George Washington University Launches New Center for Jewish Education

The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development announced plans last month to open a new center for Jewish learning on its campus. Known as “The Collaboratory,” it is meant to further Jewish education and establish several priorities for the future of Jewish education at the school.

The creation of the Collaboratory is the result of several years’ worth of planning and preparation meant to expand the possibilities of Jewish education and increase efficiency in previous initiatives undertaken by three Jewish educational institutions at the school that have now come together to create this new program.

“The field of Jewish education is ready for an entity well-equipped to operate as a central address,” Dean Michael Feuer of GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development said in a statement. “The Collaboratory is positioned to lend vision, coherence, and rigor to a diverse and segmented field, and to explore the underlying dynamics that influence communal and individual decision-making, investment, and concern related to Jewish education.”

Now, several weeks after the announcement, the Collaboratory is underway and the three organizations — The Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education for research, the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership for public engagement, and the graduate programs in Israel Education and Experiential Jewish Education for academic preparation — are starting the process of working together and navigating the new space they share.

The center will be directed by a partnership between Dr. Benjamin M. Jacobs and Dr. Arielle Levites, who have each been with the university for several years and previously oversaw some of the programs now under the Collaboratory.

“It’s bringing all three of these programs together into something bigger, more substantive, more anchored in the university in the form of this center, but also realizing that we could do more. We’ll continue to each have our own areas of focus, but [we realized] we could do more and achieve more to really advance our own missions and our own objectives if we worked together more,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs directs the Mayberg Center and the educational graduate programs, while Levites oversees the CASJE program, bringing together these programs with different purviews and allowing them to cover issues of Jewish education and the American Jewish experience more holistically.

“Each of the programs independently has its own expertise and network and audiences, and what I really love about the Collaboratory and the structure and the vision that it provides is that we sort of pull all of those pieces together,” Levites said.

And another part of the benefit that comes from the Collaboratory is the reduction in redundancies that could happen on occasion, as the programs did have some overlap in their work.

Jacobs identified one such area of improvement coming from their program managers, including Naomi Gamoran, who previously was the program manager for CASJE under Levites.

He said that the skills each program manager had, like Gamoran’s excellence with spreadsheets and numbers, can now be applied over all the programs instead of having people from each program work on every aspect of the job for their respective group.

The Collaboratory has already begun involvement in several initiatives, including the launching of a speaker series on campus antisemitism, an annual fellowship and summer institute on antisemitism and Jewish inclusion, the recent creation of a CASJE Research Digest after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and the sixth annual cohort of its Israel education program.

This current work is indicative of the center’s goal to enhance Jewish education and research issues faced by the modern Jewish community, and it’s coincided closely with a time filled with change and difficulties within the greater Jewish community.

“Even as this [center] was all envisioned, and this is a conversation and a program that actually has been developing over the course of years, I do think that we feel we’re building a place where we can really grapple with many of these issues and a space that is seen as expert, as open, as trusted,” Levites said.

She added that the networks and prior initiatives the Collaboratory is involved with will hopefully allow them to get a good sense of what the Jewish experience in America
is like.

Levites said that the center will be well-equipped to handle the research and educational shifts that may be happening and that all three groups have proven their individual skills, making their future of collaboration all that more exciting.

“[The Collaboratory can serve] As a place that can bring in new people and ideas and that has room both for imagination and also evidence,” Levites said. “And we want to bring all of that to bear to really understand the American Jewish experience today and imagine what the responses are going to be to ensure continued vitality and flourishing of American Jews and American Jewish education.”

published in the Washington Jewish Week

The Wexner Foundation Announces Class 8 of Field Fellows

The Wexner Foundation, in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, welcomes Class 8 of the Wexner Field Fellowship. Utilizing the diverse, cohort-based learning that is the hallmark of Foundation leadership initiatives, Field Fellows learn from experienced faculty and develop tools to enhance their leadership while address the pressing issues in the Jewish community. These fifteen professionals were selected from a competitive pool of applicants for this three-year intensive program. Class 8 of the Wexner Field Fellowship will be integrated into The Wexner Foundation’s network of 3,000 professional and volunteer leaders in North America and Israel, including 45 current Field Fellows and 85 Alumni.

