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What Works: Ideas & Initiatives

Changing Lives in Charlotte

Shalom Park Freedom School
scholars playing chess,
Charlotte, North Carolina.

Picture this: 50 summer campers, mostly Hispanic and African-American elementary school children, are eating a kosher breakfast served by a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi. The campers are reading books in a Conservative temple’s religious school classrooms. Jewish volunteers are leading afternoon activities. The program is being coordinated by an African-American Pentecostal preacher. And more than half of its expenses are underwritten by a Reform congregation, Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Welcome to the Shalom Park Freedom School in Charlotte.

A national program of the Children’s Defense Fund, Freedom Schools® offer nearly 10,000 low-income children in the U.S. intensive literacy education in a summer camp environment: two-and-a-half hours of reading and literacy in the morning, complemented by traditional camp activities in the afternoon, plus breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack. Whereas over the summer most low-income students lose two or three months of reading ability, more than 50% of the “scholars” (as the children are called) typically gain a full year of reading comprehension at the 15 sites in Charlotte operated by a local nonprofit, Freedom School Partners.

In 2010, Rabbi Judith Schindler of Temple Beth El sought to create the first CDF Freedom School program sponsored by a Jewish community. She reached out to eight Jewish agencies in Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus home to Temple Beth El, Temple Israel (Conservative), Charlotte Jewish Day School, Levine Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services of Greater Charlotte, Levine-Sklut Judaic Library, the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, and the Foundation of Shalom Park. Everyone signed on. Coordinating logistics among eight agencies was complicated, but in the summer of 2011 the Shalom Park Freedom School opened its doors.

On a typical day, the 50 scholars eat breakfast in the Charlotte Jewish Day School cafeteria and use the school’s playground, gather in the Shalom Park Foundation’s assembly room, receive literacy instruction in Temple Israel’s religious school classrooms, participate in the Levine-Sklut Library’s story time, and carry well-stocked backpacks supplied by the Jewish Federation’s Lions of Judah.

The program also resonated with the larger Charlotte Jewish community. So many volunteers signed up, an overflow of callers had to be referred to other Freedom School sites. Among the volunteers were unaffiliated Jews who connected to the Shalom Park community for the first time because of their commitment to social justice.

Last July, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman visited Charlotte for Jubilee, a gathering of 1,800 scholars and 600 community leaders from North and South Carolina, and witnessed the strength of the Shalom Park program firsthand. She later wrote: “I hope that many other communities will be inspired to follow this example.”

Congregations interested in establishing such a program in their Jewish community are encouraged to contact Temple Beth El member Judy Seldin-Cohen:

Holding the challah for motzi.

The Wandering Jews of Astoria

In 2009, HUC-JIR rabbinical students Mara Young and Cassi Kail became enthralled with Astoria, a multicultural area of Queens, New York where they lived. The only thing missing was a Jewish community—so they started a minyan called “The Wandering Jews of Astoria.” The group’s first Shabbat service and vegetarian potluck, in Young’s home, attracted half a dozen people. Two years later, through a combination of social networking (including Facebook, Twitter, and the area’s popular website as well as word of mouth, the minyan has grown to over 100 people. Jews of all types, many of them in their 20s and 30s, all gather for Shabbat services and a potluck dinner at members’ homes as well as for social events with Judaism creatively integrated into the festivities.

Rabbis Young and Kail (both have since been ordained and work in URJ congregations) believe that other communities seeking to reach younger Jews might benefit from experimenting with this model, which offers a hyper-personalized approach to religion. “We did not create a minyan and say ‘this is how we do things; join us if you do it the same way,’” Rabbi Kail says. “We welcomed both Jews and non-Jews as they are, and worked with them to make sure they were comfortable and open to everything the community had to offer.”

The minyan’s leadership is voluntary and un-hierarchical (no titles). Meetings are held in open forums, with the entire community invited. And because of the group’s pluralistic nature, its siddur weaves together multiple traditions. Not every liturgical tradition or theology is addressed at each egalitarian service, but the organizers make sure that participants feel included. One of the more traditional worshipers commented: “Parts of the service should make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, and this discomfort is a good thing. It symbolizes the struggles we all have with God, while pushing us to ask more questions and try new approaches.”

Mel with his granddaughters
Claire (left) and Alicia
wearing co-designed tallitot.

Co-creating a Bat Mitzvah Tallit: The Ties that Bind

“I couldn’t imagine all the good that would come from my simple request,” says Naomi Ruben.

Her daughter Claire was becoming a bat mitzvah at Cincinnati’s Isaac M. Wise Temple, and Naomi wanted to involve her own parents/Claire’s grandparents in the experience leading up to the celebration. But how could they, living 1500 miles away? She wrote them a heartfelt invitation: Could they find a way to connect with Claire as she prepared for her special day?

A chemist by training, Claire’s grandfather Mel Gallant, a member of Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen, Colorado, had discovered his artistic side later in life. In his 40s he taught himself to sculpt and created life-like head sculptures of several family members. After his “clay” period, he tried his hand in oils; later, Rya rugs (a number of his abstract rug designs won awards at local art shows); and then abstract wooden sculptures (now sold to collectors). Committed to continuing his artistic growth and nurturing his relationship with his granddaughter, Mel called Claire and offered her a choice: he would purchase a bat mitzvah tallit of her choosing, or he would collaborate with her on designing her own tallit that she could proudly wear during her bat mitzvah service.

A stunned Claire accepted the invitation to collaborate with her grandfather. As for Mel, after he hung up the phone, he said to himself, “What have I done? I don’t know how to make a tallit! What do I do now?”

He spent months reading and testing different dyes and paints until he was able to paint silk consistently with sharp edges. Claire asked that the stripes in her tallit be colored blue (symbolizing the second day of creation, when the “waters above” were separated from the “waters below”), green (representing the third day, the creation of vegetation), and brown (meaning the Earth); and grandfather and granddaughter worked together on their width and placement. Mel painted a picture of Jerusalem for the atarah (collar) per Claire’s request, and designed a Star of David and Claire’s Hebrew name, which were embroidered on a reinforcing square at each of the inside four corners. Meanwhile, Claire studied the methods and prayers of how to tie the tzitzit. When the tallit arrived, Claire carefully made the proper knots, reciting the blessing each time. And on the day of her bat mitzvah, she wore her co-created tallit with pride.

Inspired by the experience, Mel co-created a tallit with another grandchild, Alicia, for her bat mitzvah service at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And for the wedding of Naomi’s brother Lawrence and his fiancé Amy, he co-created with them a chuppah displaying a Star of David bordered by flowers.

“I feel a strong sense of accomplishment and quiet pride at having made three art pieces with so much meaning to my granddaughters, my son, and me,” Mel says. “I extended my presence in Claire and Alicia’s lives, bonding with them in a way that words alone would not have done— and they will feel my loving caress whenever they put on their tallit. And I incorporated Lawrence and Amy’s joy and love for each other into the chuppah. I visualized the future and saw their children standing under it. I had a sense of immortality.”


Union for Reform Judaism.