In Partnership: How A New Program Makes Jewish Learning Meaningful for Parents Today

To Do:

  • Foster substantive and meaningful connections among parents.
  • Learn Torah that speaks to pressing questions of our time.
  • Empower parents with the same language and tools for Torah learning and relationship- building that their children are learning in school.
  • Enable parents to give themselves the gift of Torah learning with a flexible structure that respects their busy lives.

It is a gratifying thing to pursue a program of meaningful Jewish learning that checks all the boxes. This was the experience of a pilot program that emerged organically from Pedagogy of Partnership’s (PoP) longtime partnerships with two Jewish day schools. For years, PoP, Powered by Hadar, has been working with teachers and leaders from Boston’s Jewish Community Day School and Schechter Boston to root PoP’s havruta[1] -based method of “learning Jewishly” to meet their schools’ respective and unique visions for their students and faculty. Particularly after the disruption of covid, the time was ripe for weaving back together the many connections and relationships that make day school communities special: relationships among parents, connection of parents to the heart of their children’s Jewish learning experience, and a shared relationship to Torah for all members of the community.

The pilot program brought PoP’s orientation and tools for havruta learning together with Hadar’s Project Zug (PZ) course, To Share or Not to Share: The Torah of Social Media, and the personalized invitation and havruta matchmaking ability of each school’s educational leadership. Together, we formed the how, what, who, and where of this learning opportunity for the parents of each community. We hope that sharing this model is helpful to others designing programs meant to build relationships through Torah learning.

The basic structure of the program was simple. The schools sent out an invitation to parents to sign up for a four session havruta learning experience bookended by an in-person communal PoP introduction to havruta learning at the beginning, and a PoP siyum, closing celebration, at the end. Parents could choose to be matched with someone new or sign up with a friend, spouse, or someone they have always wanted to get to know better. After the group introductory session, each havruta pair arranged to meet together at a time, frequency, and location that worked for them as they charted their own course through the PZ learning materials.

In the opening session, we oriented parents to a shared understanding of havruta learning by introducing them to select PoP frameworks including, “The Havruta Triangle.”

Image of Partnership Learning Triangle

Parents energetically unpacked the implications of this relational conception of Jewish learning by considering what it means for the text to be a partner; what it looks like to enter into a balanced give-and-take with another person and a text, and what dispositions we might need to call upon to enter into this kind of learning. Parents named such dispositions as “openness,” “curiosity,” “empathy,” “listening,” and “humility” as core attitudes that would animate this triangle in action.

A highlight of this discussion came from the parents’ children themselves!  Each school made a video of their students, who learn through PoP at school, reflecting on the very questions we asked parents to consider about the nature of havruta learning. The students offered practical advice for how to make the most of one’s learning. Parents were enchanted and took to heart their children’s sound advice:

You don’t always have to agree with [your havruta partner] and sometimes it is better if you disagree. If you disagree with your partner, you can end up learning more than you would have if you agreed.
– Seventh Grade PoP student


You should be caring and help each other. You should learn something, you should teach something…
Third Grade PoP student


Adults studying in havruta should remember to look at the text a lot more than they think they need to
Seventh Grade PoP student


You need to focus on what you are reading and understand it…actually understanding what does the text say but also making sure that you respect your partner.
– Third Grade PoP student

With this orienting framework, parents started to form their own havruta relationships with a “havruta warm-up” exercise to identify strengths and skills they could each bring to their learning. With a sense of shared purpose, tools, and compelling questions about the text itself, parents were ready to go on to study the rich course materials on their own until we gathered again a couple of months later to celebrate and share learning and reflections.

The content that parents studied together in the The Torah of Social Media PZ course, curated by Yitzhak Bronstein, constitutes a complex and multi-layered compilation of traditional Jewish sources that raise and address critical questions about how we talk about one another and to one another. Amplified exponentially by the onset of social media, ancient considerations about what constitutes gossip, how we balance the prohibition against gossip with the responsibilities to rebuke wrong-doing and also to judge one’s fellow favorably, reverberate in our present-day lives with heightened significance and consequence.

Parents commented on how the sources presented them with new ideas or extended how they thought about the unintended harms of talking or writing about others, such as the idea that gossip not only harms the object of gossip but the teller and the receiver of that gossip [Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 7:1,3]. Many parents shared stories about how their learning had an immediate impact on how they navigate everyday decisions about speech and sharing information.

The Power of Havruta to Build Relationships
Reflecting on their havruta experience as a whole, parents expressed deep gratitude for the meaningful and substance-rich connections they formed with their partners. Some commented on having made a brand-new connection with a fellow parent with whom they share much in common—and others shared that their new connections were refreshing precisely because of what they did not have in common! A parent with young children matched with a parent of older children appreciated the ways they could learn from one another and see themselves on a developmental pathway held by their respective journeys through the school. Participants reported having experienced firsthand what it is to get to know another person through the study of Torah—where the text serves as a mediator inviting two people to meet in conversation in a way they would not have otherwise.

Parents also reported that the PoP frameworks provided shared language and routines, and thereby helped to bring together those parents who were new to havruta learning with parents who have a lot of experience. One parent shared with us that she had always admired those who studied in havruta, and she prioritized a Jewish education for her own children to learn to develop those skills, but she had been too intimidated to try it herself until this pilot program. Having been paired with a very learned and experienced partner she was even more nervous until they sat down together, and using the PoP learning routine, created a flow of lively and fascinating Torah discussion. Both partners came away enriched with Torah and shared their appreciations for one another at the close of the course. In both school communities the siyum celebrations ended with a resounding request for more learning.

The PoP-PZ-School partnership pilot happily checked a lot of boxes from a programmatic standpoint. More important, however, is the uplift, connection, and Torah-insights that participants within this program framework were able to create on their own for one another by bringing themselves to their havruta learning with openness, curiosity, humility and desire to learn. Parents were able to demonstrate for themselves the PoP idea that, “If all the havruta partners work together, we will come to learning and insights that we would not have come to on our own, in the same way, or with a different set of partners” (Cook & Kent, 2018. Exploring the Partnership Stance).

Allison Cook and Dr. Orit Kent and the Founders and Co-Directors of Pedagogy of Partnership, Powered by Hadar. PoP offers trainings, coaching, and resources for Jewish educators, school leaders, adults and families. To hear from PoP students directly about the power of learning in havruta, click here!

[1] Havruta refers to the traditional Jewish social learning practice in which two learners study texts together as a pair. The term havruta can also refer to one’s study partner, as in, “I am learning with my havruta.”

The Importance of Supporting Network Leaders

Gathering and supporting those on the frontlines of change is more and more vital as the world becomes increasingly complex and intertwined.  It is one of the surest bets to make lasting systemic change.

A great example of this important work was recently highlighted by Jenna Hanauer at the Jim Joseph Foundation, in her reflections on the Prizmah Conference that brought together leaders, experts, and funders, among others, to engage, discuss, and collaborate on the future of Jewish day schools. Her piece highlights the great benefit–and desperate need–of these field-wide convenings to bring people together to address systemic challenges and opportunities.

We must equally support and accelerate those professionals who make this critical work happen: the leaders of vibrant network organizations. There is no readily available course or easily accessible way to learn the skills needed to lead these organizations effectively. In my role as executive director of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, powered by Jewish Federations of North America, I know the challenges and bandwidth required to maintain relationships with members of network organizations, to understand the through-lines among the members’ work, and to capitalize on the opportunities for collective impact. It also can be lonely to head a network organization – it’s a role not easily understood; and, while we foster relationships, we must maintain boundaries. I often think how beneficial it would be to have a “network of networks,” which would be a place to share the necessary tools needed to do this work effectively. Moreover, by supporting the network leaders themselves though education, training and resources, we can vastly accelerate field-wide change.

At the heart of some of the most sophisticated, large-scale solutions to social problems are some of the most accomplished leaders you’ve never heard of: network entrepreneurs.
– Stanford Social Innovation Review

This quote embodies a philosophy that has defined my career. As the head of the Funder Collaborative, it has become clear to me that weaving effective networks, and planning thoughtful convenings, are an essential step towards galvanizing a field.