“Today’s Jewish leaders need a reservoir of courage, a cadre of wise colleagues and a reimagined set of scenarios for a vibrant and secure Jewish People tomorrow,” said Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, President of The Wexner Foundation. “Our Field Fellows are blessed with a cohort of peers, a circle of proud and determined Jewish professionals each prepared to exercise leadership for a strengthened Jewish community even when it is hard to see around the corner. This is not a new reality in our history, but nonetheless a difficult one. The capacity to develop and support a new generation of Jewish professionals is one The Wexner Foundation cherishes more than ever. We are proud to introduce these newest Wexner Field Fellows, remarkable individuals our community needs more than ever.”

COMPLETE LIST OF CLASS 8 FELLOWS (More info about each Fellow, here.)

  • Sarah Allyn: Chief Operating Officer, The Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, West Bloomfield, MI
  • Matt Baram: Executive Director, Hillel 818, Northridge, CA
  • Emily Bornstein: Chief of Staff, Jewish Federation of St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
  • Leili Herlinda Davari: Director of Racial Equity and Inclusion, Jewish Social Justice Round Table, Remote
  • Whitney Fisch: Executive Director, Hillel at Miami University, Oxford, OH
  • Tzvi Haber: Executive Director, IMADI, Baltimore, MD
  • Rachel Hillman: Associate Director, Northwestern Hillel, Evanston, IL
  • Leah Kahn: Vice President of Education, Office of Innovation, New York, NY
  • Rachel Libman: Chief Curator, Toronto Holocaust Museum (UJA Federation of Greater Toronto), Toronto, ON
  • Arya Marvazy: Senior Director of Programs, Jews of Color Initiative, Oakland, CA
  • Mark Pattis: Senior Director of Health and Wellness, Shalom Austin, Austin, TX
  • Shanie Reichman: IPF Atid Director, Israel Policy Forum, New York, NY
  • Julianne Schwartz: Director of Program Operations, Jewish Studio Project, Berkeley, CA
  • Jordan Soffer: Head of School, Striar Hebrew Academy, Sharon, MA
  • Jeremy Weisblatt: Campus Director, Kristol Center for Jewish Life (Hillel at The University of Delaware), Newark, DE

“Life changed irrevocably following October 7th and Jewish communities face unprecedented challenges right now,” adds Barry Finestone, President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation. “We need leaders with the vision, talent, and dedication to navigate this current moment and to strengthen Jewish life in the future. Meaningful Jewish experiences provide people with immense support and profound learning throughout life’s highs and lows. The newest Wexner Field Fellows, along with past cohorts, are vital to this work that can lift up individuals and entire communities.”

As part of this three-year intensive professional development program, Wexner Field Fellows:

  • Become part of a selective cohort of lifelong professional learners.
  • Learn with amazing leadership teachers and Jewish educators.
  • Receive one-on-one professional coaching and Jewish learning, along with access to funds toward customized professional development opportunities.
  • Develop a nuanced appreciation for the diversity of the North American Jewish community.
  • Focus on developing strengths in adaptive leadership, negotiation, difficult conversations, mindful communication, and other crucial leadership skills.

To learn more about the Wexner Field Fellowship, click here.

New Rosov Consulting study examines “texture” of diverse Jewish families

Crown Family Philanthropies, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation funding the new investigation, which will be based largely on focus groups, qualitative data

With the Jewish family becoming increasingly diverse and Jewish identity increasingly fluid, a leading Jewish researcher is trying to figure out how the rich tapestry of family life is being woven today.

