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We live in a time in which the upcoming generations connect less and less to established religious institutions. All religious groups are experiencing this problem, but it is particularly hard on the Jewish world. Why? Our numbers are very small in relation to other religions, for one. Another reason is the internal struggle between progressive and fundamentalist Jewish groups. We are in competition for the next generation. Young people are looking for a combination of deeper meaning, a sense of family/community, and authentic, real experiences. We cannot cede this to fundamentalist Jewish groups. Sometimes, meaningful experiences can be provided by a great, innovative congregation, sometimes by a summer camp, and sometimes through significant time in Israel. If you care about the future of Judaism, you realize that there is a struggle for the soul of the upcoming generations of Jews.
In America, the organization best positioned to provide these experiences is the Union for Reform Judaism. If progressive Judaism is going to prevail, the URJ must be investing in ways to connect young Jews to our traditions, to Israel, and to our future. This is exactly what the Reform Movement did for us. We met on a NFTY in Israel program in 1971. That program (Mitzvah Corps) was almost eight weeks of living in Israel, four working on the farm at Ben Shemen. The following year Audrey went back to Israel for a semester on the Eisendrath International Exchange program (EIE). After her return from EIE, Audrey’s father, Ike Heller, established a scholarship fund to help students experience a semester in Israel who could not afford the program. Over the decades, he continued to add to the scholarship fund as well as providing money for the building of a science lab for the EIE high school currently located on Kibbutz Tzuba.
We live in Tallahassee, FL, where Jack has been rabbi for more than 15 years. We have sent many students on EIE despite the high cost, because of access to the scholarship fund that Audrey’s dad established. We do not have good local sources for scholarships. We have witnessed the life changing effect on our students. One is now in Israel for his first year of rabbinic school. Another is a Jewish professional working for the Institute for Southern Jewish Life. Another is a freshman in college hoping to go on to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. All the others are deeply connected to Israel and progressive Judaism as a result of their experience on EIE.
After Audrey’s father’s death in 2015, the family began to consider the possibility of a legacy gift to the program, to ensure its future and provide scholarship opportunity to many more students. Her mom, Helaine Heller, decided to provide a $5 million gift, and the URJ is honoring Ike and Helaine Heller by renaming the program “URJ Heller High.” All of us hope this will be a game changer for the URJ’s high school in Israel program, which has already been recognized as the very best of its kind. The door is now open for any Jewish teen to participate in a life changing program, that will build an educated base of Jews dedicated to progressive Jewish principles and Israel for generations to come.
We are so pleased that the URJ is committed to this program as part of the means to build a progressive Jewish future. We urge all congregations to promote URJ Heller High among their teens. The more who attend, the better the future of the Jewish people will look.
Rabbi Jack and Audrey Romberg are visionary philanthropists who are deeply committed to the Reform Movement. Rabbi Romberg is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Tallahassee, FL.