I’ve witnessed first-hand the ripple effects of weaving individuals, each working on similar and related topics–and building a culture of trust and cooperation. This is the act of field-building.  The Funder Collaborative has been so successful in this work because we see the world as interconnected. We believe that solutions–and the bold new ideas that make lasting change–come from the community. A critical first step is convening: an immersive learning and transformative experience which weaves a community. Done well, actions ring clear and people are purposefully engaged and empowered to achieve a vision for change. It also serves to amplify the voices of those who hold the most imaginative solutions to our most pressing challenges – the people who are closest to the work on the ground.

At each convening of this network, we take the time to ask questions, listen closely, nurture learning and inspire action. From my experience, the power of effective convenings exist outside the bounds of time: a well-designed user experience begins long before the gathering opens, and a well-crafted agenda sets the stage for efforts that continue long after the participants pack up.

There are countless creative and impactful ways to maintain communities year-round. Weaving amongst individuals, AI-powered networking, smaller virtual or in-person gatherings, continued education, frequent relevant communication, and lifting stories from the field infuse energy in the group over various touchpoints. By elevating and championing community voices, we reinforce commitment to work on the ground.

This “playbook” for community-building–gleaned from years heading the Funder Collaborative–has applications for any network or community. Steps like first identifying potential community members, earning these members’ trust as both a leader and in the idea of the network, and fueling participation by finding and providing value were fundamental building blocks of BeWell, the Jewish community’s coordinated response to the youth mental health crisis. BeWell’s national Resiliency Roundtable–the only forum that brings together education and engagement professionals with clinicians in Jewish settings to reach and support Jewish youth–meets monthly to share best practices, problem-solve, and collaborate. It is a model being replicated in nearly 20 communities across the country. Participating organizations and individuals are stronger as a result of the network leadership best practices that are infused in day to day work, education, and convenings.

There are many other issue areas to which these and other steps can be applied. I welcome the opportunity to share concrete skills that may be useful to other network leaders. Please also reach out if you lead a network and are interested in connecting with me and others – [email protected]. As a driver of social change, I have spent years honing and championing this approach, and I am always inspired by its impact. I applaud the tireless efforts of network entrepreneurs and organizations, as well as the funders for recognizing their long-term benefits.

Sara Allen is Executive Director of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, powered by JFNA.


Shmita-Scale Learning: JOFEE Leaders Reflect on the Past Seven Years

This piece from Jakir Manela, CEO of Hazon & Pearlstone, with contributions from Rabbi Zelig Golden, Executive Director of Wilderness Torah, and Adam Weisberg, Executive Director of Urban Adamah, shares lessons learned from JOFEE leadership during the recently completed three-year period of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s general operating grant to Hazon, as well as lessons learned over the last ten years of the Foundation’s support to the field.

At Hazon and Pearlstone, we believe in the centrality of adam and adamah, people and planet. Our mission is to cultivate vibrant Jewish life in deep connection with the earth, catalyzing culture change and systemic change through immersive retreats, Jewish environmental education, and climate action.

The parallel issues of declining Jewish affiliation and the global climate crisis are not unrelated. Climate grief and anxiety are now diagnosable mental health crises that impact young people across the Jewish world. Young Jews tend to care more about climate and sustainability than older generations, and they are also less likely than older generations to affiliate with Jewish institutions. For many, what keeps them up at night is not Jewish survival, but human survival.

It was almost 10 years ago that the term JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming, and Environmental Education) was coined by a group of funders. Collectively, the Jim Joseph Foundation, Leichtag Foundation, The Morningstar Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and UJA – Federation of New York invested in the Seeds of Opportunity JOFEE report. They discovered—through robust third-party research—a movement that was making a significant impact across the Jewish world. Since then, the Jim Joseph Foundation investments focused on supporting the four largest JOFEE organizations — Hazon, Pearlstone Center, Urban Adamah, and Wilderness Torah—and launching the JOFEE Fellowship in order to both professionalize and expand career opportunities across the field.

Over four years, the JOFEE Fellowship trained more than 60 young adults as educators, placing them at Jewish organizations including JCCs, federations, summer camps, and more. For fellows, the chance to create change by bridging their environmental concerns with their Jewish identities was a key motivation for joining the program:

“I was sick of being Jewish for the sake of being Jewish,” one wrote. “I’m here because I think being Jewish really matters in the world.”

In 2019, the Jim Joseph Foundation further invested in these organizations for an additional three years. Over these years, we learned lessons and gathered insights as our field grew and evolved.

The Growth and Diversification of the Community of People Engaging in JOFEE
As the pandemic unfolded, Jewish outdoor education quickly became a go-to for communities. Programs have grown both in the number and type of participants they’re engaging—including wider age ranges, geographies, and affiliation levels. Both the accelerated adoption of virtual programming, and the desire of people to re-engage in in-person programming as the world reopens, means that we have so far maintained new program growth, and expect to continue to do so into the future. As a result, JOFEE now reaches a broader audience.

Reflecting this growth, Wilderness Torah and Camp Newman will create the Center for Earth Based Judaism, a learning center for all segments of the community, and focus on earth care and climate resiliency. As Wilderness Torah builds regionally, it also is scaling nationally with programs such as Neshama (Soul) Quest and Jewish backpacking trips. And while its festivals are transformational, the organization has identified a need for smaller bite-sized programs across urban areas to increase participation: after going to two to three small programs, people begin to attend larger events.

As for Hazon and Pearlstone, in 2023 the two organizations are merging into the largest Jewish environmental non-profit outside of Israel. Our two retreat centers (Isabella Freedman in CT, and Pearlstone Center in MD) were hit hard by the pandemic, but we also saw tremendous growth in our programmatic impact. In the words of one parent whose child was in a weekly program: “While the children are busy feeling free and happy and honing their favorite skills, our parental spirits are soaring because we know [they’re being guided] toward full aliveness, sensitivity, and responsibility to the world around them.”

Nature is a Profound Driver of Reconnection to Jewish Life
In this age of digital overload and hesitancy surrounding indoor gatherings, a nature-connected, outdoor Judaism speaks directly to what we need in mind and body, heart and soul. Despite myriad online opportunities, people continue to seek the authentic sense of purpose and connection that can be found through engaging with the more-than-human world.

A Wilderness Torah participant commented:

“I experienced a profound healing in the part of my soul that has been searching for a tribe and embodied Jewish community. My Jewish heart and connection to my ancestors has opened. I have found my home as a Jew.”

We have also witnessed JOFEE’s ability to connect youth to wider Jewish communal life. If we provide meaningful experiences, youth can and do stay engaged. We need to ask ourselves: How do we authentically connect with who we are at our rooted core, to the obligations and responsibilities of what it means to be a human on planet earth?

Jewish Youth and Young Adults are Seeking Opportunities to Lead on Environmental Issues – Whether in the Jewish Community or Not
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons learned over the past years is the growing demand from and for Jewish youth to be empowered as their own leaders and educators in environmental work and action. Hazon’s Jewish Youth Climate Movement (JYCM) was launched in 2020 and in just over two years blossomed into over 44 Kvutzot (chapters) nationwide, each with 10-30 members — a strong indicator of the need for these kinds of outlets. Efforts run by the teens themselves reach about 10,000 more people each year. These chapters are not just powerful Jewish engagement opportunities; they are also a safe space for young people who may not feel accepted with their full Jewish identities amid some elements of anti-Zionism and antisemitism in the secular climate justice movement.

One teen commented:

“Previous to my engagement in JYCM, I was in a youth-led movement that…taught me a lot about the climate crisis and how to organize…However, at times it felt as if I had to choose between my Jewish identity and organizing as the movement had been involved in some anti-Semitic activity and my specific chapter was unwilling to publicly condemn it.”

We see college campuses as an area of critical growth on the horizon, as Hillels have been among the most active participants in Hazon’s climate action and sustainability programs to date. As young adults seek ways to get involved, many look for hands-on experiences. For example, Urban Adamah runs an alternative spring break experience combining sustainable agriculture and Jewish community building.

A theme among these programs is participants’ desire to make a difference in the world overall, not just within the Jewish world. As such, JOFEE programs are increasingly welcoming young adults’ non-Jewish friends and family members. This helps to foster participation and widens the tents of involvement and belonging for those wishing to become active in community building and organizing.

