The Journal of Youth Engagement checks in with Benjamin Singer, who shared his secret for engaging young people in synagogue life: Torah. The article “How to Get Youth Into Your Synagogue” originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement in August 2014.
In your original article, you cited the central role of Torah in guiding your work with Common Cause of Illinois. What have you been up to since then?
As you read, I’ve long felt that big money in politics corrupts our government, and stands in the way of enacting just policies–whether on taxes, the environment, health care, or foreign policy. I’m now the Campaign Manager of MAYDAY.US. We’re a bipartisan organization supporting candidates for Congress who want to reform the way we fund our elections, in order to empower working Americans. To sloganize it, we are a “SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs.”
When we last checked in, you articulated some big questions for our community of adults working with youth: How do we get millennials to go to Hebrew school? Or go to Hillel in college? Or join a synagogue after graduation.
Your answer was simple: Torah. Can you share an example of how Torah has guided your justice work in the past year?
We must hear the small just as the great, as we read in D’varim. Following through on those values, I felt a need to help fix our political system because it’s become ruled by big money, instead of by every person’s voice.
And as stated by a group of rabbis in Chicago before the recent election, “A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakras hatov–recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedom we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to…vote.”
So I wanted to be part of this change by actually participating in our democracy. We are a citizens’ movement in every sense of the word. People-powered, people-run, and strategically focused to pursue justice.
You identified as a Jewish young person upset by injustice. What advice do you have for others who identify this way?
Great question. I say look to the root cause of the injustice. Not “how can I give that hungry person food?” but instead, “Why does that hungry person not have food?” I think it’s important to think strategically about what is standing in the way, and seek out the most effective way to create that justice sustainably. Remember, we don’t just say “justice shall you pursue.” The rabbis teach that we say the word “justice” twice to emphasize the importance of just systems in order to achieve just outcomes.
Where can we go if we want to learn more about your work, or find opportunities for tikkun olam in our own communities?
If young people are disillusioned by the political process, it’s for good reason. Luckily, we can be part of disrupting it and making it what it should be, with some fundamental change. Right now we already have 148 allies in Congress, and growing. As I said, we are a citizens’ movement: people-powered and strategically focused to pursue justice. If you want to fix the issue that’s at the root of all other issues, it’s time to start doing something about it. Sign up to be part of the movement at http://MAYDAY.US.
Looking for additional resources to pursue justice? Check out these resources from the Reform Movement.
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – Advocacy & Activism, Teen Seminars, and College Internships
Mitzvah Corps – Hands-on Social Justice Service Programs for Teens
ReformJudaism.org – Resources and Jewish perspectives on issues of justice
The Community Synagogue of Port Washington has previously shared strategies for innovation in youth worship and lowering barriers to participation by rethinking “membership” in youth group. This month, we check in with Lindsay Ganci and Rabbi Danny Burkeman following a recent congregational trip to Israel that leverages what they’ve learned.
Many people have traveled to Israel on a family trip, many have taken part in teen trips to Israel, and a lucky few have traveled on both. This past February, we organized a congregational Israel trip that would blend the experiences of a family and teen trip into one hybrid adventure.
When our congregation began talking about a family trip to Israel, one of our congregants approached us and asked about the possibility of offering a parallel teenage trip for our youth program, POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth). This was around the same time that Taglit-Birthright expanded their eligibility criteria so that teenagers who went on an educational trip to Israel during high school would still be eligible to a place on a free trip. This removed what had previously been a major barrier to synagogue teen trips to Israel, and gave us a special opportunity to dream about and experiment with a new model for Israel travel and engagement for our congregants.
We envisioned a trip where most of the experiences would be spent together as a large hybrid group of families and teens. Within that larger trip, we would offer opportunities for the teenagers to experience Israel as a smaller group, wherein their unique interests and passions could be focused on more specifically. We carefully designed our itinerary to reflect such a trip, one in which was much to be shared, and much to be enjoyed based on each group’s needs and wants. In the middle of February, we set off for Israel, accompanied by 24 participants on our family trip, including a number of young teenagers, and six POWTY members in 10th, 11th and 12th grades on our teen tour. And our Family and Teen Trip to Israel was born!
