Chavurah – A Meaningful Way to Youth Engagement

At the 2013 URJ Bienneial one of the big take away themes was to practice what URJ President Rabbi Ric Jacobs calls “Audacious Hospitality.” This entails exceeding the conventional expectations of welcoming our audience, as well as expanding the audience we seek to reach. A second take away theme from the conference was that we need to engage our young adults (20s-30s) – the future – in ways that work for them and provide a meaningful Jewish experience. These young adults do not care about our “bricks & mortar,” temple budgets, or membership! The synagogue has to go to them! The third take away is that the URJ and the HUC (Hebrew Union College) must be rooted in the core – the Torah!

As an active and engaged participant at the Biennial I searched for ideas and ways to move these points into action. I wondered if there was a way to combine all these take away concepts into one new program for Vassar Temple. At one of the breakout sessions we heard about a temple in Los Angelos that reached out to young adults by going to where they are and starting a Chavurah.

A chavurah or havurah (חבורה Hebrew: “fellowship”, plural chavurot) is a small group of like-minded Jews who assemble for the purposes of facilitating Shabbat and holiday prayer services, sharing communal experiences such as lifecycle events, or Jewish learning. Chavurot usually provide autonomous alternatives to established Jewish institutions and Jewish denominations. Most chavurot place an emphasis on egalitarianism in the broad sense (of which gender egalitarianism is one piece), depending on participation by the entire community rather than top-down direction by clergy. / Source: Wikipedia.

The more I thought about it the more I began to think this might work for Vassar Temple and it was worth a try. Then I asked myself, where are the young people in Dutchess County? What are the happening scenes! BEACON! (And Poughkeepsie.) Here’s how it might work.

Once a quarter, or maybe a month if there’s enough interest, young Jewish people and their friends come together on a Friday evening at some “hot spot” for a pleasurable Shabbat dinner. They pay their way, but maybe Vassar Temple sponsors a guest speaker or entertainer. No temple affiliation or membership is required!

Photo Source

If the experience is enjoyable, as word spreads, new faces will appear. New friendships will be formed. Opportunities and positive results will happen. If we have interesting and vibrant guests leading the service, and if social justice causes that the URJ is famous for supporting are brought to light, along with Jewish culture, the young adults will have a meaningful experience. When that happens the word will spread and the circle will grow! And, when all that happens, Vassar Temple will be serving a critically important part of the Jewish community in Dutchess County.

We can get out the gate by identifying a few locations for our first couple Chavurah gatherings. Finding a great speaker and/or entertainer who will also make a super marketing “headliner” to who attract the audience. Creating some great looking flyers and putting them up and getting them out there. Creating a Facebook Group page and using Facebooks targeted advertising to reach the exact audience we’re talking about. Using publicity to get the story out into the local beat. Finding some young adults in the Beacon area who believe in what the Reform movement stands for and have positive memories of Jewish camp and want to make new friends and would be willing to be young leaders of the new Chavurah. And, just talking it up!

At this point this is just an idea. Something for our Temple’s Board discuss.

Bob Ritter


Let’s Go To The Video Tape!

Here are links to the top 2013 Biennial Videos:

Rabbi Jacobs Keynote –

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the closing plenary –

URJ CEO Stephen Wachs –

Spoken Word Poet Andrew Lustig –

Josh Nelson and URJ Choir –

Incoming HUC Rabbi Aaron Panken –

Retiring HUC President Rabbi David Ellenson –

AND, given our interest in engaging youth – check out
2 years till Florida …

Sunday Morning and About to Run

The Bob’s are about to run for our plane but before we do I will squeeze in one more post with my cell phone about this mornings Plenary.

New HUC President is the “man of the hour” and even though he has a great sense of humor he is serious about the core. “Nothing is more important than teaching torah and the traditions.  The greatness of our movement is greatest when it fosters the teaching of Torah.”

We heard excitng points about the expansion of camps in Israel andnd a NFTY Presentation on Millenials. Their status is more based on what they do versus what they own. They want their actions to have meaning. The example was Duncan’s barmitzvah sermon in marriage inequality.  How marriage equality has changed over time. The reform movement is about leading a meaningful life – inspired engagement.  Being Jewish as a lifestyle.  We have to be exceptional educators and investing in them. We are encouraging more niche programs.  We have to reach out and tap the youth on the shoulder.

