experiments, instruments & measurement book

New Beginnings: Familiarity and Freshness


By Suri Jacknis, Co-Director, Congregational Learning

It is Hodesh Elul.  Time to prepare for the High Holidays emotionally, spiritually and physically.  It is a time for reflection on our lives and taking stock, for reconnecting with our personal vision for how we want to live.  It is also a time for connecting with and sending holiday greetings to family and friends, preparing for setting or joining a holiday table and doing some cleaning so we feel like we are making a clean and fresh start.  Doing these preparations connects us with the cycle of Jewish time as we remember with familiarity doing these things in other years.   This gives us comfort and continuity. At the same time, engaging in these pre-holiday activities is exciting and energizing as we anticipate the new start ahead.

As an educator, I feel like my Jewish self and my professional self are in sync as I also prepare for the start of the new school year.  I reflect on the past school year and the lessons learned and focus on the things I have decided to revise for the future.   I also think about my vision for myself as an educator and resolve to do certain things that will bring me closer to my aspirations. There are elements of familiarity and comfort with my rituals in leading up to the opening days of school.  At the same time, I can feel the adrenaline flowing and the anticipation growing.  I am a little nervous, but mostly joyful as I am lucky to be doing what I love.

This New Year in particular also brings the excitement of being able to build on Cyd Weissman’s amazing legacy for our Coalition of Innovating Congregations.  Cyd gave us the courage to work on new models for 21st century families, to attend to the whole person, to pay attention to outcomes and assessment and to embed the design principles for powerful learning. For many of us, these concepts are familiar and comfortable, as we have worked with and on them in past years.  Yet, they are also alive and exciting as there are new goals to set and new ways that we can deepen our work aligned to these important foundational ideas.

This year, I am excited to partner with my wonderful colleague, Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith to lead the work in congregational learning as we continue some of our successful initiatives such as I*Express, Coalition Peer Networks, and Congregational Consulting as well as begin to imagine new possibilities.  Collaborating with Jennifer is helping me to grow, to hear new perspectives and to appreciate the great talents and strengths that she brings to this work.

I am also very happy to continue working with our congregational learning team of wonderful professionals including core staff members, Ellen Rank and Susie Tessel, our project manager, Catherine Schwartz, and our consultants Jo Kay, Mike Mellen, Susan Ticker and some other talented educational leaders that will be contributing to our work.  Our main goal remains to offer thought leadership and skilled consultancy to our congregations.

In honor of this New Year, I want to share something inspirational that has both familiar and new elements.  I read an interesting article on Edutopia about the work of Bernajean Porter, a teacher interested in digital storytelling.    Bernajean has a project called I-Imagine:  Taking My Place in the world.  She asks learners to produce “vision videos” in which they star as protagonists of the lives they are living, 20 years into the future.  This process includes asking learners about their hopes and dreams and what gives them joy and energy and “fires up their engines.”  Porter adds, “We ask students to tell the story of how they will shine their light for good in the world.”  Students reflect on what is special about them and what their gifts are.  http://www.edutopia.org/blog/start-school-year-awakening-your-dreamers-suzie-boss?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=081915%20enews%20ibl%20ngm%20remainder&utm_content=&utm_term=fea1hed&spMailingID=12173425&spUserID=NDYxNTY5OTMzODAS1&spJobID=601358453&spReportId=NjAxMzU4NDUzS0

This kind of a project captured my imagination as a wonderful way to start the year by building relationships with learners.  At its heart, it is about listening to learners share their hopes and dreams and what they are passionate about.  It gives us a chance to learn about each learner’s special gifts.  It gives us educators the opportunity to encourage each learner to embrace his/her own uniqueness and value in this world.

This kind of project is also about putting learners at the center, empowering learners to take charge of their own learning and their own lives. It is a way to develop the idea of having a personal vision for the way that you live your life, of having long-term goals and aspirations for yourself that can be about careers but can also be about Mitzvot, doing acts of Kindness and showing responsibility for others and for this planet.  And it can be about Midot, developing desired character traits/virtues and being the type of person that you want to be.  What a great way to start the school year both with reflection and aspiration.  How very fitting for this Rosh Hashana season in which we both rejoice in the familiar and welcome in fresh ideas and possibilities.

May this New Year Ahead, 5776, be one of good health and many blessings for each of you!  My best wishes for a Shana Tova U’metukah, a Good and Sweet Year!


