Synagogues bring home URJ awards


Two local synagogues were recognized for outstanding congregational programs during the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention last month.

Congregation Shaare Emeth and Congregation Temple Israel brought home awards from the URJ convention, held in San Diego on Dec. 12-16.

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Shaare Emeth was recognized with three awards. The 2007 “URJ Epstein Communicate! Award” was presented for its “GoodWill for Congregational Donors — Can You Ever Say Thank You Enough?” program. The “Life, Learning and Legislation” program earned the 2007 “Irving J. Fain Award for Community Consultation on Conscience” and the 2007 “URJ Congregation of Learners Nachshon Award” was given for the Beit Sefer Caf é program.

Temple Israel received the 2007 URJ Belin Outreach Award for the program “T.I.’s That Bind.”

Don Kriss, executive director of Shaare Emeth, said he was “actually quite shocked” about receiving the “Epstein Communicate! Award” for the “GoodWill for Congregational Donors.”

“We submitted our program to the URJ’s Communicate! Database, which has 2,300 synagogue programming ideas,” Kriss said. “We weren’t even thinking that we would win an award because of it.” The program ensures that each donor is given a follow up phone call to personally express gratitude for the donation, Kriss said.

“We’ll call and thank them, and one of the primary goals is to ask if there is anything the congregation can offer them as far as spiritual help, or congregational programming. Perhaps there is something we need to bring to our clergy, so they are aware of any crises or good things that happen in the daily life of our congregants. We also find out if the family has any new additions, and we also update any new contact information for our database,” Kriss said.

The idea for the program came from past president Harris Frank, Kriss said.

The “Epstein Communicate! Awards” were given to five synagogues around the country, including Shaare Emeth. Each winning synagogue was given a $1,000 grant as part of the award.

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth said the Beit Sefer Caf é program combines adult learning and social interaction on three successive Shabbat evenings in March.

“The idea was that the congregation can come together to learn, and to network and spend time together in a social setting,” Goldstein said.

Participants can pick two seminars from a variety of offerings. In between the seminars, there is a coffeehouse hour, with live music and a variety of coffees and teas available, and people can network and get to know other congregants.

“The program was wildly successful,” Goldstein said. “We had all kinds of classes offered — from a ‘Yiddish in America’ class…to an Israeli dancing class.”

The program was the result of a small committee of Shaare Emeth members who were looking at ways to improve adult education programs at the synagogue, Goldstein said.

“One of our committee members asked, ‘Since St. Louis has so many opportunities for adult Jewish learning, why would someone want to come to come to their synagogue?’ She said, ‘The reason I would want to come is to be able to not only learn but also connect with people at my congregation — meet new people and get to know people better.'”

Goldstein said that while Shaare Emeth was recognized at the URJ Biennial for the “Life, Learning and Legislation” program, the award was actually given earlier in the year, in April, at a conference of the Religious Action Center of the URJ.

“In that program, which happened on Shabbat morning over Martin Luther King Day weekend, we had a whole afternoon focusing on legislative issues affecting voters here in Missouri and on the national level,” Goldstein said.

The program, which was spearheaded by the then-Social Action Committee (which is called ‘Seeds of Justice’ at Shaare Emeth) chair Jill Schupp, brought in 150 people in its first year (2006), Goldstein said.

“The program does not advocate for any candidate. It is completely issue-focused, so people can learn about political issues through the lens of Reform Judaism,” she said.

Eli Montague, executive director of Temple Israel said the “T.I.’s That Bind” program is an effort to reach out to unaffiliated Jews.

Montague said the program gave congregants a certificate to invite an unaffiliated family member or friend to become a member of Temple Israel for one year without charge. After doing the program in 1999 and again in 2003, Montague said each time the synagogue found a significant jump in membership, and that retention for those new members was similar to those who joined at other times.

He said the idea for the program came from the then-chair of the membership committee, Jonathan Bloom.

“It was a very successful program,” Montague said. “There was very little cost to the congregation, and we were able to reach out to many unaffiliated Jews. Also, our members enjoyed the ability to give their friends and family the gift of belonging,” he said.

The Belin Award, which was given to 10 synagogues including Temple Israel, came with a $1,000 grant.