Rabbi Pesner talks about how parents and volunteers have get involved to promote inspired engagement.  This is a defining moment.  The NFTY movement is going to start at 6th grade, no requirement for dues before engagement, an open to children of any congregation.

This was followed by BB’s address – a highlight for sure! Please watch it on the 2013 Biennial Website.

All Business Today at the Biennial

Day 3 was all business. Now that everyone is registered and settled in, attendees are hustling from one session to another. Bob and I made our plans and headed out early. We took in sessions on teen engagement, planned giving, and a plenary session where the URJ Chairman Steve Sacks spoke of strategic plans, changes to dues structure, and growth of new communities, and camps, and programs to promote inclusion, and exciting expansion efforts in Israel. In the plenary session candidates voted on 5 resolutions which will effect URJ social action on topics including: lifting sanctions on Cuba, employment laws related to sick pay, hydraulic fracturing, and even support for Canadian First Nation peoples, and greater ARZA support. You can read these resolutions on the URJ Biennial site. I got up and put forth an amendment to the resolution on fracturing that got fairly strong support but did not pass. It was exciting to be part of the process. It was also coincidental that John Golomb, Rabbi’s younger brother who was in the audience, heard me mention Vassar Temple when I introduced myself, and came up to me when the session was breaking up.

There was also a very interesting, and even entertaining, panel discussion on the Pew Study findings. This study identifies the challenges and opportunities for Judaism, but it does not provide answers and actions that the URJ and Temples need to take. That is why a dialogue is needed. Vassar Temple can benefit by aligning with the vision and programs which the URJ is developing. Bob and I took away some good ideas which we look forward to discussing with the board.

At 4PM we got a break so we can get ready for Shabbat – which should prove to be the highlight of Biennial! But first some entertainment at the Kikar Town Square.

Bob Ritter

Being at the Biennial

The first thing you notice is that there are so many Jews! More than Temple HDD, more than camp, I think you’d have to be in Israel or at Yeshiva to be among such a dense Jewish population. But it’s not just the people – there’s the music, the exhibitors, the vendors, all the subjects being covered. It’s nice to be the majority in a public space. It’s a good energy.

The weather in San Diego is a welcome relief from our northeast cold, but I can’t say we’ve had much time to experience it. Other than the walk from the hotel to the conference center, the days start and end with prayer but in between its all education, with networking squeezed in at every chance. With approximately 100 sessions to chose from on a single day it was easier making college class registration choices. There is literally something for everyone – leadership, youth, educators, administrators, and spiritual interests. Most of the sessions are quite filled too.

Given the audience, as you’d expect there is no shortage of questions and audience participation. Attendees are very engaged and that creates energy in each session and makes the time fly by.

One of my favorite aspects are the central gathering areas, the exhibitor area and the Kikar Town Square. There must be over 200+ exhibitors showing everything from Judaica, to housewares, to technology for temples, and all sorts of service providers for temples. In the Kikar Town Square there is always a performance going on, either music or a comedy act or even a poetry reading. They have a music and book store. People gather in little clusters, kibitzing, or catching up on their email.
Because of the way the conference center is spread out, people are constantly going through these areas to get to the next session, so there is lots of hustle and bustle.

In the larger sessions, especially the plenary sessions in the evening the URJ takes care of business. Honoring leaders, keynote speakers, top Jewish musical talent, and other topics for the whole attending body to share in. After that wraps up at 9:30 PM then there are other even more activities late into the evening, so I’m told.

We come from all over the country. From small town congregations, like Vassar Temple, to large city congregations with over 1000 families. Our love of Judaism is a common bond which lets you strike up conversation with anyone.

And our hotel is rocking!

Busy second day at the Biennial

We started today by attending the morning prayer service using Visual T’filah. I wanted to see how they supplemented the information on the screen to make for an engaging service. The service was run by a young (female) Rabbi and (male) Cantor, both with beautiful voices. The Cantor played a guitar during half of the service and a piano during the 2nd half.