Jewish Communal Interest and Action on Sustainability is Growing, Presenting New Opportunities for Collaboration within the Wider Jewish World
For many of the JOFEE field’s participants, the climate crisis is an overarching emotional and spiritual theme, present in their daily lives. And Jewish tradition has a direct, powerful, and unique response to these concerns.  For over 20 years, we have unpacked Jewish ecological wisdom to connect people with their own inspiration, and an empowered community of peers to build with. Moving forward, we aim to interweave Hazon and Pearlstone’s programs in order to facilitate greater networking, collaboration, and leadership among participants.

Hazon’s growing national portfolio of virtual and in-person programs provide options for pop-up collaborations. At the same time, Jewish youth are increasingly seeking leadership opportunities within JOFEE — a useful avenue for them to create meaningful experiences while also building a network of peers. We approach the end of 2022 with a new and diverse set of programs and participants, including a network of hundreds of Jewish teen activists across the country via JYCM; a newly launched Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition with over 120 Jewish organizations, three major national community hubs engaging tens of thousands of people a year in Baltimore, New York/Connecticut, and Detroit; and a programmatic framework that enables seamless online and in-person fusions. With Wilderness Torah and Urban Adamah also scaling programs to a national level, as well as increasing their regional impact, it is increasingly possible for young Jewish individuals to find their place in a Jewish community that shares their environmental values.

As we expand our ability to engage youth and young adults on the issues that matter most to them, we also renew Jewish communal life by empowering them to build their own communities of meaning, purpose, and connection.

Jakir Manela is CEO of Hazon & Pearlstone, which cultivates a vibrant Jewish life in deep connection with the earth. Rabbi Zelig Golden is Executive Director of Wilderness Torah, which promotes healing, belonging, and resilience by awakening and celebrating earth-based Jewish traditions. Adam Weisberg is Executive Director of Urban Adamah, an educational farm and community center in Berkeley, California that integrates the practices of Jewish tradition, mindfulness, sustainable agriculture, and social action.


How UpStart is Centering Social Entrepreneurship in Our New Strategic Plan

As a social entrepreneur support organization, how will we better define and measure our success and our direct and indirect impact? How can we inspire and incubate more social enterprises and/or nonprofits with more promising and robust earned revenue streams? How will we build diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) into our strategy, metrics, culture and operations as we grow?

These were just some of the questions we asked ourselves as we launched a new strategic planning process nearly a year ago. As our previous strategic plan came to a close, UpStart’s future was becoming clearer than ever before. At its heart, UpStart is a learning organization, and we always find it clarifying to reflect on the past to see how far we’ve come and how far we’re poised to go.

Looking back to look forward

More than five years ago, four organizations merged to create a one-stop shop to support the needs of the organizations and individuals driving Jewish social innovation and engagement. Under the UpStart umbrella, our vision has been to deliver a comprehensive, streamlined suite of high-quality services to those making change within North American Jewish communities and all those pursuing Jewish innovation.

At the center of UpStart’s model was an implicit mandate for growth. Our strategies were aimed at helping to solve all the problems — from helping communal leaders navigate resistance to change to getting early-stage ventures off the ground — not just the problems within our historic areas of expertise.

But as the merger itself moved further in the rear-view mirror — and the field of “Jewish entrepreneurship” continued to evolve — we recognized a need to evolve as well. UpStart needed to align and clarify the strategies that would allow us to stay agile and have the most impact. In short, we needed a new plan forward.

We knew that the way we created the new plan would be just as important as the end result. In keeping with our growing commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, we wanted to develop our plan with a collaborative, inclusive process that reflected input from all of our stakeholders: program and grantee alumni, funders, organizational partners and others.

The process wasn’t easy. The consultant we hired was unafraid to expose our blind spots and biases; conducting the interviews and meetings over Zoom with new staff created a steep learning curve; and asking the hard questions and making tough decisions required deep trust and careful communication.

Centering the work of social entrepreneurs

Now, after a nine-month process that engaged our staff, board and stakeholders, we’ve shared our plan publicly. Building on our past success and learning, the plan affirms some of what we knew and charts a bold path forward with the focus and urgency this moment demands.

This new plan crystalizes our central mandate: to put social entrepreneurs at the center of our work. From now on, everything we do will be in service of sourcing, seeding and supporting existing and emerging leaders and ventures focused on designing the future of Jewish life.

This strategy centers and elevates the greatest lever for change for the Jewish future — Jewish social entrepreneurship. We will do this by:

  • Sourcing and catalyzing support for high-impact Jewish social entrepreneurship
  • Redefining and amplifying the impact of our network
  • Measuring and telling a clear story of our impact and that of our network
  • Building an enabling environment for Jewish social entrepreneurship to thrive
  • Advancing experimentation with new models for the sector, including adapting revenue models and legal structures from the for-profit/social enterprise sector.

Just as we’ve clarified what strategies we’re elevating in the plan, we’ve also honed in on what work we will phase out and ultimately eliminate: consulting engagements and intrapreneur programming. By focusing more of our attention on what we do best, we can grant more attention, resources and funding to our network and adapt our work to better meet their needs.

Bittersweet transitions

For our team at UpStart, it wasn’t easy to arrive at a decision point that led to cutting certain programs and services. The decisions resulted in a reallocation of existing resources, sacrificing 10% of our current revenue and restructuring our organizational chart. As an organization built on helping others to be agile, innovative and impact-oriented, we knew that this was a moment for us to take our own advice.

Organizational growth done right can include minimizing or even eliminating certain areas of focus to instead put more resources into what the organization does best and yields the most impact. This was something that we, our board and other stakeholders had to digest and ultimately we’ve come to celebrate.

The new plan offers concrete ways to pursue this more focused strategy, and will serve as our strategic compass for the next five years. A compass, importantly, is not a roadmap. Part of what makes UpStart unique is our agility to engage entrepreneurs and support them in specific contexts and moments, including those that unexpectedly arise.

We are more nimble when we’re not spreading ourselves and our services too thin. By design, our emphasis on agility positions us to support the solutions to the big and urgent problems. The largest of those problems is what drives us every day: that too many people still opt out of Jewish life and are unable to find a community that reflects who they are or who they want to be.

Moving forward with a solid foundation

As we tackle these new challenges, we’re equipping our team with the infrastructure, resources and processes we need to execute. One key learning from the plan was the importance of strengthening team members’ sense of belonging. A great plan with an uninspired and disconnected team will never succeed.

Like others, UpStart faced challenges over the last two-plus years in this area. We need to cultivate a team environment able to withstand distance and different working styles. To deliver on our promise to our network, funders and partners, we must connect everyone on the team to each other and to our mission.

Part of our foundation will be frameworks that focus on metrics, evaluation and learning to support our whole team in measuring outcomes, telling the story of our network and influencing the trajectory of Jewish life. Nearly all of us in the field experienced the power of collaborations over the last two-plus years. Organizational leaders looked for opportunities to work together so more people could bring their expertise to the table.

As we move forward, UpStart will continue facilitating deeper collaborations and partnerships within and on behalf of our expanding network. Mutual collaboration between our network and the Jewish community’s institutions are essential to create a more just, vibrant and inclusive Jewish future.

This future can be, and must be, created now. There’s what I call a “patient urgency” reflected in the plan, while also being mindful that we need time, space and a solid foundation for intentional growth. This plan and the tactics within reflect the combination of radical impatience for impact and sensible patience for growth.

With this renewed clarity of purpose and urgency, we know that the ideas of more and better are intricately connected. The need to invest more resources in the social entrepreneurs who are changing Jewish life everyday — and the people who will follow in their footsteps — will yield a greater number and diversity of people participating in Jewish life and will enhance the enduring vitality of Jewish life for generations to come.

Aaron Katler is the CEO of UpStart.

originally published in eJewish Philanthropy.

Don’t Just Look Back: Using Evaluation to Inform Future planning

In 2014, Rose Community Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation partnered to create the Denver and Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, one of 10 community-based efforts across the country in the Teen Funder Collaborative (now housed at The Jewish Federations of North America). Our initiative, like others, was designed to cultivate new Jewish teen offerings, increase teen engagement and involve teens who come from diverse Jewish backgrounds.

