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My Youth Advisors (Adam and Bobbee Griff) were right…

Hosting a Regional NFTY event wouldn’t just be great for our teens, but it would have the power to transform our youth programs even further towards becoming a Youth Community.

We had 324 Jewish teens in our facility this past weekend. That in and of itself was a miracle. But more than sheer numbers, what was so powerful was my ability to witness some amazing things.

Fall Kallah 2013 TBT KIDSWe had 45 kids from our synagogue alone opt in to try to have an encounter with a Youth Community. For many, this was their first event; for others, they see themselves as seasoned veterans at these retreats. But our newcomers and those from all around the NFTY-SAR Region (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth — SAR is the Southern Area Region of NFTY), our teens embraced what Ron Wolfston calls the “Spirituality of Welcoming,” reaching out and connecting people to one another. s

Fall Kallah 2013 Family PanelThey focused on teaching about different kinds of families, our commitments towards inclusion and our respect for diversity. The educational programming was thoughtful and our teens walked away with the perspective of how every family is precious and has integrity.

Our prayer experiences were tremendous. I know I like the traditional tones of our service, but I was exhilarated and inspired by their JOY. There were no spectators in that sanctuary. Our kids PRAYED — with songs that brought them closer to one another and (whether they know it or not…) to God!

Fall Kallah 2013 closing circle

But here is the thing. Our youth advisors challenged us to take on almost all of the housing responsibilities ourselves. Most host congregations reach out to their neighboring synagogues for some help. Why not? Who couldn’t use some extra help? The challenge was made and we needed 70 host families. 60 came from our synagogue. That means, more congregants were able to witness some of these peak moments like I did. They saw a ruach-filled sanctuary come to a quiet, soulful moment as the students sang Sh’ma — holding on to each word for an entire breath. These hosts saw our NFTYites laugh and play, learn and teach. It wasn’t just our youth group board that had responsibilities…it was an array of teens from 8th through 12th grades who played a part. They and their parents were so invested in the success of this kallah.

These hosts — not all of whom even have kids in high school or NFTY! — were able to see how lives could be changed by a meaningful, compelling, fun Jewish experience. So I don’t just have a lot of kids going to Jewish events… I have a bunch of teens who want to build a community and parents who are no longer bystanders. They witnessed how great it is for their kids to find other Jewish teens with similar Jewish needs — for community, for prayer, for justice, and for hope.

So here is the unapologetic, unabashed pitch… help us. Temple Beth Tikvah has three ways to help us support our teens. Consider:

  • an act of tzedakah to our Annual Campaign to support everything that is happening in the synagogue — there is no corner that is not touched by these gifts.
  • an act of tzedakah to our Camp/Israel Scholarship Fund — help us get more kids to summer programs in Israel, Jewish summer camps and learning programs.
  • an act of tzedakah to our Youth Group Fund that provides scholarships for our teens to go to NFTY events when there is financial need or to help fund special programs for our teens.

You can select any of these funds by going to:

Make a gift in honor of your teen, of our event, of our Youth Advisors, of our Youth Committee volunteers. The Jewish way of expressing our gratitude is by paying it forward. I am grateful for all who invest in our youth.

Bobbee and Adam — thank you. To our youth group Board and our Kallah Chairpeople — may you all go from strength to strength. To our Youth Committee and parent volunteers — we couldn’t make these things happen without you. To all of our staff, partners, stakeholders, leaders, schleppers, cooks, bottlewashers… it really does take a village.


This summer, many of you have read about or heard me speak about a young boy at one of our Reform movement camps who was struck by lightening. He wasn’t the only one, but he was the most significantly wounded.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, just wrote a blog post asking for help for his care from the members of our Reform Jewish Community.

Please, read his blog so respond to his request to help 13 year old Ethan Kadish. His family’s insurance will only take care of so much, so they need their community’s help. Rabbi Jacob’s words and information on how to help can be found here:

A Family in Our Community Needs Your Help

August 21, 2013

Ethan Kadish is a 13-year-old boy in great need of the Reform Jewish community’s help.

