(JTA) – Pope Francis phoned Rome’s chief rabbi to express condolences on the murder of three Israeli teenagers.
Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said the pope called him at home on Tuesday afternoon, the day the teens were buried side by side and within hours of the Vatican releasing a strong statement condemning the killings, according to the daily Il Messaggero.
Di Segni told Il Messaggero that the pope said, “Good evening. This is Pope Francis. I wanted very much to personally express my grief for the death of the three youths.”
The rabbi, who said he first thought the call was a prank, also said the pope had said he would pray for the boys and their families.
Earlier in the day, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi had called the murders “terrible and dramatic.” He said “the assassination of innocent people is always an execrable and unacceptable crime and a serious obstacle on the path toward the peace for which we must tirelessly continue to strive and pray.”
Lombardi said Pope Francis “participates in the unspeakable suffering of the families struck by this homicidal violence and the pain of all persons afflicted by the consequences of hatred, and prays that God might inspire all with thoughts of compassion and peace.”
Also Tuesday, clashes in Rome between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators left several injured, including one pro-Palestinian demonstrator who reportedly was beaten up by supporters of Israel.
(JTA) — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, has died at age 89.
A maverick rabbi from an Orthodox background who spent time in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Schachter-Shalomi transitioned over time toward a New Age, neo-Hasidic approach, gaining a substantial following on his own but also influencing other Jewish denominations.
His nontraditional approaches to Jewish spirituality, including services marked by ecstatic prayer, drumming and dancing, eventually morphed into the Jewish Renewal movement.
Known to friends and followers as Reb Zalman, he lived out his later years in Boulder, Colo., where he died Thursday morning after being ill for some time. An associate told JTA that he had been battling a pneumonia infection in recent weeks.
The movement he started had its origins in the 1960s, when Schachter-Shalomi began instituting meditation and dance during prayer services. He sought to fuse the mystical traditions learned while he was Lubavitch with the sensibilities of the modern world in an effort to revitalize a synagogue practice he found stultifying.
He eventually broke with Chabad, founding the P’nai Or Religious Fellowship in 1962 and a havurah — a lay-led congregation with no central leader — in Somerville, Mass., in 1968. He ordained the first Renewal rabbi, Daniel Siegel, in 1974.
Schachter-Shalomi led prayers in English set to popular tunes, translated Hasidic texts on mysticism into English, promoted ecologically friendly kashrut and encouraged Jews to create their own colorful tallitot, or prayer shawls.
In 1993, P’nai Or merged with Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center to become Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The Philadelphia-based institution has ordained some 80 rabbis.
Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna, Schachter-Shalomi’s family fled the Nazis and eventually landed in Brooklyn in 1941. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1947 from the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva. He later got a master’s degree from Boston University in the psychology of religion and a doctorate from Hebrew Union College, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.
His last teaching post was at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired Colorado institution that is now home to Schachter-Shalomi’s archives.
“This man is a Hasid,” Rebecca Alpert, a professor of religion at Temple Universty, told JTA several years ago in an interview about Schachter-Shalomi’s influence. “No one could possibly duplicate his sagacity, presence and magic.”
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, pioneer and leading light of the Renewal stream of Judaism, died Thursday morning at the age of 89 in Boulder, Colo.
He sat down with JTA in 2010 for this video interview:
And then he offered our reporter a blessing:
Hundreds of soon-to-be immigrants to Israel gathered at one of the French capital’s largest synagogues for a sendoff ceremony celebrating their departure.Click here for the rest of the article...
PARIS (JTA) — Hundreds of soon-to-be immigrants to Israel gathered at one of the French capital’s largest synagogues for a sendoff ceremony celebrating their departure.
Some 700 people attended the ceremony Wednesday at the Synagogue de Tournelles, which began with a moment of silence in memory of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, the Israeli teenagers whose bodies were discovered Monday near Hebron. They were kidnapped and killed on June 12.
