Atra—Formerly the Center for Rabbinic Innovation—Seeks to Support Rabbis in a Changing World

Atra is also trying to understand where the gaps are in training, especially for more experienced rabbis who are not recent seminary graduates.

While some rabbis are still associated with the traditional pulpit leadership model, serving in established synagogues or at educational institutions, today’s spiritual leaders serve various roles within their communities, across denominations and contexts. From fiery sermonizers to innovative educators, from community advisors to emergent community founders, the changing appearance of the rabbinate creates a need for Jewish spiritual leaders to receive additional investment and training — to meet contemporary communal needs and build a stronger national network of rabbis.

Launched more than six years ago as the Center for Rabbinic Innovation – a small, incubated program in the Office of Innovation, which is fiscally sponsored by Hillel International – Atra, as the organization is now known, trains and supports rabbinic leaders from all backgrounds to adapt their practice for the real world, to help them grow professionally and propel their leadership. During the pandemic, the organization also received a Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund grant to support the Rabbinic (re)Design Lab, which empowered clergy to imagine and pilot new approaches to engaging communities during the High Holy Days.

Atra’s new name invokes the Aramaic phrase “mara d’atra,” meaning the teacher or rabbi who serves a particular place, a hat tip to the modern ubiquity of places where rabbis can be found. Over the next three years, the organization expects to expand its outreach to rabbis and other Jewish spiritual leaders, as well as bring 45 organizational partners into the emerging conversation about what makes a rabbi, Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Atra’s executive director, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The organization’s strategic plan (available online here) calls for program expansion, establishing a field of rabbinic training, new research and a stronger national network among rabbis, and is supported by recent grants from Crown Family Philanthropies and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Those new grants, along with other donor contributions, total more than $2 million toward the organization’s $6 million strategic plan.

“We believe that rabbis are a key gateway, models and change agents for Jewish identity, meaning, ethics and practice for the Jewish people,” said Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation. “There’s a demonstrated need for more skilled rabbis as leaders in the North American Jewish community. Rabbinic training as a field has been under-resourced. Importantly, Atra has developed practical and effective ways to provide relevant, needed training for rabbinic leaders serving in the field across the denominational spectrum and in a range of settings.”

Atra has a current budget of $1.5 million, with four full-time and two part-time staff members. By 2025, the organization expects to launch as an independent 501(c)(3) and to expand to six full-time with a director of faculty and research faculty. The leadership has chosen not to invest in physical offices for the time being, instead renting program spaces as needed. Epstein said that the leadership is lining up strategic advisors and funders to help them grow.

“We know that rabbis engage people in all kinds of settings throughout people’s life stages and inflection points,” Finestone explained. “We need Jewish leaders who are equipped to transform the future of North American Judaism in the 21st century through learning and other experiences that have meaning and resonance in people’s lives.”

The Jim Joseph Foundation also funded Atra to conduct a study on the relationship between rabbis and Jewish Americans from the ages of 18-44. “Since rabbis engage young Jews in so many settings, it’s important to understand what factors make those interactions and experiences most meaningful and relevant in young people’s lives,” said Finestone regarding the study, which will be released in mid-March. Atra commissioned the research and managed the project; the foundation did not provide input on the questions.

One of Atra’s first tasks is to establish metrics around “excellence,” Epstein told eJP. “There really has been very little research on what a rabbi is, what a rabbi does and what it looks like when a rabbi is good at what they do. We don’t even have metrics for saying what makes us good rabbi. And if we’re going to help ensure that rabbis are excellent, we need to know what that means.”

The study being released in March is the first one in at least 30 years, Epstein noted, and anticipates that such research will happen every few years moving forward. The research should also “inform a conversation not just for us, but for everyone who’s trying to ensure that there’s excellence in rabbinic leadership,” she explained.

With different seminaries preparing rabbis differently for their work, Atra is also trying to understand where the gaps are in training, especially for more experienced rabbis who went to seminaries somewhere between one and four decades ago. These gaps might include updating their social media or technology fluency, improving their management or communication skills, and using community organizing principles to activate their communities, Epstein and Ariel Moritz, the director of program operations at Atra, told eJP.

“We know that the locus of authority has changed and people are often looking at influencers, not at authority. So how do rabbis learn how to communicate as skilled, knowledgeable, effective leaders with a group of people who are not necessarily listening to a sermon. They want to have a reciprocal relationship with their rabbi,” Epstein said. “The rabbi needs to learn where that person is.”

While some rabbis may be starting a new community to fill a demographic or cultural gap in the community, they may not have training on management or how to create a startup, Moritz said. “So they find themselves wearing a whole bunch of hats and will often turn to us to figure out how to do that work.”

The grant will enable Atra to expand its programs such as its rabbinic entrepreneur fellowship, Troubleshooting the Chagim and the Rabbinic (re)Design Lab. While many Jewish organizations have adopted the Design Thinking approach to idea and program development, Atra uses the Lean Startup method. In addition to being less time-consuming than Design Thinking, Lean Startup includes identifying a problem or challenge and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to test. In the case of rabbinic training, Epstein said, “You have an idea, you have an audience that you know exists that you are talking and listening to, you have a question and an idea for what might serve them. You test it with a small test, and then you learn and then you iterate.”

CRI had been serving mostly early-career rabbis, as well as mid-career rabbis seeking to expand their skill sets prior to the pandemic. But after 2020, synagogues and rabbis “could not pretend that they knew how to deal with the changed reality,” said Epstein. “Everybody already needed new skills. We recognized that we had tools that we had been teaching that would be really useful.” The large grant from JCRIF helped them to launch new programs in response to what the movements’ rabbinic organizations told CRI their rabbis needed. While some CRI cohorts were by denomination — the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, for example — most of the participants wanted programs that are pluralistic, as most CRI programs are.

Atra is now moving into a regional strategy, building cohorts in specific cities to be announced at a later date. Epstein expects at least one city to launch in the next year, and notes that even if all rabbis want to learn new skills, Atra programs differ between cities, “because every city or region’s Jewish community, and current communal infrastructure is a little bit different…When we look at a region [we ask] what is the Jewish need here, how might we work with these rabbis to address that need,” she said. “We’re trying to go slowly enough to actually build what’s necessary.”

Part of that process is strengthening the network — establishing partnerships and collaborations with other organizations, such as the Jewish Education Project and the Association for Reform Jewish Educators — and developing critical infrastructure toward greater independence in 2025.

“I also think it’s really exciting how many people are investing in rabbinic leadership and how many philanthropies and Jewish foundations are renewing their look at rabbinic leadership,” Epstein said. She added that The Aviv Foundation, Maimonides Fund, Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Natan and UJA-Federation of New York are among the grantmakers that have started funding the field.

Over the next few months, Atra will release the report from its research study and launch a new website in April to grow its network and make its programs and resources more accessible. In the interim the strategic plan is available and the organization is actively recruiting for its programs.

Another part of Atra’s job is to help rabbis figure out the best model for sustainability, both of the larger Jewish community and also on the practical level, determining revenue structure, considering whether or not to have membership dues. Jewish philanthropy will continue to generate some of the support for Atra. “We want to be excellent stewards of tzedakah,” Epstein said, adding that the organization plans to grow its infrastructure thoughtfully and methodically. “We believe that, as we do that well, people will know that if they want to invest in excellent rabbinic leadership, we’ll be able to use their tzedakah to make that happen.”

The organization is also looking at different fee-for-service opportunities, especially since most rabbis don’t really have large amounts of money designated for their own career development and training. It also has a small pilot program to connect excellent innovative rabbis with philanthropists who want to invest in their projects. Along with this comes helping rabbis to understand how to measure their work’s impact, ask for financial support and report to donors on their investment.

