Funding: Unlikely Dollars, Unfettered Dreams
by Debby Waldman

©2010 Sally Cohn Photography
The leadership of Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in Charlottesville, Virginia needed help. Many of its members who lived in this university town felt homesick during family-oriented holidays. They’d say, “I want to have a seder, but my parents aren’t here and I don’t have anyone to do it with” or “I want to get together with people for Shabbat, but who? And how?”

At first, Ellen Dietrick, director of the temple’s early childhood education program, was puzzled by such comments. “I was thinking, ‘They have a whole community—ours,’” she recalls. “But they weren’t thinking of it that way.”

They are now, thanks to Shabbat Connections, an innovative program CBI was able to initiate thanks to two Legacy Heritage grants of approximately $25,000 each. Since 2007, nearly 80 families—about 20% of the congregation—have participated in Shabbat Connections, meeting regularly in small groups at each other’s homes for holidays, and at least once a month for Shabbat.

Creating such a program might sound easy: simply encourage families, couples, and single adults to sign up; help them identify their goals for celebrating Shabbat and holidays; divide them into groups of four to seven family units; provide them with a book and a CD; and have a mentor check in with them from time to time as needed.

But, “you wouldn’t believe how difficult the matchmaking was,” Dietrick says. “We worked with a paid consultant, an expert on community-building, for two years to put together mini-communities of people who would enjoy spending time together, learning from each other, and supporting one another’s Jewish quests.”

The first step was to survey interested families to learn about their Jewish backgrounds, Shabbat practices, and goals. From there, CBI formed mini-communities—among them seniors, empty nesters, families with elementary school children, and young adults—who expressed similar needs and desires for Shabbat and holiday observance.

Shabbat Connections no longer receives funding, but nine groups continue to meet regularly—as do other groups of families who were inspired by the model. “When I go to services on Friday night or to Torah study or High Holidays, I really know many of these people,” says Shabbat Connections participant Lisa Colton. “I’ve been in their homes, helped their children build with blocks, and listened to them bless their sons and daughters at a Shabbat table—and that makes those relationships so much more meaningful. When I walk into the synagogue building, I’m not thinking I’m a customer of an institution charging me $1,500 a year in dues. It feels like my home, my community, my space.” CBI’s preschool children share in the enthusiasm, greeting each other on Friday mornings by announcing, “I’m coming to your house for Shabbat tonight!”

Truth be told, grants for congregational programming are not easy to come by. Only a couple of national agencies offer grants, and local grants may or may not be available. Grants tend to be highly competitive, and most of the time the funding is short-lived.

Nonetheless, when grants do materialize, they enable congregations to “be creative, to dream, and to make some of their dreams a reality,” explains Linda Kirsch, director of Education at Temple Beth El of South Orange County in Aliso Viejo, California, which received three Legacy grants (totaling $70,000 from 2007 to 2009) to help establish Bayit to Bayit, a family-centered alternative religious school curriculum. Every other Sunday, 70 Beth El students (about 25% of the religious school body) study the same subjects—holidays, Torah, middot (values)—that their parents are learning in another room. The families then come together to expand on the lessons (designed by consultants) through role-playing, discussions, and creative arts. A weekly Torah newsletter with questions to discuss at home reinforces the learning, as does family participation in community service projects. Children are developing new friendships, and many of their parents have now enrolled in the temple’s adult-ed classes.

“[Ours is] not drop-off Judaism,” Kirsch says. “Because of Bayit to Bayit, people are becoming part of a community.”

Had it not been for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Taste of Judaism grant and a secondary grant from the National Center to Encourage Judaism (NCEJ), 50-member Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings, Montana would not have considered offering Taste of Judaism, a national program which provides non-affiliated Jews and non-Jews with a basic introduction to Jewish thought and practice, and sometimes leads to participants joining the temple that hosted the course.

Because Beth Aaron is located in an area with a tiny Jewish population, the congregation did not expect to attract new members. “We thought we were doing outreach for Christian neighbors interested in learning more about Judaism—more of a good-will gesture to increase the knowledge and understanding out there,” says Donna Healy, who spearheaded the grant-writing process.