For our teenage participants, their experience in Israel was unique to others they may have had in the past, and unique to any they will have in the future. We charged each teen with the role of peer leader, which empowered them as we journeyed through Israel. They rose to the opportunities associated with this role: They were warm and welcoming to our younger participants, funny and uplifting for our adults. They invited younger kids to join them at meals, and welcomed them to walk and talk through the streets of Israel side by side. They played games in our hotel lobby during an unprecedented Jerusalem snowstorm, and underneath a Bedouin tent while the rain poured down outside in the middle of the desert.
Our teens modeled maturity and intellectual curiosity for the younger participants by encouraging them to listen closely when there were chances to learn, to ask questions when they wanted to know more, and to experiment and take risks that tasted, felt, and looked new and different in the best ways. Our teens discussed their learning and experiences with anyone who wanted to listen, connecting with the adults on our trip as well.
In short, they reminded everyone of how incredible teenagers are: excited to learn, up for every adventure, willing to experiment and constantly questioning. They brought humor, energy, excitement and emotion to our experience, and we are proud and energized through knowing that every one of our family trip travelers would say that the trip was extra special because our teenagers took part in it.
Now that we have arrived home, the affect that Israel had on our teenage participants is palpable, exhibited in their words, actions, and deeds. One teen created a video of our trip participants tasting Israeli foods for the first time, and another is working on a slideshow of photos to share. One set up a Facebook group for us to all stay connected, and another is actively planning an Israeli reunion dinner for us to share together. Israel moved, inspired, and taught our teenage participants in impactful ways that we continue to be blessed by now that we are home.
For the participants on our family component of the trip, the presence of POWTY teens served to enrich the experience. One participant, Kate, who went on the trip with her husband and two children said: “it was great to travel with the teens on the family trip to Israel. Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. The teens’ interest in Israel and their own Jewish identity was great for my children to see. My children came home saying that it was the best trip of their lives and they hope there will be a teen trip when they are in high school.”
Alongside the positive experience of the teens in Israel, we have also seen the impact since returning to Port Washington. Another participant Lauren said of her two sons’ experience: “My kids were wide-eyed and engaged every day and I feel excited for their future of passion for their faith and for the complicated and beautiful land we discovered with our congregation and our extended family. Through his experience of the POWTY teens on the trip my eldest has already begun attending youth group regularly and went to his first NFTY residential event. All of this has come about in large part because of the connections he made on our Israel trip.” We know the power of an Israel trip to inspire Jewish engagement and commitment, and we also know the power of teenagers to inspire other young people through peer leadership – the combination of these two elements made for a very successful Israel experience for everyone involved.
We are fortunate to be leaders of a congregation that is growing, thriving, and energized. That said, we have struggled in the past when we have tried to organize family trips to Israel. The numbers involved in a congregational trip often mean the costs are prohibitive. Our hybrid trip to Israel not only worked beautifully for us programmatically, but it also enabled us to jump the financial barrier put up by the prospect of smaller trips, and helped us bring both families and teens to experience Israel together. It also laid the groundwork for deeper engagement in synagogue life when we returned home.
We have already began planning for our next Teen-Family Israel program, and we believe that this model is one that can be replicated elsewhere with tremendous results for the participants and the synagogues involved.
To learn more about the Community Synagogue’s hybrid Israel trip, visit their website.
Lindsay Ganci, Director of Youth Engagement, The Community Synagogue
Rabbi Danny Burkeman, The Community Synagogue
By Cantor Jason Kaufman
I often think about how fortunate I am to live in this period of time when social justice for the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community is advancing at such a rapid pace.
I never felt this more profoundly than on April 28, when I stood outside the United States Supreme Court to demonstrate my support for marriage equality. Thanks also to a great deal of luck, I was even able to sit inside the chamber and listen to the oral arguments for a few brief minutes. As I walked into the courtroom I consciously called to mind LGBTQ heroes and righteous allies who helped to make the day possible – individuals who helped to bend the arc of justice that Dr. King spoke about, so that we could even approach this time when the Supreme Court would consider granting the LGBTQ community a fraction of our fundamental rights as American citizens.
While LGBTQ rights may seem to be advancing expeditiously, the truth is, we are only just beginning to see the results of generations upon generations of hard work and sacrifice from individuals who will never see the fruits of their labor. As they fought for freedom, they faced unimaginable ridicule, humiliation, discrimination, persecution, violence, and for some, even death. The successes of today and tomorrow were made possible by the unparalleled courageousness of these heroes of yesterday.