“Rabbis need a lot of help and support,” Epstein said. “We need their careers to be sustainable, we need them to be excellent for a long time.”

“Atra—formerly the Center for Rabbinic Innovation—seeks to support rabbis in a changing world,” eJewish Philanthropy, March 1, 2023

Jewish Funders Network, impala to Launch Database Partnership

Subscriptions to impala’s database of foundations and nonprofits — numbering in the millions — will be available free of charge to JFN members and their grantees

Shahar Brukner was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, getting his master’s degree in public policy analysis, when he started his own nonprofit, a fellowship that aimed to bring financial resources to Israeli students studying in the U.S. But in order to do that, Brukner had to raise the money.

“Right from the beginning, there’s so many difficulties that fundraisers face in this world around basic questions,” Brukner told eJewishPhilanthropy last week. “Like, ‘What funders care about what I’m doing? How could I get to know about them? How can I connect with them? Are there any other nonprofits that are doing what I’m doing? Maybe I can collaborate with them?’ Answering these questions took a lot of time. It was extremely hard and [there was] nothing [in terms of] really centralized data in one place.”

So Brukner, alongside co-founders Simon Dickson, a HKS classmate, and Tom Huberman, an alum of the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, set out to create a solution.

What resulted was impala, a platform that serves as a database for publicly available data on millions of foundations and nonprofits. The platform scrapes details from the IRS 990 forms — mandatory paperwork for U.S.-based nonprofits — as well as the websites and annual reports of nonprofits and foundations.

Impala came out of “the idea of creating a network platform for the nonprofit sector — one place where every nonprofit and every foundation and every funder can get the information that they need to understand [what] this sector looks like,” Brukner explained.

The platform will launch its partnership with the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) on Wednesday. Brukner had shown JFN leadership an early demonstration of how impala works, and, he said, “it was clear” from the initial conversations that there existed the potential for collaboration.

“We were starting to build impala and build it with basically two user communities,” Brukner explained. “So certain people working in nonprofits, mostly fundraisers. And then the other side, certain people that are working either in philanthropic foundations or with funders, people who decide how to deploy philanthropic money, and we wanted to make sure that we basically built something that would serve both sides.”

When it launches this week, more than 20,000 entities — all JFN members and their grantees, both Jewish and non-Jewish — will receive free access to impala’s premium edition for two years. Support for the project came from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Glazer Foundation, DARE Foundation and the Jewish Funders Network’s board chair, Marcia Riklis, who collectively are providing $525,000 over two years.

“With impala, we finally have visibility into the entire Jewish philanthropic sector and can better understand JFN’s place in it, reveal opportunities for collaboration and unite everyone — Jewish foundations and nonprofits — in one place,” Riklis said in a statement.

The platform — basic use of which is free; a premium subscription is also available — essentially simplifies the process of looking into a foundation or nonprofit’s financials, and allows users to gain a fuller understanding of how a foundation chooses to distribute money, and how nonprofits use the funds they receive. One section breaks down a foundation’s giving by year, so that users can see the amount of time grantees have been in a foundation’s portfolio; another section compiles data on the year-over-year changes in a foundation’s giving, for example, how many consecutive years the foundation gives to its grantees.

A separate tab allows users to see which different foundations have overlapping funding interests.

“It brings us into the digital age,” Ari Rudolph, JFN’s vice president of philanthropic engagement, told eJP. “This type of platform — the technology has existed in the for-profit world, when it hasn’t really in the nonprofit world. Now things will change.”

The platform itself was built by a team spanning three continents, and included staff in Ukraine and Israel. In addition to centralizing information available on publicly available documents and websites, impala’s profiles are synced up across the platform. For example, when a user pulls up the impala profile of a foundation, it can see the full list of that foundation’s grantees. By clicking on a grantee name, the software will further break down the nature of the received grants, and give users the ability to navigate directly to that grantee’s impala page, which has its own financial data. Search features can be whittled down by location and areas of focus.

“Everything speaks with each other,” Brukner explained.

“Jewish Funders Network, impala to Launch Database Partnership,” eJewish Philanthropy, February 6, 2023

Growing number of young Jews turning to service to express their Jewish values

When Jon Cohen was in college a decade ago studying biology and chemistry with plans for medical school, he knew he wanted to make a difference in the world beyond the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee.

So he and some friends decided to launch a community project teaching science to children from low-income households living nearby. Every Friday, they’d conduct experiments with the kids designed to spark excitement and curiosity about the world around them in a way that would leave an impact on them beyond school.

The idea of service was something Cohen had grown up with in his more affluent Miami suburb, and he wanted to take some time off between college and medical school to devote to it. When, as a college senior, Cohen saw an email about a Jewish service fellowship with Repair the World, he applied.

“I was really interested in seeing what justice-minded Judaism was like,” Cohen recalls.

His family didn’t practice Judaism framed through the lens of morals and values, he said, but rather through rituals like Sabbath observances and attending synagogue. He didn’t go to a Jewish day school or summer camp, he didn’t know Hebrew, and when his parents divorced, they stopped observing Shabbat, leaving Cohen with few pathways for Jewish connection.

When Cohen started his fellowship in New York for Repair the World, he realized he had found a different model for Jewish action — one that felt more meaningful. Cohen worked with Digital Girl, an organization that teaches computer coding to kids of all genders in underfunded schools in neighborhoods like Chinatown, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York where many people live in poverty.

Cohen is one of over 230 people who have “served” full-time through Repair the World’s fellowship. Another 740 have completed Repair’s service corps, a three-month, part-time Jewish service learning program for young adults. Since 2009, Repair has partnered with approximately 2,880 service organizations, resulting in over 516,000 acts of service and learning. The goal is to reach 1 million by 2026.

This kind of Jewish engagement is indicative of a sea change in the Jewish communal world: Service is now an integral part of American Jewish life and a meaningful form of Jewish expression, especially for younger adults. Service projects increasingly are how American Jews put their faith into practice and find purpose through humanitarian acts.

“Younger generations are deeply passionate about making the world a better place and improving their communities,” said Robb Lippitt, chair of Repair the World’s board of directors. “Connecting this passion to their Jewish values is something that Repair does really well.”

The organization sends Jewish young adults to serve both with Jewish and non-Jewish organizations addressing needs such as food, housing, and other local needs. Repair the World’s activities are structured with an eye toward making them meaningful Jewish experiences.

“Everything we do is done through both a Jewish and a social impact lens,” said Cindy Greenberg, Repair’s president and CEO. “In addition to hands-on service, we look at the issue area at hand and ask: Why is my service needed? What are the underlying societal challenges impacting this issue and how might it be healed? And what does Jewish wisdom have to say about these challenges and our obligation to repair the world?”

Janu Mendel, the Southeast regional director of Repair the World, tends to vegetation at a local community farm in Miami. (Courtesy of Repair the World)

Greenberg said expanding the Jewish service movement will lead to a flourishing Jewish community and strengthen society generally.

Repair the World was founded 13 years ago to make service a defining element of Jewish life. Since then, studies have shown that Jewish young adults increasingly express their Jewish identity by caring for the vulnerable.

“Over 13 years, Repair the World has been the driving force of the Jewish service movement, ensuring that these experiences are grounded in serious Jewish learning,” said Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation, one of Repair’s funders. “Repairs organizational partnerships, fellowship programs, and proven best practices define the movement today — and enable so many to find purpose in Jewish life while creating change.”

While most of those who serve with Repair — about three quarters — are Jewish, much of the impact is in non-Jewish communities. About eight years ago, for example, the organization began partnering with St. John’s Bread and Life, a faith-based emergency food provider in Brooklyn that operates a food pantry, serves hot meals and hosts a mobile kitchen.

