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October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

Union for Reform Judaism's Pilot Programs Deepen Jewish Engagement in Chicago

Contact: Annette Powers
212-650-4154
apowers@urj.org

April 10, 2014, New York, NY – A recent grant will allow the Union for Reform Judaism to create two Chicago area pilot programs to grow and expand Jewish engagement.

One pilot, focused on early childhood centers, will seek to engage young families through curriculum excellence, experiential Jewish learning and meaningful relationships.

A second program will support congregations that want to revamp the b'nai mitzvah experience. This is part of a larger effort--the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution-- a partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“We are extremely grateful to the Crown Family for giving us the opportunity to build these pilot programs,” said URJ Senior Vice President Rabbi Jonah Pesner. “We know that a Jewish community is strengthened when everyone in a family participates in the experience, whether for families with young children or for young teens.”

The URJ is providing congregations with additional opportunities for families with young children to connect with each other and engage with the Jewish community. The URJ’s Communities of Practice strategy (CoP), launched in January 2013, has begun to shift the paradigm regarding families with young children in 27 congregations across North America, including two in the Chicago area, by participating in the Pursuing Excellence Through Your Early Childhood Center CoP, and Successfully Engaging Families With Young Children CoP.

With this new grant from the Crown Family, the URJ will broaden its scope to create an innovative Chicago-based cohort of 12 Jewish early childhood centers. The CEELI (Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative), will include Jewish congregations from a spectrum of denominations, JCCs and other local organizations. Professionals in the community have expressed their interest in such an initiative, and building a diverse coalition of organizations devoted to engaging families with young children is a key goal.

Applicants will be selected based on their early childhood centers' level of support from the host institution, their commitment to work in an experimental and collaborative environment and their needs in areas such as enrollment, retention, teacher development and finances. After studying the field, lay and professional teams from each center in the CEELI will assess their current approach to early childhood and family engagement and explore new models as they learn with each other and with local partners including the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Synagogue Federation Commission.

Together with URJ faculty members Cathy Rolland and Amy Asin, centers will develop new, intentional activities and programs based upon specific family engagement goals and objectives. These successful outcomes can then become scalable models for reaching young families in the future.

Center directors and lead teachers will receive stipends to encourage experimentation and to provide educators with strong professional development opportunities. Centers in the CEELI will have opportunities to share their successes with the broader Chicago Jewish community and throughout the Reform Movement, helping to raise early childhood excellence and early engagement as community-wide priorities across North America.

By participating in the CEELI, early childhood centers will further their efforts to build a network of collaborators that is flexible, responsive and opportunistic. These 12 centers will be better equipped to handle the demands of changing structures within their congregations and the expansion of federal initiatives leading many early childhood programs to grow into full-day programs. The cohort of CoPs will also become the nexus for serving young families in their community; together they will expose hundreds of Jewish families with young children to a variety of programs and opportunities for meaningful engagement and long-term involvement in the Jewish community. Congregations interested in participating can complete this expression of interest form.

The URJ, in collaboration with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) launched the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR) in fall 2012 as part of the Reform Movement’s Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE). Together, URJ and HUC-JIR have identified two main goals for the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution:

  • Generate new ideas and modalities of meaningful celebrations of b'nai mitzvah that tie young people and their families more closely to Jewish tradition and the Jewish community
  • Create models of b'nai mitzvah preparation that are more engaging for both teens and their families

Up to 10 congregations from a range of denominations will be selected to participate in the Chicago cohort of the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution. Each congregation will work with a mentor to create multi-year educational programs that prepare young people and their families for engaging b'nai mitzvah experiences. By shifting the experience from an endpoint of formal education into a communal welcoming toward lifelong learning, the URJ hopes to reduce the post-b'nai mitzvah dropout rate and bring a greater sense of depth and meaning to teens and their families. The URJ will promote the findings and outcomes of the program to encourage a broader discussion about this topic across the Jewish community. Congregations interested in participating can complete this expression of interest form.

A cohort of 13 congregations from across North America is already meeting and experimenting along with a Los Angeles cohort of eight congregations from various denominations supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. An additional 67 congregations have joined the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution Active Learning Network to expand their thinking and utilize the findings. Of these, North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe is part of the North American group and both Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield and Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette are in the Active Learning Network.

For more information about the early childhood engagement initiative, please contact Susan Zukrow. For more information about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, please contact Anna Marx.

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