Each initiative had a critical component in parallel to these external efforts: independent evaluation. Over the course of the initiative, our evaluator, Informing Change, provided us with findings, data and analyses showing progress toward our desirable outcomes. And, if we weren’t making progress, we gained an understanding of the reasons why. The final report, based on seven years of data collection and evaluation, is a valuable knowledge-base for professionals and institutions — both locally and nationally — seeking to engage Jewish teens and their families.

Beyond looking back at the initiative’s outcomes, we plan to utilize the data from this report to inform a variety of approaches moving forward — from considering potential investments in teen engagement, elevating the needs of Jewish-teen-serving professionals, cultivating collaboration and developing a cohesive community vision around teen programming. To that end, our organization has identified key takeaways where the collected data can meaningfully inform our future investments in the Jewish community.

For example, the teen programs themselves were described by stakeholders as high quality, responsive to teen interests and needs and effective in engaging teens from a variety of backgrounds. Yet, despite the quality of the programs, there remain opportunities for cultivating a more collaborative and sustainable Jewish teen ecosystem in Greater Denver. We plan to leverage this report to catalyze a shared community vision that prioritizes Jewish teens — not organizations — and elevates shared opportunities in which programs, communal professionals, parents and lay leaders all support them as they navigate emerging into young adulthood.  

Additionally, though Jewish-teen-serving professionals and group leaders are generally well-trained, we learned about gaps in staff talent development, retention and pipeline. We need to ensure that professionals see room for career advancement within their organizations, as teen-facing positions often are viewed as early career roles with high turnover rates. Training and professional development of program leaders will further the Initiative’s progress on the diversity and quality of Jewish teen programming. While professionals affiliated with national Jewish organizations have access to national training events and networks, local educational programs and training offerings are critical supports for professionals in smaller stand-alone organizations. Professional development also helps program leaders feel valued by their organization and by the broader Jewish community and contributes to longer tenure in their positions. Because of this, our organization is committed to supporting innovations and investments that attract and retain a talented crop of Jewish teen professionals.

Going forward, we also must develop strategies to ensure that the two Jewish communities involved in the Initiative, Denver and Boulder, continue to offer a mix of diverse and high-quality programs that appeal to teens. Maintaining this quality will require ongoing monitoring of the Jewish teen ecosystems. We need to find ways for each community to stay informed about available teen programs and opportunities, keep an eye on program quality, and increase awareness of parent and teen satisfaction with the existing programs. Providing low barriers to entry to Jewish teen programs is important in all communities, but especially so where there are smaller populations of Jewish youth or where Jewish families are geographically dispersed.

As a foundation serving the Greater Denver community, committed since 1995 to grantmaking in support of the region’s Jewish community, the Jewish Teen Initiative and subsequent evaluations provide us with valuable insights. We better understand how we’re doing our work, how we connect with grantees and partners, and the results of these efforts. Over the course of the Initiative, thousands of Greater Denver teens participated in immersive experiences, one-time events, in-school clubs and more.

We are ready to build on this success. By embracing learning as an organization-wide priority, Rose Community Foundation plans to make space to keep listening to our grantee partners, peer organizations, and others. We’ve asked grantees what they need — resources, training, technical assistance — to strengthen their capacity and evaluate their work in ways that nourish and sustain Jewish life in our community.

As our region and communities across the country consider future models and innovations for improving Jewish programming and increasing engagement, we hope the report and the data findings serve as a helpful resource. Through our grant making efforts in the Jewish community, we encourage a dynamic and inclusive Jewish ecosystem, which embraces myriad ways to be Jewish and builds enduring community infrastructure to sustain it. We know other foundations and grantee organizations around the county share this vision and approach. Thankfully, many learnings from the final report extend beyond the teen ecosystem and may apply to broader engagement efforts within the Jewish community. These learnings can help contribute to a roadmap for the future of Greater Denver’s Jewish teen programming and other communities around the country interested in creating and sustaining meaningful Jewish experiences.

Vanessa Bernier (she/her/hers) is program officer, Jewish life, at Rose Community Foundation.

originally posted in eJewish Philanthropy

It’s Ok to Argue: Insights on Designing an Israel Education Professional Development Initiative

On any given educational project, it is not unusual to be challenged by deeper societal issues than the project directly aims to address. What is unusual is being given the opportunity to pivot to address these deeper issues as part of the same grant from a funder of the project. Yet this is exactly what we were enabled to do as we launched the Israel education 4HQ program, part of a three-year community of practice called the Professional Development Initiative (PDI) supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

The originally planned project was designed to empower Moishe House programmers to engage their communities in stretching conversations about Israel. Working with The Jewish Agency for Israel Makom’s cognitive and pedagogical toolbox, we began making progress toward our goals. All evaluation pointed towards a successful embrace of complexity and courageous programming. Yet, at the same time, we felt we were reaching a limiting factor—a deeper societal issue, unrelated to Israel specifically—that affected the outcomes of the program.

We heard and saw that many program participants were extremely uncomfortable in discussions that led to disagreement. In exploring further, it was clear that this dynamic was not limited to Israel. Moishe House is an environment that aims to provide inclusion and comfort to people looking for a sense of community and fellowship. As such, it seems that the costs of disagreement, and being socially judged for one’s opinion, are too risky. Folks were far more comfortable skirting around issues, reserving judgment, and happily sitting on numerous fences, for the sake of maintaining a sense of community.

While this made a lot of social sense, it also made for stilted educational engagement. We began to realize that adult education about Israel effectively lives in the argument. Without argument—passionate disagreement—Israel and its issues remain theoretical, detached, and even somewhat illicit.

Although not a specifically “Israel-related” issue, this social imperative to avoid disagreement on most issues was a powerful impediment to achieving our Israel education aims.

And then came COVID-19. As significant funds went unused, the Jim Joseph Foundation expanded the scope of the grant to enable us to pivot towards this broader issue: arguments.

The literature on arguments is both abundant and limited. Much has been written and implemented about debating, the disagreement into which one enters in order to correct the opinion of others. Even more wisdom has been gained in the field of “problem-solving,” or “conflict transformation,” where one develops skills in diffusing disputes and making creative decisions. It turns out that far less has been shared, however, about disagreement for the sake of learning, about argument for the sake of identity development.

It is into this vast and challenging space that we were able to stumble and begin to thrive. Not only were we able to pivot within the original project, strengthening the project itself, but we were also able to develop an entire new direction based on our “on the job” discovery.

In January we will publish—Stories for the Sake of Argumenta source book and a training manual for educational arguments about Israel. Together with the stories, we are now running many “argument circles” for educational organizations. Soon we also will embark on a U.S.-wide training program for 500 educators to “teach from the argument.” And a more detailed “Pedagogy of Argument” is being written, which should be ready for Pesach 2022.

Many invigorating questions remain: Are there any elements of Israel that should not be “open to argument?” What is the place for passion in a healthy argument, and how does one manage it? When is the developmentally appropriate age to begin teaching through argument? What kind of educational support can and should be offered to families who buy and work with the book?

We look forward to addressing them as we move forward.

Robbie Gringras, formerly the creative director for the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom, is a performer, writer, educator, and co-creator of For the Sake of Argument. Abi Dauber Sterne, the previous director of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom, is an educational consultant and co-creator of For the Sake of Argument. Learn more at

Read a previous blog about another program in the PDI by Kiva Rabinsky, Chief Program Officer at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.

Walking the Tightrope of Work and Play: Insights on Designing Professional Development Experiences

When’s the last time you played, not simply to recover from your work, but to enhance your work? When we think of work and play, we often see them as two distinctive and opposite sides of a spectrum. How can we bring work and play closer together and why is it important to do this in the context of training educators?

This was one of the questions that ten Jewish organizations, including M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, explored during a three-year community of practice called the Professional Development Initiative (PDI). Facilitated by Rosov Consulting with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the PDI uncovered core principles for design that led to powerful professional development for Jewish educators across diverse initiatives and audiences.

In the culminating report that tracked ten professional development initiatives, five dichotomies emerged that are worth considering when designing any cohort learning experience: aiming to provide utility and ultimate meaning, focusing on personal growth and professional belonging, fostering diversity and commonality, offering space and structure, and emphasizing work and play. All ten aims are desirable, but many are in opposition with another. The imagery that comes to mind is a seesaw – each side of the spectrum is polarized, and favoring one is at the direct expense of the other.