St. John’s serves approximately 1,000 hot meals a day, according to Sister Marie Sorenson, the chaplain there. The current Repair the World fellow serving with St. John’s has continued volunteer outreach, ensuring that unhoused and food-insecure individuals and families in the neighborhood have their nutritional needs met with compassion and respect. Repair also has organized volunteers to give thousands of toiletries, personal hygiene kits, baby wipes, diapers and baby formula to clients of St. John’s.

“Because we are both faith-based service organizations, we have really connected well with each other,” Sorenson said.

This commitment to food justice is connected to Repair’s service impact nationwide. Repair has mobilized volunteers to donate 200,000 pounds of food and prepared or served more than 100,000 meals to people in need throughout the country.

In the partnership with St. John’s, the Christian participants tend to be locals who have extra time or are retirees, whereas the Repair volunteers are “young people who value service, who value giving back to the community,” Sorenson noted.

Repair is funded by a wide array of supporters, including Jewish federations across the country, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. Repair’s expansive pandemic response, Serve the Moment, drew funding from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and the Jewish Communal Response and Impact Fund, known as JCRIF.

Repair has also invested significantly in partnerships with other Jewish organizations to maximize reach and impact.

“The power of Repair’s model is the opportunity it provides for young adult volunteers to learn from and work in deep partnership with the communities they are serving — while engaging in Jewish life and learning,” said Lisa Eisen, Repair’s founding board chair and co-president of Schusterman Family Philanthropies. “We saw this so clearly through the pandemic, when Repair mobilized tens of thousands of young Jews to support people in need while also providing an avenue for them to stay connected to each other and Jewish community.”

Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, described service programs as a gateway to greater Jewish involvement. “We believe service is a powerful tool for expanding engagement in Jewish life across the system,” Fingerhut said.

Volunteers paint and restore a community space during MLK Weekend of service in New York. (Shulamit Photo + Video)

Lippitt, Repair’s board chair, noted that Repair’s service work is especially important given the divisions in the country right now.

“It’s a vitally important bridge-building experience with our neighbors in these divided times,” he said. “The benefits that come at this moment in American history of getting out in the community and serving alongside people who may not see the world as you do are just immense for the community and for society.”

Many of the young Jews who work with Repair the World come from cohorts that traditional Jewish organizations have struggled to reach. In the most recent data collected by the organization, Repair found that between 19 and 25% of participants identify as having a disability; 25% of participants and 44% of corps members identify as non-white; and 75% of fellows, 42% of corps members, and 22% of participants identify as LGBTQ.

After Jon Cohen finished his yearlong fellowship with Repair, he went to medical school as planned, but he soon realized it wasn’t the path he wanted. When an opportunity came up to join Repair’s staff in Miami, he jumped at the opportunity, staying for three years. He now is the director of community mobilization at Keshet, the Jewish LGBTQ+ rights organization, and serves on Repair’s board of directors.

“Service has always been something that was important to me but never existed through Judaism until I did the fellowship,” Cohen said of his experience. “It was groundbreaking for me to learn about tikkun olam and all of my Jewish values. It was such an educational experience, and now I feel so proudly and passionately Jewish because of the foundation Repair the World gave me.”

How Yeshivat Maharat is building a field of women Orthodox rabbis

In its 14 years, Yeshivat Maharat has produced nearly 60 strong, passionate graduates who are using their Maharat training to serve approximately 35 communities across the world in Orthodox pulpits, as educators and administrators at Jewish day schools, in hospitals as chaplains and in other Jewish communal leadership positions. This success came with strategic hard work by our faculty, our students and our partnerships in the larger community. This year, we have 33 new students enrolled across our three rabbinic ordination and preparatory programs, in which their education will be modeled on traditional yeshivot but grounded in preparing them to be 21st-century leaders. Enrollment is up, philanthropy dollars are being directed to bolster this field and there is a communal appetite to employ female clergy. What lessons can we learn about the present and future of Orthodox female clergy from the history of Maharat so far?

Gender equity, transparency and the ‘stained-glass ceiling’

Last year, Maharat retained Rosov Consulting to gather data on Maharat alumnae and discovered that “Some [Maharat] alumnae are confronted with a multiplicity of barriers and antagonism . . . that may include . . . lack of opportunities and upward mobility in certain roles, and, in some cases, discrimination by decision makers. There is certainly a shared sentiment that a glass ceiling for female rabbis exists in the Orthodox world.”

Even as women join the ranks of Orthodox rabbinic leadership, it is clear that a stained-glass ceiling prevents them from progressing to senior positions. This lack of mobility is a very real obstacle to transforming the role of female leaders in the Orthodox community. Learning from our prior support of congregations who place our graduates in assistant clergy roles, Maharat will be investing in senior leadership positions in partnership with the nonprofit Beloved, supporting our alumnae financially as they forge new ground and normalize the female senior Orthodox clergy role. This investment, along with learning from self-created communities that are successful, for example, alumna Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter’s South Philadelphia Shtiebel and Rabbi Dina Najman’s Kehila in Riverdale, N.Y., inspire the continued growth of the Orthodox female rabbinate.

In addition to limited senior level positions, the pay scale for Orthodox women has not been transparent and, based on research, has been at a much lower rate. Up until just a few years ago, we assumed that this problem was unique to the Orthodox community — after all, women’s historical exclusion from the Orthodox leadership has led to systemic inequity as women were denied roles in community-wide leadership and decision-making. However, organizations like Advancing Women’s Professionals in the Jewish Community, the SRE Network and the Gender Equity in Hiring Project have shown women across the community are struggling with transparency and equity. The very same questions and research we have been conducting to create more transparent salary bands and ensure that women are paid as professionals rather than volunteers were already on the table for discussion. This needs to be a communal conversation; organizations across the field need to demand greater transparency in general.

In Maharat’s early years, we provided seed money to synagogues embarking on their first female clergy hires, funded by a Maharat board member and visionary. We continue to offer funds to synagogues that hire Maharat clergy, and community members and philanthropists — the Jewish Orthodox Feminists Alliance (JOFA)’s Devorah Scholars program, for example— have joined in supporting the field. In addition to pulpit work, our alumnae have had tremendous impact adding to the canon of Jewish scholarship, including Maharat’s Va’tichtov: She Writes.


In its 14 years, Maharat has remained nimble, with an ability to adapt and adjust to fit the needs of our community. Even before Zoom’s pandemic boom, Maharat embraced digital and hybrid learning; when other rabbinic programs and yeshivot required in-person learning, Maharat’s early adoption of hybrid and remote learning enabled us to fill a need for Orthodox women worldwide who did not have access to rabbinical school. This innovation and flexibility creates unity, camaraderie and community among the small and growing contingent of Orthodox women clergy. Maharat now has a global reach, with students studying and impacting communities in France, England, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Switzerland and Israel.

Another study in adaptation is the evolution of Maharat’s Advanced Kollel: Executive Ordination program. In 2013, we realized that there were many women with advanced Jewish degrees who were already working in the field as female Orthodox leaders — without ordination or broad institutional support. In response, we opened up a new ordination track where women with strong learning backgrounds could access rabbinic education. With foundation support, we developed a program that would intentionally sunset and transition into a new high-level post-graduate learning program, the Center for Lived Torah. This year, we welcomed our final incoming Advanced Kollel class after experiencing an unprecedented number of candidates. Many of our Advanced Kollel students are already leaders in their organizations, and theoretically, the degree of semicha (ordination) would not change their day-to-day work. Yet, they have come to Maharat and are seeking semicha.


