This page provides resources developed by JCRCs across the United States.  We encourage you to use them in your own community, and post questions you have directly to the blog.

Kesher Olam, Connection to the World

by Robin Rosenbaum

Kesher Olam, Connection to the World, a program overseen by the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, serves as the central clearinghouse for the coordination of Bar/Bat Mitzvah projects throughout the Federation catchment area with the collaboration of area synagogues. The Bnai Mitzvah students work directly with local agencies on specific projects that benefit both the local Jewish and broader community and agencies in Israel. It offers them meaningful hands-on volunteer opportunities and embodies the concept of tikkun olam, one of the mandates of the JCRC. The idea for the program emanated from several lay leaders whose children were seeking mitzvah projects to mark their milestone. With JCRC connections to local Jewish and secular institutions already in place, through its other communal initiatives such as Mitzvah Day, the lay leaders saw the JCRC as the natural resource to tailor a program geared toward this specific population. Kesher Olam brings added value to JCRC, as it serves as a portal of entry for students to experience the satisfaction of performing tikkun olam and giving back to the community, while instilling in them a desire for their continuing volunteerism. It also provides an opportunity to enhance the relationship between synagogues and the Federation by outreaching to their parents in the 35-50 year old range who might not otherwise be connected to Federation, thereby offering greater exposure to the various Federation programs that exist.


Participation in the program is voluntary and students must devote a set amount of hours determined by the individual synagogues, to a specific project. Students are encouraged to maintain a journal of their experiences with photos, in order to share with others at the end-of-year party. The Kesher Olam projects espouse Jewish values and are not limited to involvement with only Jewish institutions.


Lay leaders present the program at a meeting of bar and bat mitzvah students and their parents. The Kesher Olam booklet, which is a compilation of a variety of activities which have been vetted to accommodate the bar/bat mitzvah population, is also disseminated. The families then connect directly with organizations listed in the booklet, to plan a meaningful mitzvah project for their child. Projects include working with seniors and the special needs population, engaging in activities with children, servicing low-income families and the homeless, environmental cleanup, preparing packages for U.S. soldiers overseas, engaging in activities that benefit numerous agencies in Israel, and much more.


Kesher Olam eliminates the need for time consuming research and presents students opportunities for volunteer engagement in a hassle free way through the vehicle of JCRC. We believe these opportunities will lay the foundation for students to more fully comprehend the importance of tikkun olam, a value which hopefully they will follow for the rest of their lives.

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JAM: The Sidney and Anna Frager Jewish/Muslim Teen Dialogue Group

by Robin Rosenbaum

Launched in 2006 by the Jewish Community Relations Council, and administered by the JCRC, JAM (Jews & Muslims), a collaboration between the St. Louis JCRC and the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis, is building bridges of understanding between the two communities.JAM is now an activity of the newly formed Barbara and Michael Newmark Institute for Human Relations.


Participants: 12 Jewish teens and 12 Muslim teens. The group reflects considerable diversity: Muslim participants have had Pakistani, Indian, Iranian, Bosnian, and Egyptian roots; Jewish participants represent the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches.

The group's goals are:
To engage Jewish and Muslim teens in meaningful interaction.
To increase understanding of each other’s religion, values, and culture.
To engage Jewish and Muslim teens in a dialogue regarding their faith, culture, and values. The goal is to share views, customs, religion, etc.
To reduce prejudices among Jewish and Muslim teens through finding common ground and learning about each other through personal encounters.
To develop future leadership that has a greater understanding of each other’s community and that will have the skills to dialogue and collaborate.
To increase communication, understanding, and collaboration between the Muslim and the Jewish communities of St. Louis.