Signature Frameworks for PD: Insights from Our Work


Of the ten considerations, that last word – “play” – stuck out the most for me. Play can be an unstructured period of down time that offers relief from an intense experience. It can also be more structured, aiming to enrich social opportunities in order to foster a solid group dynamic. Alternatively, it can supplement the central focus of a program in the form of recreation, such as morning yoga or a game night. If work has gone on too long or has become too intense, or if foundations need to be laid for work that is yet to come, the seesaw imagery comes back to mind. Prioritize play now, so we can prioritize work in the future.

M2 stands for Malechet Machshevet – a deliberate craft. We try to live up to our name in how we craft educational experiences, and one of our guiding principles is to make the work engaging. To best explore values, ideas, and content, we immerse leaders in experiences that offer space for them to actively play with those values, ideas, and content, as opposed to merely thinking about them. In other words, we aim to move out of the abstract and into the concrete.

Jewish EducatorsFor example, in one seminar that explored the value of partnership, 40 seasoned educators unconventionally began their morning by boarding a “Partner-Ship” bus. At their assigned seat, each participant found a discussion prompt to help them get to know their partner. They arrived at the beach and competed to build sand castles and moats in pairs, experiencing firsthand how they work with someone else. The day continued with chavruta-style learning, and by early afternoon, each participant had a better understanding of what they offer as a partner – and what they seek in a partner. And all of this was done through a playful, dynamic, energizing, and challenging experience.

Work and play – not recovery from the work, but play as the work itself – are not on opposite sides of a spectrum, seesawing back and forth but never coming together. A more accurate metaphor is a tightrope, where both forces are present at all times. Each side gets pulled and each offers support in different proportions, depending on where the acrobat stands. Regardless of where that may be, the two sides are in constant consideration of one another, even if one is carrying more weight. In this frame, the work of the educator is a balancing act, always aware of the dichotomies involved and attempting to integrate these forces in relation to each other.

As part of the PDI, a case study was written and analyzed about an M2 seminar called “The Architecture of Immersive Experiences.” In an attempt to draw a parallel between architectural principles in the built world and design principles in the world of educational experiences, learners spent five days in the heart of New York City, where a significant portion of the program was spent touring landmarks around Manhattan, guided by an architect, to see the principles firsthand. This is play at its best.

However, the temptations that play offers mean that we don’t always get the balance right. When we analyzed this case study in a PDIJewish educator training roundtable, questions surfaced about the prominence that play was given. Would a one-day tour of Manhattan have done the trick? Did too much play detract from the work that learners had come to do? Hearing questions and advice from our PDI colleagues offered valuable perspective that was taken to heart: it’s likely that while the approach may have been correct, the work-play balance was off.

It is with this valuable insight and feedback that M² is able to continue the work – playfully of course! – of designing powerful, compelling experiences for and with Jewish educators. We are also able to rediscover, over and over again, that they do not need to be opposites. Instead, work and play – and all other design principles for powerful professional development – can, and often should, exist in a state of creative tension that makes each polarity more powerful and meaningful.

Kiva Rabinsky is the Chief Program Officer at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, and lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Deb, and children, Nava and Yonah. Prior to working at M², he directed a range of Jewish Service Learning initiatives and developed and taught in a series of Experiential Jewish Education training programs through his role at Yeshiva University. Kiva holds an MPA in Nonprofit Management, and an undergraduate degree in Education and Archeology. Kiva can be reached at [email protected].





Focus Versus Experimentation: Reflections from a Chapter of Organizational Renewal

With the Jim Joseph Foundation’s capacity building grant to JPRO Network now concluded, we are pleased to share learnings and a look ahead from Dr. Laura Herman, Program and Evaluation Manager at JPRO Network.

Most nonprofits go through predictable stages of development: Invention, Incubation, Growing, Sustainability, Stagnation & Renewal, and Decline. JPRO Network playfully referred to itself as a “120-year-old startup” from 2017 through 2020; in reality, we were in the renewal phase. JPRO is a legacy organization that embarked on a period of renewal and experimentation over this four-year period. As JPRO enters its next chapter, one of strengthening and expansion, we are reflecting on the lessons learned over the last four years. Our work included:

  • Quadrupling annual reach from fewer than 500 professionals to over 2,000;
  • Launching programs and initiatives including WellAdvised, Master Classes, JPRO Online, and Rise; and
  • Tripling membership from 95 to over 300 organizational affiliates.

To accomplish this, JPRO’s touchstones were focus and experimentation. These two forces are often in conflict; how can one both narrow in and think expansively? Like hot and cold fronts that meet to form a storm, we learned that our most complex yet productive work emerged from the generative tension between these two seemingly opposite forces.

JPRO focused on two complementary objectives:

  • Provide programming that addressed the immediate pain points and greatest desires of our workforce, and
  • Triple the number of organizations affiliated with JPRO from 95 in 2016 to 300 in 2019.

On the other hand, we needed (and wanted!) to experiment, which required us to:

  • Have rapid cycles of trial → success/failure → learning → next trial
  • Think creatively and be prepared to be unconventional, and
  • Constantly discern when to be responsive to opportunities outside our areas of focus.

Even though they were sometimes in tension, experimentation and focus also fueled each other in these years of reinvention. Two examples speak best to the way that JPRO applied these forces: WellAdvised and JPRO19: What Connects Us.

WellAdvised, a free one-hour advising program that provides personalized professional advice from seasoned colleagues, was a completely new model. JPRO learned from a survey of over 1,000 people that professionals were eager for access to advising. We wanted to tap into the “well” of wisdom that exists in our field and to provide valuable opportunities for connection, without the long-term commitment of extant mentoring programs. (JPRO plans to add traditional mentoring to its offerings in the future.) Nothing like this had been done before and we were not sure how people would respond – would seasoned professionals be willing to volunteer their time? Could a limited engagement be useful to the professionals JPRO was trying to serve? How would employers respond to a program that, in part, supports individuals considering next steps in their careers? These and other questions guided the design of the program, and we went through several iterations before arriving at a system JPRO was ready to share with the field. Since WellAdvised piloted in 2018, advisors have provided close to 300 hours of advising and 90% of respondents report having taken an action step after their session.

JPRO19: What Connects Us, JPRO’s first conference after entering the renewal phase of development, was a different type of experiment. We sought to create a new conference experience. The primary goal was to build an atmosphere that would foster connections across many dimensions of diversity, where participants could build their professionals skills and deepen their relationship to the field. We leaned into an unconventional idea: the professional development amusement park. This immersive concept guided decisions about the Connect Lounge, a central atrium that featured activities such as a headshot booth, a meditation space, and a Connect Four tournament. To present the Young Professional awards, we hosted a conversation between the winners rather than the past norm of acceptance speeches. Instead of a traditional plenary, participants learned texts together in havruta, study partners. While these and other elements of JPRO19 were highly experimental, they were guided by JPRO’s desire to build layers of connection, the focus of the conference.

All of JPRO’s experiments have required us to have our eyes open to opportunities that would help us reach our goals. JPRO needed to remain flexible to respond to the changing needs of our audience, but sometimes our desire to be responsive distracted us from our two core objectives. There was occasional tension within the staff team – how much to stay true to our original focus and how much to be nimble and draw outside of those lines? It was a challenge to discern which opportunities would build sufficient momentum to be worthwhile. This was particularly pronounced as JPRO moved quickly in March 2020 to respond to the impact of the pandemic on our professional community. Trying to skillfully determine when to lean into focus and when to lean into experimentation taught us some lessons:

  1. A rubric for decision-making can support discernment about when to focus and when to experiment. Experimentation can accelerate growth and impact; it also involves risk and can create workflow challenges and difficulty managing expectations with partners.
  2. Organizational renewal requires a major infusion of energy. JPRO’s small staff team and committed Board work on a big goal: to serve professionals who work in all roles at Jewish nonprofit organizations. While this goal helped focus the work, it also meant that we were frequently playing in a bigger arena than our capacity allowed.