We have always believed there is strength in collaboration, so from its inception, Maharat sought out partnerships from like-minded institutions. We needed help but were hesitant to redirect resources away from existing organizations. The Drisha Institute took Maharat under its wings in those early years, providing crucial support, and we hope that one day, we can return that kindness by bolstering their work as well.  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is a frequent partner, and we look forward to our new partnership with Beloved. While some institutions shy away from partnerships, for fear of losing resources or giving up authority, Maharat seeks them out.

Aligning with market demand

Even with an expanded definition of pulpit, synagogues still need rabbinic leadership, and those leaders can and should include women. While Maharat is experiencing a 50% increase in new students this year, we only have 10 years of graduates. The few other rabbinic training programs for Orthodox women in the U.S. and Israel are small and cannot keep up with demand. We are doing our part in recruiting future rabbinic leaders by identifying candidates in high school and offering them learning and leadership opportunities during their Israel gap-year and college experiences. Some of the students entering Maharat were never aware of a time when women could not pursue Orthodox rabbinic ordination; this career path has always been open to them. The tide is shifting, and we are on our way towards saturating the Jewish community with more educated and passionate candidates who will be ready to lead.

Seeding the field

The proliferation of programs that center on women’s learning and leadership is a nod to the success of Maharat’s mission. Women are being seen and treated as authorities, scholars and leaders. We have a tremendous opportunity to keep seeding the flourishing  field of Orthodox women’s leadership.

The Hebrew word for field is sadeh, but in context, sadeh can also mean rural, wilderness or uninhabited. For example, in Bereishit 27:3, Isaac tells his unruly son Eisav to grab his bow and arrow and “tzei hasadeh,” “go out to the open country,” to hunt some wild game. The field can be seen as chaotic and wild, but it is also ready to be built up, organized and transformed into a place that will truly impact the masses.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is co-founder and president of Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, N.Y.

“How Yeshivat Maharat is building a field of women Orthodox rabbis,” eJewishPhilanthropy



New Research Project Examines How Shabbat Dinner Can Build Social Connections

A new research project announced last week will study how Shabbat dinners can be used as a tool to build social connections, decrease feelings of loneliness and help humans flourish.

The initiative is supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and led by the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) at George Washington University in partnership with OneTable, a national nonprofit that helps young adults find and share Shabbat dinners with others.

CASJE’s Managing Director Arielle Levites is leading the research team. The team includes Dr. Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and a national expert on loneliness who advises the U.S. Surgeon General. Also participating is Dr. Adam Cohen, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who studies how religions affect a person’s well-being.

“There’s a national epidemic of loneliness, there’s deep political divisiveness, there’s a real fraying of society and social connectedness,” said Levites. “Shabbat dinner, in particular, is often used by Jewish communities as a tool for fostering connection and community. Now we have an opportunity to use empirical data to test this hypothesis.”

“Social connection is a fundamental, universal human need,” she added. “By deepening our understanding of the Shabbat dinner experience and its potential effects, we hope to reveal new ways to promote connection among people.”

When the study is completed in three years, its findings will be shared with the public, particularly mental health and community-engagement organizations as well as leaders of interfaith and civic organizations.

The research project is also supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the BeWell Initiative at the Jewish Federations of North America.

Levites said, “There has been little research to date about the relationship between Jewish practice and flourishing; as such, this study fills a critical gap in the research literature.”

published in Jewish News Syndicate

D.C.-based org ready to ‘Gather’ young Jews in Bay Area

Not long ago, Caroline Kessler noticed a simple but telling post on an East Bay Jewish community listserv.

“Hey, what’s happening for High Holiday services in the East Bay this year?” the post read.

If one person was asking this question, Kessler thought to herself, then many other people probably were, too.

Kessler, the newly appointed community director of GatherBay, a nonprofit that aims to connect post-college young adults to their Jewish roots, compiled a Google Doc with all of the East Bay High Holiday services she could find and forwarded it to the 400 people on the listserv, along with others she’s connected with personally.

Since then, Kessler has gotten feedback from people thanking her for the guide, asking where she’s going to services and even looking for a carpool.

“It’s less about creating a community and more about facilitating a community that’s already here,” Kessler said.

Caroline Kessler (center) leads a session on DIY zines at the Asylum Arts retreat in Mill Valley, Nov. 11-14, 2019. (Photo/Stefan Cohen)
Caroline Kessler (center) leads a session on DIY zines at the Asylum Arts retreat in Mill Valley, Nov. 11-14, 2019. (Photo/Stefan Cohen)

Rachel Gildiner, CEO of Gather Inc. based in Washington, D.C., said the nonprofit aims to help those who are “slipping through the cracks” by putting them in touch with existing Jewish organizations or helping them find alternative ways to express their Judaism.

She said the 8-year-old program GatherDC has seen great success with the idea of “relational engagement,” or meeting younger people where they are, listening to their needs and connecting them to the Jewish life they are looking for.

Gildiner’s faith in the power of relationships is how she ended up expanding her organization to the Bay Area after a conference where she clicked with a Jewish Bay Area professional. Soon Gather Inc. was being invited by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund to lead a training in relational engagement.

“It was organic. We had expertise, and they had a vision. And we saw this model work,” Gildiner said. “So when looking to pick our next pilot city, it felt really natural that the Bay Area and specifically the East Bay had all the pieces we were looking for.”

The expansion is funded by the Rodan Family Foundation, a philanthropy focused on enriching Jewish community life in the East Bay, with additional support from the Federation. Contributions from the Jim Joseph Foundation and Schusterman Family Philanthropies through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) will help support Gather Inc. on a national level.

Gather also receives support from the Morningstar Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Kessler has embraced her new role at GatherBay and says she loves having coffee and tea with young adults to hear their experiences with Jewish life. She believes many of their stories will be unique to the geography and culture of the Bay, and that her initial work will move slowly as she takes the time to get to know people.

Ari Eisenstadt recalls getting coffee with Kessler and discussing his Jewish journey.

“It’s a conversation I don’t get to have very often,” the Berkeley resident said. “That sort of conversation sort of bubbles up at the scene, and it’s sweet to explore those kinds of topics with Caroline in a collaborative way.”

In the short few weeks that Gather has been in the Bay Area, it has already formed relationships with a number of Jewish organizations with similar missions, including OneTable, Moishe House and the East Bay JCC. But for Kessler, it’s not about prioritizing one organization over another.

“The intention is to be in connection and in relationship with all of these folks,” she said, “so that we can connect the right Jewish young adults to the right offering for them.”

D.C.-based org ready to ‘Gather’ young Jews in Bay Area,” Jordan Green, J – The Jewish News of Northern California, September 27, 2022

Resetting the Table Aims to Shift ‘Rigidity into Receptivity’

Support from Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Hearthland Foundation will expand the group’s programming with multi-faith leaders and the entertainment industry

As the associate vice president for campus affairs at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago and executive director of the Hillels of Illinois, Emily Briskman oversees nearly 60 Hillel professionals, many of whom spend significant time dealing with on-campus expressions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Through her work with Hillels, Briskman has participated in programs run by Resetting the Table, an organization dedicated to building dialogue and deliberation across political divides.

First created with seed funding from UJA-Federation of New York in 2013, and becoming an independent organization the following year, Resetting the Table is in a phase of growth and expansion. Recently, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Hearthland Foundation began funding Resetting the Table programs happening outside of Jewish spaces, reaching multi-faith clergy and other leaders working to combat toxic polarization.

Resetting the Table has worked with 35 federations plus The Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and trained 58 federation CEOs. The nonprofit, which has fiscal sponsorship through JCPA, has significant funding from The Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, Project Accelerate, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Civic Health Project and The Jim Joseph Foundation, among others.

