Revitalized Synagogue-Federation Partnership strengthens community

by | Dec 7, 2012 | Featured

Jewish communities across the United States are grappling with the reality of dwindling synagogue memberships, struggling or shuttered JCCs, shrinking Day School enrollment and little opportunity for Jewish culture, education and interaction.

This area is not immune to some of these trends, but the Synagogue-Federation Partnership of the Tidewater Jewish community has taken a proactive approach, and is working on building a thriving community for current and future generations.

The partnership between local temples and the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater has been in place, in various incarnations, for some time, but in the past year and a half has taken on new life and energy.

“We know that there have been significant challenges throughout our history and they have been met through the organized efforts of the community and its entities. However, we believe that we are facing challenges that have been exacerbated by the recent economic downturn and the old solutions offered by Federations and temples are simply inadequate,” says Alvin Wall, UJFT president.

“The challenge now is to what extent our Federation and our community has the courage to face itself, change what is necessary, and end up more vital for undertaking the sometimes more difficult and painful effort. Our Federation and community decided as it always does; and that is to take the hard and inspiring road where the potential reward is huge, but nothing is guaranteed,” says Wall.

The revitalization is a result of the examination of community building opportunities that exist for and require the efforts of the United Jewish Federation to fulfill and implement. The investigation and discussion were undertaken by the Federation-Synagogue sub-committee of UJFT’s “Strategic Planning” process and the subsequent recommendat ions were forwarded to, approved and funded by the UJFT board of directors in 2011. The substance and tone of the recommendations included the establishment of a partnership that was mutually beneficial, accepting and supporting both through word and deed of the goals and missions of UJFT and area temples and synagogues, ultimately resulting in the building of a strong Tidewater Jewish community.

“This partnership is a tremendous move forward for our Jewish population,” says Edward Kramer, president of Ohef Sholom Temple, a Reform synagogue in Norfolk. “The Federation makes us feel what it’s like to be part of the larger community.

“Without the Federation as an umbrella, what we have are disparate groups claiming some sense of Judaism without any real purpose other than in our own little spheres,” Kramer says. “Federation leaders took the initiative to reach out to synagogues and agencies that had been involved in the past, as well as those that hadn’t been involved, and to make us all become a part of what it means to be a Jewish community.”

Some of the UJFT funded initiatives the Partnership has created include two community-wide Shabbaton learning weekends in 2012, hosted by various synagogues, and technical assistance and communication training sessions for all synagogue and agency administrative staff, held at the Sandler Family campus.

In addition to those events, the Synagogue-Federation Partnership funded five innovative grants in 2012; funds will be available again for grants in 2013.

The Synagogue-Federation Partnership also led to the establishment of the area’s first Community Concierge. Hired as the concierge in 2011, Rebecca Bickford works closely with religious and lay leaders from the various synagogues and area religious schools. She gathers information about holiday and Shabbat services, cultural and educational programs, and volunteer opportunities.

Bickford is available for faceto- face meetings, phone conversations, and as an online presence, posting the material she has amassed on the community’s Shalom Tidewater website (, in Shalom Tidewater blog posts, and on her Facebook page.

“My role is to reach out to new Jewish singles and families who have relocated here or who are thinking of moving here, or who maybe already live here but aren’t involved, and to engage them and help them to become active within the community or find a congregation,” says Bickford. “I have to work closely with the temples in order to let others know all that Tidewater has to offer—and there’s a lot.

“What I’ve discovered during this time is that our rabbis, synagogue leaders, educators and community planners are not only sharing their information with the community, but they’re sharing with each other, too—what they’re seeing and experiencing— and they’re getting to know each other in a way that maybe some o f them never would have before this partnership,” Bickford adds.

Another program that the Synagogue- Federation Partnership is actively involved in is the Community Relations Council of the UJFT’s speaker series, Israel Today. All area synagogues— along with other community partners—are partners in promoting and supporting the series.

“Being involved in a program like this—where three political, pro-Israel speakers are coming in—which people around here really want—is something we can all get together on,” says Rabbi Sender Haber of B’nai Israel Congregation, an Orthodox shul in Norfolk. “The more events there are like this, the better it is for everyone; it creates a common ground.”

Any doubts Rabbi Haber may have initially felt about B’nai Israel’s participation in the partnership are being appeased by the concern and commitment he says he has experienced in interactions with Federation staff.

“The Synagogue- Federation Partnership has made it easy for our synagogue to become involved in several community wide initiatives,” Haber says. “By strengthening our unity as a Jewish community while respecting our autonomy as a synagogue, the partnership has provided an excellent model for open communication and effective collusion.”

“There’s no competition in this,” Haber adds. “The idea is, ‘Let’s all work together to strengthen Tidewater.’ It’s a beautiful thing.”

by Laine M. Rutherford