Friday, December 26, 2014

Torateinu ARZA:
Unto Zion Shall Go Torah

Torateinu ARZA with
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President,
with Rabbi Rick Sarason,
and Rabbi Bennett Miller, ARZA Chair
When I open Outlook each work day, I find a an e-mail from the URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah. Some days I read it with great interest. Other days I know I won't have time and set it aside for later. This morning - with one son on his way to a NFTY regional event and the other working out and doing errands (he is cooking Shabbat dinner tonight) - I decided to come into the empty office and finish a project, put away the Chanukah decorations and clean off my desk. But first e-mail.

One day each week, Ten Minutes of Torah is about making Israel Connections. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the president of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionist of North America) was the author from Wednesday. I was struck by his words. In part because I can visualize the places in Ben Gurion Airport (NTBG) her describes. In part because of the power of a congregation her sharing a Sefer Torah with a new Reform community in Israel. And in part because of the reaction of the elderly woman at NTBG to seeing a scroll in the hands of another woman.

I share this as a Shabbat gift for those who didn't see it. You can see the link after Josh's name to discuss the article on That is the blog of the Reform movement where the article is posted online. I urge you to make any comments there so you will be part of a much larger conversation.

Shabbat Shalom!


Torateinu ARZA:
Unto Zion Shall Go Torah
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Discuss on
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.
Pirkei Avot 1:1

Dan, the official in customs, told me to have a seat with my Torah and wait. Well accustomed to Israeli bureaucracy, I immediately knew I should have canceled my plans for the rest of the day. When Dan returned, offering me a cup of coffee, I knew I was in for it. Surprisingly, within 10 minutes, having signed the necessary paperwork and paid the required fees, Torateinu ARZA (Our Torah to the Land) and I were cleared to leave.

As I headed into the arrivals hall, cradling the Torah, Dan asked, "So, is that a real Torah?"

"Absolutely," I responded.

"A great mitzvah…" he called out with a wink. Even the customs official understood the importance of our work to bring the gift of Torah to Kehilat Sha'ar HaNegev, a fledgling Israeli Reform community.

In the back of the hall, near the vending machines, I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, Kehilat Sha'ar HaNegev's student rabbi . Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren't sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn't have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, "May it bring good things for the people of Israel!"

Traditionally, when we take the Torah from the ark during services we chant these words from the Book of Isaiah: "From out of Zion comes Torah." With the arrival of this particular sefer Torah, we can modify Isaiah's words to these: "Unto Zion shall go Torah."

Generously donated by Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego, Torateinu ARZA, an initiative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), had traveled throughout North America for nearly six months - from west to east, from San Diego to the Negev - visiting dozens of congregations and events on its way to Israel. Recently, I was honored to walk with Torateinu ARZA on Shabbat morning at the joint URJ-HUC-CCAR board meeting in Cincinnati and to be granted an even greater honor: to receive the Torah upon its arrival home - at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. It has since arrived at Kehilat Sha'ar HaNegev, the congregation that will be its permanent home in Israel.

As we celebrate the last day of the Festival of Lights, may this Torah be a symbol of much needed light, unity, and good will in Israel. Let it show the world that the Reform Movement is building a strong and growing presence in Israel, that we are committed to making Torah accessible to all Jews, and that our congregations place Torah at the center of their existence.

This spring's World Zionist Organization elections have the potential to enhance recognition of the Reform Movement in Israel, help our communities to thrive, and demonstrate that there are many ways to be religious in Medinat Yisrael. If you haven't already done so, 
please pledge to vote in the upcoming WZO elections. 
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

One Educator’s Response…
... on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

Several years ago, Joel Grishaver told me that he had been told that Nancy Parkes is the best Jewish educator in the country. I had to meet her. So I asked her to lunch. And she asked me to teach her teachers. And then we were in the Leadership Institute together. And traveled to Israel and learned together. I am not sure if she is the best - I have not actually studied her school, and I am not sure I am qualified to determine or declare who is the best. 

I will say that she is one of the smartest and most creative colleagues I have ever had the pleasure to learn and talk with, and we do not get together nearly enough. Like many of you I have been reading and attending meetings and thinking about the Pew report and the responses. Nancy went a step further today. She spoke up - from the perspective of a synagogue based supplementary school educator - and proposed a way forward.

After thirty seconds of "that's what I was thinking" and "I should have said that" nonsense, I decided to re-post her ideas that ran today on eJewishPhilanthropy (what? you don't get Dan Brown's daily email? Shame on you!) and hopefully expand the audience and the conversation. I suggest comments should be on eJP (Leave a Comment) or Jedlab ( - look for a posting by Saul Kaiserman around 9:30 am EST on December 3. What you are not in JEDLAB? For shame! Fix that too!).