The JAM year begins in September with a Sunday retreat for participants. Parents are invited to join for a brief session that day that explains program goals to them. This parental engagement increases the reach of the program into the adult communities. The teens’ retreat includes an introduction of goals and basic listening and dialogue skills; a discussion of general dialogue guidelines that are determined by participants; getting-to-know-each-other activities; and an introduction to the other’s religion and culture through presentations given by some of the previous year’s participants. (Typically, presentations are given later in the year by a rabbi and an imam.)
Monthly JAM sessions are, for the most part, held at participants’ homes. They provide an opportunity to explore family traditions (e.g., customs, food, relationships, holidays), religious intolerance, experiences as members of minority religions/cultures in America, stereotypes, women’s issues, religion and politics, the Mideast conflict—all topics determined by the participants. A typical activity: a visit to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, where, together, the group explored a Bosnian Genocide exhibit and heard the stories of a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

Participants are excited to have the opportunity to get to know each other and are amazed to realize how much they have in common. The initial sessions are designed to increase the teens’ familiarity and comfort. Once that comfort level has been established, (typically, after four or five sessions) the group is able to discuss challenging topics, e.g., the Middle East. In addition, participants from the 2 groups speak together at relevant community events. In surveys given at the end of the year, participants have expressed their commitment to reducing stereotypes in each other’s communities and to continuing to build bridges of better understanding.

At the beginning of a dialogue session focusing on the Gaza War, during the “check-in” (when participants talk about anything that is happening in their lives), Sadiya and Aisha, two of the Muslim girls said they were excited to have marched in a pro-Palestinian rally the day before. When it was the turn of Daniel, one of the Jewish boys, he revealed that he had organized the pro-Israel group that was standing across the street from the Palestinian rally. Participants are sometimes literally on “opposite sides of the street”. But, they keep talking. That day, the group was moved to realize what a unique situation and opportunity they had by coming together. They broke into pairs to discuss and listen to their partners’ feelings about the situation and then reconvened as a larger group to have a challenging and meaningful dialogue.

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"Hand to Hand" a project of the JCRC of Greater Portland

by Robin Rosenbaum

On Sunday, October 10, 2010, for the second year in a row, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Community Relations Committee held a unique interfaith event called “Hand to Hand.” The program, which was co-sponsored by over a dozen faith-based agencies and local congregations, consisted of two components: 1) To provide an opportunity for people to support non-profit social service agencies in the metro area with in-kind donations of clothes, coats, school supplies, cell phones, household appliances, food, and other items; and 2) to provide individuals and families the opportunity to become familiar with non-profits in the greater community that focus on helping low-income people or those who’ve been marginalized by the economic downturn. The goal was to encourage Portland residents to learn where to donate items needed by low-income people in our community and to become involved as volunteers with local non-profits serving people in need. The four-hour program at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center was attended by approximately 400 people of all faiths; there was literally an unending stream of vehicles dropping off donations.

 

Hand to Hand helped to advance one of the primary goals of the community relations field: “Fighting poverty with faith.”  This program, which was spearheaded by the CRC and Community Warehouse (an organization that collects kitchen appliances and furniture for low-income families), generated participation from the Mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Hindu communities. The Hand to Hand community resource fair, the scale of which had never been seen before in Portland until last year, included 42 non-profits, all of which are making a difference in helping to strengthen the community. Agency representatives expressed deep satisfaction with the turnout and the number of individuals who made a commitment to volunteer for their respective organizations.

 

The program requires a lot of planning, coordination among different partners, publicity, and volunteer recruitment, but the Portland CRC believes it has created the template for similar events locally and in other communities. Indeed, we have been asked by the non-profit participants and volunteers to repeat the event next year for the third straight year, perhaps in a different part of town. In addition, the mayor of Portland has now expressed his support of the event (assuming it will be held in 2011).

 

Hand to Hand is the perfect event to expand the CRC’s agenda from one of primarily public affairs advocacy to one of social action. To say that it energized the Jewish community would be an understatement. The event was organized by a committee that included synagogue, day school and JFCS representatives (as well as non-Jewish organizers), and it brought together over 100 volunteers, many of whom were young adults and high school and middle school students wishing to do community service or gather ideas for Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah social action projects. By connecting people with non-profit agencies and collecting an enormous amount of donated items, the CRC and Federation are seen as valuable partners in the struggle against poverty and hunger in Portland. In fact, the Jewish Federation serves as a drop-off site for donations to the Community Warehouse, which is located several miles from the Federation.