Next I attended a session on the “Intentional Interim Rabbi” where I learned about the CCAR training now required of all interim Rabbis, and how the interim rabbi not only helps with transition from the prior rabbi, but also helps the congregation determine the profile for what they’d like in a new Rabbi. Typically hired for a 1 year period, the intentional interim rabbi is typically an empty-nester who likes traveling to different areas, helping congregations in need, and then moving on. It was stressed that the interim year is not a disruption, but is an opportunity for the congregation to reexamine who we are, identify traits that we feel we absolutely require, and help the congregation arrive at consensus. Where there’s conflict, the interim doesn’t take sides … he/she needs to hear from everyone and help all arrive at consensus. It was mentioned that congregations who don’t hire a full rabbi rather than an interim will often take on a second rabbi search within the next year. So planning is very important.

The session on Visual T’filah was particularly enlightening. The temple purchased the CCAR model service based on Mishkan T’filah and we enhanced it to meet our needs. This session focused on how to create new, fresh visuals for services, and create unique services for specific situations, like a Martin Luther King service, or tailoring a Saturday morning service to highlight the interests of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. One of the panel participants was Rabbi Danny Dreskin of Woodlands Community Synagogue in White Plains. Rabbi Dreskin started the Visual service trend and Visual T’filah is used regularly at his temple with very wide acceptance. After speaking with him following the session, he invited us to visit his temple on a night when they’re using Visual T’filah to observe how they conduct the service using this medium.

I also attended a session on Best Practices for fundraising. During this session, issues related to marketing and messaging, running fund development, and running an annual campaign were discussed, as well as how to inspire donors to give. A panel of reform synagogue development professionals offered advice and answered questions. A common theme throughout the entire discussion was the need to make connections with everyone at the temple, to cultivate members, set goals and to get the message out … to always tell our story about what’s involved in running the temple and why additional fundraising is necessary. The role of clergy was also discussed, how clergy relationships with potential donors is very powerful. Build relationships via life events, engage new congregants, and develop appropriate goals on why funding is required, and how the donor will benefit. While I felt many of the suggestions were more appropriate for larger congregations, the basic principles apply regardless of the number of families.

On a side note, I got to meet Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Joel’s dad), who was doing a book signing at the URJ Bookstore. Rabbi Hoffman’s wife was there as well. They are both looking forward to visiting Vassar Temple for the Shabbaton in the Spring, to see the temple that Joel has been raving about!

This evening’s Plenary session will feature Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President and other speakers, followed by music entertainment featuring Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols.

Bob Abrams

First day at the Biennial

First day at the Biennial is off to a great start. Our flights (LGA to Dallas, then to San Diego) were smooth and we got to our destination close to on schedule. And our bags got to our destination as well … yay! Many thanks to Mary Ritter for driving us to LaGuardia Airport very early in the morning for our 6am flight!

After checking into the hotel we headed over to the huge convention center to check in and get our bags with the program and other handy info. We located the Kikar, which is the “central square” with the URJ Book store and a stage featuring Jewish music artists much of the afternoon. I spent much of the afternoon at a program for temple presidents, where I met up with several fellow presidents who I met at the Scheidt Seminar last year. I got there too late to hear Ron Wolfson talk about Synagogue 3000, but was fortunate to attend There were two great speakers: Rabbi Sam Joseph and Rabbi Larry Hoffman (Joel’s father).

Rabbi Joseph’s topic was on the need to establish relationships as part of creating community. He stressed that the Board needs social settings (away from the Temple) to help create and enhance relationships, something that cannot be done at the Board meeting around a large table. He then took the group through a self-survey of leadership orientations that expressed the importance of considering 4 major leadership styles among the Board and its leaders: structural, human resources, Political and Symbolic leaders. It’s a good exercise that I’ll try to do with the Board. During the discussion I found out about a good way to engage families with younger kids is a “Pajama Havdalah”, with activities for the little ones. Rabbi Hoffman talked about the need to “think differently”, establishing the true values of the congregation (look beyond being a welcoming temple) and crafting our messages to focus on the values that matter. He also offered some useful tools for determining the culture of the temple, such as level of trust, purpose of programming, whether congregants are consumers vs. partners, and other aspects. Rabbi Hoffman received an award for his long-time contributions on the Synagogue 2000 and 3000 initiatives.

