year and a half in which disagreements regarding Israel had caused the cessation of our dialogue. As you likely are aware, the Presbyterian Church recently released “Zionism Unsettled,” which calls into question the legitimacy of Israel. This topic will be addressed in depth at the Presbyterian’s upcoming convention in June. In the meantime, Religion News Service carried this op-ed from Rabbi Rick Jacobs about the issue. It, and this JCPA press release provide more information.

And finally, some wonderful news to share: We just learned from Gift of Life that the first two potentially life-saving matches have been made from last year’s Yom Kippur bone marrow swab drives organized in our congregations. Can there be any more dramatic expression of the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh – our responsibility to do all we can to save a life? We hope more will follow the 35 congregations that participated last fall, and we’re aiming for 75-100 this coming Yom Kippur. So we’re kicking things off early, and we hope you’ll help us reach this goal. You can find information on how to participate here and contact Veronica Grant to get involved.

In closing, I wish you, your loved ones, and your congregational family, a sweet, wonderful Pesach holiday. In the meantime, please check out the Passover section of for recipes, craft ideas, and information on the customs and rituals of the holiday. Chag sameach! 

Categories: URJ News

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

URJ Blog - Tue, 04/01/2014 - 04:00

By Alexa Maltby

It isn’t every day that you have a life-changing experience, so to say I had a life-changing summer is a blessing. Urban Mitzvah Corps could easily be described as a six-week Jewish social action summer program. But life changing experiences aren’t that easy to describe.

For the past two summers I took the long 15-minute drive from my average hometown to the city of New Brunswick, NJ. I lived in a sorority house on the Rutgers campus and worked in the New Brunswick area. What made the experience unique was working with groups of people who I never would have interacted with before. But that is the beauty of Mitzvah Corps. It is an organization that pushes its participants to be brave and kind hearted.

The difference a 15-minute drive can make is amazing. My stereotypical suburban hometown is a whole different world than New Brunswick. I worked at a camp run by the city of New Brunswick that serves people of all backgrounds. I went in expecting an average summer camp, and left knowing that I was a long way from home. My campers, 6- and 7-year-old girls, were being held back in school and having behavioral difficulties. Before working at Play S.A.F.E., I didn’t know a single person held back in school, but half of my campers were enrolled in summer school. Some of them had language barriers, and others didn’t have the resources at home to get extra academic help. I didn’t start my summer expecting to witness real-life urban problems, but I did.

Mitzvah Corps isn’t just about volunteering at a nursing home or summer camp. It is an organization that sets out to inspire teens to change the world. As Jews, we are raised knowing that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is important. After “shalom,” tikkun olam was the first Hebrew phrase I really understood. We grow up knowing that we have a duty to repair the world, but where is our real chance to do it? Mitzvah Corps gives teens that chance. We spend our summers repairing ourselves and the world around us. For me, I’m repairing in “my own backyard,” but there are participants from all over the United States making a difference in places they’ve never been. This past summer we had eight high school students from the west coast who dedicated their time to servicing New Brunswick. I think that is something special.

Urban Mitzvah Corps is also something special. It offers programs that helps make teenagers mature and humble. Participants leave with a new sense of purpose. I left Urban Mitzvah Corps knowing that I had taken part in performing tikkun olam. I formed friendships with the ‘bingo girls’ at the nursing home, the ‘regulars’ at Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen, and the ‘jump rope girls’ at Play S.A.F.E. I’ve formed countless other relationships over the three summers I have spent with Mitzvah Corps. My life has changed, as we continue to work to change others’ lives.

The impact on my life of Mitzvah Corps will last beyond the summer. Later this year, I am heading off to college, and I will be choosing my major based on my experience. While at Play S.A.F.E., I learned about communities very different from mine. Majoring in Human Development and Family Studies will allow me to learn how to help people like my campers. I want to learn about human dynamics because I loved working with people from different backgrounds. I didn’t just get a great summer experience out of Urban Mitzvah Corps; I got a future out of it.

Alexa Maltby, a high school senior, serves as NFTY Garden Empire Region’s Programming Vice President. This past summer she served as the Urban Mitzvah Corps Student Coordinator. Throughout high school Alexa has also served on AETY, her Temple Youth Group’s executive board.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Categories: URJ News

Christian and Jewish Leaders Achieve Breakthrough, Resuming Dialogue and Engagement

URJ Blog - Thu, 03/27/2014 - 16:51

The heads of Jewish and Christian organizations and denominations met in an unprecedented summit in New York City today to discuss strategies to strengthen and maintain relationships even in the face of significant disagreements. The gathering to discuss relationships and how we treat each other was the first to bring together these groups since a letter was sent on October 5, 2012 by Christian groups calling on Congress to investigate Israel’s use of U.S. military aid.