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Bridging Communities: Jews and Muslims

by Robin Rosenbaum

Fostering positive relations between Jews and Muslims may be a given to Jewish community relations organizations, but in metropolitan Detroit, doing so is both especially needed and especially challenging.  Metro Detroit’s Arab community, the largest outside the Middle East, is estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 strong and growing, while the Jewish community is fewer than 70,000 and shrinking.  Arab Muslims, many of them with strong family ties to Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, hold strong anti-Israel and pro-Hamas and Hezbollah attitudes, sentiments shared by non-Arab Muslims.  As a result, there are few Muslim organizational partners with whom the Detroit JCRC has been able to work in recent years, especially with Muslims who don’t want to be confused with Arabs.

 Over the past year, the JCRC has undertaken a series of initiatives to build new bridges between Jews and Muslims.  This is not so much a project as it is a mindset: We are both building Jewish-Muslim events and activities from scratch, and finding opportunities to especially engage Muslims in other events and activities in which the JCRC is involved.  These include:

·         Mitzvah Day– Each year, the Detroit Jewish community sends about a thousand volunteers on Christmas Day to dozens of sites where they replace Christians and enable them to enjoy the holiday with their families.  For the first time last Christmas, some 50 Muslim volunteers participated in Mitzvah Day, working side-by-side with Jewish volunteers at a food bank.  More than 250 news media outlets from as far away as The Philippines carried the story, and other Jewish communities – including New Zealand – looked to the event as a model they might adopt.

·         JCRC Volunteer Day – Since Christmas Day falls on Shabbat this year, the JCRC is holding a similar event on December 24th, and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan (CIOM) will again recruit and provide volunteers for some of the sites.  Additionally, CIOM will hold its own Mitzvah Day-type event on December 25th, and JCRC is providing CIOM with a volunteer registration website and a list of organizations needing volunteers on Christmas Day.

·         CIOM and JCRC organized an interfaith health fair at a mosque on November 7th at which Muslim and Jewish doctors, nurses, med students and others provided free medical screenings, primarily to African American Christian working poor.  A total of 60 volunteers processed 120 clients and identified 30 who needed some kind of immediate medical intervention on-site.  With the model now in place, future interfaith health fairs are being planned.

·         JCRC consulted with leaders of the Muslim community in western Wayne County, advising them on how American Jewish communities have historically organized their development and what aspects of the Jewish model may relate to their community development needs.  JCRC also connected those leaders with the leadership of the Jewish Community Center, a facility of special interest to them.

·         JCRC also connected a Muslim free clinic with Jewish Family Service to learn about and possibly replicate JFS’s “Project Chessed,” a unique, innovative program connecting uninsured Jews with doctors, dentists, hospitals and other providers of pro bono health care.

 In the near future, the JCRC expects to involve Muslim counterparts in:

·         “Project Paperwork ,” through which volunteers will help clients fill out applications for such things as food, utility bill and other assistance, and applications for college financial aid.

·         “Reading Works!,” a broad community coalition aimed at generating significant new funding for adult literacy programs.

·         Joint lobbying for social service agency funding, immigration reform and other issues of shared concern.

·         Visits by Jewish and Muslim high school students to each others’ classrooms.

·         “Fertile Soil,” bringing together primarily young adult Jews and Muslims in social events aimed at people-to-people relationship building.

These efforts have not been without critics in both the Jewish and Muslim communities.  As a result, some of this work cannot be explicitly positioned as Jewish-Muslim bridge-building.  But community relations often involves off-the-radar activities.  The JCRC believes that it can continue to successfully compartmentalize these efforts apart from our Israel advocacy activities.  Over time, this engagement might even lead to a reduction in anti-Israel sentiments among our Muslim partners.

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Bridges of Faith, a project of the JCRC of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, NJ

by Robin Rosenbaum

Bridge of Faith, More than dialogue.

 Thanks to the leadership and relationships established over many years by Rabbi Aaron Krauss of Margate, NJ, a group of no less than 25 local clergy and communal leaders of Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities gather regularly to talk, explore, debate and build friendships.

 But it’s more than talk.  This group, which includes Jewish and non-Jewish lay leadership, including Arlene Groch, the Chair of our Jewish Community Relations Council, is committed to this philosophy:  It’s not only  that I need you here for my issues.  I will be there for you, whenever possible, for your issues, too.

