How the URJ’s South Florida Community Supports its Congregations

Inside Leadership

How the URJ’s South Florida Community Supports its Congregations

Tree resting on car after a storm

Last spring at a meeting of the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) North American Board, I gave a d’var Torah (interpretation of a Torah passage) about sea level rise and its effect on coastal communities. Given the recent spate of hurricanes that have devastated Houston, Florida, and our Caribbean neighbors, a fellow board member recently commented that my remarks were prescient. 

Although prescience may be a stretch, in my role as chair of the URJ’s South Florida Community, I have been serving as a liaison to the Higher Ground Initiative, a group started at Temple Solel in Hollywood, FL, that works to get the word out to Reform congregations that would be most affected by sea level rise. Under the direction of Rabbi Jeff Salkin and Scott Lewis, a lay leader, the group has grown into a healthy organization that interacts regularly with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and congregations across the U.S., and won a Fain Award this year for its efforts. The Higher Ground Initiative recently proposed a resolution for consideration at the Union for Reform Judaism's 2017 Biennial in Boston, December 6-10, 2017.

It is exactly this type of work around URJ Community events – interacting with clergy and lay leaders, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and information, and bringing together movement leaders to listen and converse with each other – that excites me as a Reform Movement lay leader. Here in south Florida, with a high density of Reform congregations, we have gotten quite adept at maximizing the exposure to these meetings, keeping our visitors busy for two or three days running, and touching many congregations and members in meaningful ways. We are innovative in that way, and through my work on the Community’s task force, I have been able to share both our successes and our challenges.

Such interactions were key to our recent preparations for Hurricane Irma. Working with the district chair and our Community team, we reached out to all the congregations in the projected impact zone, sharing not only our prayers for their safety, but more importantly, contact information for Amy Asin, the URJ’s vice president/director of Strengthening Congregation, and Mark Pelavin, chief program officer for the URJ, both of whom could be helpful after the storm

After the storm, we uploaded to The Tent our working spreadsheet, including all the information, contacts, and status reports for each congregation, and are hopeful it can serve as a useful template for natural disaster response in the future. We also had follow-up video calls with leaders of some of the more seriously affected congregations. This outreach led less affected congregation to open their doors and publicize live streaming options to members of congregations not able to hold High Holiday services. In this way, we helped ensure that everyone had ways to meet their spiritual needs. The efforts of our lay leaders and URJ staff members made it clear that despite the rain and wind, no one was alone. And after all, isn’t that what our URJ Communities are all about?

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Stuart Leeman is a life member and past president of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland FL. He is the current chair of the URJ South Florida Community and a former chair of Broward Association of Reform Temples (BART). He also is a member of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECERJ).

Stuart Leeman

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