Suri Jacknis

August 2015

Elul 5775


Posted by Catherine Schwartz in Innovation, Relational Judaism, Resource, Susie Tessel

by Susie Tessel, June 18, 2015


Did you really go to that concert if you didn’t take a selfie?

If something isn’t documented by a digital photo did it happen?


Dr. Jeffrey Schein, a beloved Cleveland educator and the retiring Cleveland Shinnui representative, has been exploring the issue of technology and its impact upon us for years.  He has created a myriad of engaging, thought provoking, interactive curricular materials called “Text me!”.  He won a Covenant Grant for his materials – endorsing the quality of construction and efficacy of these provocative materials.  He is now- most generously sharing these many, many strategies and techniques.  They are suitable for all ages, in a variety of forums, with or without parents.

How do we achieve a balance of technology to enhance our lives? How do we identify and acknowledge the benefits and detriments that technology offers us?  How do we converse about the use of technology to our greatest advantage?

Last week, staff members at The Jewish Education Project and Rabbi Schein explored some of his materials in “Text me!” that he has successfully used in a variety of settings for all ages. These interactive materials generate valuable discussion through a variety of engaging vehicles to help us examine our positions on technology. His goal, as is ours, is to assist educators to think about these issue.  Without being dogmatic, Rabbi Schein offers a myriad of engaging techniques to explore our relationships with technology and the unintended consequences on our lives. For example, he culled the internet for a variety of “Awkward pictures posts”.  In pairs, we then had to consider which of these “awkward” photos we would want circulating around the internet about us for time immemorial!!? The conversations were rich, and thought provoking.  I can imagine students of all ages considering, perhaps for the first time, the story their internet pictorial history tells, and what certain pictures say or reflect about them.  In another exercise, they are asked to ask how well they balance their desire to be connected with their desire to connect with both animate and inanimate objects and beings.   They reflect on the statements like following: In the 21st century, “I think therefore I am.” becomes “I share therefore I am.”

Rabbi Schein is a consummate professional who articulately, and passionately presented thoughtful, engaging and interactive experiences for educators to share with learners of all ages.  His mastery of the literature about technology and its effects on us is dazzling.  I was sorry when our time together was over. I was consoled by his generosity in making these materials available on our website. Click here to explore for yourself the materials Rabbi Schein created, as you share his work- albeit virtually!! Thank you Rabbi Schein!!

Second-Tier Leadership

Second-Tier Leadership


By Anna Marx

This post is 3rd in a series on Accomplishments and Lessons Learned, a cumulative report demonstrating 5 years of evaluation and research about the Coalition of Innovating Congregations. The report is available online and for download at innovatingcongregations.org/all.

Moses’ father-in-law said to him,

The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Exodus 18:17

We often think of change coming about with one charismatic leader. But the truth is, one person cannot do it alone; the task is too heavy. In the last five years, Coalition congregations have changed the way leadership works. They have added second tiers of leadership. They have empowered teacher-leaders to bring innovative learning to our families and brought collaborative teams of professional and lay leaders to create bold visions.

By collecting what we call “tracking data,” we have been able to learn that congregations have expanded their leadership teams over time (read the full report innovatingcongregations.org/resources/second-tier-leadership/). On average, these teams have doubled in size. Our educators know that the task is too heavy. They are not doing it alone anymore.



Power in Numbers


By Tamara Gropper

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear about the work of Dr. Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boy’s Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Harvard University Press, 2011). She has spent the better part of her career studying boys’ relationships with other boys in particular on the edge of, in the heart of and towards the end of adolescence.  What she shared both challenged my assumptions about boys and confirmed what I know to be true – that boys experience deep and rich connections to their closest male friends, connections that intensify during adolescence only to wane as they are expected to mature and go out into the world on their own.