LGBTQ advocacy is something that is at the core of who I am as a person, a Jew, and a Cantor. I believe that we, as a multi-faith and diverse nation, and we as a Jewish people, are diminished when we are not all treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our neighbors.
With bated breath, we pray that the Supreme Court soon comes to a decision that ensures marriage equality in all 50 states, yet we know that marriage equality is only a part of the larger picture of full LGBTQ equality that our society desperately needs.
Many of the forms of discrimination that plague the LGBTQ community will not be erased just because marriage equality could be declared the law of the land in June by the Supreme Court. There are still numerous other legalized forms of discrimination that affect the LGBTQ community. For example, in many states, it is absolutely legal to fire someone solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Think about that for a moment. How does that sit with you and your understanding of fairness and how as Americans, we should all be treated equally under the law? Areas such as adoption law, immigration, housing and healthcare, are all plagued with systematic forms of discrimination as well. There are other forms of discrimination that are even more insidious – discrimination of the heart that is harder to quantify and to legislate against. This is the discrimination that pervades segments of our culture, and leads to harassment, humiliation, and worse. Many in the LGBTQ community, especially our transgender friends and family, face the constant threat of physical violence.
We as a Jewish community have a voice that must be heard in the fight for LGBTQ rights. We know all too well what it means to be a marginalized people. We must use that knowledge to animate us into advocacy. It was this understanding that brought our community to the streets of Selma to march with Dr. King to fight for equality with our African American brothers and sisters. It is that same fight for fairness and justice that must continue to animate us today as we demand full equality for the LGBTQ community. Whether you identify as gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, male, female, transgender, gender non-conforming, or any other defining term, or lack thereof, you were created, b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) and you have an essential voice that must be heard in the fight for equality (Genesis 1:27). Own the power of your voice and use it.
As I walked out of the Supreme Court, I joined together with my friends, many of whom were rabbinical colleagues and Jewish leaders, and we sang “Hinei Mah Tov.” With that sacred inscription declaring in the distance, “Equal Justice Under Law,” a rainbow tallit covering my shoulders and a rainbow kippa on top of my head, I felt the embrace of a Jewish and American tradition that is expansive, inclusive and fair. And although ultra-orthodox Jewish men, holding signs of division, spoke words of hatred as they told me “Shame on you,” I never felt more just in the cause of freedom and equality than I did at that very moment.
As Tony Kushner wrote in his play Angels in America, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” The tide of social justice is beginning to turn to the side of equality and we have reached the time when our laws must catch up to what we teach our children a fair-minded nation must looks like. Therefore I believe, that no matter what the Supreme Court decides, we have already won, because our argument has won the hearts and minds of the younger generation that together we have raised with equality and justice in their souls.
We as a community of LGBTQ individuals and allies cannot be ignored any longer. We have stood up and we have demanded to be counted.
Cantor Jason Kaufman is Cantor at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria VA. He is a member of the American Conference of Cantors, where he co-chairs the Social Action and Justice Committee and sits on the Commission on Social Action. He was ordained from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in 2010.
Pictured: Cantor Kaufman with Beth El Hebrew Congregation member, Janet Garber.
In response a federal jury’s decision today to condemn Boston Marathon bombing perpetrator Dzhokar Tsarnaev to death, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, made the following statement:
“As a member of the Boston community who has run the marathon, I personally witnessed the pain that was seared into the city by the Tsarnaev brothers’ barbarity two years ago. Those who were killed and injured, as well as their families, will never be restored to the same peace and well-being they knew before their lives were forever transformed by a horrific act of terror. Their pain is shared not just by the people of Boston who have been remarkable in their courage and support for those directly affected, but by all people of goodwill who reject the kind of fear and division the bombers sought to sow in our society.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev must bear responsibility for his actions and the jury’s guilty verdict after extensive testimony and deliberation was a reflection of the best aspects of our nation’s justice system. Yet today’s decision by the jury to impose the death penalty is a sad reminder that our justice system remains critically flawed. The taking of any human life never justifies the taking of more human life. For centuries, rabbis have found the death penalty repugnant. We must make use of other methods to hold the guilty responsible. May the memories of those who lives were lost in these acts of violence more than two years ago be forever a blessing and a comfort to their families. And may our nation never again know the pain of such acts of hate.”