The early part of our “120-year-old start-up” renewal phase bolstered our ability to be responsive and nimble in our work style. While no one was prepared for the rapid changes to every element of our lives when COVID hit, JPRO had already strengthened the muscles required to respond to our audience quickly and with compassion. JPRO was equipped with tools to bring together the field remotely for inspiration and connection. We rallied to feature organizations who could teach others how to pivot in the face of a crisis and to provide resources to professionals that would help them cope, both personally and professionally.

JPRO is now entering a period of expansion and strengthening during which we will work on three priorities: Excellence, Reach, and Access. Each of these areas will enable JPRO to increase opportunities for professional development, networking, and career growth, so that the Jewish nonprofit sector can reach its full potential. Our last chapter taught us to harness the energy that comes from leveraging the tension between experimentation and focus; we learned how to feed (and manage) our appetite for creativity. Equipped with these skills and experiences, JPRO is ready for the next chapter.


How Jewish Organizations Respond to Racism and Racial Violence? Spoiler: Doing Internal Work

With the Jim Joseph Foundation’s racial justice mini-grants to the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s (JSJR) now concluded, we are pleased to share learnings, first-person accounts, and a look ahead from Abby Levine, Executive Director, and Roberta Ritvo, Deputy Director, of the JSJR.

In the wake of the racially motivated brutal shootings in Georgia that claimed the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, we believe that our work for racial justice is more urgent than ever before.

When moments like these happen, Jewish organizations that have already had internal conversations about racial justice are well positioned to respond. In 2017, the leaders of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable collectively acknowledged the work we needed—and still need—to do to make our organizations more racially diverse, equitable, inclusive and just places for staff, board, and lay leaders.

As part of this commitment to racial justice, the Roundtable awarded nearly $100,000 in matching grants to 21 Jewish social justice organizations for projects that address racism and promote racial equity.

These grants, made with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, offer critical resources to embed practices of racial equity in organizational systems and cultures, and to honor the multiracial realities of the U.S. Jewish community.

And then the world changed.

One unprecedented year later after a global pandemic emerged, after racial justice protests sparked a national reckoning, and after an election season unlike any other, we checked in with a few organizations to learn about their work for racial equity during a tumultuous time in the world. Their experiences can inform how others in the field prioritize and approach similar efforts moving forward.

We caught up with Rebecca Eisen, Human Resources Manager at Hazon; Judy Levey, Executive Director at Jewish Council on Urban Affairs; SooJi Min-Maranda, Executive Director at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; and Liz Sweet, Chief of Staff at HIAS.

What made you decide to undertake racial equity work?

Judy Levey, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs: People refer to this past year as being a “moment of reckoning” in the consciousness of our nation. However, this has been the work of JCUA for the past 57 years. As a social justice organization with the longstanding mission of combating poverty, racism, and antisemitism and rooted in the civil rights movement, we have a keen understanding of systemic racism.

What we understood less was how much personal work we have to do as individuals and as an organization to dismantle those systems and embody our highest Jewish values. Our aspirations to change the world around us go hand-in-hand with the need to look within our own community and within ourselves. That is the transformative work that needs to take place in order to ultimately transform institutions.

Rebecca Eisen, Hazon: Hazon is the largest faith-based environmental organization in the US and is building a movement to strengthen Jewish life and contribute to an environmentally sustainable world for all. The climate movement and the movement for racial equity are inherently interconnected because environmental disasters and climate change disproportionately impact communities of color. Hazon cannot work to address the climate crisis, to strengthen Jewish life, or to advocate for systemic change without working towards racial equity with accountability.

Our staff was clear that one crisis did not erase another and we had to talk about racial justice even as a pandemic raged. There was and remains a dramatic hunger to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion in light of upsetting incidents of police violence and other chronic incidents of racism.

SooJi Min-Maranda, ALEPH: There was interest in our communities in thinking about cultural appropriation in the context of renewal Judaism. Renewal Judaism draws heavily from all cultures/traditions and also has a strong orientation towards religious ecumenism. As we were launching an earth-based Judaism certification program, the timing was right for looking specifically at Indigenous religions. Our trainings provided a Jewish, anti-colonialist framework for understanding how cultural appropriation operates and the kinds of harm it does to both perpetrating and victimized communities.

Brag a little: What’s something you’re proud of that came out of the racial equity work supported by this grant?

Liz Sweet, HIAS: Through our work to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ), we’ve delved into how we, as a staff team, respect each other across all of the differences and vulnerabilities that each person brings to every interaction and meeting. We are more aware, respectful, and understanding of how an individual’s life circumstances may be affecting their work in a way that may not have been as obvious in the pre-Covid era.

When the racial justice reckoning of last summer came to the forefront, our diversity trainings in partnership with the Raben Group were well underway. We felt grateful to already have a container to discuss what was happening out in the world.

Our conversations and learnings inspired a number of different changes to ensure that we are living our organizational values, including:

  • establishing a workplace issues resolution process;
  • implementing a new quarterly performance management system;
  • prioritizing internal recruitment to promote career growth within HIAS;
  • mandating training for all managers through The Management Center;
  • significantly revising our core values statement to promote a less hierarchical organizational culture, so all staff feel encouraged and welcome to step up and speak up; and,
  • most excitingly, creating a new DEIJ manager position to lead training and policy development

Judy Levey, JCUA: I’m proud that we have a much clearer sense of what it means to say we are aspiring to be an anti-racist organization. Our organizing on police accountability has strong leadership by Jews of Color, who serve as public spokespeople, represent JCUA in Chicago-wide coalitions, and help lead our member working group.

JCUA leaders started our Kol Or Jews of Color Caucus in 2017, and in 2019, we started our White Racial Justice Working Group, an eight-month learning cohort. In 2020, we hired Beckee Birger. As our Director of Education & Movement Building, she will lead this work forward.

SooJi Min-Maranda, ALEPH: Our cultural appropriation training, while specific to indigenous culture/colonization, taught concepts that apply to other types of cultural appropriation and issues of erasure, oppression, and colonization. This training helps us step into teaching, living, and engaging in the world through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive framework. Our work is just beginning. 

Were there any a-ha moments or learnings that this process sparked?

Liz Sweet, HIAS: The big a-ha moment came from our organizational self assessment. We learned that our staff were having very different work experiences depending on their different identities and where they work within HIAS.

Rebecca Eisen, Hazon: In one exercise, Yavilah McCoy at Dimensions helped Hazon staff explore different “isms” within their affinity group and what that meant for us as an organizational team. One participant shared that this activity “pries open doors to empathy and self-knowledge. It gave us a common framework for thinking about insiders and outsiders across multiple factors that are relevant to our organization and work.”

SooJi Min-Maranda, ALEPH: One realization was the necessity to understand and learn the history of whiteness for Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, so that our white Ashkenazi constituents can safely share their perspectives, based on their life experiences, without defensiveness. Interrogating whiteness in the context of Jewish identity is a complex, nuanced discussion that needs dedicated time and space.

Judy Levey, JCUA: In the past two years, we hired two Kol Or leaders as staff members to lead this work. Our staff is now composed of nearly 25% People of Color and we are working to increase the racial diversity of our board of directors. We realized that in order to grow this pillar of our work, we must invest organizational resources in bringing in the expertise and experience needed to continue to learn and train our members.

If you had the opportunity to press rewind and do it all over again, what do you wish you had known or done differently (other than anticipating a global pandemic)?

Liz Sweet, HIAS: I wish we had started doing the work sooner!

Rebecca Eisen, Hazon: We originally applied for this funding to make Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center more inclusive, to be a hub for Jewish life where thousands of guests of diverse identities can feel as though they belong. Though it was tragic that the pandemic prevented us from focusing there, I am, in the end, deeply grateful that we could use the funds for a training we could apply across the entire organization.

The Roundtable thanks each of these leaders for sharing their insights and even more than that, for the work they are doing each day to promote racial justice. Our work to realize racial justice will continue to evolve against a national backdrop of racist violence and brutality. We know that our work will take time, effort, and ongoing investments. There will surely be setbacks and challenges. Together, we will exercise resilience and value our relationships because we’re in it for the long haul.

