By Susan Zukrow and Irene Lehrer Sandalow

We’ve been fortunate to be involved in directing two groundbreaking initiatives in the Chicago Jewish community that seek to positively engage families with young children and families with children preparing to become B’nai Mitzvah. Both initiatives are generously supported by the Crown Family Philanthropies.

  • The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR) seeks to reimagine b’nai mitzvah, making it more meaningful and engaging for students and their families. In greater Chicago, 11 congregations currently participate in the BMR.
  • The Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI) includes 12 early childhood centers – from across Jewish denominations and organizations – that provide pre-schoolers and their families with opportunities for engagement and long-term involvement in the Jewish community.

Over the summer months we had a chance to reflect on the progress so far, and examine how the themes of the High Holy Days connect to our efforts. The prescriptions for introspection and renewal that guide us as individuals during this season can also serve as a framework to assess progress in institutions’ efforts to reflect, envision the future, and promote change in various facets of Jewish organizational life. The theme of Teshuva also informs our thinking about reorienting our vision, priorities, and goals, because what worked last year, or for the last decade, is not necessarily the right fit today.

Before becoming new again, in other words, before we innovate, how do we look inward?

To be successful, change must engage our will, our logic, and our emotions.

Engaging Our Will: How do we begin to motivate and inspire ourselves, our stakeholders, and our community to imagine, be comfortable with, and even drive change? Creating space for a diversity of stakeholders to ask and answer big, strategic, and value-driven questions is necessary to create a vision. Indeed, questions are gateways to clarify a shared vision, increase stakeholders’ willingness to converse meaningfully, address challenges and opportunities, and create urgency around the need for change.

CEELI leadership teams know that families are open to new experiences and friendships when children are born. With intentionality, focus, and grounding, organizations can use this window in families’ lives to create long-term engagement opportunities in the Jewish community for them. But first, it is necessary to answer these questions:

  • Why should families choose a Jewish preschool for their child?
  • What are the aspirations we desire for these families?

Likewise, congregations in the BMR must answer these questions on the way to creating an inspiring vision for their work:

  • Why mark children becoming b’nai mitzvah?
  • What do we want our students to know, feel, and do as a result of becoming b’nai mitzvah?

Engaging Our Logic: Finding, organizing, analyzing, and documenting facts and data to make decisions and create plans of action should be fairly straightforward. It isn’t always so, especially when practices are so deeply ingrained in our institutions that it’s hard to see when they no longer work.

Taking notice of the facts in front of them, a number of our congregations and preschools are using what they see to create more innovative, inspiring, and inviting communities:

At one congregation, the first meeting with b’nai mitzvah parents always focused on event logistics – venues, dates, catering, and the like. Based on the congregation’s vision, leaders questioned whether this angle was the most inspiring way to begin families’ journeys toward b’nai mitzvah. Now, the first b’nai mitzvah meeting focuses instead on Jewish values, building relationships, and parents’ hopes for their children’s b’nai mitzvah.

Another congregation observed that its preschool was a silo within the synagogue, with no way to engage preschool families in a Jewish journey within the synagogue community. As a result, preschool and religious school leaders created a shared vision that became the cornerstone for joint events that leverage connections to all synagogue families, particularly around lifecycle occasions.

These examples showcase that it takes courage for leaders to be willing to look and notice what’s in front of them. However, knowing something is the first part of the battle, but being willing to act on the information is, in many ways, revolutionary.The changing nature of Jewish families today compel Jewish institutions to consider their changing needs and create an environment that is inclusive and supportive. We even have data supporting it, but are we willing to take the next step? When we do, innovation can begin. For both CEELI and the BMR, these are the initial action steps towards change and meaningful engagement.

Engaging Our Emotions: Engaging One’s Emotions

In a professional setting, we don’t like to talk about emotions as a real asset or a liability when embarking on innovative work. People’s motivations, bias, emotional processes need to be acknowledged in order to introduce and move new ideas forward. Do you know what your colleagues and partners care about? What brought them to this work? What is their “self-interest” in being part of an initiative?

We learned that assembling a committed and passionate leadership team is essential, because it ensures that the initiative keeps going despite staffing changes, changes in an organization’s’ priorities and more. Including lay leaders on the team proved to be an essential component for sustaining progress, support, and thoughtful insight. Lay leaders on our teams are dedicated and enthusiastic stakeholders who advocate for the work while at the same time, share ownership of our outcomes and results.

An unexpected outcome of inviting different perspectives and voices to the table is that it allows for people to bring their personal passions. In fact, at one congregation, the visioning process helped leaders learn about others’ interests and incorporate them in planning a family retreat, positively affecting the retreat and the overall community

Full Commitment to Introspection

What we learned through the work of CEELI and the BMR is that for innovations, or to be more bold, a revolution to happen, the institutions have to be fully open and committed to the process of introspection. Here are some questions we found to be helpful to begin the process:

  1. Which stakeholders need to be involved in the process of introspection?
  2. What kind data do we need to make informed decisions?
  3. How do we begin to understand the needs of different families?
  4. How do identify and overcome obstacles and opportunities?
  5. How do we move ideas out of the meeting room to actions on the ground?
  6. Finally, and most importantly, how do we create an environment of trust so that the most essential questions can be asked?

Just as it takes courage, persistence, and vision to conduct our own annual cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul), so, too, are these elements – together with our will, our logic, and our emotions – necessary components when striving to implement change within our congregations. At this season – and throughout the year – we are proud of the many institutions that are ready, willing, and able to engage in this process to make our communities more engaging and relevant for today’s Jewish families.

Irene Lehrer Sandalow is the Chicago Cohort Senior Project Manager of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

Susan Zukrow is the Project Director of Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiativeand Director, URJ National Communities of Practice.

For information regarding our participating cohort teams or their initiatives, please contact Susan at or Irene at

Courtesy eJewish Philanthropy

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