At JUF — which is just completing its third year of partnership with the organization — various staff teams participated in five consecutive Resetting the Table cohorts from December 2021 to May 2022. The team assembled cohorts including professionals and lay people, varying denominations, demographics and political perspectives, to engage a cross-section of the community in dialogue. Sessions emphasized skills and tools that will help participants engage in productive and collaborative conversations.

“We didn’t want a uniform or a monolithic group of people talking to each other who all agreed,” Briskman told eJewishPhilanthropy. “We really wanted to get that idea of what’s going on across the community. That intergenerational piece for us was so important,” she said. “Generational differences, especially on Israel, can be deeply polarizing,” she added.

After distributing two smaller grants in 2018, The Jim Joseph Foundation provided a three-year grant in June to provide general operating support for Resetting the Table’s work. Specifically focused on Jewish educators and leaders, the funding will support grantees’ efforts to engage young people in content about Jewish identity or Israel, the foundation’s chief operating officer, Dawne Bear Novicoff, told eJP.

“In today’s day and age, young people are looking for places to be honest, to be open, to have nuanced conversations,” Bear Novicoff said. “They don’t want to shy away from difficult conversations; therefore this is providing an opportunity for the grantees and the educators to help hold those conversations.”

Facing the fear

Resetting the Table’s first federation partnership, with the UJA-Federation of New York, had formed to identify what was driving young adult disengagement from Israel; the process revealed that what looked like apathy toward Israel was actually fear and anxiety, the organization’s co-founding executive director, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, told eJP.

“So much of what young adults were calling for was a more productive conversation across difference,” Weintraub said. “Young adult disengagement also was in part driven by other dynamics in the community that we have to change — communal institutions and what the climate is like around Israel.” She added, “I think a lot of the impasse is around our own ideological silos within the Jewish people. I’m a big believer that we need a kind of collective insight to solve problems that we don’t have when we all live in echo chambers.”

“There’s real fear that exists in our community about talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel in general, for fear of saying the wrong thing, having the wrong opinion, being ostracized, for whatever opinion it is that you do have,” Briskman said. “Breaking that fear cycle is so important. Israel is something that we should be able to talk about,” Weintraub said, adding that many are afraid they don’t know enough about the region or are going to say the wrong thing, leading to disengagement. But Resetting the Table’s training “really breaks that cycle,” she said.

“I am among those who more frequently avoid conflict than actively engage in charged conversation,” Lisa Rosenkranz, a JUF board member who participated in the Chicago training, told program organizers. “I also live in my own bubble – the majority of people with whom I interact share my perspective. I believe the skills being built in this program extend far beyond just differing opinions about Israel – we are building the ability to have constructive conversations across many charged topics. Reflecting back and making sure you truly understand an opposing point of view is so essential for these conversations,” she said.

Weintraub describes RTT’s work as “shifting rigidity into receptivity,” adding that sessions are designed to “help shift the common tendencies of polarized conflict…so that people can take in ideas and information and people that they otherwise might have dismissed, written off out of hand.”

Federation facilitations

Resetting the Table received an aggregate of $3 million from federations for various training programs designed for their target audiences and constituencies. Baltimore brought together high-level donors and philanthropists; Seattle focused on lay leaders and board members. In addition to its partnership with JUF, the organization is in its fourth year of partnership with federations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Weintraub compared the federation experiences to chaplaincy training: All clergy members need some pastoral counseling experience, but some train for years, or at different intensities, to achieve deeper expertise. The organization’s four-to-six session boot camp facilitation training that teaches foundational skills for difficult conversations and troubleshooting techniques for challenging group dynamics, might be particularly useful for Israel trip providers, young adults, campus professionals, clergy and others who might confront political or moral differences around Israel. There are also intensive, rigorous facilitation trainings (13 sessions over seven months); some students may train more intensively to become coaches or trainers.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles brought in Resetting the Table after hearing about its work addressing polarization in New York’s Jewish community, Alisa Finsten, the federation’s chief of staff, told eJP. With funding from a Jewish Community Foundation Cutting Edge grant — $350,000 over three years — to replicate the model, the federation created a bench of trained facilitators who could preside over challenging conversations within L.A. Jewish community organizations, and work directly with those organizations to put on dialogue programs.

“We really felt that the federation was the best organization poised to do this work, because of our role at the 30,000-foot level in the L.A. Jewish community,” Finsten said, noting federation’s partnerships with synagogues, schools, camps and Hillels in the politically diverse and geographically spread-out community. While the three-year grant period is over, Finsten added, the federation remains committed to the work, allocating funding for a staff person to serve as an in-house “force multiplier”: advising on local challenging conversations and bringing the Resetting the Table model of dialogue to its leadership programs. For example, the federation’s Community Leadership Institute cohort will participate in a Resetting the Table program before their September trip to Israel.

Beyond Israel

Resetting the Table discussions go beyond conversation for conversation’s sake, organizers say; they also glean insights and heal or strengthen relationships across divides, while facilitators, the organization’s founder added, “help people be able to investigate their differences and confront them courageously in ways they [can] stay connected and receptive.” And while Resetting the Table was created to focus on the Jewish world, after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the organization went national, bringing programs to the general population beyond Jewish issues, in a country that’s increasingly polarized.

Hearthland’s support, for example, is part of the foundation’s work “to help build a more just, equitable, and connected America,” Shayna Rose Triebwasser, the foundation’s senior program officer, told eJP.

“Part of how we do that is by investing in projects and programs that bring people together across all kinds of divides to build relationships and solidarity,” Triebwasser said. “We believe that when we come together, we not only affirm our shared humanity and have the opportunity to understand our collective challenges more fully, but we can also begin to design solutions that work for more people and build the power we need to make real change.

“We’ve seen a polarization take over our country, our globe,” Briskman said. “This project is really reacting to that because…any fracture in our community is really an existential threat. It doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree with each other, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences of opinion. I have a colleague who likes to say that in the Jewish community, we never expect uniformity. But we do strive for unity, which I think is a really good line, especially for Resetting the Table: we want to be able to talk to each other.”

“Resetting the Table Aims to Shift ‘Rigidity into Receptivity,’” Esther D. Kustanowitz, eJewish Philanthropy, August 11, 2022

New Israel Info Education Program – Centered Around Argument Circles – Receives $1.1m

The approach involves creating workshops that encourage collaborative discussions when arguments regarding Israel’s complexities arise. 

Innovative Jewish educators Abi Dauber Sterne and Robbie Gringas have taken on a new approach to learning about Israel: Argument circles.

Now, with the help of a  $1.1 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, For the Sake of Argument (FSA)’s pilot program will give Dauber Sterne and Gringas the opportunity to achieve successful execution of the program among Jewish community groups across the world.

The approach involves creating workshops that encourage collaborative discussions when arguments regarding Israel’s complexities arise.

“We embrace arguments as a powerful tool for getting to know ourselves, each other, and the issues we’re discussing more deeply,” reads their mission statement.

The Jim Joseph Foundation — a private organization that supports Jewish education among youth and young adult groups — aims to “help all Jews, their families, and their friends lead connected, meaningful, purpose-filled lives and to make positive contributions to their communities,” according to its mission statement.

“Abi Dauber Sterne and Robbie Gringras have a timely, important vision to create a new multidimensional learning model for Israel education,” commented Steven Green, Senior Director at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“This trust-based approach is about engaging young learners in authentic, deeply meaningful conversations around Israel based on disagreements that acknowledge a diversity of perspectives. The Foundation is pleased to support their efforts.”

Dauber Sterne, a religious Jewish American-Israeli, is the current director of Makom: Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel. She previously served as vice-president of Jewish Education at Hillel International for seven years and is the founder of Limmud NY — an organization that creates spaces to build and strengthen Jewish communities.