Immigration levels from France are at record levels, which Jewish Agency officials attribute to the community’s strong emotional attachment to Israel, rising levels of anti-Semitism and a stagnant economy in France.
Many of the new immigrants cited anti-Semitism, which has increased in frequency since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the early 2000s.
“When I was a child, I could leave home wearing my kippah,” said one of the soon-to-be immigrants, Lionel Bresso, who is moving this month to Netanya. “Now I wear a baseball cap and my daughter leaves home only to go to school. I don’t want her to grow up like that.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, were among those on hand at the ceremony along with Israeli Immigration Minister Sofa Landver and Haim Korsia, France’s newly elected chief rabbi.
During her address, Landver announced new regulations passed last month that she promised would ensure that most French professional diplomas — especially in paramedical fields such as optometry and physiotherapy — are automatically recognized in Israel, making it unnecessary for the new arrivals to retake exams.
“If you were good at your job here, you will be excellent in Israel,” she said. “We want you back home, our home.”
From January to May, a total of 2,254 French Jews have immigrated to Israel, or made aliyah, compared to 580 during the corresponding period last year. Another 1,000 to 1,500 are expected to immigrate this summer, according to the Jewish Agency.
In 2013, immigration from France crossed the 3,000-person mark — an increase of 31 percent over the annual average of new arrivals from France between the years 1999 and 2012 and a level reached previously only four times.
20 years after Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s death, Hasidic followers still throng to visit his tomb. It’s a shrine that those who thought he was the Messiah shun.Click here for the rest of the article...
By Rabbi Marc Saperstein
On the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are pleased to share this recollection from Rabbi Marc Saperstein.
My first active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was on March 25, 1965: the final day of the five-day March from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King.
I was then a third year undergraduate at Harvard, and had recently been elected as President of the Harvard-Radcliff Hillel Society. Earlier in the week I was contacted by someone at the United Ministry office, saying that clergy and student leaders from all the religious denominations at Harvard and at several other Boston area universities would by flying to Alabama on a chartered plane overnight, and that they would like me to represent Harvard Hillel. Needless to say, I was thrilled to go.Landing after the overnight flight, we were brought to a church yard in the African-American outskirts of segregated Montgomery, where we stood up to our ankles in pink Alabama mud for several hours as the increasingly large crowd was getting organized. Finally we began to march, six abreast. During the first half-hour or so, we saw only African-Americans on the sidewalks. Their faces were beaming with joy at the realization that so many Americans, mostly whites, had come to show support for the right to demonstrate peacefully in the streets of our nation.
At one point, we saw organizers of the March holding up signs that said “Keep Smiling.” Very soon I understood why. We turned a corner, and suddenly we were in the white part of the city, and the looks on the faces of the crowds were totally different from what we had seen until then: frozen looks of hatred and contempt. I remember thinking that I had left the realm of the living and entered the realm of the dead. Now at every corner there were federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents to ensure our safety. We tried to “keep smiling”, but it was difficult.
Finally we reached the Montgomery Statehouse and it was time for the speeches. As usual, there was an over-abundance of fine speakers. The final address was given by Martin Luther King, with his characteristically inspirational eloquence.
It was a temporary triumph, but a long road lay ahead. Back in Boston, we learned that Governor George Wallace had refused to accept a petition from the Civil Rights leadership, and that Viola Liuzzo, a Michigan housewife, who had come as a volunteer and was driving demonstrators back home, was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
My second experience occurred during the summer of 1966, immediately following my graduation from Harvard College. The Dean of the College, John Munro, had established a program whereby recent Harvard grads in English and Math would teach their subjects to Birmingham African American students who were preparing to enter Miles College the following September. My field was English literature; I taught two two-hour classes, each with ten students, five days a week, working to improve their reading and writing skills, with brief writing assignments every day. They were grouped based on performance on a standardized test; I had one group of excellent students, while the other was composed of high school graduates who could barely write a single sentence without serious errors in spelling and grammar.
