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I’m co-principal of the religious school at Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT. Although I don’t have any formal training in religious education, in a small, remote congregation like ours, if you have enthusiasm for something and are willing to try, you find yourself doing all sorts of jobs. One of them led me to an announcement for the Had’rachah Seminar for Lay Leadership in Ritual Life and, giving in to a desire to expand my world, I signed up – even though religious education wasn’t officially part of the program.
When I showed up at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), I was ready to soak up five days’ worth of learning specifically geared for lay leaders from small congregations that have either no clergy or no more than one full-time clergy member. From the start, it was easy to feel at home surrounded by other lay leaders from congregations all around the U.S. and Canada. We quickly discovered we all share a deep commitment to our Jewish communities back home and were at OSRUI to become more informed and better at the congregational work we do. We began to form a chavurah (group of friends) before the program had even begun.
Rabbi David Fine and many other URJ staff members made sure our days were packed with excellent training sessions that were both informative and fun. We learned about leading services, the structure of the siddur (prayer book), how to write a d’var Torah, understanding different theologies, storytelling, conducting a bris and a funeral, and more. With instruction provided by rabbis and other OSRUI staff, we benefitted tremendously from the experience and perspective of so many talented individuals. OSRUI is not called “the Jerusalem of the Midwest” for nothing!
The Had’rachah experience was greater than the sum of its parts. Being in a retreat setting where Jewish life is the norm pulled it all together for me. We were treated to daily t’filah (prayer) with different groups, music and art from various artists-in-residence, communal kosher meals in the dining hall, including bensching (praying the blessing after meals), hanging out with camp staff late into the night, and best of all, sharing Shabbat dinner – and all the blessings – together with more than 500 people.
Have things changed now that I’m back home?
We’ve changed our approach to prayer at religious school. Rather than teaching the prayers to the kids, we are putting much more emphasis on teaching them how to pray in a Jewish way. Although it’s not possible to replicate the camp t’filah experience in our once-a-week religious school, helping the kids bring more kavanah (intention) to the prayers is a big step forward.
We’ve enriched and expanded the worship experience, too, not only within our own congregation, but also at Congregation B'nai Israel in Butte, MT, an historic synagogue about an hour away that has no clergy. Leaders from both congregations previously had toyed with the idea of holding a lay-led Shabbat morning service in Butte as a way to achieve critical mass for such worship. With help from individuals in both communities, we’ve recently begun to do so – in an area where having a Torah service just because it’s Shabbat is a rarity.
Thanks to my Had’rachah training, I’m confident as a member of the leadership team, giving a d’var Torah, and leading other portions of the service. Knowing that the services we are creating are in line with what is happening in other places in the Reform world is very rewarding. These services have been well received and the ruach (spirit) is coming back in a place where it has been on the decline because so many people have left the area due to major economic changes.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned at Had’rachah is that the URJ comprises real people –professionals with phone numbers and email addresses – who have a vast array of resources available and who want to help congregations like ours thrive. For example, for a long time, we saw a need for a youth group, but lacked the experience to get it started. With access to The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum that is available to all congregational leaders, we’re able to connect with URJ youth leaders from across North America and as a result of their expertise, we are on our way to launching the first youth group in the history of our congregation! With the URJ behind us, our small Montana community is part of a bigger whole – and feels anything but isolated.