How an “Ah-ha” Moment Changed My Spiritual Community

Here’s a problem that many Jewish organizations or synagogues face: maintaining ongoing young adult engagement.

During the High Holidays and Passover, Ohel Ayalah, which I founded in 2004 and serve as rabbi, reaches out to young Jews who are actively looking for community and Jewish experiences. To meet their needs, we run free, walk-in High Holiday services in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and a low-cost Passover Seder just for 20s and 30s. Hundreds of young Jews attend these events. A new challenge is how to engage this audience on a more frequent basis. So I went in search of a solution.

_MG_0286 (3)Along with other spiritual community rabbis and professionals, I recently attended NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation’s NEXTwork Convening in New York City. It was an inspiring event that brought together the NEXTwork—NEXT’s network of professionals and volunteers engaging young Jewish adults. There, at a breakout session, I had my “ah-ha” moment: To ease the burden of planning and running these events, I need to develop a cadre of volunteers prepared and eager to reach young adults.

During the breakout session, my professional peers pointed out that I was not spending my time wisely.  They were right. I was performing tasks that volunteers could easily tackle, such as setting up and registering people for High Holiday services and Passover Seders.  Until now, I resisted looking for volunteers because I thought that giving instructions and following up with newcomers would take more time than executing these tasks myself.

But the truth is that working with volunteers would decrease the amount of time I spend on certain tasks, while empowering volunteers to bring their own unique energy and skills to executing and enhancing the Ohel Ayalah experience.  If volunteers understood what needed to be done and how to do it, I could have more time to prepare for services and Seders.

When I returned home after the NEXTwork convening, I decided to “test” my theory. I sent out an e-blast to Ohel Ayalah’s network, asking for volunteers to help with data collection surveys, increasing our social media presence, event planning, and fundraising for Ohel Ayalah.

Right away, I received a number of responses.  One volunteer, a retired sociologist, offered to write a survey for people to fill out at the Ohel Ayalah Hannukah party (a new event for us!), so we could learn more about the young Jewish adults we’re serving.

Another person volunteered to collect and input new email addresses into our online email software, and to prepare a spreadsheet with the survey data so that the sociologist could write a short analysis of the survey responses. A third individual volunteered to promote Ohel Ayalah events on social media; she had done so in the past, but my call for volunteers gave her new motivation to lend her skills and help.

The lesson for me is two-fold:

1) Engaging volunteers should be a priority for me. This became obvious once my “test” succeeded.

2) Coming together with others in my field pushes me to excel at my outreach to young Jews. I felt an excitement at the convening, surrounded by other professionals who “spoke my language” and were dedicated to engaging young Jewish adults. I loved the convening’s interactive panel because the speakers—all communal professionals or volunteer leaders—offered real suggestions about how to work with volunteers. And any time I interacted with convening participants, I could be honest about my challenges as we worked to find effective solutions.

Over the years, plenty of people out there have offered professional advice on one thing or another. But to truly be pushed into recruiting and engaging volunteers, I needed to hear directly from my professional peers. Undoubtedly, this will not be the first or last challenge I will face in my work. Having access to my professional peers through the NEXTwork provides the right environment to think creatively and to learn the best new ways to engage young Jewish adults.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman leads the Ohel Ayalah spiritual community in New York and is the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Shared from the Schusterman Foundation blog

The Power of Interlocking Networks: Lessons of the Redwoods

As a recent transplant to Chicago, I found myself thinking about our family trip to one of the Redwood Forests back in our old California stomping grounds. The experience of walking through the redwoods is truly breathtaking — it is among the most magnificent sights a person can see. The trees tower hundreds of feet up into the sky! I couldn’t help but wonder how such gigantic natural elements are able to exist. I naturally assumed that they must have incredibly strong roots that must penetrate deep into the earth to enable these colossal trees to grow and to remain strong.

As a rabbi and a psychotherapist, I see myself as someone who is privileged to help people grow and build inner strength to thrive in life. Walking through the forest, I introspected how the Redwoods are a profound analogy for humankind. We too must develop deep roots to be able to soar to the great heights of our dreams, weathering through the torrential storms life can present us with.

After we left the Redwood forest that day, I proceeded to do some more research into the roots of the trees. I wanted to know how deep do the roots really go? The same depth as their heights? Half their length? What I encountered was a tremendous surprise! The roots of the redwoods, which tower hundreds of feet up into the sky, barely break the ground beneath them, often a mere 5-6 feet into the ground.

I don’t get it! How could that be?! Back to my analogy, this doesn’t teach the sorely needed lesson of having deep and strong roots to enable us to thrive. Then I read further. How do these fantastic creations remain standing and upright? The answer blew me away with its profundity. The roots of the redwood trees grow outwards – actually holding one another up by interlocking with the roots of other trees. Through holding on to one other, supporting one another, they are able to thrive and hold themselves up to reach their colossal heights!

We are in the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, often referred to as, ‘The Days of Return.’ What are we returning to? We are returning to those awesome dreams we had for ourselves. It is the time for us to return to our vision of the colossal heights we yearned for and then lost sight of. It is time to return and become the magnificent beings that we are capable of being.

Yet how do we accomplish that? How are we to become gigantic trees, towering into the challenging & stormy skies that confront us? We must be like the Redwoods. Through reaching outward, interlocking with our friends, family, and community, we can become the awesome human beings we dreamt of. We can reach those seemingly impenetrable heights while supporting others to do the same.

May we all have a wonderful, healthy, and happy new year – connecting with each other, supporting each other for our dreams of greatness to become a reality, and soaring up to the skies… together!