On June 29, 2013, the afternoon peace of Shabbat at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, IN, was shattered by a lightning strike that left three campers unresponsive on the athletic field. Thanks to the skill, courage, and quick thinking of the GUCI staff, all three campers made it to the hospital and survived this unimaginable tragedy.

This heartrending incident tested the GUCI family, the URJ camp community, and the entire Reform Movement, but none more than the families of the injured campers. Their strength has been nothing short of inspirational. Two of those families’ children, thankfully, recovered and returned home; one even returned to camp. The third camper, Ethan Kadish, remains hospitalized in Cincinnati, OH.

To date, Ethan’s recovery has included a series of successes that began with his survival and includes milestones like opening his eyes, breathing independently, and responding to stimuli. Ethan is in the care of a fantastic medical team and undergoes several hours of intense physical therapy every day. His family looks forward to the day he will return home, but they recognize, too, that even once he’s home, his challenges will continue. Ethan will require regular therapy and constant medical care, which, once he leaves the hospital, likely will not be covered by insurance. Ethan and his family face a long, hard, and, yes, expensive road ahead.

The Kadish family’s remarkable strength comes largely from their faith – faith in the healing power of God, faith in the skill and wisdom of Ethan’s physicians, and faith in the support of the URJ and GUCI communities. We are pledged to maintain that support, ensuring that throughout the challenges ahead, their faith in our communities will not waver.

This week – the week before Ethan was to have celebrated his bar mitzvah – a fundraising campaign in his honor has been launched with HelpHOPELive, a nonprofit organization that assists the transplant community and those who have sustained catastrophic injury. The funds will help Ethan’s family meet immense financial challenges associated with uninsured therapies, home modifications, and other injury-related expenses. All contributions made in Ethan’s honor will be administered by HelpHOPELive, specifically and solely for his injury-related expenses.

Our tradition teaches that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh (all Jews are responsible one for the other). Indeed, together with HelpHOPELive, the Reform Jewish family can honor Ethan and his family, sending a strong message that we stand together with all of them during this time of need.

To make a charitable contribution by credit card, please call 800.642.8399 or visit Ethan’s page at

To make a donation by check, make checks payable to: HelpHOPELive and include this notation in the memo section: In honor of Ethan Kadish. Mail to:

2 Radnor Corporate Center
100 Matsonford Road, Suite 100
Radnor, PA 19087

Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by the law. This campaign is being administered by HelpHOPELive – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing fundraising assistance to transplant and catastrophic injury patients – which will hold all funds raised in honor of Ethan in its Great Lakes Catastrophic Injury Fund.

This summer I embarked on a three week journey to New Jersey on a program called NFTY Mitzvah Corps. The Mitzvah Corps program is a URJ volunteer program that also exists in other locations such as Costa Rica, New Orleans, and New York. The New Jersey program, however, is the only Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) where we work in a city environment. When I signed up I did not realize that this experience would be a huge life changing event.

When I landed in New Jersey I knew no one, but once I arrived at the dorm I was greeted by the staff and other teens, and became friends with them instantly. The next day we were introduced to our job sites; we got to choose between four different sites for the session. I decided I wanted to work at Regency, which is a Jewish nursing home. Working there not only changed the Residents lives but mine as well. I mainly worked in the Alzheimer and Dementia unit. At first it was weird and I did not think this was right for me, but after meeting Roger, who always forgot peoples names, somehow he remembered me and was excited to see me everyday. There was another woman, Bobbi, she forgot everything about you in 10 minutes, but what was amazing is she knew seven different languages and could speak them fluently. One of my favorite people there was Martin. He was a quiet guy, but was always so happy to see me whenever I went in the the room to talk to him. He got so excited and asked if I could take him outside. All of these Residents changed my life while I was trying to brighten theirs.