The Birmingham church bombing had occurred less than 3 years earlier; some of my students knew children who had been killed.
The temperature was consistently in the 90s, and there was no air conditioning. But I never sensed a lapse of attention. The students were like sponges, soaking up new nourishment. In many ways, it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had in 37 years of College teaching.
One Shabbat I went to services at the Reform Synagogue in a totally different part of the city. The rabbi knew my father and welcomed me, but when I told him what I was doing, he became considerably more cold. He was the only rabbi who signed the letter from six local clergy that produced King’s immortal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
One day I was standing on the porch of our dormitory watching a group of Miles College students in the middle of the small campus practicing hitting golf balls with clubs. I remember thinking: What an expression of optimism this is: do they really think that they will ever be able to use this skill on golf courses in the South. Decades later, when Tiger Woods was winning national championships, I thought back to that moment and realized that their optimism was justified.
The following year I was studying at the University of Cambridge. Several of the students wrote to me, and I of course wrote back, describing my experience. One of them responded, “That sounds like a wonderful place to study. Do they allow colored students there?” I recall how staggered I was that a former student of mine would have to ask such a question, and I responded, Of course Cambridge does, and Harvard does, and the day will come when there will be no place in the world that refuses to take students on the basis of race. I guess that optimism was also justified.
Rabbi Marc Saperstein is the principal of the Leo Baeck College and Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics. He has also taught at the George Washington University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of books and articles on various aspects of Jewish history, literature, and thought, and is widely recognized as an authority on the history of Jewish preaching. Before leaving the United States, he was Vice President of the American Academy for Jewish Research.
By Rabbi Benjamin Zeidman
A couple weeks ago, my son turned one year old. Before he was born I thought I knew what it meant to worry about the future. Now, I realize that “naïve” is a nice way to describe me just over a year ago. For all my best intentions, I didn’t have a clue.
We live in New York City, which means we live in the largest city in the country. With more than eight million people, it is twice as large as the next largest city (Los Angeles). That means we live in the city which is home to the largest population of homeless people in America: At least 53,615 as of January, with more than 22,000 of them children.
In a city like this one, my son encounters evidence of homelessness several times a day. As he grows more and more aware of his surroundings, it won’t be long until he’s asking the most difficult questions about the things he sees. So now I’m worried in a way I’ve never been before about the kind of world my son will grow up in. And I’m especially concerned that when he looks around, he sees himself in a world that strives for justice, equality and possibility.
I know that I am not alone. As the book of Exodus begins we learn that the legacy of Joseph—the man who saved both his family, and the entire population of Egypt from starvation (and therein homelessness)—is forgotten. Israel is born not in joy but through the horrific experience of slavery. As a people, united in anguish, our Torah tells us that finally a generation couldn’t bear injustice any longer: “The Israelites were groaning under bondage and cried out. And their cry for help from bondage rose up to God” (Exodus 2:23). It’s been something like 400 years, and finally the Israelites come to call out to the Holy one for help. The pain and the suffering has finally reached a boiling point.
In their cry, the Israelites remind God of the Covenant made with our ancestors (Exodus 2:24-25), as if God is the forgetful type. Maybe the Israelites finally remembered the covenant and invoked it! So, ready to hold up their end, God looks upon the Israelites and takes notice of them. Then what does God do? God doesn’t free the Israelites with some miraculous snap of the fingers. Instead, God calls upon Moses, a human being.
Today, tens of thousands in New York City and around the world cry out and groan in their chains—there is no miracle in sight, not even a burning bush lit to inspire a particular individual to lead the masses out of their slavery. And yet, as Moses was called upon to be God’s hands and voice, our tradition and our Torah calls upon us to do the same.
