Seder lessons for the High Holy Day services

For the greater part of the last decade, my wife Rachel and I have led communal Passover sedarim and services, as well as High Holy Days Services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in Manhattan. The first seven years of leading services were geared towards unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in lower Manhattan under the auspices of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE).

Our inaugural High Holy Day Services were conducted in Manhattan’s iconic Puck Building. We had no idea what to expect. Through aggressive street marketing, parlor meetings and word-of-mouth advertising, more than 150 unaffiliated young Jewish professionals pre-registered to come and pray with us. In addition to the explanatory services, we held festive holiday meals that engendered a sense of warmth and community. For many, this was either their first Jewish experience in many years — or possibly their first Jewish experience ever.

During the subsequent years, our holiday services grew in both content and attendees, as did the necessary organizational resources. The greater number of young Jewish professionals being served demanded a greater investment on our part as far as time, energy and finances. It seemed that our efforts spurred greater attendance and in turn a greater opportunity to engage on an ongoing basis, to turn a once a year holiday into an ongoing connection of regular meaningful Jewish experiences.

We were beginning to form a community.

Our goal was to create a yearlong, ongoing and permanent community of young professionals connected through their common desire to develop their Jewish identity. We prayed together, shared apple martinis together, and discussed the meaning of teshuva, returning to ourselves and to Jewish tradition. Each year a healthy number of participants from the High Holy Day Service would return to pray with us on Shabbat, join our Shabbat table at home and became “core” members of our burgeoning community. They would identify this community as theirs, find relevance in the explanations and leave the services feeling inspired, recharged and energized. This smaller group would come not just once each year, but regularly, to our weekly classes, Shabbat dinners, volunteer programs, holiday parties and other programs.

Yet, the majority of the participants did not return to pray and many didn’t come back for other programs and events. These “High Holy Day Jews” experience some Jewish guilt or for a multitude of other reasons, only come to one service each year — and that’s it. They don’t want more Judaism in their lives. Once each year seems to be the maximum. Despite best efforts to lure them back more often, enticing home-cooked Shabbat invitations, personal emails or Facebook messages, they had made up their minds that neither I, nor the Jewish identity we were offering, would play a role in their lives beyond that once-per-year visit to synagogue.

Initially, this decision would pain me greatly and this low retention rate would cloud any personal feelings of success. Yet over time, as our community began to grow and our weekly classes, monthly Shabbat dinners, parties and retreat participant numbers remained steady, I became complacent with this reality. I turned a blind eye to it. My plate was full. Thank G-d. We certainly had a healthy flow of interested Jews.

As summer began to fade into autumn and High Holy Day planning began, my whole outlook had changed — I knew going into it that for many, no matter what we did or didn’t do, they were not coming back until the following Yom Kippur.

I had an epiphany, however, during a post-Passover conversation with my friend and colleague Steve Eisenberg, co-founder of Jewish International Connection of New York, on the past year. As had become our custom, we were sharing stories, comparing experiences and suggesting tweaks for future years, and then he said something that altered my entire perception of this challenge. He too faced a similar difficulty in his efforts. I learned that the issue wasn’t the apple martinis or the break-out sessions during the service — it was the holiday service experience itself.

Let’s face it, even though our service is engaging, explanatory,  and experiential, peppered with questions and interaction, it is still a prayer service.

It was then that I realized that the Passover Seder, filled with experience, relevance, joy, melodies, tradition, socialized through hands on ‘direct contact’, should inform our services. The Seder is able to touch people’s souls and speak to them in ways that many synagogue-based services never can.

That being said, there is a lot the Passover seder can teach a synagogue service. With the summer soon over and the Holy Days, lurking, Synagogues will soon be filling-up for Rosh Hashanah Services, Yizkor memorial and Kol Nidre night. Here is a Passover inspired checklist, is your High Holy Day Service Kosher for Passover?

1. Is it relevant? In the advertising industry, relevancy is everything. Before purchasing anything, a consumer asks himself, “Is this relevant to me?” Knowing this, advertisers then decide upon focal points in their advertising to connect their product to potential customers. The Passover seder experience is inherently more relevant to Jews of all walks of life than a synagogue service. For instance, the seder incorporates daily activities such as eating and discussion, in which everyone, regardless of affiliation or denomination, participates; it centers around the idea of freedom, a universal concept that most agree is a basic human right; and it provides a social atmosphere, which humans crave, where you are expected to make comments, meet your neighbors and learn about Judaism in a non-judgmental environment.

2. Is it interactive? Our Passover seder table is super-interactive. Overlooking the obvious regular interaction between food, wine and stimulating discussion, our table includes lots of “edutainment.” From the many costumes, role plays, games, marshmallow guns and decorations, the entire seder is interactive in every definition.

3. Is it user-friendly? Have you ever been to a seder that did not include step-by-step instructions? Instructions are key. The expert and the novice are both warmly welcomed and no one feels out of place. The instructions provided throughout the seder level the playing field, embracing all those around the table equally.

4. Lastly, is it modern? There is no secret sauce to Jewish continuity. Intermarriage, assimilation and apathy are rearing their ugly heads in many new areas. Yet, if the next generation is able to accept the Jewish traditions from the preceding generation, we will be able to maintain that tradition, which has remained intact through millennia. In order to keep young Jewish professionals, who often by necessity live fairly secular lives, interested in Judaism, one must understand the ways Judaism and secular culture have changed and find the best way to keep Jewish culture whole without impinging upon secular culture.