With the grant money in hand, Beth Aaron spent $1,000 to advertise the course throughout the areas it covers—south to Wyoming and as far east as the North and South Dakota borders. The response was so overwhelming that Beth Aaron had to offer two sessions to accommodate the 55 people who signed up. Many of the learners—pastors, a nun, and board members from local churches—have since gone on to attend Beth Aaron services, make donations to the synagogue, and enroll in the congregation’s introductory Hebrew class, which was in danger of being canceled for lack of students.

Of the 350 members belonging to Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center (MVHC) in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, only 125 live on the island year-round; the rest are seasonal. The leadership decided that music would be an accessible and joyful way to bring the community together. But how could they provide musical programming without professional music staff?

The answer arrived in 2009 with a $17,000 Legacy Heritage Innovative Project grant, which enabled MVHC to initiate monthly musical Shabbat services (some held in conjunction with pot-luck dinners) featuring a “song of the month” as well as the strictly social klezmer music jams (which take place after a community supper). Shabbat worshipers and klezmer jam participants of all ages and faiths are invited to bring their own instruments or use the congregation’s tambourines and maracas. When MVHC first advertised in the local newspaper, the klezmer jam drew nearly 60 people, more than one-third of whom arrived with guitars, violins, cellos, accordions, clarinets, mandolins, recorders, and percussion instruments—the music resounding long into the evening. The congregation also designed a website featuring an MP3 recording of the “song of the month,” allowing musicians of all abilities to practice before the next musical Shabbat service.

In addition, MVHC was able to sponsor and host a concert by violinist and founding Klezmatics member Alicia Svigals, bring in visiting musicians to perform and to run workshops, and pay a cantor to teach the volunteer choir new songs for High Holiday services.

“Music is now becoming more of an integral part of the congregation,” says choir and music committee member Michelle Jasny.

When Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) of San Francisco was looking for synagogues to help Russian Jews resettling in the Bay Area in the late 1980s, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California was the logical choice.

The temple’s rabbi at the time, Richard Block, had met refuseniks during his travels to the former Soviet Union and “didn’t want them to get all the way to the United States and then disappear from the Jewish community.”

So, in 1989, JFCS awarded Beth Am a $20,000 grant to create an émigré program that would provide social services as well as keep the newcomers connected to Judaism.

Beth Am provided free synagogue membership to émigré families and religious school for their children. Worship services were conducted in Russian and English. Jewish weddings and circumcisions were available for those who hadn’t been able to have them in the Soviet Union. (The latter, Rabbi Block admits, weren’t quite as popular as the former.) Other offerings included English as a Second Language classes, job-hunting workshops, one-on-one tutoring in conversational English, and hands-on sessions on check-writing and grocery shopping. Congregants contributed household items, furniture, bicycles, and even medical care. Émigrés were also matched with local Jewish families to accelerate the integration process.

JFCS has been funding a portion of the program (on average, providing $27,000 annually) ever since.

In the late 1990s as the immigration wave slowed to a trickle, the newcomers’ needs changed. Most could speak English, had found work, bought homes, and settled into the community. What they lacked was a grounding in Judaism. In response, émigré program director Inna Benjaminson (one of the 3,000+ émigrés who benefited from Beth Am’s initiative) realized that the focus needed to change from social services and integration to deepening immigrants’ Jewish identity and faith. “‘Let my people go’ was the first part,” Benjaminson says. “The second part is ‘let my people know.’”

Guided by Beth Am’s Senior Rabbi Janet Marder, Benjaminson and a staff of devoted Russian-speaking teachers developed programs for every age group. Émigrés can take classes in Jewish philosophy, traditions and values, and history. All educational, Shabbat, and holiday programs, including those for babies and toddlers, are offered in Russian and English. The synagogue’s prayer books and funeral booklet have been translated into Russian with Cyrillic transliterations.

With additional grants from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco ($20,000/year for 2009 and 2010) and the San Francisco-based Koret Foundation ($15,000 for 2010), staff hours have been increased and new programs added, such as Biblical Characters in World Art, taught in Russian for families with children 8–13. (Both Koret and JFCS have helped fund San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El émigré program, too.)

Beth Am’s liturgical and educational offerings have reached Jews as far away as the former Soviet Union, where synagogues, hospitals, and even a prison with Jewish inmates looking for a connection to Reform Judaism are using them. And, at home, 200 of the 700 families who have participated in the émigré program are now dues-paying members.