“There are lots of assumptions about, ‘This is what it’s like as a person of color in the Jewish community. This is what it’s like for somebody who is economically challenged in the Jewish community,’” Alex Pomson, principal and managing director of Rosov Consulting, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Funded by Crown Family Philanthropies, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation and conducted by Rosov Consulting, the new study of Jewish families is qualitative, looking at the experiences and needs of diverse families within the Jewish community.

“We really want to better understand, [to] hear people’s voices, to hear their own lived realities at this moment,” Pomson said. “Where is the ‘Jewish’ in their lives, and to what extent is it in their lives, and in what ways do they understand what it means to be Jewish?”

The study defines a family as a unit made up of at least one primary caretaker and child who is between the ages of 0 and 8. To participate in the study a family must want to incorporate “any kind of Jewishness” in their lives, Evelyn Dean-Olmsted, senior project associate at Rosov Consulting, told eJP.

Identities that were focused on include members of the LGBTQ+ community, interfaith families, interracial families, interethnic families, single-parent families, families who live in communities that don’t have large Jewish populations and families who are socioeconomically vulnerable.

“We started out with a checklist,” Pomson said, “We thought, ‘We want to do a group with this identity, this identity and that identity,’ but it turned out the people who we were interviewing possess multiple identities inevitably. So you’ve got a person of color who may also be somebody in our socioeconomic group or in our outlying community group. They tick multiple boxes.”

The first part of the study is a literature review, which was released in November, and the second involves gathering information from 40 focus groups made up of 182 individuals from 45 states. Participants were recruited with the help of Jewish federations, Honeymoon Israel, 18Doors, Keshet and PJ Library. Interim findings will be released next month, with the full study being published in early summer 2024.

Researchers aim to answer many questions, including how participants express their Jewishness, how they express other identities, what organizations best support them, what role does extended family play in their Jewish lives and what challenges they face raising Jewish children.

While interfaith marriages have long been a source of concern and consternation in much of the Jewish community, they are “a source of a lot of inspiration and creativity and energy for other people,” Annie Jollymore, senior project associate at Rosov Consulting, told eJP. “We have heard so many cool and interesting stories about cultural mixing, about reimagining of Jewish traditions with influences from other cultures that are present in the family.”

The study being qualitative — as opposed to being based solely on hard data — offers many benefits, Pomson said. “There are things you learn from qualitative research that you don’t learn from quantitative and vice versa… It’s very much about the quality of people’s lives and really getting to the texture of their lives, and it isn’t simply about counting up how many people are there of this kind and how many are there of that kind. We aren’t going to be able to say that. What we are going to be able to say is what’s it like for somebody who is a person of color, what’s it like for someone who is raising a disabled child,or what’s it like for somebody in an interfaith relationship who wants to introduce ‘Jewish’ in their [children’s] lives and their partner wants to introduce another faith into their children’s lives.”

Although it’s early in the study, the researchers have many hypotheses, including that a family’s Jewish practices and identity is heavily influenced by their relationship with their extended family. Because Jews today are often geographically separated from larger family networks, there are additional challenges to raising children with Jewish practices that past generations didn’t face. This gets exacerbated for families who can’t afford to live within Jewish communal hubs.

The experience has been a lot of fun for the researchers, Pomson said. “We’re talking to some really interesting people that we wouldn’t normally be speaking to, and there’s nothing more affirming [then] when people tell you how meaningful that conversation was to them.”

published in eJewish Philanthropy, January 3, 2024, photo credit Getty images

American Jews are giving mightily to Israel. Is there enough left to go around?

(JTA) — Moving Traditions is a small Jewish organization with an unusual name and a mission that can be hard to describe on one foot. Working through synagogues, Hebrew schools and its own programs and curricula, it helps Jewish kids navigate their teen years in healthy, safe, appropriate and socially conscious ways.

