Local program wins national recognition
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Local program wins national recognition

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Teaching 12-year-olds culinary arts as part of the Kehillah Partnership’s cultural arts educational initiative are, from left, teachers Judy Matthews, Cammy Bourcier, and Shira Golden.

Rabbi Noam Marans, associate director of community development for the Kehillah Partnership, minces no words when speaking about the initiative, now entering its third year.

“It’s an extraordinary model for community-building that helps the disparate institutions of the community do things together that they can’t do alone,” said Marans, adding that the Partnership has now been accorded national recognition.

“It’s been recognized as a national leader for creating a new model,” he said. In addition to winning “the highly coveted Covenant Foundation Signature Grant, which indicates that the gold standard has been applied to Kehillah,” the project will be showcased at United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in November.

“This will reflect very positively on our community,” said Marans, calling the GA “the single largest gathering of Jews in Jewish communal life.” And not only will it enhance the prestige of the project, but “it has opened doors for us to potential funders on a national level.” The group’s operational costs are now funded by endowment monies and individual donors.

Marans said the Kehillah program not only works, but it has been successful on various levels. He attributes that to several factors.

“First, it’s a bottom-up program,” he said. “We have consulted with rabbis, educational directors, lay leaders, JCCs, and UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey to find out where there is a need to do something together that they cannot do alone.” In addition, he said, “we have been meticulous in investing time and energy in involving those institutions in planning all our programs.”

Noting that Kehillah projects are “not off the shelf, take it or leave it” but rather are created by the institutions working together, he stressed that “in this process, we have been very mindful of territorial integrity and the individuality of these institutions and the need to maintain their own identity even as they work together with others.”

Marans pointed out that Kehillah has also succeeded because “we answered a need [posed by] demographic challenges in the non-Orthodox community and economic challenges across the entire community.”
He said that while Orthodox synagogues have not yet participated in the group’s cultural arts initiative – the program began with congregational schools, and most Orthodox students attend day schools – there is community-wide participation in the PJ Library, which sends Jewish books and music to children enrolled in the project. (For more information about this program, see the July 3 Jewish Standard.)

“There is certainly a desire to include the Orthodox community,” said Marans, “and we won’t be satisfied until [Kehillah] covers the full gamut of the community.”

Praising the PJ Library program – funded by the Grinspoon Foundation with contributions from the Russell Berrie Foundation, Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, UJA-NNJ, and the Bergen YJCC, as well as financial support from Howard and Eva Jakob of Park Ridge – Marans said the fact that Kehillah has been asked to administer the program on behalf of the entire community acknowledges that “we’re now the best vehicle for bringing the community together around a high-caliber Jewish educational project that can reach thousands of Jewish children in hundreds of Jewish homes.”

This year, Kehillah’s cultural arts education initiative involves the YJCC and 10 synagogues, five Conservative and five Reform: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge; Temple Beth Or, Township of Washington; Temple Beth Sholom, Park Ridge; Cong. B’nai Israel, Emerson; Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, Woodcliff Lake; Temple Emeth, Teaneck; Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel; Glen Rock Jewish Center; the Jewish Community Center of Paramus; and Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, Ridgewood.

The informal Jewish education project brings together sixth- and seventh-graders six times a year. The initiative, which Marans said “enhances the work of congregational schools,” has reached hundreds of students and their families.

“It’s focused on Israel education and uses cultural arts as a vehicle for that,” he said, adding that “the key piece here is choice.”

Students may choose among a wide variety of disciplines, including music, art, drama, dance, cartooning, videography, “and even aviation education, since that is relevant to the evolution of Israel as a country.”

“It’s just another option for young people who learn in different ways,” he said, pointing out that all instructors “combine their talents as artists with Jewish education.”

Videography and culinary arts have been particularly popular, he said, adding that the program also includes an overnight retreat at the YJCC.

Marans also pointed to Kehillah’s cost-saving and resource-sharing programs, noting that synagogues, day schools, and Jewish agencies have been invited to participate in the Kehillah Partnership Cooperative, which is actively exploring group-purchasing and cost-saving opportunities.

“We began with electricity purchase and we are now focusing in the short term on other areas such as gas and snow-plowing,” said Harold Benus, YJCC executive director, who has been working with communal leaders to develop the project.

Marans, who also serves as director of interreligious affairs and contemporary Jewish life for the New York-based American Jewish Committee, said he has learned much from his work with the Kehillah Partnership.

“I’ve learned three things,” he said. “First, there are incredible unmet needs in the Jewish community that we are capable of filling if we work together. Second, you must foster ownership by participants if a program is to succeed. And third, we need to use our full toolbox to create Jewish identity and Israel awareness among young Jews.”

In future years, he said, the group hopes to reach beyond the pre-bar mitzvah age and early childhood constituencies it now serves and target additional groups.

The Kehillah Partnership is not to be confused with the Kehillah Fund, which is raising money to help day schools.

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