It was not just the job sites that created such an impact on me; several programs changed me as well. The best program of my life was who police officers came in and talked about hate crimes. There was a slide show full of graphic images from the KKK to Neo-Nazis. It all became too real when he pulled up a map of all the organized groups in the U.S. and told us the number of groups was rising. Then he proceeded to show images of different attacks, such as James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged behind a pick up truck and gruesomely killed in 1998. After, the police officer told us he was gay and that he was out, and the other cop was his partner. The second officer, however, was not openly gay because he would be scared if he got into a bad situation that no one would help him because of his sexual orientation. This program made me think about what I can do to stop the hatred of others. Those officers  told us that it’s the simple steps that can stop hate crimes, such as telling people that saying offensive words are wrong.

Urban MItzvah Corps has changed me by giving me an opportunity to do something to help the larger community. Whether it was brightening the day of an elderly person or helping out at a Sandy victim’s house, I grew tremendously. This program as a whole is the best thing you can do for the summer.

Jacob is not only a great guy, but an 11th grader who completed Confirmation, a URJ Camp Coleman alum, a past participant in the Religious Action Center’s L’taken Seminar, and Temple Beth TIkvah’s youth group’s Membership VP.

I just posted this piece on the Reform Movement’s blog:

It was 1985 and my father was losing his battle with cancer. My mother was a religious school principal, and my father hadn’t worked as a store manager for months. At the same time, they had their heart set on giving me a great experience at a Jewish summer camp because I was so involved in our synagogue youth programs. My mother wanted me to go to URJ Kutz Camp, which they picked because it was the Reform Movement’s leadership development camp for high school students. The problem was, there was absolutely no way I could have made it to camp if we needed to rely only on the financial resources of my family. My folks wanted to give me a gift, but they couldn’t have done it themselves.

It was Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow’s Director of Education, Ira Schweitzer, who made it happen. He had the insight and commitment to find the money to cover the majority of my tuition. He sent me to Kutz to learn how to be a songleader and youth group leader. After that summer, I became the music teacher at my synagogue, sharing what I had learned and giving back to my own community.

Because I was only 15, I didn’t realize at the time just how great of an investment that synagogue made in me and other teens like me. It wasn’t a huge synagogue with a large endowment and many major donors. Its resources were limited but its commitment to youth was tremendous.

As much of a cliché as that sounds, the summer of 1985 was a defining time in my life. I learned how to be a leader. I learned the power of bringing a community together through Jewish music. I met the next generation of rabbis and rabbinical students who loved being Jewish and doing Jewish. All of that was inspiring. But perhaps most poignantly, I learned how a community goes out of its way to care for others. You see, my father died that summer while I was at Kutz. The most powerful take-away for me from being in this safe Jewish environment was that you have to step up for other people when they need you.

Looking back, I can see that the whole experience of being at camp opened a new door to Jewish life for me. I took a tremendous step in owning my Judaism. It was no longer something my parents were telling me to do; it was something I was personally connecting to. And it was because my parents were willing to make a significant sacrifice of resources and my educator had enough faith in me and my potential that they made the investment so that I was able to go to Kutz.

Now I am a rabbi of a congregation that sends 90 kids to different Jewish camps in my area. That is approximately 20% of our students who go to Jewish summer camps. While I am very happy to have gotten to that number, my hope is for it to reach 80%!

If our congregations and Federations would invest in our campers the way my childhood synagogue invested in me, I am convinced we could make a dramatic difference in strengthening a Jewish community for today and tomorrow. I know I could send another 15 kids who currently do not attend because of their family’s inability to pay even a partial tuition, especially if we are talking about more than one child in a family.

My drive to advance camp scholarship funds is fueled not only by my experience but by the experiences of my three daughters at URJ Camp Coleman. I watch them pray. I see them interact with Israeli counselors and staff and learn that Israel isn’t a far-off place, but a place with connections and inspiration. They play Frisbee one minute and sing Jewish songs the next. And all three are able to get there based on scholarship funds that are rapidly being depleted due to a tough economy.

I have loved reading all of the this month’s blog posts about Jewish camping from the perspectives of our camp staff, rabbis and educators, even parents. They all share how our camping movement is strong and vitally important to nourish the souls of our kids. And while our camps are doing well, we want as many of our kids to go as possible – because it is good for their souls. It strengthens their resiliency, their compassion, and their faith.