If its Legacy-funded project, the Individualized Jewish Path (IJP), succeeds, “It will change the very nature of what a congregation is about in the 21st century,” says Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff of The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.

The IJP project was “a response to our congregation’s need for healing” from a rift following changes in rabbinic leadership and a move to a new building, Rabbi Nemitoff says. “One of the ways we decided to do that was through shared visioning—taking a business approach to understanding our core purpose and values.”

The process took three and a half years. By 2007 the congregation had identified its core purpose as nurturing Jewish meaning, connection, and continuity; and its core values as open hearts, kedushah (holiness) and derech eretz (common decency). The challenge was to determine what role the synagogue should play—how it could help individual members achieve these core Jewish values.

“We are a sacred congregation made up of individuals, [each of whom] connects with God and understands Judaism differently, and looks at the world through a unique lens,” Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner says. Respecting those differences meant that “top-down Judaism”—where the rabbis and administration determine programming—would no longer work at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah. That’s where the IJP—modeled on the public school’s Individualized Education Plan—comes in.

“Every congregant, in an ideal world, will create his/her own Jewish path, and the synagogue will serve as partner in helping him/her achieve these Jewish hopes, dreams, and desires,” Rabbi Nemitoff says.

Two Legacy Heritage Innovation grants ($27,000 in 2008–09 and $21,000 in 2009–10) helped pay for a rabbinic life coach, who then trained see’ot (guides) to assist individual congregants in developing their IJPs. A computer program tracks members’ goals, and a program coordinator organizes the initiative.

Creating each member’s Individualized Jewish Plan is an intensive process. A see-ah spends an hour and a half talking with a congregant about his/her Jewish identity today and where he/she hopes to head. To meet this person’s needs, the see-ah then searches for resources within the larger Kansas City community or, if necessary, beyond. The see-ah offers suggestions at the next meeting, and the two write concrete goals which become the IJP. Goals are reevaluated in six months, and again after a year.

Congregants’ needs, desires, and goals vary. Some want to learn Hebrew or the choreography of a service to feel more comfortable participating on Friday nights. Some are seeking connections with congregants who share similar life stories—being intermarried or having children with special needs, for example. Some want to learn more about the Middle East conflict. Some wish to incorporate more Jewish ritual into their lives.

With 1,100 member families, it may take up to 10 years before all of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah’s interested members complete their IJPs, but already the program is having a positive effect. “Individuals are perking up and saying, ‘This is the right place for me; my community is hearing me; my soul is being nurtured the way I need it to be,’” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner says. “That’s the exciting piece of it so far.”

Rabbi Nemitoff expects the IJP to “transform who we are as a congregation. If it means our services have to change 180 degrees from where we are because we have 500 members clamoring for X, then we’ll do X. We will go where our congregants lead us, and we will all grow Jewishly.”

If you have a programming dream and are searching for that unlikely grant, where do you go?

For agencies not bound by region, The Legacy Heritage Fund and URJ Taste of Judaism may be your best bets. The Legacy Heritage Innovation Project supports synagogue projects that deepen Jewish identity for adults and children, connect diverse age groups, and integrate different aspects of Jewish living (prayer, study, and social action). Temples may apply for grants in three program areas—congregational education (a Shabbat-centered educational model; December 2010 application deadline), music (January 2011 deadline), and Israel engagement (January 2011 deadline).

The URJ’s A Taste of Judaism offers two types of grants: one, for Reform congregations that haven’t run a Taste of Judaism program in three years (covering advertising and lecture expenses for the next program), and the second for synagogues that have completed recent Taste of Judaism classes (providing a 50% matching grant for advertising expenditures). Completed applications are due on May 15 of every year.

For local grants, try your Jewish federation or search the Internet using a combination of “Jewish,” “grant,” “funding,” and “synagogue.” The San Francisco-based Koret Foundation, which funds programs that connect Jews to one another, culture, and history in the Bay Area, Poland, and Israel, accepts applications throughout the year.

If you dare to dream, and apply for a grant, it might just become a reality.

Debby Waldman is the author of A Sack Full of Feathers (2006) and Clever Rachel (2009), both from Orca Book Publishers.

Union for Reform Judaism.