Passover and the High Holy Days are arguably the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays; however, the average Jew in the United States today has not been given the basic skill set necessary to access our tradition. Synagogues are there to provide access to our rich and living heritage, but synagogues must take that responsibility in stride and use all the tools in the arsenal to attract the next generation.

Rabbi Daniel Kraus in an orthodox rabbi, entrepreneur and marketer who uses his gift of innovation and creativity to reach and engage affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Rabbi Kraus currently serves as a Rabbi and the Director of Community Education at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Daniel has been living in New York for the last 10 years and has been heavily involved in a range of Jewish organizations. Together with his wife Rachel, Rabbi Daniel has built a vibrant community of previously unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in the midtown Manhattan area, with over 7,000 people from diverse backgrounds participating in their programs over 7 years. Follow him at @rabbidkraus.

It’s hard to find good day school leaders these days

A dearth of leadership talent is affecting not only the likes of Yahoo! and Microsoft, it’s also wreaking havoc on the Jewish day school system as schools find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified heads.

Representatives from 11 Jewish educational organizations will meet next month at a think-tank at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Working with strategic planners and other Jewish and general education experts, they will look for solutions to what they describe as a crisis.

“As soon as you bring it up with those involved in Jewish education, it’s like bringing up the topic of in-laws with a group of married people — there are a lot of nodding heads,” said Nina Butler, an educational consultant at the Avi Chai Foundation. The foundation has a special focus on day school education, and is one of the think tank’s organizers.

To some extent, the day school system is a victim of its own success, said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

“This is basically a story about the phenomenally rapid growth of the day school system in North America,” he said. “For the last couple of decades, the addition of new schools and the expansion of schools has put a tremendous demand on the Jewish community to supply leaders and teachers. The growth has outstripped the capacity.”

There are roughly 800 North American day schools, and 60 new schools have opened since PEJE, a collaboration of major philanthropists to improve Jewish education, started in 1997, Elkin said. The number of children in day schools has increased by 100,000 since 1982 to more than 200,000 today, according to a 2003 Avi Chai census.

Frances Urman, director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, founded by Avi Chai and run out of JTS, said her office has seen a “tremendous” influx of calls from schools across the country looking to fill their top spots. Her office runs a 14-month fellowship to train prospective day school leaders.

Marvin Schick, a senior adviser to the Avi Chai Foundation, said finding heads of school isn’t the only issue — there’s also the problem of keeping them.

Schick recently completed research for a study into Jewish day school leadership. He sent out 500 questionnaires to Jewish heads of school and got 400 responses.

The study looked at career path, salary, job responsibilities, career satisfaction and other areas. The data won’t be ready for release for several months, but Schick said it shows that a “significant number” of Jewish heads of school are “new or fairly new” at their jobs.

Most started out as teachers without expecting to go into administrative work, he said, and one out of five continues to teach on top of other duties. Schick also found that job satisfaction is very high among heads of school, with 90 percent of those who returned the questionnaire reporting less than 1 percent job dissatisfaction.

Schick said it was “remarkable that there is so much movement in the field.”

Los Angeles, home to 37 day schools serving 10,000 K-12th grade students, has bucked the national trend and enjoyed healthy stability in retaining principals and headmasters, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education.

“School heads have been drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including both Jewish education and public and private school administration. Rare are the instances of appointment as head of a day school in L.A., absent previous experience in a senior role in educational administration,” Graff said.

Still, the national crisis is cause for concern.

“Los Angeles, however, represents 5 percent of the schools and students in the American day school universe. Ensuring that, nationally, there is a sufficient pool of well-qualified heads of Jewish day schools to serve the needs of an expanding number of institutions is vital to sustaining and furthering the momentum of the day school movement,” Graff said.

PEJE’s Elkin said the average retention rate for heads of Jewish schools is three to six years, hardly enough time for an educator to leave a mark. For the schools to be successful, they have to figure out how to raise that rate to six to nine years, Elkin said.

When principals do switch jobs, it’s often because they find better opportunities, advancement or a preferable location, said Schick, who noted that “very few were fired.”

Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that schools are popping up in small Jewish communities, such as Kerry, N.C. and Asheville, N.C., said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, an umbrella organization for the country’s 90 Jewish community schools.

Getting qualified people to leave bigger Jewish communities is often a problem, and getting them to stay when a job in a larger city opens up is difficult, he said.

A head of school functions like a CEO, maintaining curriculum and serving as liaison among the school’s board, faculty, parents and student body, while making sure that school finances are in check. Finding someone who is qualified to do all this — and who also has experience working at a Jewish school — is nearly impossible, Kramer said.

He added that about eight RAVSAK schools — about 10 percent of the schools in the system — look for new heads each year.

That’s why Debra Altshul-Stark, president of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, considers her school very lucky to have found a qualified applicant to take over as head of school this year. The founding headmaster of the 25-year-old school retired five years ago, and the school couldn’t find a qualified replacement.

The board decided to try a three-headed approach. That flopped, as did a model of two heads of school.

When the board decided to go back to a single-head model, Stark was wary, because the first search had been so disappointing. This time 25 candidates applied; one had the general educational and Jewish educational background — and wanted to move to Milwaukee.