Jewish camps make a difference. Let’s reach out to our congregations and Federations to advance a stronger agenda of getting our children to these Jewish summer camp experiences. It will be rewarding for these kids, for their families, and our greater communities.

This blog post struck a real chord with me. I hope all of those who are committed to the Jewish values of inclusion, accessibility, and human dignity read this piece from a colleague that I do not yet know.
The sad thing is…I have had this taste of rejection. My daughter with Autism has been welcomed and included at URJ Camp Coleman. They have gone out of their way to make sure that she is a part of the community with minimal additional supports. However, our local Reform Jewish day school changed its policies to prohibit any acadmic inclusion by the students in a special education program that was partnering with the day school. We removed her that program, and our other daughters from the day school.
So I feel this father’s pain.
I hope and pray soon that our Jewish institutions will recognize that in order to be an authentic Jewish program, we need to be accesible and inclusive of all.

Embodied Torah

For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.

My almost-16 year old blind son, Solomon, was supposed to spend 8 weeks in the second-oldest Aidah (age group) at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish camping program affiliated with the Conservative movement. My wife and I went to visit him and our 12 year old daughter this week. While there, the camp director told us that he was sending Solomon home four weeks early at the session break because “the camp is not able to accommodate Solomon’s needs for the full 8 week session.”

This is Solomon’s fifth year at camp. Sol went for one session each summer for the previous four years, but this year, called the “Magshimim” year, required campers to enroll for the full summer. Solomon was thrilled to go for both sessions. He loves camp, and for the first four summers…

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It was the summer of 1985 and I was never at sleep away camp before. I was a fifteen year old at Kutz Camp when I was inspired. After losing my father that summer, I was comforted by good, kind, decent counselors, rabbis, and educators. They inspired me by “being there” for me. Simply “showing up” for a shy kid that they didn’t know so well changed everything for me.

Where is Fred Greene?

Being at camp that summer started my journey into Jewish camping, youth work, Jewish communal work and eventually the rabbinate. So I guess it worked out OK since Ira Schweitzer, my synagogue’s director of youth activities and the religious school, sent me to camp to learn how to songlead. (I worked it off for him after I returned by teaching music in the Sunday school.)

I first understood what a Jewish community looked like at camp. I found God for the first time at camp. I also found my own voice as an emerging youth leader at camp. But it wasn’t only a summer of self discovery. It was my first encounter with real mentors. I found rabbis that were devoted to teens — Rabbi Alan Smith, Rabbi Ramie Arian, Rabbi Stuart Geller — just to name a few. They were the first ones to personally guide me on my Jewish journey; they invested their time, energy and so much more in me and helped me to learn how to invest in myself.

And now, 26 years later, I am at another camp, watching my own daughters have similar experiences of growth, mentorship, and fellowship. I celebrate how this camp, URJ Camp Coleman, is investing similarly into these two girls who are only 11 and 12. They are not only having fun, but learning for themselves about community, Jewish life, Israel, and sacred responsibilities (to God and to one another). I can’t even begin to explain that kind of joy that gives me.

Not every Jewish camper becomes a rabbi (although since I have been teaching here at Coleman this summer, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Tampa, Rabbi Lauren Cohn of Atlanta, and I were all Kutz Camp participants in the summer of ’85!). But Jewish camping is clear to transform a young person’s life through a web of Jewish memories and experiences. Even more significant than that, is provides for us so many tools for Jewish living that ground us well beyond our childhood and teen years.

Thank you Kutz Camp for helping to shape my life. Thank you Camp Coleman for doing the same for my daughters (the third daughter will start next year!). Thank you, whomever you are, for your support for Jewish camping by reading this blog, sharing it with others, supporting Jewish camps’ scholarship programs to enable another generation of campers to experience it, and by scrimping and saving to send your own child or grandchild. All of these acts help us to “show up” for others and invest in our Jewish future.

For my congregants, if you are interested in sending your child next summer to a Jewish camp, please check out my list of my favorite Jewish summer experiences. I would be glad to help you find a good fit.

Hope you all have a wonderful, renewing summer.

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