At today’s meeting, participants made a commitment to developing an effective and ongoing national dialogue of Christian and Jewish leaders:

We affirm a strong commitment to continue working together on domestic and international issues of common concern. We will aspire to genuine and ongoing dialogue related to Israeli-Palestinian issues, seeking to identify and discuss, in respect and humility, areas of real or potential disagreement and of real and potential cooperation.

As people of faith we enter the holy season of Easter and Passover to celebrate the gift of our renewed relationship and look to the future to enhance our closeness and our commitment to serve the common good.

This group of top leaders, who met as a group for the first time today, committed to meeting at least annually and to reconstituting the traditional Jewish-Christian roundtables that were suspended in October of 2012.

The Jewish leaders in attendance were:
Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, co-convener
Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism
Daniel S. Mariaschin, Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, Chief Executive Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

The Christian leaders were:
Rev. Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America from 2001-2013, co-convener
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
The Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, Ecumenical Officer, Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church
Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada
James E. Winkler , General Secretary/President of the National Council of Churches

The meeting was co-designed and co-facilitated by Rev. Dr. Tom Duke and Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.

Categories: URJ News

WRJ Grants Encourage Female Enrollment at URJ Sci-Tech Academy

URJ Blog - Tue, 03/25/2014 - 10:28

As the enrollment level of boys surpasses that of girls for the inaugural summer at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has made a $5,000 grant from its YES (Youth, Education, & Special Projects) Fund to provide scholarships for female campers.

The scholarships are meant to encourage and support the participation of girls in science and technology, which have traditionally been male-dominated fields. Each scholarship recipient will receive $500 toward registration at the camp this summer.

To be considered for a scholarship, applicants must be enrolled at the camp between March 1 and April 30, entering grades 5-9 in Fall 2014, and belong to a URJ congregation.

WRJ President Blair C. Marks, who works for a Fortune 500 company and knows firsthand the importance of gender parity in the growing fields of science and technology, said,

I was thrilled when my two worlds, my sci-tech career and my WRJ leadership, collided when WRJ voted to fund these scholarships. As my own experience has taught me, it is so important for girls to feel safe and welcomed into male-dominated professions and to see puzzle- and problem-solving not as insurmountable challenges but rather as opportunities. To me, these scholarships are consistent with WRJ’s tradition of standing up for women and girls, and I am very proud that we have chosen to lead in this manner.

URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, like the URJ 6 Points Sports Academy started in 2010, offers a unique summer camp opportunity designed to meet the particular interests of youth under a Jewish lens. Lisa Jay of Montabello, NY, whose daughter Hannah loves math, science, and engineering, and recently applied for the WRJ scholarship, said,

Finding a camp that will meet my daughter’s needs so perfectly is a blessing that I cannot begin to describe. We were always hoping to find a Jewish sleep away camp experience that would be appropriate for her interests, but never found one that came close until hearing about Sci-Tech. She is not one for new experiences, but she did not hesitate once we found this camp!

WRJ has a well-established relationship of support for and involvement with Jewish camping that goes back many decades. From 1952, when the Chicago-area sisterhoods helped found the first Union camp, URJ Olin Sang Ruby Institute (OSRUI), until the present day, individual sisterhoods, districts, and WRJ as a whole, have consistently supported the Reform Movement’s camps.

The YES Fund, which is funding these scholarships, represents the collective financial efforts of individual donors and WRJ-affiliated sisterhoods to strengthen the Reform Movement and ensure the future of Reform Judaism. YES Fund grants from WRJ provide Reform Jewish institutions and individuals worldwide with the tools necessary for religious, social, and educational growth.

Categories: URJ News

SING OUT! The Beginnings of NFTY Music: A Look at the First Songs We Sang, Part Two

URJ Blog - Tue, 03/25/2014 - 04:00

By Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin

The music and the style of song leading as it has been popularized among Reform youth has moved the Jewish world. Music in NFTY and Reform camps, which began in 1951 in Wisconsin, seems to have been defined by the era in which it was sung, affected greatly by world events, politics, and technology. Camps were where adolescents gathered to form communities: mini-societies. Singing begins as a family activity, and this “family” atmosphere is created in the camp community.

