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What Works: How to Catalyze Congregational Change

Enjoying The Tribe party and Salvador Dali exhibit.

Engaging Young Professionals & New Parents

"The majority of Jews in America avoid all congregational affiliation for much, if not most, of their lives," says Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Beth Sholom (TBS) in Miami Beach. "In spite of this, Jews tend to remain fiercely connected to their own understanding of their Jewish identity. Our congregation wanted to nurture that connection and intensify it, to meet all Jews where they are, enhance their unique Jewish journeys, and help bring them closer to the formal Jewish community."

Six years ago, with seed money from the New Orleans-based Woldenberg Foundation, TBS established The Open Tent, a semi-autonomous entity that aimed to connect the "unaffiliated" to the Jewish community with no strings attached. Led by Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz and a group of TBS lay leaders, The Open Tent focused on three programmatic arms, each targeting a different demographic:

  • The Tribe, for young professionals between the ages of 22 and 45, offering connections through social holiday celebrations and intimate Shabbat dinners;

  • Shalom Baby, for expectant parents, a six-week class including sessions taught by a mohel and a rabbi, as well as CPR and birthing techniques; and

  • Shalom Tots, for new parents, with monthly family events revolving around Jewish holidays and themes.

Rabbi Pomerantz explains that "each group targets individuals at points in their lives when they are seeking new relationships." For example, when young adults give birth or adopt their first baby, they begin to reconsider their identities, relationships, and professional goals. Many have also moved thousands of miles from home—another set of circumstances that offers an opportunity to engage such Jews who might not otherwise attend programs with Jewish sponsors. Shalom Baby—with 22 filled classes to date—is meeting that need, finding most of these Jewish young adults by partnering with a local hospital, referring obstetrician, or midwife.

Shalom Tots, an outgrowth of Shalom Baby, allows parents to continue the connections they've made in the class. Programs often take place at the temple or at public spaces such as local parks and museums. An estimated 75% of Shalom Tot graduates return to the temple for some type of program, and some 30% of graduates have become temple members.

The Tribe has attracted nearly 2,000 young Jewish professionals to signature community events such as "Shabbat on the Beach" and "Jews and Canoes."

"The lesson here is that many Jews want to be a part of the Jewish world, but on their terms," says Shelley Niceley-Groff, past Open Tent board chair. "When opportunities for engagement are present, without pressure to commit, Judaism becomes relevant for them again."

Honoring a Rabbi

When Harriet and Harvey Bookstein invited Rabbi Don Goor and Cantor Evan Kent to dinner at Mastro's last August, Rabbi Goor assumed it would simply be a lovely evening with generous, caring congregants whom he had known for years. But the Booksteins had a surprise for the rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana, California—one that would move him to tears, or as he later described, "made me feel completely ferklempt."

Six months earlier, the Bookstein family had made an unusual request when they agreed to support the temple's Legacy project with the gift of a new sanctuary. Holders of the naming rights, they wished to name the sanctuary in honor of Rabbi Donald Goor, with the stipulation that he remain unaware of the tribute until the very last minute, when his name was actually installed on the wall. They understood his deep sense of humility and that such a great honor might initially embarrass him.

"Rabbi Goor has been such an integral part of our family for years, officiating at weddings, b'nai mitzvah, funerals, and important lifecycles," explain Harvey and Harriet. "He is really the essence of Judaism and Temple Judea for us, and it was a shared family decision to name the sanctuary for him. We wanted to pay him tribute in a permanent, enduring way, so his legacy would be forever honored at Temple Judea."

Co-conspirator Ellen Franklin, the temple's executive director, kept their secret during construction, going so far as to scramble the letters on the order form so the sign company wouldn't accidentally leak the news. She also had to creatively stall when Rabbi Goor repeatedly expressed concern that the Bookstein name was not on the sanctuary wall just days before the grand opening.

As dessert wound down on the night of the big reveal, the Booksteins brought out two large bags of wooden letters they had fabricated for the occasion, explaining that playing Scrabble after a special dinner was a family tradition. Opening the first bag, Rabbi Goor and Cantor Kent played around with the letters, unsure of exactly what they were doing. After some speedy wordsmithing, they realized the letters spelled out "Rabbi Donald Goor," and Rabbi Goor delightedly said he would be proud to hang these nice letters on his office wall. Smiling, the Booksteins encouraged him to work on the second bag of letters. This took a little more effort, but eventually Rabbi Goor figured out S-A-N-C-T-U-A-R-Y. Puzzled, he and Cantor Kent stared at the combination of words for several minutes until the realization hit.

"I just couldn't believe such generosity, that they would want to honor me with my name on our sanctuary," Rabbi Goor says. "It was emotional, exciting, and I was in tears. I felt tremendously humbled, slightly uncomfortable, and hugely grateful."

Just before the grand opening, Rabbi Goor stood at the entrance to the sanctuary and for the first time saw his name displayed in beautiful brushed silver letters.

"Among all the feelings that welled up in me was one overwhelming thought. I wished I could share this great honor with my mom. She would have been so proud."

-Gail Aspinwall, public relations writer and member of Temple Judea, Tarzana, California.


Union for Reform Judaism.