Making community meaningful
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Making community meaningful

When Rabbi Donniel Hartman presided over a morning program of learning for the Bergen County Jewish leadership earlier this week, 80 people representing almost every major Jewish agency and organization in the county came together in one room for one purpose. For that reason alone, it was a noteworthy event, since our communal leaders don’t get together very often. And when they do, they are rarely given the luxury of learning together and thinking about the future of our community.

This event, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation and hosted by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, was organized by the Kehillah Partnership – a uniquely northern New Jersey incarnation of what we believe is the new “big idea” in Jewish community. Rabbi Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, called Kehillah Partnership of Northern New Jersey “a revolution,” noting that ours is literally the only Jewish community in North America where synagogues, JCCs, the Jewish federation, and all communal agencies are working together to strengthen community, share resources, enhance education, and make Jewish life more affordable. “We Jews were raised to take community for granted,” Rabbi Hartman told a packed conference room at UJA-NNJ. “Once the French Enlightenment enabled Jews to become French citizens, the notion of community stopped being self-evident. Assimilation represented a move away from community. It negated our long-held tradition that community is, in fact, a vehicle for collective spirituality, and at the same time, it is a way for each of us to support each other in carrying out our own personal agendas.”

In her introduction to the morning program, Roberta Abrams Paer, a Berrie Fellow and chair of the Kehillah Partnership Council, noted that the exciting and important news behind the Kehillah Partnership is that it works, and there’s more to come. “Working together, independent Jewish institutions can foster innovation and connectedness and create opportunities for programs that no single institution could do alone,” she said. “In other words, Kehillah Partnership is a world where institutions maintain their individual identity and integrity, but embrace the benefits of working together.” Here, then, is Kehillah’s track record thus far: 10 synagogues – Reform and Conservative – beginning a fourth pilot year creating community-wide programming for congregational schools; community educators collaborating on curriculum development with support from the Covenant Foundation; PJ Library – free monthly Jewish books to young children – launched a few short months ago in a partnership of the Russell Berrie Foundation and our local communal agencies, and already connecting over 1,600 families in related outreach programming; 36 local Jewish institutions saving $500,000 in electricity purchase alone; and a synagogue testing “one-fee entry” to Jewish community, in which a Jewish family, through one reasonable financial transaction, can be part of the Kehillah and all that it offers – synagogue, JCC, community-wide programming, and even educational rebates.

What will it take to move this exciting, completely unique, and nationally significant experiment to the next level? To build Kehillah into a community-wide effort will require the short-term investment of philanthropic communal resources, in order to bring it to the point where it can become self-sustaining. It takes committed staff, resources, and a lot of effort to restructure community and change how we’ve done business for generations. And we do believe that if the product is right – compelling and meaningful programming for every age cohort; educational enrichment for our children; a new system of service delivery for those services we have long taken for granted but can no longer afford; substantive outreach to those on the periphery – Kehillah can become self-sustaining. And beyond meeting those core needs, Kehillah can become, in Rabbi Hartman’s words, “a vehicle for greatness.”

Northern New Jersey can recapture the essence of community that sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years – as Rabbi Hartman put it, watching each others’ backs as we worked together toward a common goal. He also reminded us that the Jewish people have survived because we learned to innovate and adopt big new ideas, and to establish standards of excellence as we innovate. With the support of our community, we believe that Kehillah Partnership can become that transformational big idea that introduces innovation and excellence into our communal life.

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