I agree with everything Nancy says and wish I said it first. More students come through our supplementary schools than any other part of the Jewish education eco-system. We must get it right. And when get students to couple their enrollment in our schools with Jewish camps, Israel programs and youth groups (to name just a few opportunities) we can really change the future. Read on!


One Educator’s Response….. on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

By Nancy Parkes
I have read the reports and the responses. I have attended meetings and have discussed the findings of the Pew report with many of my colleagues and with experts in the field, all whom I would define as people who care deeply about the future of Jewish life in America.

And, like many others, I am concerned about the Jewish future. But not in the way you may think.

It is clear from the findings of the Pew Report that we still have work to do in making Jewish learning and life meaningful, engaging, and relevant for American Jews. I don’t believe that anyone would deny that. My issue with the articles and proposal presented by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer is that there is absolutely no mention of the value and importance of supplementary synagogue education.

It is interesting that despite the Pew Report demonstrating that supplementary education in the high school years is indeed effective, the proposal makes no mention of supporting these programs. It does, however, mention day schools, Jewish camps, youth groups and trips to Israel.
I don’t know of one Jewish educator, lay leader, or Rabbi that would dispute that day schools and informal educational experiences are powerful influences in the lives of our young people. I certainly believe that they are. One of the reasons why these experiences are so effective is that they do not occur in isolation. As noted by Cohen and Wertheimer, “These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years.”

As a Jewish educator and director in a supplementary synagogue school, I would never claim that supplementary education alone guarantees or leads to Jewish engagement as adults. Why then is this the way so many evaluate our programs?

Educators and directors in the synagogue setting have done much soul searching during the past decade. We were told that our system was “broken”; that children and parents were not finding the joy in Jewish learning in our settings; and even more importantly, we were told that the learning that was taking place was not leading to Jewish living.

We took all of this to heart- because we were concerned and because we care deeply about the future of Judaism.

How did many of us respond? We made changes - significant changes – in the structure and design of our schools. We advocated for Jewish camp and even brought the camp experience into our schools. We made youth groups an integral part of our educational programming blending the formal setting with this valuable informal Jewish experience. Many programs now take teens on trips to Israel, and more and more programs take learning out of the traditional classroom setting. Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has been made is the education and involvement of parents. We involve them because we know that if Judaism is not relevant and meaningful for them, they as the decision makers, will not only remove themselves from Jewish life, but their children, as well.

With more than 60% of our families enrolling their children in supplementary educational programs, we know that much is at stake in the kind of educational experiences we create for our learners. So, what kind of message are they receiving by the silence – and worse, the negativity – leaders in research and education send them by not supporting their decision with funding? That they are not worth the investment? That they have made the “wrong” decision? That they care less about their child’s Jewish education?

I keep a running list of the negative comments I hear from lay leaders, clergy, and professionals in the Jewish world about supplementary education. Unfortunately, the list is long and continues to grow. Is it any wonder that less and less young people are going into the field of Jewish education, and why synagogue schools have difficultly finding educators and leaders for their schools? This kind of rhetoric perpetuates a self-filling cycle.

Supplementary schools matter – and they do make a positive difference in the lives of our families. Can they be better? Absolutely. But, they need support to do so.
Here is my proposal:
  • Stop the negative narrative. Leaders and clergy need to become vocal advocates for supplementary education, whether it is from the pulpit, in writing, or at conferences.
  • Be our partners. We need more leaders and clergy to truly be our partners in creating the educational excellence that we all want. If your synagogue school is not a place that you would send your own child, how can you work with your educational team to make it so?
  • Encourage people to consider Jewish education as a career. We need more Jewish educators – in all settings. We need to do a better job at reaching out to those who we believe could make a difference in the Jewish world of informal and formal Jewish education. We also need more scholarships dollars to help those who wish to become Jewish educators to realistically be able do so.
  • Provide mentorship and consulting for supplementary education directors. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are doing it on your own.
  • Collaboration. Jewish camps and youth groups “work.” So does supplementary education when it is combined with these informal experiences. More conferences should be held which bring leaders in these fields together to think about how they can truly collaborate to bring powerful experiential education to the supplementary school setting, while also encouraging our children and teens to attend camp and become active members in youth groups.
I am not an alarmist, but I do believe that supplementary schools matter and that the lack of support that they receive and the negative narrative that is perpetuated is indeed, in the words of Cohen and Wertheimer, “a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.”

Nancy Parkes is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, an egalitarian synagogue in White Plains, NY.