When the Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7 threw the Jewish world into crisis, Moving Traditions created curricula to help teachers and teens talk about the conflict. And its CEO, Shuli Karkowsky, ordered up a “worst-case scenario” plan in case some of her reliable funders decided to hold back on their support and direct more money to Israel.

“We need to be humble and realize that we are an organization that serves North American teams. And so I don’t think we can put ourselves out there as the people who are going to be solving the Middle East crisis,” she said earlier this week.

To her relief, at a time when the Jewish philanthropic community is mobilizing around the war, her funders said they are going to “make the pie bigger”— that is, continue supporting groups like hers and expanding their giving in Israel.

As they have during previous crises in Israel, American Jews are pouring dollars into Israel to support people displaced by the war, to bolster nonprofits whose employees are headed to the front and, in a newish twist, to defend both Israel in the court of public opinion and Jews abroad who are seeing an uptick in antisemitism.

Jewish Federations of North America has raised $638 million among its network of local Jewish community chests. UJA-Federation, the largest of these, has so far allocated more than $38 million for work on the ground in Israel. Israel Bonds said it sold more than $200 million worth of bonds in the week following the Hamas attacks.

Jewish nonprofit execs celebrate this outpouring but are quietly anxious. As priorities shift to the defense of and support for Israel, what will happen to the bottom line of the schools, social services agencies, cultural centers and other Jewish institutions that don’t have an obvious Israel portfolio?

An adjacent question is one of discretion, even tact: With many nonprofits dependent on the end-of-the-year gifts that allow donors to claim tax benefits, should they go ahead with their own fundraising appeals and perhaps attach their “asks” to the current crisis?

“What irks me particularly is an emergency campaign now when they’re not related to the crisis,” said Andres Spokoiny, the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, speaking generally. “If you’re a school that is not affected by the crisis, just tell the truth that despite the crisis, you need to continue operating, and that having a strong community means that institutions and organizations like yours need to be strong and healthy.”

Spokoiny, whose organization’s “How You Can Help” Israel page lists “trusted agencies and nonprofits,” has been recommending to the private foundations and philanthropists under his organization’s umbrella that they give “above and beyond,” supporting their traditional grantees as well as the emergency campaigns for Israel. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Hundreds gather for a pro-Israel rally in Philadelphia’s Independence Square, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Oct. 16, 2023. (Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia)

Spokoiny also knows that the pot of funds allocated for Jewish giving is not bottomless. He is hoping the current crisis serves as a “wake-up call to the many Jewish donors that give, you know, token gifts to the Jewish community and huge gifts to their alma mater or to the hospital to give more to Jewish and Israeli causes.”

Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation, recommended a similar approach in a recent essay in eJewish Philanthropy. Finestone prefers “yes, and” to “above and beyond,” and he also calls on Jewish donors to divert more of their secular giving to Jewish causes.

“Yes, we absolutely need to support Israel and Israelis. We need to contribute mightily to the multitude of needs Israel has,” he writes. “But unless philanthropy steps up in the U.S. as well, there is a genuine chance that much of the organizational structure we have spent generations building will be stretched to its limits.”

Normally, the San Francisco-based Jim Josephs Foundation funds Jewish education in the United States. (70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent company, has been a grantee.) In an interview, Finestone said he wrote the article partly in response to colleagues and friends who called him in recent weeks unclear where to send their donations.

“They ran the risk of being forgotten,” he said of the Jewish organizations that don’t directly serve Israel. “And please God when this is over, and we know there’s going to be a long tail both literally and psychologically, we’re going to turn back to our camps, and to our synagogues, and to our JCCs and we’ve got to make sure that they’re there, or else the fabric of Jewish life that we’ve built over the years has the potential to crumble.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, says the outpouring for Israel has been inspiring, but also worries that the shift toward what he calls, in a Facebook post, “defensive, protective, and supportive” causes will come at the expense of “foundational” and “constructive” philanthropy.

Foundational giving, he said in an interview, is about “keeping the lights on in the synagogues and Jewish institutions that do the core work of Jewish life. Deeply unsexy.”