The first Plenary session was kicked off by very funny comedian, Joel Chasnoff. Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the Biennial via pre-recorded video, introduced by Rabbi David Saperstein. VP Biden was recognized for his work on social justice issues, stopping gun violence, rights for disabled Americans, and national security for the US & Israel, including elimination of Iran’s nuclear program. Later in the evening was a wonderful concert by Jewish musicians Julie Silver and Michelle Citrin!

Bob Abrams

You Can Be At the 2013 Biennial Too!

The “Bob’s” (Abrams and Ritter) are going to the 2013 URJ Biennial in San Diego this week 12/11 – 12/15 and we’re excited. This will be my first time, and honestly I’m a bit overwhelmed by all there is to do and experience. The Biennial agenda is impressive and covers an amazing spectrum. Since Bob and I can’t possibly do it all we’ll “divide and conquer” as they say. You can help, and join in the fun too! “What,” you say, “how can we participate if we’re not going? Here’s how …

Attend some of the activities “virtually” on-line – no travel hassles, no expense, from the comfort of your own computer! Here’s a link that will get you there.

Here’s What’s Happening at the 2013 URJ Biennial:

Exciting Speakers:
Holy cow, I can’t believe I’ll be in the same room with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, NY Times Food Editor Mark Bittman, Anat Hoffman, Rick Reilly, Ruth Calderon, Ilyse Hogue, Jay Feinberg, and many others. Leaders speaking to leaders and the entire Jewish community – YOU!

Interesting Sessions:
There are sessions on a wide variety of topics all led by today’s top practitioners, teachers and thinkers. What interests you?!

We’ll get to enjoy today’s top Jewish musicians. Too many to list – see what I mean. Check out the music of the Biennial performers with Jewish Rock Radio’s countdown show Dec 9th, 8:30 PM (re-broadcast Dec 10th, 8:30 PM)!

Kikar Biennial:
Kikar Biennial is the Biennial Town Square — a central meeting place and a main hub of activity for the Biennial. Hey, maybe I can get a “gluten free” beer! (Bob, we do get to have fun, right?! LOL)

Youth Engagement:
NOTHING is more important than engaging the young Jewish individuals who will lead us into the future! The Biennial has a vast array of opportunities to deepen and expand the work Vassar Temple is doing to engage the next generation. Check out the exciting opportunities. We are in good hands! We just want more of them. 🙂

2013 Proposed Resolutions:
The URJ Represents our Reform Jewish community on important subjects. There are four resolutions that will be voted on by our community. Below is a list and more information can be found on the official Biennial website. Check them out – where do you stand?

1. Resolution in Support of Paid Sick Days
2. Resolution on First Nations
3. Resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing
4. Resolution on the US-Cuba Embargo

Follow Us:
Follow our experience on the Vassar Temple’s Blog

So, as you can see, this is an amazing conference and you can understand why Bob Abrams and I are excited to be going! But truth be told, we’re going for Vassar Temple – we’re going for YOU! Vassar Temple, and Reform congregations around the world, are the future. It’s our duty, it’s our joy … join us!

Bob Ritter


2013 Biennial in San Diego

San Diego, here we come!  This week Bob Ritter and I will be attending the 72nd Biennial conference at the San Diego Convention Center.  The conference, which runs December 11-15, is the place for Jews from across North America to assemble to learn, pray, share ideas, sing, listen to great music by modern Jewish groups, hear from inspiring guest speakers, reunite with old friends, create new connections, and make decisions about the policies of the Reform Movement.  The Biennial attracts about 5,000 lay leaders and professionals from Reform congregations.  Activities and events are planned for each day of the Biennial, starting in the morning (for those who like to attend early morning worship service) and lasting well past midnight with engaging music and other forms of entertainment.  Learning sessions are scheduled throughout each day with countless choices in each time slot. 

There’s a huge lineup of speakers & musicians, featuring keynote speaker Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  I hope they set up a separate stage for featured musicians to perform … a great way to wind down or occupy yourself between sessions.

This week Bob and I will also meet with our URJ representative, Gila Hadani Ward, about how the Temple can take more advantage of URJ offerings.  I’m also hoping that we can meet with Rabbi Dan Medwin to discuss how we can gain better use of Visual T’filah, which we’ve used during a few services over the summer.

We are looking forward to a very full long weekend of activities, and will try to summarize the high points of each day in this blog.

Bob Abrams