A Fellowship as a Building Block: The Jewish Emergent Network Today

As the Jewish Emergent Network processes the learnings from our rabbinic fellowship and recent holiday and social justice programs—and looks towards future projects—our leadership has taken a moment to breathe, apply gained wisdom to our view of the field, and assess our goals and value proposition. We are taking everything we’ve learned over the past five years and asking ourselves challenging questions to make sure our work together continues to be intentional and valuable. How might we take advantage of the ripeness of this moment to make real change in the Jewish landscape? How might we continue to understand belonging, community, covenant and how to design for it? How might we identify and develop the fluencies needed for Jewish sacred community in a post-pandemic world? We are thinking about identifying touchpoints to lean into momentum in the field, and looking for ways to share and elevate some of our common operating values. We are considering our role as translators: from tradition to modernity, from consumer to covenantal community, from values to action. And, as always, we are thinking about what’s sacred and what can be adapted and reimagined.

Early Learnings: Fellows’ Career-Long Potential Impact & Network Weaving
From the outset, our rabbinic fellowship, which concluded in June of 2020, was designed to impact (1) individual early-career rabbis, (2) the Network organizations, and (3) the field.

We currently have alumni Fellows in Seattle, Bellevue, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit, New York City, and Washington DC. Two remain at Network organizations, four are head rabbis on pulpits across the country, four are at major Jewish organizations, two have recently founded or are working on founding organizations, and five are in education ranging from day school to camp to Hillel. The distribution across sectors aligns with our initial goal of placing fellows roughly equally into changemaking positions at Jewish organizations, in existing/legacy Jewish communities, and as founders of new communities within 5-8 years of finishing our fellowship. Longitudinal tracking will help us understand how our alumni fellows’ careers continue to thrive. Already we are gaining some initial learnings in this regard:

  • Geographically, although we have fellows in four non-Network markets, our alumni still tend to cluster around our cities and all are in or near major metropolitan areas.
  • Our relationships have diversified: we have worked with our alumni fellows on projects such as a year-long climate challenge and the upcoming Big Bold Jewish Climate Festival.
  • Our relationships are mutually beneficial: our alumni fellows have used our holiday programming with their own constituencies, and returned to our communities as beloved guest teachers and speakers.

During the fellowship, fellows had direct and varied impact on the Network organizations—the effects of which live on in programs, new ways of thinking, and expanded clergy positions at most of our communities. Importantly, the fellowship also knitted the Network together in ways that were unexpected:

  • The connections between the Network organizations deepened at every level, with micro-communities forming among rabbis, CEOs and EDs, and across staff in collegial working groups organized across development, communications, programming, and education.
  • Although the Network was founded on the strong relationships between a group of rabbis, we discovered that the relationships at other staff levels were perhaps strengthened even more by the shared work of the fellowship.
  • The fellowship also allowed many of the Network orgs to expand and enhance their own adult education offerings—either through the direct work of fellows or by freeing up time among senior clergy and staff—and we learned where there were natural overlap points as well as where there was beautiful diversity of offerings and approach.

These new connections and relationships among the Network primed us to be ready to meet the pandemic with new collaborations.

New Experiments and Collaborations
The pandemic arrived a few months before the fellowship ended. Along with the endless challenges, we also had the unexpected gift of JCRIF funds that allowed us to problem-solve as a group. Then Reboot approached us about helping relaunch their Shavuot DAWN festival.  Structuring our co-teaching for DAWN became a test case for how the Jewish Emergent Network might work together on holiday, social justice, and adult education programming in this new environment. At a moment when chaos reigned in the field, we had the unique experience of coming together to support each other—nearly the full 25-person group of Network leaders met weekly via Zoom for the first eight weeks of the pandemic—and to come up with programming that raised all ships.

Some of our work included deep and varied touchpoints—such as Confessions of the Heart, our month-long racial justice equity challenge with Yavilah McCoy—and all of our programming connected with folks in multiple ways. At Simhat Torah Coast to Coast or Hanukkah at Home people could start learning in advance with thoughtful resources, recipes, and musical offerings, join for the main program, and then opt-into live dance parties. At our For the Sin Of… Yom Kippur afternoon program, people could choose from an array of modalities and engage with the holiday and liturgy through text study, major conversations with guest speakers, meditation, movement, music, and more.

Although this programming was much more ad hoc, as with the fellowship we wanted anything we produced to impact Jewish leaders, our own organizations, and the field. From Shavuot to Hanukkah, our joint holiday programming reached over 45,000 people in every US state, in 20+ countries around the world, and in markets ranging from cities to tiny towns. Anecdotal data suggests that our programming reached many rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators external to the Network. In most cases, it took a major burden off Network organizations and their staff members, with central Network operations able to handle quite a bit of the administrative work and the programs themselves replacing or significantly enhancing what each of our organizations would have otherwise produced.

An Experimental Approach to Future Projects
As we move forward beyond the single-project model of the fellowship, we are grappling with multiple questions, and searching for answers by attempting multiple experiments. Nearly a year into the pandemic, we’re shifting to a strategic approach to joint holiday and social justice programming, finding places to lean into momentum in the field. Critically, we continue to work together across the Network to augment our own professional development and growth—including at the board level—mixing hard-skill development with soft opportunities to commune, share, and dream. And, as a group, we are looking at the ripeness of this moment with an eye towards making Jewish ideas more convenient, enthralling, and accessible to the widest possible demographic and geographic range of Jews and Jewish-adjacent folks: a forthcoming major project will aim to identify and develop the fluencies we need to create modern Jewish sacred community that meets the needs of a dramatically changed field. We will continue to ask ourselves tough questions and to be bound by core shared approaches—agility, quality, and intentional design—as we move forward together.

Jessica Emerson McCormick is Director of the Jewish Emergent Network.

Scaling Up LGBTQ Equality and Inclusion in Jewish Life

With the Foundation’s grant supporting Keshet’s expansion of its Leadership Project and teen programs now concluded, we are pleased to share reflections from Eugene Patron, Keshet’s Director of Strategic Communications, as we together look forward at the work ahead. The Foundation continues to support Keshet through other grants to the organization.

Until very recently, most institutions in society have failed to meet the needs of LGBTQ people and their families. This also holds true for many Jewish institutions.

Too many LGBTQ people and their families must hide their authentic selves in their own Jewish communities in the face of discrimination that ranges from implicit disapproval to explicit rejection. Keshet believes that for Jewish life to reach its full potential there must be full inclusion and equality for LGBTQ Jews. This is especially critical for Jewish teens in need of support and affirmation to feel proud of both their LGBTQ and Jewish identities.

Thankfully, an increasing number of Jewish institutions – from national organizations and their local chapters to local Jewish schools and camps – genuinely want to become more inclusive. Yet many do not know how to begin, or how to translate well-meaning organizational aspirations of inclusion into tangible action.

Responding to this need, in 2012 Keshet launched our Leadership Project to help equip Jewish organizations with the skills and knowledge to build LGBTQ-affirming communities. Jewish organizations that participated in the first few years Leadership Project trainings and consultation showed substantive impact on their programs, policies, and organizational cultures. In 2015, Keshet approached the Jim Joseph Foundation about supporting the strategic expansion of this work. Along with the Leadership Project, Keshet also sought to expand the impact of our teen programs, in particular our Shabbatonim, which give LGBTQ and ally Jewish teens a safe space to meet, learn, and find their voice as emerging Jewish leaders.

The overarching goal Keshet set for itself was to train, support, share tools, and develop the leadership — of adults and teens alike — necessary to make Jewish youth-serving institutions and communities fully inclusive and embracing of LGBTQ youth and families. To accomplish this, Keshet aimed to scale our work to reach exponentially more Jewish institutions and Jewish young people. The fact that the general climate for advancing LGBTQ inclusion in society has only grown more regressive since the 2016 election makes the importance of Keshet’s work all the more pressing.

Between 2016 and 2019, Keshet launched 36 Leadership Project cohorts, engaging 356 Jewish institutions who together reach 2,184,099 individuals. A 2019 Outcome Survey showed important findings as result of these institutions’ association with Keshet:

  • 90% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they recognize opportunities for introducing LGBTQ inclusive perspectives more.
  • 68% agreed or strongly agreed that they see LGBTQ inclusion as a Jewish value more than before.
  • 90% agreed or strongly agreed that they better understand the needs of LGBTQ members/staff/stakeholders.