Dauber has reflected on her and Gringas’ roles as innovative Jewish teachers. “As educators, our instincts are to create environments in which we agree,” she said. “Ironically, disagreement and argument hold within them exactly the energy and passion that we, as a community of educators, should seek to engender.”

Gringas, a secular British-Israeli, is a theater performer, inspirational speaker, and teacher. He was the director of a theater company in London’s vibrant West End district and has since taken on a variety of educational roles, such as creative director of Makom, while continuing to pursue writing and theater.

“Today’s society shines away from disagreement, but Jewish tradition strongly encourages it as a way of reaching understanding, if not consensus,” he stated.

FSA was initially formulated at the Jewish Agency’s Makom: The Israel Education Lab with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation. The publication of Stories for the Sake of Argument, a collection of short stories written by Dauber Sterne and Gringas, was the first stage of the project.

The stories, which “emerged from a realization that the field of Israel education has changed” according to FSA’s website, touch on complex issues regarding Israel and the modern Jewish world. The book also includes tools and questions to incentivize healthy group discussions while reducing fears surrounding difficult conversations on Israel.

Where is the money going?

The two-year grant will further support Dauber Sterne and Gringas in their research on how to use arguments to build valuable connections to Israel and strengthen the acceptance of diverse opinions among Jewish communities.

“Arguments today are too often perceived as destructive and aggressive. We often avoid discussing the issues that are most important to us, for fear of causing discomfort,” said Gringras. “But growth cannot take place without disagreement.”

Dauber Sterne, who has dedicated her career to adding value to people’s Jewish lives, recognized the value that the grant will have in continuing her and Gringas’ innovative project. “We are so grateful that the Jim Joseph Foundation will be supporting this project in this research and pilot phase as they too seek to address the challenges facing our field.”

published in the Jerusalem Post

‘Conversations Across Difference’

An organization that promotes dialogue and understanding among people with different political and religious perspectives is expanding its partnership with Hillels to address tensions among Jewish students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Elyza Veta, a recent graduate of New York University, was excited to go on a group trip to Israel in the middle of her sophomore year ​in 2020. The trip was sponsored by Birthright, a program that takes Jewish students and young professionals on free tours of Israel with the goal of promoting and strengthening their Jewish identity and their ties to Israel.

But things got off to a rocky start—the students got into heated debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It was sort of this looming thing throughout the whole trip,” Veta said. “And everyone sort of retreated to the people they knew agreed with them. You have all the anti-Zionists whispering in one corner, the Zionists whispering in another corner … The conversations were just breaking down at that point, and no one was talking about it in ways that were productive.”

Veta and a friend also on the trip decided they had to do something. Both had previously interned at an organization called Resetting the Table, which sends representatives to Hillels, centers of Jewish life on college campuses, to work with Jewish students experiencing frictions over differences in political perspectives or religious views, or to stave off possible tensions. Veta and her friend decided to hold a “dual narratives” workshop for their peers. The workshop was designed by the organization to teach politically diverse Jewish students techniques to discuss and empathize with multiple sides of the conflict. Veta said the tone of the trip shifted as a result.

“Everyone sort of felt this huge weight was lifted off their shoulders and off their chests,” she said. “The fact that we were all able to sit through this program, to understand where everybody was coming from and sort of be on the same page … No question that by the end of that, everybody came out more empathetic to the people they disagreed with.”

Participants on Elyza Veta’s Birthright trip in 2020

As tensions between Zionist and Palestinian student groups simmer at colleges across the country and rival protests erupt on campuses, Jewish students and employees involved in Hillel programs say there are also deep fissures on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among Jewish students themselves, which leave some of them feeling alienated and obstruct productive dialogue on campuses at large.

Resetting the Table, which was founded to confront these problems, is helping Jewish college students navigate these rocky terrains. The organization, launched in 2014, also teaches dialogue skills at religious congregations and other settings. Its workshop exploring different Israeli and Palestinian narratives is especially popular.

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-founding executive director of the organization, noted that Jewish students belong to various clubs on campuses focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ranging from Israel advocacy organizations to Palestinian rights groups, while others have feelings and opinions on the issue but don’t share them for fear of getting involved in the fray.

The goal isn’t to eliminate “profound differences” among students but to demonstrate that “people are writing each other off,” including people “that they can reach and engage in the right conditions with the right tools,” said Weintraub, who is also the former founding director of Encounter, an organization intended to expose Jewish leaders to diverse perspectives on the conflict. “We’re living in a cultural moment in which many of us are drawing our red lines too close to ourselves … It’s easy to see other people as beyond the pale and not worth speaking to before we’ve really tried.”

The organization works with the full spectrum of students. It also has politically diverse funders, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, which funds Jewish education programming; the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, focused on social justice issues and building a more “pluralistic” Israeli society; and Maccabee Task Force, an Israel advocacy organization supported by the late conservative philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.

Kenneth Stern, who directs the Bard University Center for the Study of Hate, said Jewish students, and American Jews in general, are divided. Some see Israel as a historic safe haven for Jewish refugees and a critical part of their cultural or religious identities, while others see the government’s treatment of Palestinians as counter to their Jewish values. Stern wrote a book called The Conflict Over the Conflict (New Jewish Press, 2020), which explores why campus debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are so contentious.

“When your identity is tethered to an issue of perceived social justice or injustice, it becomes very, very powerful,” he said. “You try to reject the complexities. You try to reject the idea that there’s any justice on another side. You certainly don’t crave the emotional capacity to imagine if you were born into a different circumstance would you have felt differently. You get sort of poised to have the moral certainty that you’re right and jump into the fight.”

Training the Trainers

According to Weintraub, students aren’t the only ones who need coaching through these thorny issues. Resetting the Table has always worked with Hillel houses and Hillel International, their overarching organization, but it recently expanded its partnership with Hillel to include a new “train the trainers” program.

Over the course of six months, a dozen Hillel staff members learned to run dialogue workshops on their campuses. Starting next fall, Weintraub also plans to run shorter programs or “boot camps” for Hillel staff members followed by longer program opportunities.

“Every campus professional needs to be able to navigate political division and needs some tools and skill building,” she said.

Matthew Vogel, executive director of University of Vermont Hillel, said he previously wrestled with how to meaningfully engage with students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue felt too fraught to him, especially on a campus where “the vast majority of students are really engaged in social justice,” which can cause some Jewish students involved in campus activism to feel wary of discussing Israel for fear of alienating their peers. He ended up avoiding the complexities of the topic altogether.

“I really felt like I sometimes struggled with the right language of how to talk about Israel on campus with also being inclusive to every single Jewish student who might want to walk in the door or engage with Hillel or engage with their Jewish identity,” he said. “So, in some ways, I didn’t say a lot, and I kept a lot of our programs more surface level.”

Vogel, who now runs Resetting the Table programs with both students and staff members, appreciated that the workshops “presented multiple narratives and let students compare their own perspectives and make up their own mind and their own relationship to a vastly complex issue.”

Naomi Fainchtein, an assistant director of American University Hillel who participated in the new training program for Hillel staff, said she was drawn to the opportunity at a time when religious and political divisions in general feel especially stark on her campus and nationwide.

“We live in incredibly polarizing times, and college campuses tend to be at the forefront of some of that polarization,” she said.

The intracommunal debates Hillel staff members are confronting are hardly new. For example, in 2013 a Jewish student movement called Open Hillel emerged to protest restrictions that outline which speakers and groups Hillel International will partner with to put on events. Those restrictions include not partnering with groups that support a boycott of Israeli businesses; that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders”; that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel”; or that “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” Open Hillel activists argued these standards were too restrictive to represent the full diversity of Jewish students’ views on the conflict.

