Synagogues grow youth, family education programs with Federation funding

Congregation Bet Shalom members work on the pollinator garden for the Midbar Project. Later project development will include beehives, gardens, and chickens for lessons about desert and Biblical gardening traditions. (Courtesy Congregation Bet Shalom)

Local congregations are enhancing youth and family education programs while increasing inter-synagogue collaboration to enrich Tucson Jewish life. Participants credit expanded funding from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona for this boon.

“The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona has always allocated grant money to synagogues, but additional funding through the new Planning and Allocation Committee process is increasing this engagement,” says Oshrat Barel, JFSA senior vice president for community engagement.

The Federation-Synagogue Dialogue group, which includes Federation representatives, rabbis, administrators, and presidents from area synagogues, has long met to discuss common issues and concerns facing religious organizations and the broader, organized Jewish community. A consistent topic was the year over year decline in enrollment and participation within religious schools not just in Tucson, but also nationally, recalls Phillip Pepper, immediate past president of Congregation Anshei Israel. The Federation and the congregations set out to explore ways to increase and enhance youth and family participation. Subsequently, the dialogue group fostered the Synagogue Funding Group as part of JFSA’s PAC revised process, says Pepper, who now co-chairs that group with Andy Kunsberg.

The PAC process allocates all of JFSA’s annual campaign income to congregations, beneficiary agencies, national and overseas programs, and the Federation’s operations, explains Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO. During the last quarter of each year, PAC steering committees work on budgets for the four funding areas.

With a total first-year allocation of $101,000 in 2017, funding to seven local synagogues ran from $5,000 to $20,000, says Barel.

“This is significant locally and nationally. Generally, Federations are not this generous to synagogues, but the need was compelling enough to include them in this process,” Pepper says.  “For the size of our community and campaign, we are leading or among the top few federations making this type of commitment at this level.”

Pepper explains that PAC allocation to synagogues is based on the census of congregants 18 years of age and younger.  Through a simple request for proposals process, individual synagogues present programs and budgets for consideration. Awarded programs are evaluated mid-year and at year-end.

“As a brand new concept, we expect it to take three to five years to prove it is worth,” Pepper says. “We will be measuring success by gathering as much data and anecdotal information as possible.”

“Our goal was to strengthen Jewish commitment, and it is working,” says Kunsberg. “What’s exciting is how successful this has turned out. It has allowed for thinking outside of the box and creating new programs to bring family and children into the synagogues.”

For 2018, the allocation was $94,000, reduced proportionally to the amount of campaign funds raised. “We also are learning that synagogues can create inter-congregational partnerships. There are program opportunities for collaboration among synagogues. Why can’t one synagogue parallel programs of another, or collaborate in sharing resources and programs?” asks Pepper.

Congregations already are reaping the fruits of this unique investment. Kunsberg cites, as an example of this collaboration, that three Reform synagogues now combine eighth grade, post-b’nai mitzvah education classes. Congregation Bet Shalom is building a gaga ball pit to encourage inter-synagogue tournaments with Congregation Or Chadash, which has its own gaga pit.

For Temple Emanu-El, the additional support funds the congregation’s Hebrew at Home program. “Students may attend in the classroom or far away,” says Rabbi Batsheva Appel, adding that this flexibility has enabled the classes to maintain community and help students learn although they are not physically present. “Parents are very appreciative because they couldn’t get their kids to the class before” because of distance or time and schedule conflicts, she notes.

“Hebrew at Home is a costly program that we couldn’t have gotten without Federation assistance,” says Appel. The distance-learning component allows participants from Red Rock, north of Marana, Arizona, and two students as far as south as Caborca, Sonora, Mexico, to attend virtually. The family in Mexico has a long-standing relationship with the temple, and they appreciate being able to attend, says Rabbi Appel.

“The financial support has allowed us to do some innovative programs that look to be making a significant difference for our youth and families, specifically, our pre- and post-b’nai mitzvah participants,” says Stephanie Roberts, Congregation Anshei Israel board of trustees president. In a letter to the Federation she notes “it is not just financial support being provided … thank you for challenging us to create programs that both fit the structure you created and allow for innovation, flexibility, and customization for our specific needs.”

Congregation Bet Shalom has seen exponential growth in children and family participation to the extent that two or three new families are joining every month, says Anne Lowe, the congregation’s board president. JFSA funds are used on innovative programs that give youth hands-on experiences. “We’re really engaging youth, families, and children in Jewish life and Shabbat activities because now it is a lot of fun. The shul is now the place to be on Shabbat, totally due to the funding we’ve gotten from Federation.”

Bet Shalom’s new programming updated the monthly Camp Shabbat for 6- to 10-year-olds, staffed by University of Arizona students and shinshiniyot (Israeli teen emissaries), with adult supervision. A unique Chesed Shel Emet (true kindness) project teaches children to deal with grief and how to honor their ancestors. The Midbar (desert) Project will develop an on-site, hands-on educational family farm project.

“The partnership between the Federation and the synagogues will continue to grow through this program benefitting all partners,” says Pepper.

Appel says colleagues she engages in conversation at conventions and forums are surprised at the level of funding JFSA allocates to Tucson congregations. “They are always amazed,” she says.