Briskly walking home from an evening meeting in December, it was 24 degrees and windy. All I could think was, “I just need to get home; I can’t believe how cold I am.” That was until I passed a woman sitting outside under a blanket, hunkered down for the night. She was just one of thousands people sleeping on the streets that night. The number of homeless people in our country, just over six hundred thirty three thousand, is frighteningly similar to the number of Israelites who departed Egypt in the book of Exodus.
Bound by circumstance, chained by bad luck, mental illness, addiction, an uncaring populace, or some combination thereof, the homeless suffer winter cold and summer heat, along with hunger, thirst and awful conditions in shelters and out of them. That’s not to mention the horrible situation that homeless children and teens face, who suffer without the power, skills or the legal rights to help themselves.
As those tasked with the responsibility of creating a better world, we are obligated to do everything we can for those who suffer. In the Talmud, Rav Hama said: Torah teaches we must “walk after God.” This means we must imitate the attributes of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, so too we also clothe the naked (Sotah 14a). It isn’t a choice, and it isn’t something that we can afford to have on our radars only occasionally.
As Divine instruments in this world, there are those who groan and who cry out in misery every day and every night, and if we strive to mimic the Holy One we cannot ignore them. Many of us have so much. We can rush home through the dark and cold to light and warmth. But we are empowered to do God’s work in the world, and that means we have an obligation to do so.
So many issues require our continual attention and energy. Homelessness continues to be one of them. We have always understood that we are judged on how we treat the most unfortunate in our midst. Each of us is made in the Divine image, and each of us has an individual obligation. It’s about respect for human dignity. It’s about taking care of those others who are made in the divine image too.
We must ensure that our own local leadership and our national government understand that they are as obligated as we are. How our society treats and copes with the downtrodden is a direct reflection on our success as a community and as a nation. We must strive for that day when we can tell our children that we as a people and as a country are successful. Every day we delay is a day we have to answer for.
What does a fervent religious movement do after the death of its singular leader?Click here for the rest of the article...
As a rabbi’s daughter, Leah Vincent was never allowed to learn Talmud. Years after abandoning ultra-Orthodoxy, she sets out to rediscover the ancient Jewish law books.Click here for the rest of the article...
Bob and Sheila Friedland fund “Synagogues without Jews” archival collection at Yad Vashem in Israel.
(PRWeb May 28, 2014)
Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/05/prweb11891882.htm
(JTA) — A man living in Houston was sentenced to 33 months in prison for phoning a bomb threat to a city synagogue.
Dante Phearse, 33, was sentenced in federal court for threatening to bomb Congregation Beth Israel, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Justice Department. The statement said Phearse was an ex-convict with a long criminal record and a history of mental illness.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt also ordered Phearse to pay $13,000 in restitution and to serve three years of supervised release after his prison term.
Phearse had pleaded guilty on April 28 to charges of violating the civil rights of synagogue members and making a telephone bomb threat. He could have received a prison sentence of up to 30 years.
On April 30, 2013, Phearse telephoned Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Texas, and left a rambling message in which he claimed at various times to represent the Masons, the Shriners, the Eastern Stars, the Illuminati and a Satanist group, and demanded that the synagogue “tell your students the truth” or the synagogue would be bombed.
He has also been accused of phoning bomb threats on the same day to the Conservative synagogue Congregation Or Ami, the City of Houston Municipal Courts Building and a private business.
The threat forced Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue, to close its school for a day and hire extra security.
By Rabbi Matthew Soffer
The White House Summit on Working Families was just a single day, but the crisis prompting the Summit was so clear, so compelling, that the day itself felt like a great sermon. The bottom line was this: families are working harder than ever, and our workplaces haven’t caught up. Also, family itself requires extraordinary work, and not only the work of raising children but caring for aging parents.
I was stunned by the data. In 1975, more than half of all kids had a stay-at-home parent. Now, fewer than a third of kids grow up with a parent at home. Meanwhile, the annual cost of child care for an infant in a child care center is higher than a year’s tuition at the average four-year public college in most states!
