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What Works: Ideas & Initiatives

An Artful Partnership

The Temple–Tifereth Israel (TTTI) in Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) have teamed up to transform TTTI’s historic synagogue and museum facility into the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple-Tifereth Israel.

Facilitated by a $12 million lead donation from the Maltz Family Foundation, The Temple is gifting the 100,000-square-foot building—listed in the National Registrar of Historic Places—to its neighbor CWRU. When the work is complete, the facility will contain a completely updated theater seating 500–600 people, a black box theater, a small rehearsal and performance space, and modernized lighting, sound, and heating/air conditioning systems—plus a newly renovated sanctuary—and still maintain its historic integrity. The renovated facility, featuring programs from CWRU’s music, dance, and drama departments, will continue to serve as a worship space for The Temple’s 1,400+ member families for High Holy Day services, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.

Tifereth Israel will soon be the last synagogue to maintain a facility within the Cleveland city limits, even as most of its activities now take place within a modern synagogue in the suburb of Beachwood. In recent years, though, the temple leadership has had difficulty in raising the funds to maintain the urban sanctuary, and the question arose as to whether the historic building could remain part of the congregation’s future.

Meanwhile, CWRU had been searching for a single, large venue to stage its music theater and dance performances and to house department and faculty offices. They realized that the temple building, with its large sanctuary and adjoining spaces, would be ideal, and its renovation would cost a quarter of the price of building a new facility.

“This important paradigm involving adaptive reuse of an iconic building is a groundbreaking partnership between two great institutions,” noted Rabbi Richard A. Block, “a solution to facilities challenges that neither the university nor The Temple could have solved on its own.”


The T.E.A.R. Mitzvah

Thanks to 12-year-old Hannah Bress of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, Maryland, at least two adults now know they are carriers of a Jewish genetic disease.

For her bat mitzvah project, Hannah organized a T.E.A.R. (Testing, Education, and Awareness of Recessive Jewish genetic illnesses) event at the temple, where more than 100 attendees were tested to determine whether their genes might carry any of 11 genetic illnesses prevalent among Jewish families.

Hannah’s sister Jamie was afflicted with one of them—Familial Dysautonomia (FD)—but physicians failed to diagnose the cause of Jamie’s apparent malnourishment for two years. It was not until Jamie’s aunt heard a physician on the Today Show explain the FD symptoms—including the absence of tears—that Jamie was tested for the disease. She died three years later at the age of five. Afterwards, the family learned that Jamie’s paternal grandmother had a cousin with FD.

Showing up at Hannah’s T.E.A.R. event, Ilyse Horgan was surprised to learn that she is a carrier of Gaucher Disease, which typically causes fatigue, bone pain/deterioration, and anemia; and grateful that her family can now make “well-informed decisions,” beginning with testing her own children.

To learn more:


Making a Torah Whole

As Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, Maryland began the process of restoring its seven Torah scrolls, Rabbi Darryl Crystal discovered that its 80-year-old Torah of probable Lithuanian origin was missing 164 of 304,805 letters.

This past April and June, more than 500 congregants and members of the community restored the Torahs and filled in the missing 164 letters under the guidance of a certified scribe. They then celebrated the achievement with a siyyum or completion ceremony on June 13—the date reflecting the Torah’s 613 commandments, the last of which requires Jews to write a Torah. Participating in the restoration or completion of a Torah, even filling in one letter, is considered equal to writing an entire scroll.


Reconceiving Religious School

Before this year, Temple Sinai in Washington D.C. had offered a two-hour midweek religious school along with Sunday instruction. In the middle of the week, like Hebrew school children almost everywhere, the kids were tired, often unable to focus, and sometimes acted out; their parents struggled to fit religious school into overscheduled lives.

All that changed in September 2009, when religious education director Jill Stepak gave the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students a choice of taking a one-hour, highly focused Hebrew class on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday beginning at 4:00, 5:00, or 6:00—with no more than six children per class—supplemented by Sunday studies.

As a result, religious school experience has been reinvigorated. The temple is attracting high caliber teachers because it is offering more hours and the instructors are spending that time educating rather than controlling the students. Parents appreciate the many choices of class times, and, most importantly, the students are benefiting from smaller class sizes and more concentrated instruction; testing has confirmed that they’re learning quicker and better than under the previous system. As one student said, “I never thought you could spend less time in Hebrew school and learn more.”

For more information, contact Jill Stepak at 202-363-1942 or


Schmoozerama in Little Rock

Saturday night Schmoozerama is a big hit at 352-member Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Once a month, after havadalah and a potluck dinner, the temple screens less-known, thought-provoking Jewish movies such as Blessed Is the Match (about Hannah Senesh), My Mexican Shivah (a comedy), and The Debt (an Israeli film), followed by lively discussions. Nearly 20% of the congregation—everyone from religious school students to senior citizens—shows up for this free event, which has resulted in new friendships and a more connected community.


Union for Reform Judaism.