Repertoire at the West Coast’s Camp Saratoga, which was established in 1951 (and later became UAHC Camp Swig and then URJ Camp Newman), was chosen from American folk songs, some Hebrew, a little Yiddish, and hymns from the old Union Songster. The first songleader at Swig in 1955 was Cantor William Sharlin, an accomplished composer in his mid-30s, who had been to the Union Institute in Wisconsin the previous few summers. He was the first staff member with a professional music background, and was hired to take singing to the next level. Since Cantor Sharlin had come from the only other Union Institute, the repertoire of both was virtually the same. The songbook that Camp Saratoga used was from the Jewish Agency from the 1940s. No set curriculum was instituted, although most of the song sessions helped prepare for Shabbat. By the second summer Saratoga was in session, the natural phenomenon of “tradition” had come into play: what was sung the first summer was “how we’ve always done it.” The kavanah [spontaneity] of the first campers had become the keva [fixed] of the second summer. This circumstance has been both a blessing and a curse to the camping movement ever since.

Campers would sing after every meal, and the most important curriculum component the songleader had to worry about was striking an even balance between two or three English folk and protest songs, (e.g., “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”) and two or three Hebrew songs from liturgy and the modern State of Israel, (e.g., “Hava Netzei B’Machol,” “Atzei Zeitim Omdim,” “Sim Shalom”). Cantor Sharlin said the songs were written on large pieces of butcher paper and posted around the chadar ochel (dining hall) during the week, and by the time they were taken down for Shabbat, the campers had memorized the songs.

For teens in a camp away from parents, singing became a way of expressing emotions, sentiments, and solidarity. The songs that campers were bonding over were songs in English with messages they could stand behind, as well as the songs of the Jewish people. This deepened their connection to the music of the Jews — and to the Jews who were singing it.

Some of the Hebrew songs that found their place in the Reform camps were penned by Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose first recorded album was produced in 1959. Several of his compositions that were brought to camp, such as “Am Yisrael Chai,” “Od Yishama,” and “Esa Einai” are sung among Reform youth to this day.

While much of the early repertoire — Yiddish songs, English brotherhood songs, and hymns — have disappeared, the core of NFTY music, from its roots in the 1940s and ‘50s, remains spirited, communal singing, which speaks to Jewish youth on a deep level.

Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin serves as Cantor at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, VA. He was a camper, Head Songleader and Faculty Member at URJ Camp Swig-Newman. He was ordained in 1996 from HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, where his Masters Project covered the “Music of Reform Youth.”

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Categories: URJ News

60+ Reform Rabbis to Shave Their Heads in Support of Pediatric Cancer Research

URJ Blog - Wed, 03/19/2014 - 13:07

During the 125th annual Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Convention, more than 60 Reform rabbis will shave their heads to raise awareness of and funding for pediatric cancer research. As the religious leadership of Reform Judaism, the CCAR Rabbis strive for justice and wholeness and health in the world in for all people. At the same time, through the CCAR, the rabbis support one another in their rabbinic and personal lives. Shave for the Brave has been a catalyst in uniting members of the rabbinic community who have lost children and brought the entire community together to support each other.

The convention brings together members of the CCAR, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, with more than 2,000 Reform rabbis providing religious leadership in all walks of life. The connection between the Reform rabbinic community and pediatric cancer advocacy began with the story of Samuel “Superman Sam” Sommer (pictured here), the son of Reform rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer. Sam succumbed to leukemia in December 2013. The Sommers documented Sam’s battle with cancer on their blog, Superman Sam.

The shave will take place on the evening of April 1st at the CCAR Convention in Chicago, following a service on loss, healing, and hope led by Rabbi Rex Perlmeter. Rabbi Steven A. Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, said,

We are proud and honored that the CCAR Convention could host this inspiring event, which fosters our goal of rabbis supporting rabbis and building relationships throughout our communities. One of the many roles of the rabbi is to strive to change the world for the betterment of all peoples, be it the health and well being of members of our society or social justice for all. The ‘Shave for the Brave’ event allows rabbis to do that, by raising awareness of pediatric cancer and helping to work towards a cure. This event is an example of CCAR rabbis acting on our moral commitments.

Rabbi Fox also noted that the CCAR has been at the forefront of religious leadership advocating for healthcare for all people everywhere. As early as the 1940s, the CCAR declared that “Every individual should have access to medical care and the most advanced medical research regardless of his economic circumstances.”

