experiments, instruments & measurement book

Building Community at Park Avenue Synagogue

1/15/15

Sarah Lipsey Brokman is an inspiring educator from Park Avenue Synagogue who actively participates in Titchadesh, a Coalition of Innovating Congregations Peer Network made up of Jewish educators who support innovative advancements in congregational learning. With the support of their peers, the Titchadesh network empowers young, dynamic professionals to experiment with fresh ideas and bring their visions to life. All of the educators in the Titchadesh network are full time educators in congregations.  This new staffing structure enables congregations to adapt new models of education – like fully engaging parents as well as children. Our network congregations now have a better capacity to launch programs that fulfill the hopes and dreams of their communities.  

 As the facilitator of Titchadesh, I have the pleasure of engaging regularly with these young leaders. Through our protocols and shared conversations, I witness the incredible work taking place at our participating sites. To widely share their successes, I recently asked participants to share their stories by submitting a blog post to InnovatingCongregations.org,  and I am so thrilled that Sarah heeded this call.

You will enjoy “meeting” Sarah in this post and you’ll gain a glimpse into the amazing model she and her colleagues have built. Here is her powerful story. 

– Suri Jacknis, Associate Director of The Coalition of Innovating Congregations

 

Building Community

By Sarah Lipsey Brokman with an introduction by Suri Jacknis

As a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up in a vibrant Jewish community.  I loved being in shul and spent many hours of my childhood feeling loved by my shul community.  One winter Shabbat, when I was nine years old, both of my parents went home separately after kiddush, thinking that the other parent had taken me home.  They arrived home twenty minutes later to realize that they had left me at synagogue.  My dad drove back in a panic, sure that I would be sitting outside of the building terrified that I had been left alone.  When he arrived, he couldn’t find me because I was inside playing hide and seek with all of my friends.  Since I was so comfortable at my shul, I hadn’t even noticed that my parents had left.  In the event that I had noticed my parents weren’t in the building anymore, there were a dozen other adults I could have gone to for help.  Being connected to this type of synagogue community is why I decided to become a Jewish educator.

Four years ago I began working at Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) as one of the Assistant Directors in the Congregational School.  I walked into an environment of creative innovation and change at PAS, where the leadership challenged me to dream as big as possible.  I began to reflect on why I became a Jewish educator and I knew I needed to find a way to create that feeling of “home” for the families of PAS that I had for my home shul.  I envisioned a group of families with children in third and fourth grades who were looking for a deeper connection to both the PAS synagogue community and their own individual Jewish identities.  The goal would be to bring these families together to share their values, feelings and thoughts about raising Jewish families.  I decided to call this group, The Covenanting Group because, I wanted people to know that they were joining a group which honored their brit, their covenant, to their Jewish identities and to the PAS community.  I spent the summer reaching out to families and advertising to the whole community. By September, twelve families signed up.  Since I had already decided that I would have run the program with five families, this was a huge success!

The first Covenanting Group event took place in the sanctuary with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove.  As Rabbi Cosgrove and I welcomed the group, a shiver of electricity ran through me.  The idea had come to fruition.  Rabbi Cosgrove asked each family to spread out in the sanctuary and discuss their goals for the year in The Covenanting Group.  The families all expressed one common value: community.  The group’s purpose became clear.  We spent the year learning together and creating a community within our already vibrant PAS community.

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As we began to plan for a second cohort of The Covenanting Group, I reflected back on the pilot group’s experience.  I realized that we needed to increase the time spent doing Jewish learning – so we partnered with ShalomLearning and made once-a-month online learning part of The Covenanting Group experience.  The communal programming was centered on Shabbat and holidays, a decision which helped our group connect to the Jewish calendar in a more meaningful way.  The biggest learning from that first year was the recognition that the group needed an immersive experience to culminate the year.

This capstone experience was a retreat that occurred in April filled with learning, food and fun.  The adults were able to schmooze, while the kids played and intensified their already strong friendships.  During one activity, the families created a “values map” using strips of paper with 15 different Jewish values, which each family ordered according to the importance in their family’s life.  These conversations were by no means easy, but the buzz of immersive family learning was one I had never experienced before.  After the families finished working with their own values maps, each family shared their map with another family.  I watched as a major goal of The Covenanting Group came to life: families sharing their Jewish values with one another. Since we grappled with big questions of Jewish identity, values and meaning, the families were now able share their answers with each other, in hopes of inspiring more meaningful Jewish engagement as a community.

As I work with the 21 families in the third cohort of The Covenanting Group, I remember being a 9 year old child playing in shul.  Creating a space within the synagogue community to play, learn and connect is a necessary component of Jewish life.  As we look to find ways to keep Jews involved in synagogue and communal life, these connections are at the core.   Helping people connect to one another on a deep Jewish level is the most rewarding and important thing I have done thus far in my career.  This group is a vehicle for connection, a way for families to find “home” at PAS.

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