Adina Danzig Epelman, vice president for engagement and impact at Hillel International, noted that Hillel’s partnership standards also include a commitment to “facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning” and allow individual Hillel houses to establish their own guidelines.

“Hillel has always been and continues to be committed to first welcoming all students regardless of point of view and ensuring that they feel included and a sense of belonging and that Hillel is a place they can express themselves as their whole selves,” she said.

She sees Hillel’s collaboration with Resetting the Table as a separate issue.

“Our Hillel professionals are saying again and again that this is the essential training they need to do the work in today’s world,” she said. “It provides them with skills and confidence to help students have conversations across difference in a way that’s respectful and builds relationships, which is increasingly important, because we’re living in a time when the political climate on campus is driving students with different worldviews into separate and sometimes warring enclaves.”

‘Peace Building’ On and Off Campus

The alternative to productive dialogue is students shutting down and “melting like ice cubes” when they hear contrary opinions on Israel in classrooms or bristling during Shabbat dinners that turn into heated political debates instead of engaging in challenging but potentially meaningful conversations, said Jenna Citron Schwab, executive director of Queens College Hillel.

When this happens, “what they can’t do is actually talk about their own relationship to Israel as a Jewish person,” she said. After introducing regular dialogue trainings for Jewish student leaders about a decade ago, she’s noticed more students “have the tools for being able to hear hard things and then also be able to share their own story without feeling like they need to be defensive or stand up for something.”

She wants students to feel more at ease discussing Israel with each other and also with non-Jewish peers, especially on a campus such as Queens College, whose student body is racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. She doesn’t want students to miss out on the educational benefits of engaging with that pluralism.

“There’s a lot of differences on our campus,” she said. But “diversity doesn’t mean you ever engage with the diversity. It just means it’s diverse. When they walk past their peers on the quad, who look or speak or eat or pray differently than they do, do they feel comfortable and have the tools to engage with them in a meaningful way?”

Weintraub believes her organization’s workshops are about more than defusing tensions within Jewish campus communities but a step toward broader “peace building.”

“Without creating a different kind of argument and without creating an opportunity for people to push and challenge each other across their silos and echo chambers, we wouldn’t amass the intelligence and wisdom and creativity that we need to solve problems.”

“Conversations Across Difference,” Sara Weissman, Inside HigherEd, June 3, 2022

A New Group is Providing R&R for Burnt-Out CEOs of Jewish Nonprofits

Idit Klein has been at the helm of Keshet, the Jewish LGBTQ+ organization, since 2001. Over the course of her tenure, she has been able to carve out time for two sabbaticals — July-September 2013 and July-August 2021 — and each time returned to what she described as a “more resilient and sustainable” organization.

“My colleagues had the opportunity to step up in new ways in my absence, stretch in new directions and explore new capacities,” she said. “I believe sabbaticals are vital, not only to give the CEO the opportunity to rest, re-energize, and renew but to strengthen the leadership of others in the organization.”

The reenergizing potential of sabbaticals, especially at a time of rising concern over pandemic burnout, is the guiding motivation of R&R: The Rest of Our Lives, a new organization offering three-month paid sabbatical grants to a handful of CEOs and directors of Jewish nonprofits.

“We’re talking about a group of humans who are service-oriented, purpose-driven [and] are very good at serving others,” R&R Founder Josh Feldman said. “They have often — to their own detriment — worked beyond their own capacity for years, or even decades. So this is somebody who, in their own self-evaluation, is able to say, ‘This is the right timing for me.’”

Feldman said R&R is the first organization to provide sabbatical grants to the Jewish communal sector on a national scale, and expects to offer five organizations a total of $60,000 each — $50,000 for the awardees to rest, travel, reflect or renew for a minimum of three consecutive months while maintaining their current salary and benefits; and $10,000 to support interim leaders and staff in the CEO’s absence.

The sabbatical grants will be awarded by September, with recipients required to take the sabbatical within the following calendar year. The recipients will also come together in a national cohort, which Feldman hopes will provide them with added value.

“We’ve seen over the last two years, people are deeply connected to each other’s lives across time zones and geography. And even though perhaps Zoom fatigue is on the top of some people’s list for the reasons they need rest, there’s also a real sophistication now to how we can be in community across distance.”

Before founding R&R, Feldman was the founding director of Hillel’s Springboard Fellowship, a two-year paid program for emerging leaders. After learning about the Los Angeles-based Durfee Foundation, which grants paid sabbaticals to local nonprofit CEOs, he wondered if such a model might work for Jewish nonprofits. He developed the idea and applied for 2020’s Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) grants, funding from a coalition of major Jewish groups that allied to respond to a range of needs during the pandemic. While JCRIF didn’t select the project for a grant, the proposal caught the attention of an anonymous donor who offered seed funding if Feldman would lead the initiative.

R&R currently has two staff members — Feldman and experienced nonprofit professional Rachel Zieleniec, who most recently worked for the Honeymoon Israel Foundation as program director. The group’s budget for the current fiscal year is $400,000, a figure that will rise to $650,000 in the coming year, when the grants will be awarded. The project is fiscally sponsored by the Social Good Fund, a California nonprofit, and funded by individual donors, the Jim Joseph Foundation and RiseUp, a social justice initiative funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

“Burnout happens when perceived obligations outweigh perceived resources,” Betsy Stone, a retired psychologist who is an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and has written previously about burnout at Jewish nonprofits, told eJP. “It actually doesn’t matter if I have the resources, it only matters if I believe I have the resources. And if I believe I don’t have the resources, what tends to happen to us is that other people try to convince us that we do, which generally doesn’t work. Over the course of this pandemic what has really happened has been a huge explosion in responsibilities without an explosion in resources.”

Feldman said the post-pandemic moment has people thinking differently about the future of work and the workplace. Beyond sabbaticals, organizations may offer their staff continued flexibility around work hours and location to make sure that employees are psychologically safe and healthier, he told eJP.

“The audacious goal here, what R&R is after, is what if after a week, month or year of our work, we felt healthier partly because of the organizations we worked in?” he said. “There is a new zeitgeist around rest and rejuvenation. We hope that many communities start to support their grantees and grant recipients with rest-based solutions. There needs to be an entire ecosystem supporting the rest and rejuvenation of workers. And there will be a need that far surpasses their resources unless it’s made a major priority.”

Applications for R&R sabbatical grants are now open to CEOs or people in an equivalent leadership position who have been in their current role at least three years, have at least seven years of professional leadership experience in the nonprofit sector and report directly to the board of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or fiscally-sponsored project. In addition, applicants’ organizations must have at least five full-time staff members, to ensure that the organization can continue operating in the CEO’s absence. Applicants for sabbatical grants must also demonstrate financial need to underwrite the candidate’s leave, meaning larger organizations with large budgets may be less likely to be selected.

“There may be an organization [that] doesn’t have the financial resources themselves for this program to work,” Feldman said. “Does their executive and their entire staff deserve rest? Yes. But that doesn’t mean this model will be right for every organization.”

R&R is “operating through an equity lens,” Feldman said. Toward that end, R&R is encouraging CEOs who are Black, indigenous and people of color; LGBTQ+ individuals; people with disabilities, and women and other leaders with underrepresented identities to apply for sabbaticals.

Keshet’s Klein praised R&R’s mission, adding that all Jewish nonprofit employees should have the opportunity to take a sabbatical.

“It is extraordinary to see this investment in CEO sabbaticals, and I’d love to see organizations invest in sabbaticals for all staff, no matter their position,” Klein said. “Rest is essential for everyone, and the whole organization benefits when staff can renew their energies.”

“I want the CEO of [a federation] to feel like she’s being treated well, but I want everyone else in that organization to feel that way, [for it to] be structured in a way that strengthens everyone,” Stone agreed. “After the CEO gets time off, do they figure out how to give other people time off?”