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, the Shave for the Brave” organizer, said of the event,

Seven families lose a child to cancer each day, yet only 4% of US federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers. We can’t bring Sam back, but we can help other families. By taking such visible action, these rabbis are serving as role models in their communities and raising awareness among their congregants. It’s an amazing way to bring out the best in people and strengthen the community.

The rabbis’ Shave for the Brave fundraiser benefits St. Baldrick’s, a charity committed to funding childhood cancer research. Originally conceived of in the hopes of convincing 36 rabbis to help raise $180,000, the group has grown to 66 rabbis and is on track to raise $360,000. The “shavees” consist of 53 male and 13 female rabbis. In addition to the group shaving at the CCAR Convention, there are additional rabbis shaving in their home communities, including Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis who were inspired to support their rabbinic colleagues. The outpouring of support demonstrates how a tragedy can unite people across denominations to act on shared values.

Categories: URJ News

URJ Continues Disaster Relief Funding

URJ Blog - Tue, 03/18/2014 - 16:13

This week, the Union for Reform Judaism disbursed its second round of disaster relief funding to support rebuilding efforts following Typhoon Haiyan. To date, the URJ has released nearly $250,000 for the relief efforts, and we continue to partner with both North America and Philippines-based NGOs to support the most critical needs related to the recovery. Here is a summary of the March 2014 allocations:

  • Samdhana Institute, $60,700
    As emergency supplies were being distributed immediately following the storm, Samdhana’s staff began a needs assessment of storm victims. They discovered large portions of the population with severely damaged homes and loss of income that were not being attended to by government or relief agencies. This grant provides emergency financial assistance to dozens of families, and will provide small business owners with the opportunity to repair or replace damaged and lost boats, businesses, and homes.
  • Mercy Corps, $25,000
    With more than 30 million Filipinos earning less than $2 US per day, many Filipinos have spent what little they have to do necessary repairs to damaged property. Mercy Corps has established an unconditional emergency cash program, disbursing funds in two waves. The first distribution ($45 per family) is helping storm victims cover emergency needs, including food and household supplies. The second ($27 per family) will help cover lost assets. The URJ’s grant will allow Mercy Corps to support nearly 350 additional families.
  • National Asian American Coalition & Pandan Bay Foundation, $25,000
    Together, the NAAC and Pandan Bay Foundation are working to rebuild schools and libraries that were destroyed in rural Antique province. This grant covers more than half of the anticipated costs of repairs and will ensure that building are rebuilt to withstand stronger storms.
  • Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, $10,000
    As part of the URJ’s international disaster relief efforts, we contribute a small percentage of funds raised to the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR). The JCDR provides a coordinated Jewish response to storm efforts, and the URJ holds a seat on its executive committee. Learn more about JCDR’s allocations for Typhoon Haiyan recovery at

Along with this week’s Typhoon Haiyan allocations, the URJ also formally concluded its Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, making a final disbursement of $49,854 to West End Temple in Neponsit, NY.

Categories: URJ News

Community. Prayer. Holiness.

URJ Blog - Tue, 03/18/2014 - 04:00

By Rose Snitz

As people gather and voices come together in harmony, the holiness of the space begins to form. From Shabbat services in local communities to regional Havdalah services, to closing rituals during the North American Convention, there’s always an unexplainable feeling of connection and community at NFTY events.

Picture yourself overlooking a group of 300 Jewish teens. Are they in a circle with songleaders and service leaders in the center? Are they seated in traditional rows with the leaders up front? Or are they outside at a camp by the lake? NFTY has a unique way of morphing camp-style and traditional services into one, and beyond. What do you hear upon entering into the prayer space? You hear the warm sound of guitars strumming, voices singing, and people laughing.

With this image in your mind, think about what goes on behind-the-scenes for service leaders. What questions are asked? What is taken into account during the planning process? Teen service leaders work with clergy to plan the kind of service they want to create — from the theme of a service, to where the worship will take place. After that, they work with songleaders to create the ‘sound’ of the service. In NFTY, music is an essential part of worship. It’s the key to break down barriers to connect with our heritage through prayer.

Are NFTY services more engaging than other services for teens? Yes and no. Some teens connect better during NFTY worship because their peers are leading the services. Other teens feel more comfortable due to the amount of music that is present. Yet for others, services are always an internal battle. What can we do to address this? Leaders struggle with the challenge.