Workplaces are still structured for the family as it was a generation ago. Most still lack policies that actually take care of our families– specifically, paid leave (including care-giving for sick kids and aging parents), equal pay for women, and flexible working conditions.
We heard from our leading politicians, including the President, the First Lady, the Vice-President, and Dr. Jill Biden, demonstrating the commitment of the Administration to these issues. But we also heard from CEO’s like Bob Moritz, Chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose company went unlimited with paid sick days and saw the number of sick days actually taken go down, while productivity rose. Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY, said his company rewards its teams for flexibility– and in so doing finds increased productivity from its employees. Weinberger also said, “it can’t be an initiative, it has to be a culture.”
In a room of more than a thousand folks, I was one of but a few rabbis the room. And when I hear the word “culture,” my mind’s eye pictures the synagogue. Synagogues are workplaces too. The “great sermon” preached by this summit is as pertinent to our own houses of worship as any workplace. How are we synagogues doing? I don’t think anyone empirically knows the answer to this question. I would like to think that we’re ahead of the game, but I’m also aware that religious institutions are permitted certain exemptions, like from offering unemployment insurance for employees. As a rabbi in an institution that deeply values its employees, I left the Summit eager to learn how we and congregations across the country are really doing; what are the best practices, and how can we learn from each other, as each of our communities works to improve our policies to reoriented ourselves to the new reality of working families? We all want synagogues to model compassion not only in our programs but in our policies.
Synagogues are also more than workplaces; they are places designed to help families work. In my work at Temple Israel of Boston, I face families who are working so hard to make their families work; boomers who are overwhelmed by the balancing act of working full-time while moving their parents into retirement communities, or caring for them as they decline in health; new parents, whose kids are always getting sick, and whose jobs don’t seem to “get it” by supporting them through those times. How are we, in our communities, supporting each other through this unprecedented struggle? Are we reckoning with our families’ needs vis-a-vis childcare and “parent-care”?
Among the most supreme Jewish values is Sh’lom Bayit, typically translated “peace in the home” but it may also be rendered, “family wholeness.” There are so few institutions that families turn to in order to find shalom or wholeness. Throughout our history, the synagogue has been many things: a “meeting house,” a “house of worship,” a “house of study.” Perhaps the time has come for us to add to the list: a resource center for sh’lom bayit, family wholeness. Congregations have a unique opportunity to help working families today– through advocacy for civic change, yes, but also by reforming our own synagogues to be places where working families can find peace.
Rabbi Matthew Soffer serves as an associate rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, where he overseas social justice community organizing and directs the Riverway Project, an initiative which connects young adults to Judaism. Check out his blog, Jewminations or follow him on twitter @mattsoffer.
Comments are an important part of the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section! This blog is part of a special RACBlog series, “Double Booked: A Conversation about Working Families in the 21st Century,” dealing with the many issues that affect working families, and featuring everything from personal stories to policy analysis. Visit the Double Booked portal to read more posts, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #doublebooked.
The University of California Student Association Board of Directors voted to investigate allegations of corruption waged against a Jewish student nominated to serve as a university regent.Click here for the rest of the article...
by Rabbi Eve Rudin
CAFTY, CFTY, CNYFTY, CRaFTY, JFTY, LIFTY, MAFTY, MoVFTY, MSTY, NEFTY, NELFTY, NOFTY, OVFTY, PAFTY, SCFTY, SEFTY, SOFTY, SWFTY, TOFTY, WEFTY, WESTY.
Those are the names of the 21 NFTY Regions I grew up with in the 80s. And, yes, we used to have contests to see who could recite them the fastest. When I was active on the North American level, I knew what each “–FTY” stood for.
But there was a problem. There’s a saying in Hebrew, hu meiveen yaveen (he who understands understands), and in this case, only an elite few knew that all 21 regions were actually all part of one organization―a Movement. Stories would pour into the NFTY office about people who would meet on college campuses and say, for example, “I grew up in MSTY” or “I grew up in CRaFTY.” While they would “kinda sorta” figure out that they were similar groups, it was never explicitly clear that they were, in fact, part of the same Youth Movement, one with a shared mission, vision, and set of core values.