Feldman called the CEO grants “just a start,” and “part of a broader focus we need on rest, recovery and rejuvenation for nonprofit workers. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now because the need is so great.” R&R plans to partner with philanthropists and foundations in the coming months and years to scale initiatives to meet the needs of more Jewish nonprofit professionals.

“Do we want to offer additional sabbaticals and other rest-based rejuvenation programs?” he said. “Absolutely, and long-term [we] will look to do so, with entry-level through senior leaders.”

Feldman hopes R&R’s efforts will prompt nonprofit leaders to make rest-based practices and policy, such as sabbaticals, the norm for their organizations. As an example, Feldman named the progressive group social change group Bend the Arc, which offers sabbaticals to all staff for every seven years of employment.

R&R identifies sabbaticals as “our leading intervention,” but says others are to come, like a deck of rest-themed cards, meant to prompt individuals, teams and organizations to think about rest — or as Feldman says, “micro moments of rest and rejuvenation” — every day. For example, he recommends making meetings 50 minutes instead of an hour; being clear around the hours when people must be in communication with each other; and making sure that professionals are focused on strategies that help them achieve their mission.

Feldman literally walks the walk of his organization’s raison d’etre; he goes on walks daily and hikes in the mountains of western Massachusetts, and one of R&R’s consulting “interventions” is something called a “walkshop”—a guided walk that can be done outside or inside, with an R&R facilitator issuing prompts while participants walk in silence, giving them the opportunity to move, occupy the space around them and think creatively.

“We believe our primary role is to help soften the ground so that organizations and cultures begin to have a different orientation towards rest,” he said. “Ultimately, we can help move the entire society, because we know that the existential threats we face are bigger than ever, and how we’re going to solve those is not just going to be through new methodologies and new ways of working, it’s going to be in the way we take care of people so that our best, brightest and hardest-working folks in the nonprofit sector can have the energy and resolve to work on all of this.”

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 

A new $1.8 million fellowship emphasizes diversity in Jewish educational research

The $1.8 million, four-year grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation to CASJE, also seeks to broaden what counts as Jewish education and who it serves.

What does the phrase “Jewish education” bring to mind?

Perhaps it conjures an image of a Jewish day school, a Hebrew school or a synagogue program. And odds are the people sitting in it are children. Starting next year, a new research fellowship will aim to change that image — or at least add texture to it, eJewishPhilanthropy has learned. The two-year fellowship for six people with doctorates in education or related fields will be run by the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) and funded by a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

CASJE, which is housed at The George Washington University, aims to elevate the field of Jewish education through academic research. The $1.8 million, four-year grant from Jim Joseph, however, also seeks to broaden what counts as “Jewish education” and who it serves. The project hopes to “reflect the diversity of the Jewish communities in the United States,” according to a statement. It aims to accomplish that both by studying a wide range of topics and by recruiting fellows from across the academic world, not just from the doctoral programs in Jewish education that exist at schools such as Stanford University, New York University and Jewish denominational seminaries.

“We know that who does the research matters, and different researchers have different perspectives and lived experiences,” Stacie Cherner, director of learning and evaluation at Jim Joseph, told eJP. “I think that we want to make sure that research is representative of the diverse perspectives of the Jewish community and all that entails.”

By ‘diversity,” the program is referring not just to a range of backgrounds and identities — such as Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews or Jews with disabilities. It also seeks to widen the range of educational programs studied. There hasn’t been a lot of research into Jewish education in youth groups, or educational initiatives targeting Jewish grandparents, said Ben Jacobs, a professor of experiential Jewish education at GWU and co-chair of CASJE’s advisory board.

“We definitely want the fellows to seek out things that people aren’t talking about, because that opens up new possibilities,” Jacobs told eJP. “We’re trying to get more research in some of those less-researched areas that nonetheless are powerful educational venues.”

The fellows will be divided into two cohorts that will begin in subsequent years, with the first trio beginning in fall 2023. Because the fellowship is for applied studies, it will emphasize what Jacobs called “things that have immediate ramifications for the way things are done on the ground.” Each of the fellows will be paired with a faculty mentor and will focus their research on one specific Jewish educational institution while looking to glean insights that apply to a broader swath of the Jewish educational world. “When you’re doing a doctorate, it’s all about specialization,” Jacobs said. “You’re becoming an expert in your area. A program such as this provides an opportunity to expand your horizons in different ways.”

Cherner added that she hopes at least some of the fellows continue working in Jewish educational institutions, rather than just studying them, after the fellowship ends.

The fellowship aims “to encourage people who have the knowledge and the skills that come with a doctorate in education to think about the Jewish communal field as a place to work. Another goal is for Jewish communal organizations to think about creating roles for people with this knowledge base and mindset,” Cherner said. “I think if these students think outside of academia as a place to work in the future, that would be great.”

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

Who Will Teach Our Children and Grandchildren?

This piece on the crisis regarding the shortage of Jewish educators is authored by members of ADCA, the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies for Jewish Education from around the country: Rabbi Scott Aaron, PhD; Tzipi Altman-Shafer; Peter Eckstein; Dr. Gil Graff; Rabbi Mordechai Harris; Marlyn Bloch Jaffe; Lawrence M. Katz; Amian Frost Kelemer; Lisa Klein; Dr. Julie Lieber; Elana Rivel; Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan; Dana Sheanin; Susan H. Wachsstock; and Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar

The crisis that we knew was coming is here. Jewish day schools, early childhood centers and part-time congregational schools across the country face a shortage of educators to fill multiple openings for lead teachers, assistants and substitutes. This is no longer simply a “challenge.” Rather, it is a crisis because of continuing trends in the overall job market, exacerbated by the pandemic.

In day schools, the teacher shortage is felt deeply in the challenge of finding Jewish studies and Hebrew language teachers. In early childhood programs, where Jewish engagement and connection for families are established, the shortage of teachers is compounded by the low wages typically paid to those in this field. Congregational schools face the same challenges as day schools in finding Jewish studies and Hebrew language teachers, and schools often are left with enthusiastic but untrained members of the community as teachers.

What can we do to find solutions to this crisis? How might we as a Jewish community work together to ensure that there will be well-trained and inspiring teachers to teach our children and grandchildren?

A recently released research report from CASJE on Jewish educators shows that fewer new teachers are entering education and more current teachers are leaving. Covid has worsened the teacher exit; some teachers did not feel safe teaching in person and left or opted for early retirement.  Burnout is also a contributing factor to teachers leaving the field. Feelings of being overworked and underpaid have only increased during the pandemic.

National data shows teachers make about 20 percent less than other professionals with similar education and experience. That percentage gap is even higher in Jewish educational settings, especially early childhood.

Recruitment and retention of educators demands both professional development and material support. Jewish federations and communal agencies for Jewish education have undertaken a variety of initiatives to address local needs. National programs, such as the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI) and Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP), have supported and encouraged educators’ professional growth. Despite these positive efforts, the CASJE study points to the reality that more is required.

ADCA, the Association of Directors of Communal Agencies for Jewish Education, representing cities throughout the continent, shares local efforts through ongoing communication and collaboration and has organized collective opportunities for the professional growth of educators. Its members have worked with national foundations and institutions to address aspects of the growing teacher shortage in Jewish education. Yet, more is needed.

We welcome publication of the CASJE study as the start of a national conversation that brings funders and educational leaders together to propose and develop new and strengthened approaches to addressing the recruitment and retention crisis in multiple sectors of Jewish education. Well-conceived initiatives, collaboratively developed and implemented in national and local partnership can surely make a difference. Such initiatives – as inattention to the presenting crisis – will have an impact for generations.

originally published in eJewish Philanthropy