As an example, he points to the flood of giving that is expected in response to the pro-Palestinian and antisemitic activism on college campuses. “Jewish students feel vulnerable on college campuses, so dollars are going to go to, quote, unquote, fighting antisemitism on campus,” said Kurtzer. “But there’s another set of dollars that Hillels need right now: They have record turnout for students coming to Shabbat dinner over the past month. They’re looking for foundational dollars so they can support [that] or provide counseling services, whatever students need.”

Constructive giving, meanwhile, is about developing new ideas. “What would be the next major play for college students,” asks Kurtzer, “that can help them build resilience and knowledge and relationships and all of the stuff that might grow out of a moment of crisis like this?”

Past crises have shaped Jewish priorities for generations. In response to the Six-Day War in 1967, American Jews donated more than $100 million — close to $1 billion in today’s dollars — in a little over two weeks. Six years later, when the Yom Kippur War punctured Israel’s aura of invulnerability, American Jews contributed $700 million in emergency aid, or $6.4 billion in today’s money. Both wars also cemented Israel as a central component of American Jewish identity, politics and philanthropy.

At the time, however, Israel was still viewed as a developing country, the historian Lila Corwin Berman points out. “For quite a while, Israel has been economically a fairly well-to-do nation and hasn’t needed American Jewish dollars in the same sort of fundamental way,” said Corwin Berman, the chair of American Jewish History at Temple University. As Israel prospered and the military threats against it appeared to recede, donors’ priorities shifted to the American Jewish “intermarriage crisis,” which led to the creation of the Birthright trips for young people and a push for affordable Jewish day schooling.

UJA-Federation of New York led a rally in support of Israel and calling for the release of Israeli hostages, Manhattan, Nov. 6, 2023. (Luke Tress)

Corwin Berman acknowledged that Israelis still have genuine needs — for example, those who lost their homes and loved ones in the Oct. 7 attacks. But she notes that money going into less material needs — like the fight against antisemitism — will ultimately shape Jewish priorities, perhaps in unexpected or unwelcome ways. Some on the Jewish left have already complained that many groups fighting antisemitism have a right-wing agenda, while others worry that too many groups are fighting the same fight.

“The concern that I have about putting lots and lots of money into this fight against antisemitism is that it might develop a very, very blunt set of tools to use,” said Corwin Berman, who has written a critique of what she calls the “American Jewish Philanthropic Complex.” “I would say the tools at this point lag well behind what would be required to deal with an extraordinarily complex phenomenon.”

UJA-Federation, for example, is allocating $600,000 to responding to antisemitism on campus, normally a sizable allocation if only a fraction of the money raised for the emergency campaign. Mark Charendoff, the president of the Maimonides Fund, said the board of his grantmaking organization is also focusing on fighting antisemitism, along with what he calls the “internal refugee crisis” — Israelis displaced and traumatized by the war — and “strategic communications,” or advocating for Israel to politicians and the public.

Charendoff said the Maimonides board does not intend to cut back on any of its current grant-making, which supports education and issues-oriented programs in North America and Israel, like Hadar Institute for Jewish learning,  an L.A.-based organization that encourages Jewish filmmaking and the fund’s own journal of ideas, Sapir.  But that they do intend to focus on “anything that we can do to respond to the current crisis. We should be looking for those options on both sides of the ocean. And this would be over and above our current budget,” he said.

And yet he knows that pivoting to new priorities can come at a cost in attention to other needs.

“Human beings only have so much bandwidth,” he said. “And on both sides of the ocean, our staff are single-mindedly focused on the current crisis, obviously. Which means that we’re not focused on new opportunities, new ways of engaging in the elements of our portfolio that are not related to or not affected by the war.”

Karkowsky, at Moving Traditions, said her organization doesn’t intend to do significant fundraising around the emergency in Israel, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer to a Jewish world in crisis.