Last November, I served on a panel with Andrew Keene, NFTY President, Danielle Rodnizki, soloist at Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater, Florida, and Toby Pechner, a recent NFTY alum, which was facilitated by the Jewish musician Dan Nichols and Cantor Ellen Dreskin, Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music to address this very topic: How can we make worship more meaningful and engaging for youth? The four of us, as well as social media through Dan, were asked a series of questions that aren’t typically asked of young adults. For example, we were asked, “When do you feel heard? When don’t you feel heard? What do you want and need in worship?”

The most popular answers — to what we need in worship — include using music and unconventional methods of prayer. This includes services that use social media, yoga services, using secular music that relates to prayer, and singing the Hebrew words of a song (like Adon Olam) to Backstreet Boys’ music.

Our panel concluded that while these are methods that work well, the most important thing is to continue to build the relationships between adult leadership and the next generation.

NFTY is a perfect model of generationalleadership, especially in worship. Clergy members help teens, and teens help younger teens. This happens throughout the planning process and the actual service, whether it’s the service leader having their younger peer read a prayer or have an aliyah.

During the reader’s Kaddish NFTY shows how it’s a family. At a NFTY service, if a NFTYite has just lost someone, they’re remembering a yahrzeit, or even if we’ve lost someone in the greater community, it feels as if the entire congregation at the time is mourning. For example, when Sam Sommer, z’l, (a.k.a. Superman Sam) died while many of us were attending the URJ Biennial, at Shabbat services the entire NFTY section stood up during the Mourner’s Kaddish to remember him.

NFTY truly is a k’hilah kedoshah, a holy community.

Rose Snitz is an active and engaged NFTYite living in Tulsa, OK, where she is a music Madricha and Hebrew tutor at Temple Israel. She is and alumna of the URJ Greene Family Camp and NFTY in Israel. Rose currently serves as the RCVP of OKATY (Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City) as well as a NFTY-TOR Regional Songleader.

Categories: URJ News

What Is Audacious Hospitality?

URJ Blog - Mon, 03/17/2014 - 12:44

The Jewish people is here today because those who came before us were audacious. By that I mean courageous, fearless, and bold.

Genesis teaches us to practice audacious hospitality. On a blisteringly hot day, Abraham runs after three desert wanderers, insisting they come inside for nourishment. What makes his act so memorable is not waiting for the wanderers to knock on his door; instead, he goes out to meet them where they are and invites them in.

Some months ago, I arrived early at one of our URJ congregations to speak on a Friday night. In the lobby, a woman wearing a nametag looked at me and barked, “What do you want?” I answered, “I want to be in a congregation filled with warmth and welcome.” She looked at me, her expression communicating, “Boy, do you have the wrong place!” Then she looked over her shoulder at the easel in the entryway, which held a picture of a guy who looked a lot like me. “Are you him?” she asked. I nodded “yes.” With suddenly discovered warmth, she said, “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

That’s not audacious hospitality.

To be sure, many of our congregations do an outstanding job of welcoming, but many do not. Here’s a simple thing you can do: Take every member of your board, every staff and team member, everyone who might come early one Friday night, and give them a run-through on the power of being Abraham and Sarah.

That’s just the beginning. Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of community—and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process. Audacious hospitality is a two-way street where synagogue and stranger need each other, where we not only teach newcomers, but they teach us.

The paradigm for this audacity arose decades ago, when then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander Schindler overturned all previous Jewish communal assumptions about interfaith families by insisting that we draw them close in all aspects of Jewish life. Nowadays, as a result, thousands of interfaith families are enriching our congregational lives, and thousands of children are being raised with meaningful Jewish commitments.

In today’s Jewish world, where many more Jews are outside than inside, we must practice such audacious hospitality with the LGBTQ community, multi-racial Jews, Jews with disabilities, and Gen X and the millennials—including all those who do not identify as part of the religious community. All of them have much to teach us.

Only by being inclusive can we be strong. Only by being open can we be whole.

Originally printed in Reform Judaism magazine

Categories: URJ News

Synagogue in Simferopol, Ukraine Needs Urgent Repairs

URJ Blog - Fri, 03/14/2014 - 11:01

The following was sent on Thursday morning as an email on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The bottom of this post includes a link to donate to help Jewish communities in Ukraine during this time of crisis.

Dear World Union Family: In the past few weeks we’ve shared with you what has been happening in our communities in Ukraine. We’ve all seen the heartbreaking photos of one of our synagogues in Crimea covered with anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas. We are in close contact with our local leadership. We were happy to hear that students from the international Hillel organization held a “Good Deeds Week” and chose to paint over the graffiti as their good deed. However, we have now been informed that the Simferopol Synagogue building is in need of urgent repairs – the roof is leaking and may collapse at any moment.