As Dr. Way read aloud the words of adolescent boys, words which rang with love and trust and commitment, she also cited numerous studies that link healthy relationships to health and long life.  One in particular stayed with me.  It involved the perceived difficulty of a task.  Apparently, in multiple studies a person’s perception of a task shifts depending on who else is literally standing close by.  If asked to climb a steep hill with your best friend next to you, the hill hardly seems steep at all. If asked to climb a steep hill with a total stranger or even a new friend, the hill appears much more daunting if not impossible to ascend.  This got me thinking about the emphasis we’ve placed on learning grounded in caring and purposeful relationships.  Not only does the learning reach deeper when experiencing it with people whose stories you know, with people who you know to care about you, but also you are likely to take on more challenging explorations because they won’t feel as challenging.   It also helps explain why some congregations see opportunities to innovate as just that – opportunities, not challenges that can’t possibly be met.  No one person can make the kind of far-reaching, sustainable change the Coalition of Innovating Congregations strives to create. But, bring along a few good friends, colleagues who know you’ve got their back just as they’ve got yours and just watch the wheels of innovation turn – slowly at first and then picking up steam as the status quo gives way to innovation after innovation after innovation.

Dr. Niobe Way reminded me that when we make room in our congregations for deep relationships to flourish – learner to learner, educator to educator, parent to parent, and on and on – we tap into our most powerful resource, the deep and abiding strength of community.

Putting People First

Posted by Ben Alpert in Relational Judaism


By Suri Jacknis

Last week, I was privileged to attend a UJA-Federation of New York SYNERGY Leadership Development Opportunity in Long Island entitled: Putting People First: Elevating Kehillah Through Relationships. Our lead presenters were Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism and Jeannie Appleman from Join For Justice, Jewish Organizing Institute and Network.

Ron began with a few stories that really showed a strong contrast between having a culture based on relationships vs. having a culture based on transactions (fee for service.)

Ron recently had a birthday. He got 476 birthday messages on facebook and 4 actual birthday cards (3 were from his family) and one was from his Chase Bank teller. The latter was a handwritten note on bank stationery. In it, Ron’s teller Valerie wished him happy birthday and mentioned that the last time he, Ron, was in the bank, he had spoken about going to Northern California to visit his family. Valerie wanted to know how his visit had gone. She also invited him to bring his family by the bank the next time they were in the area so she could have the pleasure of meeting them.

In contrast, Ron showed us the envelope asking for a donation that his synagogue had sent him to mark the one -year anniversary of the death of his mother. He read it out loud. Dear (fill in the blank): This is to remind you that the Yarhzeit of your (fill in the blank) name (fill in the blank) will be on (fill in the date)….etc. We all felt how much more personal and in relation the letter from the bank teller was. Ron reported that it really touched him that his teller wanted to connect with him and the people important to him. Ron added that he recently had heard from a rabbi who spends an hour each week making a personal call to the families observing a Yahrzeit and asks them to share a memory of their loved one with him. This rabbi feels that these calls have made a huge difference to the sense of community in his congregation.

Jeannie took up where Ron left off and taught us the power in a simple “turn and talk.” She directed us to find someone near us in the room that we did not know and either tell them what keeps us up at night or what gets us up in the morning (what are we passionate about). We only had 3 minutes to share, but we all felt connected to that person with whom we had shared a part of ourselves. We heard stories about family, children, health, career, transitions, and hopes and fears of real people. Imagine having the chance to do this more regularly! I could get to know new people in ways that cut through the usual superficialities. I could get to know people that I already know in new, deeper ways.

Jeannie also taught us about the power of house meetings. A house meeting is a small group “relational conversation” with between 6-8 people who meet face to face to share their stories, concerns, experiences and hopes, and to identify new leaders. Jeannie began by doing a “fishbowl” demonstration of a house meeting. We had two rounds of questions; each person had 1.5 minutes to speak each round. The first question was: “Share an experience when you took a big risk; what did you risk? Was it worth it?” The second was: “if you were a magic wand, what would you create at your synagogue that animates your imagination? What talent would you bring?” Once again, the power of listening closely to people’s stories and of having everyone attend to one’s own story was remarkable. As part of the group’s debriefing, we all reflected on what we learned about each other and how, if this was an authentic home meeting we might follow up with each person to build on our relationships, to identify common interests, identify people who had talents to share and leadership qualities to contribute.

We were also privileged to hear from a panel of clergy and lay representatives that had experimented with house meetings, one-on-ones and community organizing. The personal testimony of impact on individuals and communities was amazing. We heard about large projects to promote dignity in aging and community wide efforts to increase recycling. A shout out to the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, Temple Sinai of Roslyn and Temple Beth Israel of Port Washington.

We closed with an opportunity to make a commitment to seek ways to work on our own congregational cultures to make them exemplars of relational Judaism. What is one action step each of us could take to pay more attention to creating caring connections with others in our congregations?

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