“I do think there’s an enormous need for work with North American Jewish teens right now who feel confused and lonely,” she said. “They’re not sure what their political opinions are, or they do and they feel abandoned by their friends, or they do and they disagree really strongly with their parents who are coming back and saying, ‘How do I connect with my kid who’s saying things I really don’t agree with?’ So I do think there’s a small role for us to play as part of the work we would be doing anyway.”

American Jews are giving mightily to Israel. Is there enough left to go around?” JTA, November 12, 2024 becomes Recustom, letting you control all of life’s rituals

New, merged organization looks to bring a DIY approach to not just holidays but every lifecycle event

In the beginning, there was the Maxwell House Haggadah, a cultural touchstone for generations of Jewish families throughout much of the last century. Though iconic, that guide to the Passover Seder – primarily meant to teach American Jews that coffee beans were kosher for Passover – was also barebones and rigid, lacking in individuality. In came, allowing for infinite customization and personalization. “The Minimalist Haggadah” and the “Schitt’s Creek Haggadah” and, of course, “The Chat GPT Haggadah Supplement” were born.

Now, the outfit that brought us those alternative iterations of the retelling of the Passover story is merging with its sister websites to become Recustom. The new brand, in a bid to expand the notion of ritual, is looking to bring do-it-yourself content to the modern plagues of climate change and political polarization, as well as rituals tied to gender, identity and even retirement.

“We’re in a time of deep uncertainty, we need rituals to connect us, but we’re not just going to do rituals that don’t feel authentic,” Eileen Levinson, founder and executive director of Recustom, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “We all need to connect, and we believe that Judaism has a toolkit for connection and meaning making. People just need help using it.”

The tagline for Recustom is, “Where intention meets play,” Levinson said, because “we embrace playfulness. Even the most serious moments can let us find something that’s a little bit different, and we can balance joy with seriousness.”

Whereas Levinson’s original sites – first launched with and later including High Holidays at Home and Custom & Craft – offered a DIY approach to Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shabbat, the new site, which is aimed at both Jews and those who are curious about Jews and Judaism, will feature rituals across the lifecycle.

“We’re thinking about all the places where people have been unseen,” Levinson said, giving examples of milestones such as, “doing IVF for same sex couples to have a baby… Rituals for gender transitions, taking on your new name and your new identity. People are living longer and wanting to still be engaged Jewishly. Their Jewish life is not just about raising their kids or being with their grandkids, but potentially having a new ‘b-mitzvah’ ceremony or rituals for retiring or when they move out of the home that they’ve raised their family in for 30 years.”

Currently, the three older sites are still running, with plans for to stay active at least through next Passover. Some of the rituals on the new site are linked to the old domains, while other rituals just say “coming soon.”

Custom & Craft, the design lab that created all three sites, has a long tradition of teaming with other nonprofits and organizations in the Jewish community to create content targeting diverse demographics. Current partnerships include Jewtina and OneTable, which is helping create volunteer cohorts to envision new ways to remix traditions.

“We feel like this opportunity would be great for us to partner with an organization that has a very similar vibe to what we have, believes in DIY, believes in connectivity around peer engagement,” Amy Bebchick, chief program officer at OneTable, an organization that has helped fund and plan over 100,000 Shabbat dinners, told eJP.

This year, OneTable expects to engage 65,000 unique individuals in Shabbat dinners, and Bebchick believes the partnership with Recustom will serve as a bridge. “For some people that have been One Tabling with us for a while, or Shabbating with us for a while, it may be that they’re ready for what’s next for them. They’re ready to explore the next Jewish ritual.”

Recustom plans to license its mix-and-match technology to congregations and organizations that can create interactive ritual templates that they can embed on their main sites. Levinson describes the initiative as “like a WordPress, or even Slack, for Jewish ritual making,” and plans to launch it in late 2024. The templates will be able to be customized to change pronouns, insert family names, pictures, poetry and videos.