These new sentiments already are being reflected creating new LGBTQ inclusive policies and programs; hosting LGBTQ inclusive events, outreaching to the LGBTQ community, and more.

During this period, Keshet also held 16 Shabbatonim, engaging 626 LGBTQ and ally teens. The Outcome Survey showed that because of their participation in Keshet programs:

  • 68% of youth connect with other Jewish LGBTQ youth more than before through social media.
  • 32% connect with other LGBTQ youth more than before in Jewish youth group settings.
  • 30% connect with other LGBTQ youth more than before at synagogue.

Participation by teens in Keshet programs also prompts many of them to engage in more Jewish learning experiences, to become more politically active, and to speak out against anti-Semitism.

The support of the Foundation enabled Keshet to explore, test, and refine strategies and processes important for systematically scaling the expansion of the Leadership Project and the Shabbatonim.

Some of the key learnings that Keshet has incorporated into the planning and implementation of current and future Leadership Project cohorts and Shabbatonim programs include:

  • Designing programs that respond to the needs of specific groups, such as trans youth, young women, and college-age youth, as well as reflecting regional culture and history.
  • Working with core anchor partners in new geographies and leveraging their knowledge and reach to expand local program participation.
  • Utilizing the efficiency of outreach possible through collaboration with national organizations that have robust member networks.
  • Cultivating leadership development for young people by developing mentorship opportunities for program alumni to welcome in and guide new Shabbatonim participants.
  • Encouraging long-term organizational accountability by providing Leadership Program cohort members with regular coaching to help sustain progress toward institutional change.
  • Developing and replicating best practices for program infrastructure, systems, and policies.

A senior staff member of a JCC in the Midwest who participated in one of Keshet’s Leadership Project cohorts said of the experience:

It was one of the first times I have experienced so many different people coming to the table…Keshet provides accountability, support, affirmation, and help to recognize where your resources are. In our year with Keshet, we started looking at making our forms, data, and membership systems more inclusive, as well as many other things we do.

The substantive takeaway from the evolution of Keshet’s institutional change work is that the leaders of Jewish organizations are enacting tangible shifts in policies, programming, and culture, as well as undertaking transformative conversations about LGBTQ equality in their communities. Moreover, a growing number of LGBTQ Jewish youth are taking on leadership roles within Jewish community organizations. Amid these positive developments, Keshet continues to advance the systemic changes necessary for the entirety of our diverse Jewish community to participate openly and authentically in Jewish Life.

Euegene Patron is Keshet’s Director of Strategic Communications. Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project and teen Shabbatonim


5 Tips for Holding a Successful Online Rite-of-Passage Celebration

On the desk in my home office, a computer and tablet were each signed into a different zoom meeting. My tablet echoed with doorbell sounds as thirteen teenagers signed on, faces flushed, excited. I took attendance. We were preparing to celebrate the teenagers’ accomplishments in Kol Koleinu, the national Jewish feminist fellowship they had participated in for the past 9 months, run by Moving Traditions in collaboration with NFTY.

Kol Koleinu invites young Jewish feminists in 10th-12th grade to explore and deepen their feminist knowledge, channel their voices to share their beliefs, and use their skills to create tangible change in their communities.

I told the fellows, “In a few moments we’ll all sign into the Zoom webinar, where you’ll arrive on the online version of a stage.” We went over their speaking roles. I emphasized that although they would have an audience, this event was to celebrate them. “It’s okay to be nervous. You don’t have to be perfect. The most important thing is to enjoy yourselves.” I took questions and then, one by one as if their images flew through the space between my tablet and computer, they logged off and reappeared on the zoom window on my laptop – on stage.

At a time when in-person graduations and end-of-year events have been cancelled, teens are missing out on important rite-of-passage experiences. In-person events can’t be completely replicated online. However, it is possible to create a virtual graduation ceremony or other rite-of-passage event where teenagers can showcase their accomplishments to their community and experience an important sense of closure. Here are some things that I learned as we planned the end-of-year Kol Koleinu event.

1. Provide both a small intimate gathering for graduates and a big gathering for the whole community.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and host of the new podcast “Together Apart,” in which she reimagines virtual gatherings, suggests that as guests go, end-of-year celebrations should “go big and go small:” Big so that graduates have the honor and experience of presenting in front of a crowd, small so that they also get comfort and intimacy of a celebrating with just people they know.

Our end-of-year celebration included a public event on Zoom webinar in which we invited the fellows’ families, friends, and friends of Moving Traditions and NFTY. In this large celebration the guests had their audio and video disabled, with the ability to access the chat function, as they watched the fellows celebrate their accomplishments. After the public event was over, the fellows and I had an after-party where we reflected on the year, shared gratitude, and played some Jackbox games online.

2. Give graduates a role in planning the event and an active role during the event.

As I told the fellows, this event was for them: to celebrate them, to showcase their work, and to provide end-of-year closure. About a month before the celebration, I put up a whiteboard on zoom and asked the fellows to write down all of the things that would make the  celebration special to them. Then I asked them to star what they found most important. Some of the more popular requests were to present their social change projects, reflect on the past year, share hopes for the future, sing together, and play some games.

As we designed, I made sure to weave in as many of their requests as possible. I emailed around a Google Doc where they each signed up for a speaking part. By being a part of the planning and having to prepare a presentation for the event, each of the fellows had a real stake in the event and were able to showcase their leadership in real time for their community.

3. Set a dress code.

This is one of the simplest tips but can make a big difference. At a time when many of us have been joking about changing from our daytime pajamas to our nighttime pajamas, there aren’t many opportunities to get dressed up. And putting on a special outfit can be a powerful mental marker of an important occasion.  Clothes can shift our mindset from “I’m at home on a regular Sunday night in front of my computer” to “I’m attending my graduation.” Clothes can also help participants feel like part of a community. For instance, I asked the fellows to wear the shirts they got at our retreat in the fall.

On the topic of appearances, I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite things to do is watch a recording of myself speaking to a crowd. Not to mention watching a recording of myself speaking to a crowd…while I am speaking to a crowd.  For people of all genders, and young women especially, staring at the video of themselves during a video call can bring up body image concerns and self-criticism, and can be really distracting. Because of this, I strongly recommend that teens select “hide self-view” so their image disappears and they only see the other people on the call.

4. Keep it short and provide multiple modalities.

Many people have been talking about Zoom fatigue—the experience of feeling drained after spending a short period of time on video chat. To address zoom fatigue, I recommend keeping the public portion of the event no longer than an hour. Also, utilize many different modalities like slides, short presentations, music, games, reflection, and conversation. Having a range of different modalities within the event can make the time feel like it’s going by faster and can hold a group’s attention.

Different types of activities can also help evoke different emotions that help the teens process the end of the year. While presenting a final project can make graduates feel proud and excited, a meditation might make them feel sad or contemplative about the end of the year, and music can bring up a range of feelings.

5. Add drama and lots of pomp and circumstance!

Like I mentioned at the outset, an online end-of-year event cannot completely capture the experience of an in-person event. Nothing can replace thunderous applause, walking onto a stage, or post-event hugs or high-fives. But there are still some ways to add extra drama to an online event. For example, imagine a closed curtain with one person in front speaking into a microphone. Then imagine the curtain opening to reveal all of the graduates. We somewhat replicated this by beginning the evening on “speaker mode” where the audience could only see one person speaking. Then we changed the view to “gallery mode,” pulling back the metaphorical curtain to reveal all of the fellows to our audience.

In addition, when we awarded certificates to the fellows, each slide was animated so that the certificates flew on screen as I read off the names of the graduates. Finally, at the end of the event, we moved all the guests “backstage” so that we could all see and hear each other. Then talented musician Chana Rothman led us in an interactive closing number before the fellows and I left for our after-party.

Whether you’re putting finishing touches on a graduation program, thinking about summer online events, or even thinking about “opening ceremonies” for the school year—in which the platform is still TBD—it’s important to think about every step of the program and what will work for your participants and audiences. Every youth deserves that time in the sun, even if it has to shine online.

Jen Anolik runs Moving Traditions’ Kol Koleinu national Jewish feminist fellowship, in collaboration with NFTY and now USY.