Kehillah Partnership seeks to build community
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Kehillah Partnership seeks to build community

Rabbi Noam Marans was not surprised when Harold Benus, executive director of the Bergen County Y in Washington Township, asked him to help spearhead the development of the Kehillah Partnership, a collaborative project to unify the Jewish community.

"He had been talking about it for as long as I can remember," said Marans, former religious leader of Temple Israel in Ridgewood and now associate director for contemporary Jewish life at American Jewish Committee. "He had a vision of what the Jewish community, or kehillah, should look like."


Painting was among the options for students in the Kehillah Partnership pilot project, which brought together sixth-graders from four congregational religious schools.

To implement the Kehillah Partnership, which Benus calls "an innovative community-building strategy," the YJCC director recruited Marans to serve as community development director and Evie Rotstein to act as program director. Rotstein, project director of the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators, is former education director of both Temple Beth El in Closter and Temple Sholom in River Edge.

The first phase of the program — a one-year pilot project that brought together sixth-graders from four congregations, two Conservative and two Reform — will conclude on Sunday. Students from Temple Sholom, Temple Beth Or (Washington Township), the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley (Woodcliff Lake) will come together at the YJCC to showcase artworks created over the past year.

Helping to plan the project were leaders of the YJCC, rabbis and educators from the four synagogues, and Judy Beck, director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Describing the Kehillah Partnership as a "collaborative network to build, educate, and further unify the Jewish community," Benus said his goal in launching the project was to address the questions, "How do we shore up our resources and work together, rather than going our separate ways?

"For years, many important community-building organizations have been contributing to the fabric of Jewish life but doing it largely independently from each other," said Benus. "We felt it was important to find a way to galvanize our community [and] excite people’s imaginations." In addition, he said, he envisioned a program "that encourages the sharing of resources."

According to Marans, the 100 or so students involved in the pilot, "Israel@60 Through the Cultural Arts," came together five times over the course of the year to work on their projects. The venture, funded partly by the YJCC and partly by anonymous donors, represented one way "to have institutions that are engaged in parallel play to engage in joint play," said Marans, adding that the success of the pilot provides "credibility for the project," demonstrating that "institutions [can work] together in ways they haven’t done before."

Participating students were offered eight opportunities for projects, said Marans, noting that each activity was "led by Jewish educators with expertise in the cultural arts." Areas included cartooning, visual arts, video-making, drama, dance, Israel defense maneuvers (team-building), culinary arts, and music.

Miriam Gray, educational director of Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lakes, described the activities as "another way [for students] to be involved in something Judaic without being in the classroom. It broadens their own neighborhood," she said. "They learn, but they have fun."

Gray said that the ‘8 students from her school were very excited about the year-long program, particularly the overnight retreat at Camp Sprout Lake, where students "socialized, davened, and worked on their projects." While she hasn’t seen the final projects, she said, she saw "one 3-D artwork that looked like [something by Israeli artist Yaacov] Agam."

Students will have an opportunity to finish their projects on Sunday while their parents attend a presentation by Marans on raising Jewish teenagers. Following his talk, the focus will be on the artwork.

While enhancing students’ educational opportunities was a key goal of the pilot program, "the real story is the vision of the Kehillah Partnership," said Marans. "It’s a new way to think about the community. How can disparate institutions — the Y, federations, synagogues — join their resources to create a stronger sense of community, further the implementation of Jewish programs, and utilize scarce resources to make a more affordable Jewish community?"

On the issue of affordability, Benus said he would like to see a "one-fee for multiple services" model of communal life.

"We need to restructure some of how we operate [to] offer more people options to participate," he added, noting that he envisions a system where one fee covers both synagogue and Y membership. While acknowledging that the single-pay plan hasn’t been tested yet, he said that as far as he knows, "there are no others doing it the way we have it structured it. There are no other communities in North America that have started something like this. Different communities … have done different pieces," he said, but none have taken such a broad approach.

In a flier to be handed out to parents on Sunday, organizers describe phase two of the program as "a five-year planning, incubation, and growth period." According to Marans, project organizers are already looking forward to their next venture.

"Assuming proper funding we’re planning to repeat the program for sixth-graders in the ‘008-9 academic year; build on the success of this program to run several programs for both parents and students; and expand the partnership to touch other areas of community life," reaching out to, among others, empty-nesters and families with young children.

"The goal is to to create a community that works together across institutional and denominational lines for the betterment of all."

Marla Cohen contributed to this report.

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