Funding for Recustom comes from the Jim Joseph Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund.

Their first step towards this goal is a partnership with two organizations, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly, and its Cantors Assembly, which are collaborating to create what Rabbi Joshua Heller, the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, Ga., and a senior editor on the project, described via email as a “new kind of Rabbi’s/Cantor’s manual for our over 2,000 Conservative/Masorti clergy around the world.”

Heller said this new manual is meant to make clerical life easier. “With the old printed manual, we could offer one or two versions of a given ceremony or a handful of optional additional readings,” he said. “Rabbis would have a book filled with slips of paper and have [to] adapt the printed language, remembering where to fill in names in each place and adjust grammar and pronouns as they went. Now we can have a rabbi start with a template and have incredible flexibility to choose the liturgical alternatives that are most appropriate for the specific people they are serving.”

Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, director of publications and digital engagement at the Rabbinical Assembly, told eJP that the organization had a dream to create “a product that is adaptable to changing social and religious conditions in the U.S. and across the globe” and Recustom was the team that could “translate our vision.”

Currently, Levinson and the Custom & Craft team are focused on preparing content for the High Holidays, with the goal to have a full ritual library launched by January 2024. They hope to reach 2 million annual users by 2025, up from the 650,000 users who accessed Custom & Craft sites in 2011.

As the site grows its offerings, Recustom aims to connect more with Jews of color and younger Jews. “We have a strong audience that is over 55 because we’ve been doing a lot of work in the aging area,” Levinson said. “We’re over-representative in the queer Jewish communities… We’re less than 10% Orthodox. We just did a survey of our users in the winter, and it was much more ranging Reform, Conservative, just Jewish, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and so pretty diverse as far as everyone who’s not super-Orthodox.”

Although Levinson hopes the site is welcoming to all, she said. “Our brand is about reimagining, rethinking, [and] that obviously means that there’s more work into the how do we reimagine, rather than how do we keep things the same. Our intention is definitely not to throw out anything in Judaism but it definitely is about making it fit for you.”

published in eJewish Philanthropy

Major new push to address ‘critical shortage’ of preschool teachers takes shape

New initiative, launched by JCCA, JFNA and URJ, will train over 400 early childhood Jewish education teachers nationwide in coming years

The JCC Association of North America, Jewish Federations of North America, and the Union for Reform Judaism are preparing to launch a major new initiative to train hundreds of new early childhood Jewish educators in the coming years, filling two key positions ahead of the program’s launch this fall.

The $12 million program goes by the working title of Project-412, a reference to a passage from Pirkei Avot 4:12 about education, though this is likely to change before the official launch in September.

Orna Siegel, currently the director of enrollment at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, will serve as the inaugural executive director of the nationwide program. And Sasha Kopp, an early childhood and family engagement consultant at The Jewish Education Project, was named the senior director of education and engagement. Siegel and Kopp will enter their new roles on June 5 and will formally be employed by JCCA.

Project-412, which was first initiated in 2019, will first launch a three-year pilot program in 14 communities across the country that will recruit, train and help give credentials to 30 educators in each participating community – 420 educators in total. This is meant to at least begin to address a national “critical shortage of qualified early childhood educators” in Jewish schools, according to the JCCA.

“Together, the JCC and Reform movements operate 475 early childhood centers that serve more than 65,000 young children and their families. Tens of thousands more remain on long waiting lists because of the critical shortage of qualified, trained educators. Project-412 will ultimately expand the ECJE system’s capacity to serve significantly greater numbers of children and families, inspiring new and lasting connections to the Jewish community,” JCCA said in a statement.

The majority of the initial funding for the program, $8.5 million of the $12 million in total, was donated by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and the Samuels Family Foundation. The remaining $3.5 million will be raised by the 14 participating communities by 2025.

A spokesperson for the JCCA said the names of those communities, as well as the new branding for Project-412, will be finalized and announced in the coming weeks.