 In 2010 alone, Bridge of Faith has accomplished:

 A major, community-wide Haitian earthquake prayer service

  • Established an email network of interfaith and intergroup partners
  • Sent clergy into public schools, teaching and demonstrating cooperation and mutual respect
  • Addressed urban/inner city issues, such as police protection and crime
  • A visiting clergy program where, for example, an Imam would speak at a Sunday church service
  • Responded to hate incidents, leading to the following unanimous resolution:

 

Bridge of Faith Resolution

Unanimously approved September 15, 2010

We, the participants in our community-wide interfaith and intergroup dialogue known as Bridge of Faith, comprised of community-minded leaders of all faiths, creeds, origins and orientations, resoundingly denounce the recent, hate-driven defacing of property on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.  We commend City law enforcement and government leadership for assigning a high priority to investigating, seeking out and prosecuting those responsible. We further declare that hatred directed against any members of our vibrant and diverse community is as if each of us is targeted.  Simply put, we denounce hatred and prejudice, and pledge vigilance in its eradication.     

This group of diverse and creative religious leaders has accomplished more connectivity in our local community at a time when other communities are straining those connections. The wide range of common issues allows the group to focus less on the differences and more on the commonalities.  The creative, micro-approach to building relationships is promoted, with less time devoted to the spotlight-grabbing macro-events.  For example, it would not be unusual for Christian and Jewish leaders to attend Friday afternoon prayers and sermon at our local mosque.  Or for local rabbis to share a pulpit at a Sunday church service.  Interfaith Thanksgiving dinners and Passover Seders are being planned.  

 This mantra of “small is beautiful” might work well in other communities.  In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, NJ our Jewish Community Relations Council has benefitted from the two-way pipeline to Bridge of Faith. 

In time of quiet, the dialogue continues.  In times of trouble, the network can be activated and mobilized in a short timeline.

 

“Henay mah tov, uma naiim, shevet achim gam yachad.”

“Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell as one.”

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Community Closet, a project to help the needy of greater Bridgeport, CT

by Robin Rosenbaum

Created in 1991 by the Community Relations Committee, the Community Closet is a project whose mission is to help the needy of greater Bridgeport, CT by collecting donations of: clothing for men, women and children; small household essentials such as dishes, bedding, small appliances; as well as books and toys, to give away completely free of charge to needy people referred by local social service providers.  Now in its 19th year of operation, the Community Closet stands out for its unusually effective inter-agency collaboration and its use of volunteers to deliver the basic needs of clothing and household goods to so many poor people striving for self-sufficiency.  At the same time the Closet provides valuable experience and training to the volunteers who serve these clients.

The Closet is a cooperation between the Jewish Federation and Family Services Woodfield, a large social service provider in whose building the Community Closet resides.  Serving close to 9,000 individuals a year referred from 140 different social service providers, the Closet has 577 volunteers who log over 5,000 hours of service.  A referral letter from a human service provider must accompany people wishing to “shop” at the Community Closet.  The letter stays on file for one year and may be renewed by the referral source.  Clients may visit the Closet as often as once a month, more often if items needed are not available at the time of the visit.  Since the project’s inception many of the clients have been women, most of them single parents.  Some clients, refugees, other new arrivals to the United States, and victims of fire, own literally nothing but the clothes they come wearing.  Our clients include welfare recipients, drug and alcohol addicts, and ex-offenders who need clothing to wear for training programs, job interviews and jobs. They are roughly 44% Hispanic, 30% African-American, 20% White, not of Hispanic origin, 5% from the Middle East, and 1% Asian.  Over 12% are homeless.  Community Closet clients are adults in crisis, they are families at risk, many are children, and they are all, even those with jobs, victims of poverty.

The Community Closet is exemplary in its size – serving over one-third of Bridgeport’s 25,000 inhabitants who live in poverty.  Since the Community Closet sees so many needy people, it is uniquely situated to respond creatively to basic needs.  In 2008 we became a member of the Connecticut Diaper Distribution Network, and now give away 12,000 free disposable diapers per month!  Every August we have a Back-to-School Supply Project giving backpacks of grade-appropriate school supplies to 850 needy students.  In order for our clients to fully participate in community and life cycle events the Closet has special seasonal programs and current event responses.  We collect and give away First Communion outfits, prom gowns, Halloween costumes, etc.  We are a drop-off location for Haiti Relief resources.  When Yale University embarked on a study about teen mothers they came to the Closet to interview clients. When Bridgeport instituted the Big Read to improve literacy, the Community Closet was a book distribution site. Bridgeport public school students now wear school uniforms, so the Closet began a voucher system for needy families to buy uniforms.  We are also creating a uniform exchange program.   The Community Closet has one full-time director, a part time assistant, and a part time data entry person.  The rest of the work is done by volunteers.  We are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and are open until 6:00 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month to serve working families.  Intake systems are simple yet organized.

