When leaders of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) hammered out a strategic plan last year, they were clear that they wanted the organization to continue playing a role in the community beyond raising money. They wanted it to take a lead role in bringing new and innovative Jewish programs to northern New Jersey.

To do this, the federation leaders created a special fund. With a major gift from Dana Adler; her husband, James; and in-laws, Mike and Elaine Adler; JFNNJ created the Adler Family Innovation Fund, now a $200,000 project.

In November, the federation announced six grantees, culled from 75 proposals.

According to Dana Adler, volunteers evaluated the proposals and selected the recipients.

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The Adler family: Elaine and Mike Adler, Dana and Jim Adler

“The federation did a great job” including people in the evaluation process, said Adler, who was part of a small group reviewing dozens of proposals.

“There was a very specific rating system. Was a proposal innovative, was it financially responsible, could it be replicated? And then you had to kind of fight for what you were passionate about,” she said, adding that she enjoyed the chance to meet new people through these discussions.

Carol Silberstein, who chaired the funding process subcommittee of the Innovation Fund, said the criteria for selection reflected federation’s fourfold mission: to promote and expand a sense of Jewish identity; to expand the affordability and accessibility of Jewish learning and cultural experiences; to provide a safety net; and to strengthen the connection of the Jewish community of northern New Jersey with Israel.

“The vast majority of programs had to do with first two categories,” she said. “Almost all of the projects involve collaboration or leveraging the dollars. We’re able to really see the value-added of what we do.”

With the grants just announced, many details have yet to be worked out. Most activities are scheduled to begin in the spring. But the first funded program takes place this Sunday morning at Temple Avodat Shalom.

The following programs received Innovation Fund grants.

Kehillah Partnership/PJ Library: A ‘concierge’ website for young families

Is there one place young families can turn for information about Jewish resources in the Bergen County area?

Soon, there will be.

“It will be both a 24×7 guide to what’s happening locally in this community, what kind of Chanukah programs are there, for example, as well as a directory of what’s out there, so if a family moves to the area, it will be one-stop shopping,” said Linda Ripps.

Ripps works on community programming for the Kehillah Partnership, an umbrella group for area synagogues and Jewish institutions, which will be administering the grant together with the PJ Library

“The Kehillah Partnership’s goal is to make Jewish life more accessible and more affordable,” she said. “The website’s goal is to make the wealth of Jewish life that’s available in our community more accessible for families.”

The proposal, she said, is an example of how new ideas are percolating through the national Jewish community. Ripps learned of a similar program, Mazeltot, in Denver during a national conference for communities participating in the PJ Library program, which distributes Jewish children books.

Matan: Special needs awareness in congregational schools

Is your Hebrew school able to teach children with special needs?

Making the Jewish community fully inclusive of students with special needs is the mission of Matan, which will bring its services to New Jersey thanks to the Innovation Fund.

The grant will enable Matan to offer professional development workshops for Hebrew and Sunday schools. A two-day program planned for March will bring together heads of congregational schools, and training will continue over the subsequent year. An August program is planned for congregational teachers.

“Our hope is that we will have teams [consisting] of an educational director, with a few of his or her teachers, who will become much more knowledgeable about the resources that exist, what schools can and should be doing, how to speak to parents, and how to diversify lessons,” said Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director of Matan and a Closter resident.

“Whether we’re talking about children struggling with language and auditory processing issues, or with more social issues, we would like to empower and educate the current leadership on how to handle that in their own institutions,” she said.

Kirshner is beginning the process of reaching out to the community’s rabbis and educators to invite them to apply for the program.

Kaleidoscope: Mainstreaming Ethiopian children through soccer

About 10 of the 75 grant proposals received by the Adler fund came from Israeli programs, so it’s fitting that one of the six winners is an Israeli project, this one targeting Ethiopian children.

“Their particular program combines teaching soccer skills – and the teamwork that comes from learning soccer – with computer activities, as well as learning from Jewish texts about what it means to be Jewish,” says Silberstein. “I love the approach.”

The program is run by the Israel-based Kaleidoscope organization, which seeks to promote the development of social and emotional skills. In keeping with the principle of using federation money to leverage other resources, the Adler grant is being matched by the Israeli Maccabi Association.

The program is based in Rosh Pina, near Safed. One of the conditions for receiving the grant is that the program be expanded to include the absorption center in Nahariya, the federation’s partner city, about 40 miles to the west of Rosh Pina.

“To infuse soccer with Jewish culture is incredible,” said Dana Adler. “To be able to help these immigrants in our partnership city is incredible.”

Shalom Hartman Institute: Upgrading the Israel conversation

Acknowledging that Israel has become a fraught subject for American Jews – with the long-standing intensity of Israel political debate having made its way to our shores – the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute has created a program to “elevate” the ongoing dialogue.

“We’re trying to introduce a new way of approaching and talking about Israel,” says Rabbi Julia Andelman, director of the Engaging Israel project of the Hartman Institute. “It’s based on Jewish values, as discerned through Jewish texts, to bring people together across political lines into a substantive and meaningful conversation about Israel.

“One of the core aspects is to try to move beyond a crisis narrative, of thinking about Israel in perpetually post-Holocaust terms and in a defensive mindset, and instead allowing ourselves to think in aspirational terms about what Israel can be, what role we can have, even from North America, in creating and strengthening the Jewish state based on our Jewish values,” said Andelman, a Teaneck resident.

With the grant, Hartman will train area rabbis to bring its nine-unit curriculum into their congregations. The course examines questions such as the meaning of Jewish sovereignty, Jewish power, war and occupation, religious pluralism, and human rights – “the really core issues that come into play once you have a Jewish state,” said Andelman.

The grant will also enable the creation of a mini-course for lay leaders – details have yet to be determined – as well as a series of public lectures for the community by Hartman scholars.

“I’m definitely excited to bring this into my home territory,” said Andelman. “It’s a fantastic curriculum, uniquely able to bring people together from different positions, people who are in an uncomfortable place with Israel and people who are in a more comfortable place and not able to understand the discomfort of others.”

Sparks: Raising awareness of post-partum depression

Sparks (Sparkcenter.org) assists women suffering from pre- and post-natal depression and other mental illnesses. Founded in Brooklyn, it currently servies mainly Orthodox communities, including Lakewood in New Jersey.

The Innovation Fund grant will bring Sparks to northern New Jersey, where it will work with local Jewish Family Service agencies to develop an awareness of the problem. They will engage not just the mothers but also their husbands, caregivers, doctors, rabbis, etc., and then create a model of service delivery.

Temple Avodat Shalom/Jewish Outreach Institute:

Inviting non-Jewish mothers into the community Are you – or someone you know – a non-Jewish woman raising Jewish children?

Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge has a program for you – with help from an Adler grant.

Sunday morning at 9 a.m., a “Hanukkah Helper” program will offer guidance to participants on celebrating the holiday.

After the holiday, there will be a three-part discussion group.

This schedule – one pre-holiday session followed by three weeks of post-holiday discussion – will be repeated for Passover and the High Holy Days.

The program is being designed by the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is adapting a longer program to this more focused and compact schedule.

“If I really wanted to reach the families on the periphery, I had to offer something different than a 16-week program,” said Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Avodat Shalom.

“The reality is that many interfaith couples in our community are like the fourth child at the Passover seder. They literally don’t know the questions to ask. They’re not against bringing Judaism into their lives and raising their children Jewish; they don’t know where to go and how to do it.

“If this works, we’ll be able to replicate this on an ongoing basis and share it with sister congregations,” he said.