In 1994, NFTY President Jeff Berger and his officers decided that it was time to unify NFTY. They understood the importance of every single NFTYite feeling connected to something much larger than themselves. As a result, at the February, 1994 NFTY Board meeting, the NFTY Board lobbied for a shift in name for all regions to “NFTY (name).” The resolution passed, which explains the regional names we use today. Jeff Berger’s hope that every Temple Youth Group (TYG) would adopt the NFTY name in front of its own resulted in a greater sense of cohesiveness―of being part of a Movement and its mission.
As the mid-90s introduced email, IMing, and the internet (it was still pre-Facebook), the sense of NFTY as a Movement was boosted by NFTYites’ new capabilities to communicate with one another, and en masse. Today, it’s hard to imagine NFTY (and the world) without it, but in “days of yore,” NFTY communicated via snail mail, paper newsletters, and the occasional telephone call. New communication technologies accelerated the pace of NFTY activity and gave TYGs direct access to additional resources. Most importantly, advanced communication offered NFTYites more time to connect with one another.
It’s no surprise that just five years after the unifying name change and the advent of email, attendance at the NFTY Convention jumped dramatically ― from 800 NFTYites in 1999, to more than 1,500 in the following years. The numbers have remained at that level ever since.
Popular songs in the early 90s included Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” and En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind.” Bookshelves were filled with spiritual guides and self-help titles. Like much of America, NFTYites experienced a turn inward and often focused on issues of spirituality and religious meaning, with study themes such as “Tifllah: An Exploration of Our Jewish Identity.” URJ Kutz Camp campers learned from Mishnah B’rachot 5:1 about the rabbis not praying until they were fully ready in their hearts and minds. This lead to the (still popular) practice at NFTY services of singing Craig Taubman’s Adonai S’Fatai Tiftach nigun and waiting for the entire NFTY community to be ready to pray. This religious turn was officially marked through the addition of the Religious and Cultural Vice President (RCVP) position on the North American, Regional, and TYG levels. And while Christian rock was already immensely popular amongst Christian youth, it was at a 1999 NFTY Southeast Event that I first saw Dan Nichols, who brought new and updated religious Jewish music to the NFTY scene.
The 90s also witnessed a renewed interest in Israel. In 1993, NFTY became the official youth arm of ARZA. EIE Semester in Israel numbers rose, and NFTY in Israel numbers rose to 1,400 in 1999 and 2000.
NFTY has a lot to be proud of from its work in the 1990s, which helped set the stage for the continually vibrant NFTY of today!
Rabbi Eve Rudin is the Director of the Congregational School at the Park Avenue Synagogue. She previously served as the Director of the URJ Kutz Camp, the Director of NFTY, and the Executive Vice President of NFTY in 1988-1989. She hails from CRaFTY, the NFTY Region formerly known as City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth.
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s Supreme Court nullified a rabbinical court ruling that required a mother to circumcise her son.
In a 6-1 vote, the high court on Sunday decided to move the case involving divorcing parents to family court, saying that only a civil court can impose such an action.
The father told Israeli media that he would file the case in an Israeli family court.
The Netanya rabbinical court, which is handling the divorce, ruled last October that the mother must have her son circumcised within a week. A month later, a Jerusalem rabbinical court upheld the ruling and ordered her to pay a fine of $140 a day that it is not done.
The boy was not circumcised on the eighth day, as per Jewish custom, due to medical problems, according to reports. He is now more than a year old.
“I started reading about what actually happens in circumcision, and I realized that I couldn’t do that to my son,” the mother, identified as Elinor, told Haaretz last November. “He’s perfect just as he is.”
