Tot Shabbat attendee with his father's hand on his head for a blessing

Tot Shabbat was always part of our synagogue programming, but often ended with kids running laps in the sanctuary. Our clergy team strived for something better.

Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Cantor Katie Oringel
Double helix against a patterned background

As a Jewish community leader, you have an important role to play to increase awareness about Jewish genetic diseases. Check out these five important things to know.

Becca Bakal
Ruben Arquilevich opening shed door to find Jewish ritual objects and prayer books unscathed by wildfires

Last week I visited Camp Newman, a victim of California's ongoing wildfires. My reflections encompass deep loss and sadness – as well as the beauty and joy of miracles.

Ruben Arquilevich

Here are a few simple action steps that synagogue leadership can take to improve the experience of your youngest congregants, to attract and retain family memberships, and to protect the future of the Jewish people.

Emily Aronoff Teck

by Marilyn E. Gootman

Congregation Children of Israel is a 150-family congregation in Athens, GA. As a small congregation, we were looking for creative ways to welcome and engage families with young children, one of our target membership demographics. The answer came in the form of PJ Library®, which enables us to offer book subscriptions to local families raising Jewish children ages six months to 8 years.

Our congregation joined the program in 2007, and it has been a huge success. The fact that we could now offer something to families with young children at no charge and with no strings attached proved to be an offer too good to refuse. Within a year and a half, our young family memberships grew by 66%, and ever since, young families have consistently represented a sizable percentage of our new members. At the same time, community members have grown to appreciate our success in engaging young families, and “PJ parents” have gone on to become congregational leaders, improving the overall congregational attitude toward young families.

Of course, joining the initiative didn’t come without challenges. The first was obtaining financial support to fund our congregation’s participation. As the synagogue’s PJ Library® coordinator, I approached congregants, non-members, the sisterhood, and the rabbi for donations; the Harold Grinspoon Foundation matched the funds we received. Although fundraising is still an ongoing challenge, it has gotten easier since our congregation received a PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant – but more on that later.

As we approach the eighth night of Hanukkah, I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve almost reached my fill of latkes! Still, I can never get my fill of family and community gatherings that are bursting with joy, spirituality, and a sense of awe for the enduring, illuminating light of the menorah.

Of all the Jewish holidays, engaging youth and families during Hanukkah always seems to be the most effortless. Maybe it’s the seasonal cheerfulness, the theme of giving, or the focus on family, but the act of lighting the menorah is a mitzvah that still speaks to all Jews – even those who are minimally engaged in Jewish life.

Hanukkah is the annual reminder of our collective ability to persist in the face of adversity, to assemble for religious freedom, and to recognize the light in the midst of darkness. Similar to the teachings of Hanukkah, the URJ’s youth engagement work is ultimately intended to repair the world by fostering a personal commitment to social justice, advocacy, and meaningful values.

There is much to learn from Hanukkah’s inherent methods of youth engagement. Here are eight Hanukkah-inspired strategies that light the way for increased youth engagement in our communities and congregations:

"Dad, this is amazing," my daughter exclaimed on a phone call home from Mitzvah Corps Nicaragua this summer. "There are so many kids on my program who have never heard of NFTY before!" You may think this comment would've been discouraging to me: What are we doing wrong that these kids have never heard of NFTY?! To the contrary, I felt the complete opposite.

As the High Holidays approach, I've been reflecting on my foremost dream for the URJ's Campaign of Youth Engagement: to exponentially increase the number of teens who are engaged in Jewish life. We had an incredible summer, and one of our strongest accomplishments was the skyrocketing success of Mitzvah Corps, which offers hands-on opportunities for teens to pursue advocacy, adventure, and relationship-building in locations such as Costa Rica, Israel, Nicaragua, New Orleans, Portland, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics.

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experi

by Nancy Crown

When I was called to meet with a member of my synagogue’s Congregation-Based Community Organizing Committee, I almost declined.  I was asked to think about what the temple could do that it was not already doing. My main reaction was to reflect on the many opportunities for learning, worship, and community that I wasn’t partaking of, due to limited time and a longstanding “outsider” feeling when it comes to religion. Like many others, my upbringing did not include much meaningful participation in the spiritual aspects of Judaism.

My daughter, now 28 years old, has developmental disabilities. She was keenly interested in Judaism as a young child, but as a teen, she began to talk about converting to another religion. By that time, our son was enrolled in school at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where we were members. We chose a Jewish day school for a number of reasons, including our desire for our son to feel more secure in his Jewish identity than my husband, my daughter, or I had felt. We began lighting candles on Friday nights. I took Hebrew classes.  We attended services, where, at moments, I would feel an achy kind of longing, alongside a feeling of being an outsider. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite find a way in.