The Community Closet touches many lives: the clients served, the volunteers who are learning valuable working skills; urban and suburban scout, synagogue and church groups holding collections for merchandise; children at the JCC nursery school learning about tzdakah, collecting hats and mittens for needy children in winter, so many different segments of the community come together at the Community Closet.  The Closet is funded though donations, in-kind services of the Jewish Federation and its partner, Family Services Woodfield, and grants.

 The mission to help the needy, the focus on maintaining the dignity of people, the responsibility of a community for those less fortunate, these are all profound Jewish values that are projected in the Community Closet.  This project could be replicated in any community.

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JCRC of Greater Boston Reach Out! (Service Learning Program for Young Adults)

by Robin Rosenbaum

Reach Out!  is a service learning program, launched in the spring of 2010 for young adult Jews in the Greater Boston area. JCRC has worked at engaging young adults in our work for many years, but in the past, relied on fairly traditional means to do so, i.e. staff would develop a program, advertise it and work to recruit participants. This program represents a departure from that traditional approach.  Drawing on lessons learned through our community organizing work, we began our planning by conducting over fifty interviews with key stakeholders, representing different cohorts within the young adult community. The goals of these conversations were not only to glean the interests and priorities of this demographic in community service, but also to identify talented leaders who would shape the new initiative. Several dominant themes emerged; the young adults were highly motivated to engage in meaningful work that involved building ongoing relationships with both fellow volunteers and people they serve, and they expressed a strong desire to build a Jewish community with peers who share their values.

In collaboration with talented leaders identified through this process, JCRC staff developed a preliminary program design based on these principles and formed a committee to implement the program.

The program’s goals reinforce the overall mission of community relations in that they provide critical opportunities for participants to form ongoing relationships with diverse members of the greater Boston community, through their volunteer sites. Sites are intentionally chosen where the volunteer work is most likely to respond to identified community needs and to have positive impact on the quality of life in the broader community. Equally significant is the program’s focus on engaging the next generation in the work of community relations and supporting them in building their own community of peer, focusing on shared values. Finally, there is an intentional focus on leadership development, ensuring a pipeline of talented leaders to sustain our work in the long term.

Participants commit to weekly volunteer service for 8-9 consecutive weeks choosing one of several five different service tracks (Youth Connections, Senior Connections, Hunger and Homelessness, Tax Filing Assistance, Sustainability and Adult Education), each partnering with a local community organization, both in the Jewish and general community of Greater Boston.  Each track is overseen by a trained volunteer “site captain” who acts as the liaison between the site and the volunteers, lead reflection activities for the team and generally ensured the quality of the service experience. In addition to participating in their track specific cohort, participants also attended two shabbat dinners for all Reach Out! volunteers, where they have the opportunity to connect with peers and reflect on their different service experiences.

Rhode Island's 2009 "Fighting Poverty with Faith Conference"

by Jeff

As a founder of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Fight Poverty with Faith, Rhode Island's CRC is working with the coalition to cut poverty in half in Rhode Island within 10 years.  Last year, the kick-off to these efforts was a day-long conference held in Providence.

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Touring the Twin Cities' Summit Academy

by Jeff

As part of the 2009 Fighting Poverty with Faith mobilization, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota & the Dakotas (JCRC) and its partners planned an educational program at the Summit Academy, which is the leading institution in the Twin Cities for training low-income minority community members for Green Jobs being created in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.

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Fighting Poverty with Faith 2009 Event: Memphis

by Jeff

For those who might be seeking inspiration as we plan for 2010's Fighting Poverty with Faith mobilization, the JCPA is happy to present 3 great examples of interfaith programming undertaken during last year's campaign.  In 2009, the Memphis CRC ran a successful program entitled "Go Green, $ave Green."

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