The WUPJ has initiated an emergency campaign to support our communities throughout this crisis, and to provide urgently needed protection measures, supplies, equipment as well as assistance with the installation of security systems.

At this time, the most urgent short term needs are the physical state of the building in Simferopol, and tightening the security measures. We are asking for assistance now, since these steps must be put into action immediately.  Please do what you can so our family in Ukraine can return to the task facing an entire generation – rebuilding Jewish life, which was lost over the last century.

The media coverage for the situation has been extensive. The UK’s Jewish News reports that the “shul has been turned into a fortress” and there are concerns for the continuity of the congregation in Simferopol. Israel’s Ha’aretz reports that the community in Crimea is divided between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian Jews. Other media sources talk about the fears and worries that the people face there. Our local leadership have been interviewed on radio and TV stations – both local and international, such as NPR (radio) and Israel’s TV 10-News.The support from our global family has been heartwarming – through fundraising, emails and phone calls, and helping to raise public awareness. Alyth North Western Reform Synagogue (London) are in close contact with the Crimean Kerch community as we reported in WUPJnews #788. Zoya, the Jewish Community Administrator in Kerch said “Please, pass our words of gratitude to all our dear friends at Alyth who pray for us and who think about our community. Thank you so-so much for your kind and supporting words. God bless you.” The Leo Baeck College, London, published a brief press release, expressing “deep concern the events unfolding in Ukraine.”  Congregation Ner Tamid in Simferopol has also been in a twinning relationship with Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, in Evanston, IL and they will be sending recently raised emergency funds, along with funds that have been contributed from the Jewish Federation in Chicago. Reform congregations working with the Nashville Federation have also collected funds for upgrades to the security system. These are just a few of the many efforts being made across the globe to ease the suffering of communities in Ukraine.

As we begin to prepare for Shabbat and for the up-coming Purim festival, let us remember our fellow Reform Jews in Kiev, Crimea, and across the whole Ukraine, who are going through difficult times. We pray for their safety and for the return to peace for all citizens in the Ukraine.

To make a contribution, please visit WUPJ GIVING. If you’re using a credit card, please mark “Kiev Appeal” in the box that says, “Enter description.” Please call Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor with any questions or concerns: 212-452-6531 or

Categories: URJ News

Blue Ridge Mountain High: The ECE-RJ Kallah

URJ Blog - Thu, 03/13/2014 - 16:54

by Cathy Rolland

How fortunate I was to be among a dedicated group of early childhood professionals who gathered last weekend in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains for a dose of spiritual renewal and time together with respected colleagues with whom I could share ideas, resources, and challenges around our sacred work to engage young children and their families in the joys of Jewish life. How blessed I was to attend the 2014 Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism Kallah.

Our adventure began at Congregation Beth HaTephila, where Rabbi Batsheva Meiri and the Kitah Hey class of talented fifth graders led a truly inspiring and meaningful Kabbalat Shabbat service. The next day, we spent time devoted to intentional Jewish practice in North Carolina’s beautiful outdoors.  Led by Rabbi Mike Comins and Shira Kline in the spring-like air and sunshine of the Tar Heel State, I felt true kavannah (intention) in my worship, joy in my singing, and that indescribable ruach (spirit) that happens whenever Jews come together.

Indeed, throughout the weekend, I was on a spiritual high, continually amazed and inspired by my colleagues’ dedication to building strong connections with one another and within the greater Reform Movement. This rapport was evident in the links we forged with the community at Congregation Beth HaTephila and, perhaps most important, will be readily visible now that these outstanding professionals have returned home. Refreshed and invigorated by their time away, they are busy in congregations across North America — leading the way in implementing and nurturing early childhood programs that invite the youngest children to celebrate the joys of Jewish life, engage their parents and provide them with tools to build meaningful Jewish lives at home, and connect families to Jewish role models, as well as to the joys of Jewish living and learning.

If you’d like to be part of the exciting conversation around this holy work, join my colleagues and me — and lots of other folks who are having engaging discussions on a wide array of topics — in The Tent, a collaborative workspace for leaders of Reform Judaism.  I look forward to seeing you there!

Cathy Rolland is a member of the Expanding Our Reach team at the URJ.  As a thought leader in Early Childhood Engagement, she also serves on the URJ Faculty.

Categories: URJ News

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