Josh Marder is a Rabbi, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Director of the Young Professionals Division of the Chicago Torah Network

Put On Your Shoes

by Liz Fisher

Liz Fisher and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Liz Fisher studies with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

As parents of school age kids, we’ve mostly made the shift from being woken up to waking the kids up. But waking the kids up each morning is only part of the job. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that the four most common words I say every morning are “put your shoes on”. My kids aren’t so hard to wake up, and they pretty much get through the eating breakfast, brushing teeth routine on their own, but the shoes? Every single morning. “Put. Your. Shoes. On”. Over and over and over again.

This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and there is a cool campaign amongst a group of rabbis and others to get the #Torah hashtag to the top of the most popular list. So there has been a lot of tweeting Torah today, and I am enjoying the 140 character at a time learning.

This morning, Rabbi Sari Laufer (@RabbiLaufer) tweeted: “Midrash: The night before receiving the #Torah, the children of Israel slept all of that night,& Moshe had to rouse them to receive #Torah.”

I’ve been thinking about that rousing, what it meant at Sinai and what it means in our generation. Yesterday I had the extraordinary privilege of learning with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. At one point, he was asked about the generation gap. His response: for hundreds of generations, from Sinai to today, parents have had to teach their children that this (Torah, community, Judaism) is relevant and meaningful.

For hundreds of generations, we have had to wake our kids up. Yesterday’s learning was part of a conversation convened by the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, and our team at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. We were there to hear from Birthrighters themselves and their peers – innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the Jewish community who are helping us think about how to think about Birthright, the gift of a free 10 day trip to Israel, and the days, months, and years that follow that trip.

In many ways, for many participants, Birthright Israel is that waking up, the rousing to receive Torah – in the most broad sense of the word. And it does a pretty good job of that.

But Birthright Israel doesn’t make breakfast. It doesn’t remind you to pack your backpack. It doesn’t nag you to put on your shoes. And it doesn’t do what is my ultimate goal with my kids – get you to the point where you do all these things on your own because it just makes sense to you.

That job – the backpacks, the shoes, the understanding of relevance and applicability, that’s up to the rest of us. I’m honored to work with a group of people who think about this everyday. But we can’t think of it alone. Whatever your background, whatever your religion (or lack thereof), it is our role to pass our values on to the next generation. How are we doing that? And what are they passing up to us? And how do we all get to a place where we don’t need to be reminded to put our shoes on?

 

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Find her on twitter at @Liz_Fisher. The photo of Liz and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was taken by @TheChaviva.

NEXT’s National Opportunities

Our tools are yours to use as you reach out and engage with Birthright Israel trip alumni in your community.

  • Give the Birthright Alumni members of your cohort the tools to do Shabbat their own way with NEXT Shabbat.
  • Check out and share our compilation of Holiday Resource Guides to demystify the Jewish Holidays.
  • Empower Birthright Alumni to take back Passover with Passover Seder Grants.

Tu B’Shvat Haggadot

With Tu B’Shvat becoming more and more popular, there is a greater demand for quality Haggadot for the Tu B’Shvat Seder.  Help your participants and your programming team find a Seder that’s right for them, starting with our list!

  • Hazon’s Tu B’Shvat Seder and Sourcebook is true to their mission.  Beautifully designed, it incorporates ancient and modern text to encourage awareness of the world around us.  Hazon also provides a Leaders Guide, with tips for organizing and hosting the Tu B’Shvat Seder.
  • Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning provides a downloadable Haggadah entitled Trees, Creation & Creativity.  It is accompanied by a through appendix to provide context to the holiday celebration.
  • Jewcology presents a Flowchart Haggadah.  This entirely graphical one-page design provides a basic guide to the Seder that you can customize with your own stories, songs, and teachings.
  • The Velveteen Rabbi has developed a customized haggadah filled with poetry, commentary, and a final call to action.
  • The Jewish National Fund’s Haggadah is a great tool for program facilitation, complete with discussion questions, songs & dances, and recipes for the Seder.

 

Email us at Alef@birthrightisraelnext.org to add to this list.

Staying Kosher on a Budget

While many of your participants may not keep Kosher, Kosher on a Budget offers a great breakdown of how to prep a Holiday menu without breaking the bank.

Read more here.

Rosh Hashana & Sukkot Prep on a Budget

Planning for Rosh Hashana: Getting Organized

Inviting Guests, Making a Budget & Meal Planning for Rosh Hashana and Sukkot

Shopping Lists for the Jewish Holidays

Rosh Hashana Post-Mortem with Recipes

Apple Challah Recipe for Rosh Hashana

Peach Noodle Kugel Recipe for Break-the-Fast

Pesach Prep on a Budget

How to Shop for Passover on a Budget, Part 1 and Part 2

On Passover Bondage & Credit Card Debt

Frugal Hostess Gifts for Passover Seder

Passover Side Dish Recipes

Passover Charoset Recipes

Passover Menu Planning Made Easy

Challah image by Grongar, licensed under Creative Commons.

Passover Haggadot

Did you know that the Maxwell House Haggadah is the most widely-used haggadah in the U.S.? Since 1934, over 40 million copies have been printed and distributed around the world. Now, nearly 80 years later, there are just as many varieties of haggadot as there are blends of coffee.

Help your participants personalize their Seders by finding a haggadah that matches their vision and values. Below, we’ve collected a variety of options to choose from (some of which are free!) 

ONLINE
PRINT
Many of the titles listed below can be found on your local book store or Amazon.com and range from $5-$15 each.

Image by Brownpau, licensed under Creative Commons.