The Reform Movement has long been opposed to the death penalty, following rabbinic interpretations and Jewish tradition that effectively support abolishing the death penalty centuries ago. Though the Torah mandated death for some crimes, the rabbis of the Talmud intentionally made its application so complex and difficult that it became virtually impossible to use. You can see existing resolutions on capital punishment from the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis here.
The Journal of Youth Engagement checks in with Rabbi Ben David, whose congregation has been participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The article “What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is, and Is Not” originally appeared in the Journal of Youth Engagement in October 2013.
In your original article, “What the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution Is (and Is Not)” you highlighted what “revolution” meant for your congregation. We want to know: now that significant time has passed, what, if anything, has changed in your b’nai mitzvah process?
Our B’nai Mitzvah program continues to evolve. Most specifically, we continue to look for ways to allow the students and their families to own the process. For the students, this means not only picking their mitzvah project, but allowing them to select the verses they will chant from the Torah and what the music will be for their morning. We honor them in our Teen Night program the week before and after their simcha. Even these elements help them to feel ownership. We continue to work on family education as it pertains to not only B’nei Mitzvah, but all transitional moments across Jewish life.
When we last heard from you, your congregation was asking many questions, such as,
- What should sixth grade look like?
- What do we want our children to experience?
- What is the role of peer mentoring and community service?
Can you share anything about the answers you came up with to these questions?
In sixth grade, we are emphasizing family education more and more. We are increasingly convinced that experiential learning is ideal, especially for this age group as it allows them to live Jewish practices in a way that is not at all theoretical or pedantic. It’s a good age also to have students really transition to a place of their own, personal Judaism.
To this end, having families experiencing Shabbat together in conventional ways, such as Shabbat services and dinner, and slightly less conventional ways, including through art and social justice, has been really positive for all of us.
How has participating in the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution influenced your thinking around other areas of congregational life? What key components have you carried into work beyond b’nai mitzvah?
B’nai Mitzvah Revolution has given us permissions to tinker. To use a baseball metaphor, not every change has to be a big home run. Singles and doubles go a long way toward updating a program. It all adds up.
Benjamin David is the Rabbi of Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, N.J. He is the co-founder of the Running Rabbis, a global social justice initiative. He and his wife Lisa are the proud parents of Noa, Elijah, and Samuel.
This week, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 36), a dangerous bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of gestation with only narrow exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or if the woman’s life is in danger.
In advance of Wednesday’s vote, Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, issued a statement to emphasize the Reform Movement’s strong opposition to H.R. 36 and our firm belief in a woman’s fundamental right to make her own health care decisions. The statement reads, in part:
The women who need access to later abortions are often facing desperate circumstances, such as birth defects or fetal diseases that are undetectable until around the 20-week mark. To cut off abortion access at 20 weeks—an arbitrary point in gestation without medical basis—leaves these women without access to a critical health care service. Government policies must not restrict a woman’s right to make medical decisions in concert with her family, her doctor, her clergy, and whomever else she chooses to include.
H.R. 36 is part of a trend of anti-abortion bills at both the federal and state level. In recent years, Congress and state governments have increasingly sought to restrict access to reproductive health care, a step by step approach to stripping women of their right to make informed decisions about their bodies, their families and their lives. These include dangerous and restrictive policies like the building regulations and physician admitting privileges recently passed in Texas (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider laws, known as TRAP laws), the mandatory 72-hour waiting period that Missouri enacted last summer and bans on abortion after an arbitrary point in gestation—like H.R. 36—which currently exist in nine states.
The House originally planned to vote on the bill in January, on the 42nd anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. Though it was expected that H.R. 36 would pass easily, a group of House Republicans indicated at the last minute that they would oppose the bill for its requirement that rape survivors report their assault to law enforcement in order receive an exemption to access abortion services. House leadership “fixed” the bill by amending this provision by requiring survivors either to report to law enforcement, or to see a medical professional at least 48 hours before the abortion, at a different clinic than the one performing the abortion. Though this requirement may seem more compassionate, patients would have to schedule two appointments, in two places—and to pay for both. Depending on the availability of health care services in her area, this requirement could be impossible.
