The Jewish Identity Incubator That Is MetroWest

These remarks were made at “Sweet Dreams,” a celebration of the fifth birthday of The Partnership for Learning and Life (The Partnership) and a salute to the author of this blog, Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, one of The Partnership’s founding trustees and passionate advocates.

 

I’ve been thinking about what The Partnership and a real life five year old have in common. A five year old can get PJ Library® books in the mail, that’s for sure. A five year old can also start Hebrew school or day school. The Partnership is very invested in making sure that as many five year olds as possible make the transition from an early childhood program to a strong Hebrew school or day school experience. Which got me thinking about my own Hebrew school experience.

 

I loved Hebrew school. Let me tell you why.

 

I attended the United Hebrew School in Newport, Rhode Island. There were just over 60 kids who attended with me, ranging in age from 5 to 12 or 13. That’s all we were out of three school systems on Aquidneck Island, plus 15 or 20 preschoolers and maybe 20 high school kids spread over three high schools. We all knew each other pretty well. 

 

Now, here’s what seems like an unrelated fact, but bear with me. As a little girl, I had very thin feet. They were so narrow that in order to get proper support, my shoes had to be ordered (in the days before Zappos) and my big choice was between red lace-up oxfords and brown lace-up oxfords. 

 

But on Sundays, we dressed up for Sunday school and I got to wear my patent leather Mary Janes. I LOVED getting to wear my Mary Janes and anything that got me into them was going to be good in my eyes, and that included Sunday school. I guess I associated feeling pretty — or at least having pretty feet — with being Jewish! Maybe this also explains a small storage problem I am having in my closet, but that’s another story.

 

There was another reason I loved Hebrew school.  It was my rabbi, Theodore Lewis, of blessed memory. He was a tall, imposing man, about 6’ 5”. He was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, came to the United States, and became the rabbi of Touro Synagogue.

 

Rabbi Lewis was, perhaps unintentionally, one of the finest experiential Jewish teachers I have ever had. Every Sunday we had something we called Assembly. He had us playing relay race versions of College Bowl on topics on upcoming Jewish holidays, competing in costume contests, and most of all, he had us sing. We sang songs in English and in Hebrew, sad songs and happy songs. We sang “Ufharatzta” at the top of our lungs to end every Assembly. He clearly loved to see us so happy. I can still hear the echoes off the walls. It felt good to be a part of those 60 kids; it felt good to be Jewish.

 

What I want to talk to you about tonight is how we, as a Jewish community, can help make more of those kinds of joyful moments for more Jewish kids, and for more Jews in general. Because in a time when we are all Jews by choice, we need to provide the good feelings that help children AND teenagers AND adults make that choice. 

 

I don’t want to gloss over what I just said and so I will repeat it. We are living in a time when we are all Jews by choice. North American Judaism has been evolving since the minute Jews landed here as refugees in New Amsterdam and went on to found my little jewel box of a synagogue in Newport. In the last 350 years, the intersection of the uniquely American celebration of individual freedoms and the Jewish values of adherence to tradition have continued to produce dynamic and sometimes difficult change in how the Jewish community operates.

 

As American Jews in the 21st Century, we have more personal freedom than at any other time in our history as a people.  Our religion no longer restricts where we can live, where we can attend college, or where we work or play. So making Judaism part of our lives, and how Jewish to make our lives, is up to us.

 

Finding personal meaning in the rich traditions of Judaism is what will ultimately engage American Jews — I would even say most modern Jews, including Israelis. I believe that here in MetroWest, especially because of the fulcrum that The Partnership can provide, we are going to be able to shape a community that allows all kinds of access to personal meaning in the context of belonging to a thriving Jewish community.

 

We are a community rich in resources: over 60 synagogues of all denominations complete with nursery and congregational schools, three day schools, agencies that help Jews in need and that strengthen Jewish community, and a federation that prides itself (and rightly so) on innovation and commitment to an ongoing relationship with the State of Israel. We are faced with two questions that The Partnership seeks to answer every day: how to let individuals and Jewish families who are looking for their own connection know about this abundance of riches and how to have the courage to allow them to frame their own journeys, on the terms they choose, rather than terms that are dictated to them. 

 

One thing I have learned from my own two children, James and Elise, as well as from the many teens I encounter through The Partnership, is that while they are passionate about their Judaism and their Jewish experiences, they do not want to be told what to think or how to be Jewish. They want to shape their own journeys and to chart their own course in a way that is meaningful to them. And I don’t think this is unique to teens and twenty somethings.

 

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned about two projects that seek to lower the barriers to entry onto this Jewish journey for everyone from families with infants, to teens, to those we call “millennials” like James and Elise, to adults like, well, us. 

 

MazelTot.org is a website that provides one-stop shopping for young Jewish families in the Denver area. The website, which lists all of the organizations and programs for young Jewish families in Denver, was launched in late 2009 to give options and provide multiple entry points for Jewish activities and traditions, and simply to get on their radar screens. This easy-to-Google resource is a major step toward Jewish engagement lasting into the future. The Partnership is poised to provide just this kind of gateway, our professional staff is always creating new entry points in our community, and our website currently provides many of these kinds of links.

 

Now envision a different kind of connector for a slightly older age cohort. It’s literally called the Jewish Journey Connector — when I read about it last Thursday morning, on eJewishphilanthropy.org, I thought someone had been reading my notes for this speech. Instead, it’s an actual project, funded by the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund. It’s about to be piloted in two small cities. 

 

Based on the same technology used by Amazon to track your favorite books or movies, the Jewish Journey Connector will, on a permission basis, get “smarter” about an individual’s choices and interests in the Jewish world and help offer opportunities for engagement and participation. Just think about the potential candidates for the Jewish Journey Connector that The Partnership will be able to provide from our Diller Teens, Iris Teen Tzedakah Project, JTeenMW and Muss High School participants when we bring the project to MetroWest.

 

The challenge inherent in programs like MazelTot and the Jewish Journey Connector lies in getting all of our institutions — our synagogues, agencies and the federation, as well as start-ups like Jersey Tribe — to share information and new media platforms. The organized Jewish community is facing enormous pressure to raise the funds and enroll the members that pay the salaries and the utility bills, in addition to creating engaging programs that may or may not result in bodies in the seats. In order to continue to thrive, we all need to be willing to work together without regard to which seats get occupied, at what price, or for how long. We must rejoice and celebrate all that brings more Jewish learning and experience to life.

 

I believe with my whole heart that this is a challenge we — all of this amazing community — must undertake; a courageous conversation that we must begin so that MetroWest continues to be a place where Jews can choose to be Jewish on their own terms, joyously and with meaning. If any community can succeed, it is this one. And if any organization can help lead the way, it is The Partnership.

 

Five years ago, UJC MetroWest took a leap of faith. We created an entity meant to address a new challenge facing our Jewish community: finding and connecting with young Jewish families wherever they were and showing them all that we had to offer. In five short years, The Partnership has built an interconnected series of pathways throughout our community, allowing children, teens, and their families to find and create meaningful Jewish lives. This is something that would not happen if all of the creative, dedicated people who sit in the offices at The Partnership were not in one place, sharing ideas and breaking down silos. I know that they are probably already working on a Mazeltot for MetroWest and on how to bring the Jewish Journey Connector here as well.

 

So, when I am proud of something, I’m not shy about saying it. 

 

I am proud to be from MetroWest, a place that can create something like The Partnership. I am proud to be able to tell my friends in other communities about this cutting-edge Jewish identity incubator. It is an honor to be able to represent The Partnership and I thank you all for the opportunity to share my passion for it here tonight. YOU have all helped bring Jewish learning to life!

 

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