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Canceling In-Person URJ Reform Summer Camp and Programming: An Act of Collective Love

When news broke that the Union for Reform Judaism made the most difficult, scientifically-based, values-based decision not to hold in-person camp this summer, my heart broke. 

Yes, I was proud that like leaders should, URJ and camp leadership consulted widely with medical, government, and Jewish leaders, weighed the changing data and options, waited until a decision needed to be made, and then planned a compassionate roll-out to honor the soon-to-be broken hearts of the campers, staff, and their parents. This incredibly difficult decision was an act of love.

Yes, I was proud that the website offers age-differentiated advice to help parents talk to their children and that we can use as we provide pastoral care for them too. 

But I love camp. It helped form me. Camp Newman is my home away from home, where I rejuvenate every summer. 

Then, as our HUC-JIR pastoral counseling faculty taught me in rabbinic school, I looked around to figure out who else—camp professionals; URJ leadership; our rabbinic, cantorial, and educator colleagues; Jewish leaders, camp friends; and friends whose children were so looking forward to camp this summer—might be suffering, perhaps silently—and may be in need of pastoral care.

To my rabbinic colleagues and Jewish leaders everywhere, before sharing what I wrote, I ask: Would you join me to reach out and offer rachmanut (loving support) to our camp professionals, our URJ leadership, and of course to our camper and camp staff as they suffer through this heartbreak? 

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Camp Professionals and URJ Professionals

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Repeat after me:
I am compassionate.
(I am compassionate.)

I care about them so much.
(I care about them so much.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)

I am heartbroken.
(I am heartbroken.)

I can share my sadness.
(I can share my sadness.)

So I can hold their sadness too.
(So I can hold their sadness too.)

I am a role model.
(I am a role model.)

And I influence others.
(And I influence others.)

So I am teaching us all responsibility.
(So I am teaching us all responsibility.)

I am being strategic.
(I am being strategic.)

I am planning for the future.
(I am planning for the future.)

So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.
(So I’m stepping back so we all can move forward.)

Because I am compassionate.
(Yes, I am compassionate.)

And I am heartbroken.
(And I am heartbroken.)

But I am responsible.
(But I am responsible.)

So I am saving lives.
(So I am saving lives.)


Finally, to our Camp Professionals and URJ Leadership:

We too are heartbroken. But we are thankful for everything you considered and did to try to avoid this day.

Forgive us if we act out. We, too, are in pain.

But never forget that we appreciate that you were thinking about us and our safety when you and our camping world made one of the hardest decisions your career and all our lives.

Thank you for doing what you did every summer previously: making hard decisions to keep us all safe. You make us proud. And we love you.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Recently, he wrote about conducting a funeral in the time of COVID-19.

Books Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Mishkan HaNefesh for Youth – Do Children Really Need Their Own Machzor?

Each year as we approach Elul as I become immersed in the preparing for our holiest of days, I am overcome with mixed memories of my childhood in shul during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. First I remember the comfort of family; sitting next to my father, twisting the tzitzit into braids, huddling close to find warmth from the gusting cool air, cranked higher than usual to account for the surplus of congregants. I remember looking up at my father and my mother; their lips moving rhythmically to the melody of the cantor, their eyes fixed on the rabbi as he spoke, and their hands holding tight to the Machzor in their hands.  And when I wasn’t watching them, my brother and sister and I exchanged funny faces, or fidgeted in our seats, or counted the lights on the sanctuary ceiling. Those memories bring a chuckle or a smile, but I also remember the book being too heavy to hold, the words on the page overwhelmingly sophisticated or worse the language was sometimes frightening… “Who will live and who will die?” Better to go back to the fidgeting or the counting, or the braiding of those pretty strings.

There is great value in sitting with family, having adult prayer modeled for children at the earliest of ages, and yet, we know that children harbor great spiritual selves, they too yearn to express their heart’s deepest, most sincere hopes, dreams and requests for themselves and for others. They too deserve a safe space to pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The newly formed committee for creating Mishkan HaNefesh for Youth (a High Holy Day Machzor) believes children need to find an authentically Jewish way to pray, learn and experience the Yamim No’raim or the High Holy Days. But where do we begin? And how can you create a Machzor that attempts to stay true to the traditional text yet provide something that is rich, meaningful and accessible to a child? The task seems overwhelming, the mountain too tall to climb, and so we began with the end in mind; we began with goal setting.


What are the goals in producing a High Holy Day Machzor for Children and their families?

Together we discussed the importance of engaging children and families with the essential themes of High Holy Day worship in an age-appropriate way. We will not omit prayers that are too challenging, but we will find words, art, poetry and music that will help children enter into these big ideas at a pace and framework that has meaning and context for them. We hope too, that there will be a diverse variety of materials from which clergy teams and service leaders can craft meaningful worship experiences for children of different ages for different kinds of services. We spoke at length too, that this Machzor must reflect our steadfast commitment to inclusivity and diversity, helping our colleagues create opportunities for communities to come together, to learn, to enrich their understanding of these important days, and to offer experiences that truly engage the child and family in Jewish learning and living.

Creating a Machzor for children and families provides access to our tradition. For the parent or grandparent who will only attend a family service, it is an opportunity to provide them with a rich and meaningful experience as well. For the parent who is new to Judaism or parenting – or both, we hope this Machzor will help them guide, and teach and engage in dialogue about the themes and meaning of our Yamim No’raim. Most importantly children are not naïve or incapable of tackling the work of Teshuvah (Repentance) or Cheshbon Hanefesh (self-reflection) – we simply need to explore ways in which a child accessible and age appropriate language invites them into a prayerful time and space.


And so we ask that you dream with us…

Imagine a Machzor that helped the child feel at home; that reinforced the prayers and ideas they may be learning during the remainder of the year, creating a comfortable prayer space where there is a balance of the familiar and the new. Imagine this prayer book introduced the rich and meaningful themes, prayers, stories, and melodies of the high Holy Days – but in a way that spoke directly to the child. In doing so this Machzor would provide participants with an inspirational and spiritual worship experience that deepens their understanding, engagement and celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Imagine if this new Machzor gave us the tools to create sacred community, to connect family to family, parent to child, generation to generation and individual to tradition, heritage, and God. Imagine if the High Holy Day memories of our next generation of children were a beautiful tapestry of experiences that recalled experiences of personal prayer, prayer with parents, and prayer in community.

Perhaps the goals are lofty. Yet, my most favorite time of each Religious School day is T’filah. Yes there are those that fidget and yes the prayer book is occasionally fumbled and dropped, but when the children hear the music of Mi Chamocha – their legs dangle in chairs too big for them to the beat of the drum. When we pause for silent prayer, their eyelids close out the light of the sanctuary and their lips whisper their heart’s most cherished prayer, and when I begin to tell a story from our tradition, they scoot to the edge of their seat and lean in. Children need prayer – they need it modeled for them, and they need to see the adults engage with our most challenging and fulfilling prayers. But they too need access to their own words, their own music, their own poetry to express their hopes, to ask for forgiveness of their mistakes, to forge a path of kindness for their New Year, and they need to create a covenantal relationship of their own with the creator. Only then we imagine, hope and pray that this relationship will endure and grow with each passing year so they will enthusiastically share this incredible legacy with their children too.

Rabbi Melissa Buyer is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Israel in New York City. 

Books Prayer

Bringing Mishkan T’Filah for Youth into the Classroom

About three years ago, when we started working on creating Mishkan T’Filah for Youth, I casually mentioned to my students that I was editing a new siddur for kids like them.  I had no idea at that time how invested they would become this project.  About once a month someone would ask, “Is it finished yet?  When do we get to use your siddur?”  In their minds it was “my siddur” but in my mind it was really “their siddur.”  As I had pieces, new English readings, sections finished, we would pray them together at our Wednesday afternoon religious school tefillah.  I would try to gauge how the English readings worked for them.  Were they easy to read?  Did they understand all the words?  The ideas?  Would they help them to engage in tefillah on a deeper level?  Did the notes at the bottom of the page reflect the kinds of questions they would ask me?  Were they the kinds of questions they would wrestle with?  Would the notes at the bottom of the page clarify the rituals and emphasize key Hebrew words that they were learning in class?  And about once a month they would ask, “Why is it taking so long?  When is the siddur going to be ready?”

MT Youth copyA few months ago the finished siddur arrived and the first people I wanted to show it to were not my parents, my husband, my friends or even my own children but my students, because they had taught me so much about creating it.  Through the generosity of our Brotherhood and Sisterhood we were able to buy 250 copies for our congregation, and this past Friday night we used it for the first time.  But the real joy came today as we used it in Wednesday afternoon religious school tefillah for the first time.  One of the teachers told me that the kids in her class were playing a game, and they did not want to stop playing and go to tefillah.  Then one of the kids said, “Wait, we get to use the new siddur today!” at which point they all dropped the game to go to the sanctuary.

The truth is, we did not get very far.  They needed time to hold the books, to flip through the beautiful art work, to even SMELL them!  They have that new book smell, several of them told me.  We sang an opening song and we did the Bar’chu.  I looked down at the notes on the page with Ma’ariv Aravim and asked the question at the bottom.  Many hands shot up.  It was a great discussion.  When we opened to the page with the Sh’ma their eyes almost popped out of their heads.  The art work is so beautiful.  I asked them, “Why do you think the artist made the page like this?”  They told me about the large Shin covered with m’zuzot and the bright colors on the page.  The answers flowed.    We turned the page.  I asked them how the art work there was connected to the V’ahavta.  We only got as far as the Mi Chamocha when our half hour was over.  Fortunately, we have the rest of the year to explore the siddur, the prayers, the creative readings, the notes at the bottom and, of course, the art work.  All of it encourages them to dig a little deeper into their hearts and their souls.  I feel so blessed to have been a part of creating Mishkan T’filah for Youth.  I am so grateful to Hara Person and the incredible committee who made it happen.  Most of all, I am so proud that all of our students will have a siddur that will help them engage in prayer and grow closer to God.

Rabbi Paula Feldstein serves Temple Avodat Sholom in River Edge, NJ, and was the editor of Mishkan T’filah for Youth.

CCAR on the Road General CCAR Prayer Rabbis

What Makes for Great Prayer?: Reflections on the NFTY Convention

2013-02-15 20.03.26Last week, I was given a wonderfully challenging task as the CCAR rabbinic staff member at the NFTY Convention:  Take fifty participants from the Youth Engagement Conference and a two-hour prayer lab session, and plan multiple services for about 900 NFTY Convention participants.  While seemingly impossible, I jumped at the opportunity.   After all, we produce Visual T’filah and all the prayer books for the Reform Movement – I could do this!

Working with my colleague Rabbi Noam Katz and Jewish musician Dan Nichols, (and joined by Rabbis Erin Mason and Ana Bonheim) we were tempted to provide a handful of creative service examples (e.g. drumming, yoga, Visual T’filah) and to plan the services as quickly as possible.

But the conference was on youth engagement and simply presenting options and saying “pick one and go plan a service” did not seem to be an appropriate fit – and not consistent with CCAR’s current approach toward engaging people in prayer with many different Visual T’filah options.  It was a lab, after all; we did not want to focus too much on product, but rather the service experience by the NFTYites.

We initiated the YEC prayer lab by asking the participants “what makes for great prayer?”

2013-02-18 09.43.15This conversation was modeled upon a version of Open Space, one of the frameworks for intentional conversations guiding the CCAR convention beginning just a few weeks after NFTY Convention.

YEC participants stood up one at a time and offered to host conversations around a topic of prayer particularly interesting or exciting to them.  Topics included Hebrew in prayer, who is the service leader, using apps & cellphones in services, engaging through multiple intelligences, and more. Rather than utilizing the moment to plan a service, we spent our time talking about great prayer.  The prayer lab participants were fully engaged, far more than if we had simply given them pre-determined service options, and we provided an amazing model for them to bring back to their youth groups.

And it worked! YEC prayer lab participants exclaimed that this was one of the highlights of the conference for them.  One even said, “This is exactly what I needed.”  Even more, the prayer experiences they crafted were some of the best moments of NFTY convention for the participants.  One teenager said in reflection, “This was my first real moment of transcendent prayer.”

As the Youth Engagement professionals gathered at the end of the conference for a debrief and wrap-up, I was asked to summarize our learning and said:  “We often hear that ‘if you build it, they will come.’  If you build a great service or program, the youth with come. But we learned through this prayer experience that ‘if you build it with them, they’ll already be there!”