The Reform Movement has long opposed 20-week bans and other legislation that undermines women’s fundamental dignity to make informed decisions about their own health. We believe firmly in a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and to have safe, legal and affordable access to health care.
Our tradition emphasizes the sanctity of all life. By restricting abortion access after 20 weeks, H.R. 36 would endanger women’s ability to seek medical care to maintain the sanctity of their own lives. As our tradition commands women to care for their own health and well-being above all else, we must continue to fight to ensure that all women and their families have safe, legal and affordable access to all health care services, and that those services are not cut off after any given point in a pregnancy. Take action today; urge your Senators to oppose restrictive anti-choice bills like the 20-week ban!
This ancient Jewish festival is a time of “rejoicing in the harvest, rejoicing in this gift of Torah that God has given us, and rejoicing in the ability to learn from Torah in each and every generation,” says Rabbi Shira Stutman.The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, says Rabbi Shira Stutman, is a time of “rejoicing in the harvest, rejoicing in this gift of Torah that God has given us, and rejoicing in the ability to learn from Torah in each and every generation.” /wnet/religionandethics/files/2011/06/thumb01-shavuot.jpg
Watch more of our interview about the meaning of Shavuot with the director of community engagement at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC./wnet/religionandethics/files/2011/06/thumb01-rabbistutman1.jpg Watch more of our interview about the meaning of Shavuot with the director of community engagement at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC.
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
When Eliezer Ben Yehuda set out to assemble a new, Hebrew language dictionary, he needed to create terminology for modern day concepts that are not found in our ancient sources. Although many of his words caught on and are used regularly, many others did not. Recently, I was reminded of two words for which there are no Hebrew equivalents, leaving us no choice but to use the Latin terms: koalitziyah and the less popular oppositziyah.
Last week – literally at the 11th hour – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escaped political collapse by signing agreements with four different partners to form a narrow coalition with 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members. Although this strategy has been used before, such a coalition is both fragile and extremely difficult to maintain. What will happen, for example, if a single Knesset member is absent for an important vote? Although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that because there is no Hebrew word for coalition it’s not a Jewish concept, there has been only one instance in the past in which a 61member majority came together in agreement – passing the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.
This new koalitziyah was made possible because Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), two ultra-Orthodox parties, have returned from “exile,” which did not serve them well in the past. We in the Reform Movement are distressed by this deal, however, because it promises management of the rabbinical courts to the ultra-Orthodox. Although the Justice Ministry has overseen the standards and ethics of rabbinical court judges for the last decade, supervision of the courts will be wrestled away from this ministry and returned to the Religious Services Ministry, which Shas controls.
The coalition agreement with UTJ includes a clause that calls for a larger committee responsible for appointing rabbinical court judges, meaning there will be more coalition politicians and fewer women on the panel. UTJ also has been promised that orders requiring tiered burial – a massive waste of land compared to in-ground burial – will be canceled in ultra-Orthodox cities. In addition, appropriations to yeshivot will increase, the conversion bill will be reversed, and the issues surrounding the draft and the ultra-Orthodox will resurface.
And so it continues.
In his effort to form a coalition, Netanyahu took a page from the playbook of Israeli politics of old: Sell out to the Haredim because secular Jews don’t care about those things anyway. For Netanyahu, it’s all about holding on to power. In fact, on September 23, 2018, a date he eagerly awaits, Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving leader.
In a democracy, power must belong to the people. Sadly, in today’s Israel, an increasing majority of citizens wants nothing to do with those who hold the power — the rabbinate, their courts, and the obligations they impose on Israelis. Thankfully, the Israeli democracy is stronger than its parts. Indeed, the Supreme Court will prevail and checks and balances will continue to do their job. What’s more, our Reform Movement will continue to lead efforts encouraging Israelis to enhance their Jewish identity – to maintain their souls, their resources, and their character – even as the grip of state-sponsored Judaism tightens around them.
Indeed, it is easy for those who sit in the oppositziyah or across the ocean to wax lyrical about the long list of grievances prompted by the recent elections. At the same time, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we are providing essential alternatives. After all, that’s what today’s Zionism is all about — altering the course of the Jewish State so that it is meaningful to all the Jewish people.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA.