Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sustainable Congregational Learning

Congratulations to our client, Congregational Beth Israel on the write-up in Reform Judaism Magazine of this wonderful program.

Funding: Unlikely Dollars, Unfettered Dreams

by Debby Waldman

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!”

Reprinted from Reform Judaism Magazine with permission of the author Debby Waldman and the Magazine editor.  To read more about this fascinating project see the CBI White-paper on the Knowledge Communities Web Site.

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