Israel’s Supreme Court has overturned a ruling by a court of rabbis that would have forced a mother to have her son circumcised under the terms her divorce.Click here for the rest of the article...
Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron apologized for saying that same-sex couples are not a family.Click here for the rest of the article...
By Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren
If the road to lifelong Jewish learning begins with religious school, then the widespread practice of ending formal Jewish education with tenth-grade Confirmation is a dead end. 10th-grade Confirmation prevents our teens from integrating their religious schooling with other key Jewish teenage experiences including local Tikkun Olam efforts and serving as religious school Madrichim or counselors at a URJ camp.
It gives our youth license not to be Jewishly engaged in synagogue activities during their last two years of high school. Roughly 80% choose to drop out. Two years later, when they enter college, the vast majority are not interested in Hillel and Kesher because their congregations “dismissed” them too early. In short, we’ve consigned our teens to a wilderness of alienation from which few will return, threatening the long-term continuity of our movement.
At Temple Emanuel, we have been doing 12th-grade Confirmation since 2001. In our experience, meaningful learning, compelling trips, and community service, when combined with socializing, keep most students involved with Temple for the entirety of high school. We retain around 80% of our B’nai Mitzvah students though the end of 12th grade. Of those retained, some 75% will travel to Israel prior to graduation.
The solution is readily apparent: move Confirmation to the same year as high school graduation!
It is true that working intensely with teens for another two years means more work for staff and lay leadership. Yet, by doing this we have many more opportunities to interact and build relationships. At Temple Emanuel, the biggest changes we’ve made center around how we as educators and parents look at our teens as learners. We no longer view them as larger, older versions of seventh-graders; rather, they are first-stage adult learners. This has demanded a deeper knowledge of what resonates for maturing teens. For example, teens in our area are interested in service to others. We made the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar a yearly event open to all high school students. We also created our own service learning trip to New Orleans. We heard from our teens that they want to connect to Jews worldwide so Israel trips are a big part of our approach, and we fundraise to make these trips accessible to everyone.
Our Confirmation service occurs on a Friday night near high school graduation. As such, it has become somewhat of a Jewish “Baccalaureate” service. There is a Torah processional during which the Torah is passed to the eleventh-grade class. The eleventh-grade families also sponsor the Oneg Shabbat that evening. Many high school students from all grades attend, allowing our seniors to model that teen Jewish involvement in our Temple continues through the end of high school.
By the end of high school, our teens are truly young adults. Intellectually, their Confirmation speeches on “What Being Jewish Means to Me” demonstrate a deeper level of connection than their tenth-grade counterparts can even imagine. As graduating seniors, they intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults—the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.
As a congregational staff, we have stopped talking about curriculum and instead use the words “engagement” and “learning.” Every month, someone contacts us asking what our curriculum is. This is the wrong question! There is no magical one-size-fits-all traditional curriculum. Moreover, when we are asked about who is eligible for our 12th-grade Confirmation, the only criteria of importance is whether or not that student has remained engaged and involved throughout the years since his or her Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We’ve learned that punitive approaches don’t get us very far. Only those who have dropped out or have disengaged completely from Jewish life are not eligible for Confirmation.
The bottom line is this: psychological research has shown that the last two years of high school and the first two years of college are prime for adult identity development. The unintended consequence of Confirmation at any point before the end of high school is dismissal at precisely the time when teens need the benefits of Jewish community most. Our overall curricular goal must be meaningful engagement throughout high school and not some preconceived idea by adults as to what kids need to learn. Lists of well-intentioned requirements often serve as obstacles that weed out all but the most committed. Our “curriculum” is that, through a variety of activities including learning, we aim to keep our teens involved in congregational and Jewish life though the end of 12th grade. We hope that more Reform congregations will recognize the profound benefits of dovetailing Confirmation with high school graduation. Doing so will go a long way in ensuring the future of Reform Judaism in North America.
Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren serve Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC. They both have expansive backgrounds in the field of teen education and engagement.