The training programs will be open to “anyone who wants to engage young children in joyous Jewish learning,” Kopp told eJewishPhilanthropy. Applicants do not have to be Jewish to apply, according to JCCA, nor do they have to have a background in education.

The shortage of early childhood educators is not only a problem in Jewish schools but is a national issue, one that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research last year.

Kopp said it is particularly acute in private Jewish schools as many teachers prefer the often higher salaries and better benefits offered by public institutions. “Not only are we losing teachers from year to year, but also teachers are getting jobs in public schools during the year,” she said.

In addition to existing teachers moving to the public school system, Kopp said there is also a shortage due to demographic shifts, as young families have moved to areas that do not have sufficient Jewish education infrastructure. “Our schools are not able to provide enough high-quality early childhood classes in the neighborhoods where young families are living to be able to support our greater Jewish landscape,” Kopp said.

While Kopp said the shortage of early childhood educators is acute and readily apparent, it is difficult to give a concrete number of how many educators are needed due to high turnover rates of staff in schools. “The reason why we don’t know that number is that there’s a significant lack of teacher retention and significant turnover throughout the year,” she said.

“By investing in our schools and by having more staff, that allows our educators to be creative. If they have an extra set of hands, that means teachers can have time to plan. They can write parent-teacher conference reports. They can examine students’ artwork and create more emergent in-depth curricula that focus on children’s curiosity,” Kopp said. “Right now, there’s not enough staff in our classrooms who are able to do that super level of education.”

Kopp said they were now working with a number of outside “content partners” to develop the training curriculum for the inaugural classes, with the goal of teaching them “about child development, emerging curriculum, play-based learning, art and drama and how to create a multi-sensory engaging Jewish curriculum for all students.”

Project-412 does not directly address the underlying reason why many teachers leave private Jewish early childhood education centers in favor of better-paying public offerings. But Siegel said that she hopes the initiative does indirectly do so by both making the participants feel appreciated and that the resulting atmosphere will improve their salaries.

“I think the first aspect of it is to recognize the importance of the value of the work and ensure that the participants understand how much respect they deserve and that they feel that respect regardless of compensation,” Siegel said. “Though I do hope that compensation will come up to be commensurate with the importance of the work that they do.”

In addition, both Siegel and Kopp said that by training the participants in groups and matching them with mentors will help create a feeling of community that will also help with teacher retention.

According to Kopp, who has been involved in the development of Project-412 since 2019, the initiative is meant to have a wide impact, to not only address the immediate educational needs of the children involved but to also set them up for further Jewish education in later years and to increase the significance of Judaism for the entire family.

“I really believe that Jewish early childhood education is the key to later Jewish engagement,” Kopp said.

Siegel, whose background is more in the field of Jewish day schools, similarly said that she saw focusing on early childhood education as a way to have an impact on larger Jewish communal issues.

“I’m interested in the question of Jewish vitality in all sectors and I have a strong belief that education is the way to act,” Siegel told eJP.

“Strengthening and expanding the reach of Jewish preschools and early childhood centers is a vital and foundational step in building, sustaining and growing the health of the Jewish community overall,” she said. “The reason I think this is so exciting is because it’s taking a very large problem of Jewish engagement globally, and saying, ‘Where’s the bottleneck?’”

This is supported by a March 2020 study by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education that found that parents who enrolled their kids in Jewish daycares and preschools were more likely to say they took part in “Jewish and Israel-themed cultural activities” than those who didn’t.

Kopp, who now works for The Jewish Education Project, which recently identified a trend of significantly decreasing Hebrew school attendance for older children, said that strengthening Jewish early childhood education could also address this issue.

“There’s much more of a seamless bridge between the early childhood center and the religious school if the kids are connected to the early child center. They would already know friends and they would begin religious school with the sense of excitement of going back to the building that they spent their early childhood in,” Kopp said.

published in eJewish Philanthropy

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