407-645-5933 ext. 236 marisa.west@shalomorlando.org

Talking to your children about Pittsburgh

When the Federation puts on a family program, our hearts are filled with happiness as we share ways to bring your family closer to our wonderful Jewish community here in Central Florida.

Today, our hearts feel broken for all the families and loved ones affected by the tragedy on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue as well as all the Jewish residents in Pittsburgh. If you are looking for ways to talk to your children about what happened, PJ Library has provided a short list of links and resources that you may find helpful. You can read more about having a conversation with your children about anti-Semitism, how to talk about scary situations and PJ Library books that reinforce the Jewish value “chesed,” giving fully of oneself with love and compassion.  

PJ Library Orlando and the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando stand with you and Jewish families in Pittsburgh and all over the country.

PJ Library Families: Connections that matter

When it comes time to announce an upcoming PJ Library program, I always pause and wonder, “Will this program be special enough? … Will people come?”

A lot of thought goes into the words we use when we announce an event. We’re asking a young family to trust us with their precious time, and if they do, we will provide them with a uniquely Jewish experience and an opportunity to make meaningful new connections with other families.

Even before a program is promoted through email and social media, we are fortunate to have a wonderful team of parent volunteers behind the scenes making plans to guarantee its success. Take, for example, our recent Sweet Fresh Starts and New Beginnings for Rosh Hashanah at Mead Botanical Garden.

At this program, 23 families were welcomed by the smiling faces of our wonderful parent committee, including Oshrat Molayem, Kim Saffran, Melinda Helbraun and Dikla Meitis, who also organized a Rosh Hashanah family card exchange. Lisa Schrieber shared her incredible yoga teachings for a “Fresh Starts” Rosh Hashanah-themed family yoga, followed by a delicious apple and honey picnic breakfast that was packed with love and enthusiasm the day before by Fiona Anavi. The picnic breakfast was sponsored by Dr. Edward and Phyllis Zissman. Fiona also took portraits of children during the program, and just in case we ran out of picnic breakfasts, Oshrat made sure the kids had extra healthy snacks. Even Mead Garden invited us to enjoy the park at no cost!

One of the most rewarding aspects of our family events — indeed, the overarching goal of these events — is when we foster lasting, meaningful connections. Clearly those connections are strong among our parent volunteers, and that camaraderie is contagious! We know we are fulfilling our mission when we see families connect, forge new friendships, find a comfortable way to fit in Jewishly, and then continue on their personal Jewish family journey into the larger community. Knowing that we were there for them when they needed us feels like a warm hug, and it gives us momentum for the next family program.

We also believe it’s our duty to maintain and nurture the connections we have helped to create, so we make sure to stay in regular contact with our families. Each month, our PJ Library families (now 700+ families receiving a book each month!) also receive a special PJ Library e-newsletter. In addition to letting them know about our next program and sharing photo memories of our events, we also share a young-family community calendar, which features contributions from synagogues, Jewish day schools and other organizations. In October, for example, there are 10 additional programs available in the community for young families, and we love that we are able to connect these families to other Jewish organizations all over Central Florida! Last month, we redesigned our newsletter. You’re invited to take a peek, and also “like” and follow us and our upcoming events on Facebook.

Thank you for supporting Federation’s PJ Library and giving us the tools to help create the connections that make our Jewish community bigger, stronger and more vibrant!


New tools for education

 August ushers in the start of a new academic year, and it’s often the most active time for the Federation’s Jewish Teen Education Network (JTEN) as we work with both teens and teachers to help prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead.

This year we had two big JTEN events in the span of less than a week. First, Aug. 6-7, nearly 40 teens gathered at Camp Challenge in Sorrento for “New Beginnings,” our first-ever Communitywide Teen Education Retreat.

All of the retreat’s learning sessions were tied into the theme of Rosh Hashanah – new beginnings, making a fresh start and being more mindful in the new school year and new Jewish year. The retreat wasn’t all business, of course. Teens participated in icebreakers and other social activities, a campfire (with s’mores) and a sing down led by Amy Geboff of Congregation Ohev Shalom.

Day Two opened with a prayerful meditation led by Rabbi Joshua Neely, followed by a Shacharit morning service and nature walk. Daniel Nabatain and Lauren Oback of Congregation of Reform Judaism oversaw the morning learning sessions. As the program drew to an end in the afternoon, Dr. Sheryl Sacharoff (Congregation of Reform Judaism) led the closing session, inspired by Mr. Roger’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Five days later, on Aug. 12, it was the teachers’ turn to share and learn during “Building Your Teachers’ Toolkit,” a daylong workshop held at Congregation Ohev Shalom. The workshop was a collaborative effort between the Federation and the JTEN Educators of six synagogues – Congregation Beth Am, Congregation Ohev Shalom, Congregation of Reform Judaism, Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation, Temple Israel and Temple Shir Shalom.

We were honored to host 50 teachers representing more than 700 combined years of teaching experience!

Prior to the workshop, teachers submitted their “best” lesson plans, which served as the launch point for a discussion focusing on creative and innovative ways educators can be most effective in the classroom. The lesson plans were compiled and saved on JTEN-branded flash drives that were given to each teacher as their Teacher’s Toolkit, which they can continue to build. The Federation plans to make these and future lesson plans available for download by educators via the Federation website.

While seeing the impact these programs have in our community is a reward in itself, it is always heartening to receive positive feedback. People who attended the retreat told me that it was inspiring to see the teens so engaged in meaningful learning experiences, and the teachers at the workshop were thrilled to have the opportunity to interact and share their great ideas.

We’re grateful for the work of our JTEN Educators: Rabbi Joshua Neely, Amy Geboff, Cantor Kim Singer, Dr. Sheryl Sacharoff and Cantor Nina Fine. Rabbi Hillel Skolnik was also instrumental in helping to plan the workshop before he moved out of state.

JTEN is a signature Federation program that fulfills one of our core objectives to help educate the Jewish community. We couldn’t offer such robust JTEN programming without your support, and we thank you for making this month’s successes possible.

Re-imagining young family engagement

In April, Shalom Families Co-chair Fiona Anavi and I had the privilege of representing PJ Library Greater Orlando at the 9th Annual PJ Library Conference at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. More that 200 participants from five countries took part in the conference.

The aim of the conference was to share knowledge, make connections, grow local engagement programs and build friendships – all with the shared goal of making Judaism accessible for Jewish families, in our local communities and all around the world! According to the latest Pew Report, 65% of Jewish families are not engaged in Jewish life, and much of the conference was devoted to re-imagining young family engagement and removing barriers to welcome all Jewish families into our community.

Fiona Anavi and Jennifer Cohen at the PJ Library conference.

The conference kicked off with a warm welcome from Harold Grinspoon, the founder and visionary of PJ Library, and foundation President Winnie Grinspoon. Since its inception 9 years ago, PJ Library has sent an incredible 18,000,000 + books, all over the world, to families raising Jewish children.

 After our welcome on Sunday, Fiona and I went straight to work in networking groups. Fiona shared ideas with PJ communities of a similar size, and I had a breakout session with veteran PJ conference attendees as we discussed ways to make our own communities stronger. After dinner, we heard from our keynote speaker, Rabbi Yonah Schiller, who discussed Impact Design: The Art of Listening and Mindset of Co-Creation. According to Rabbi Schiller, “By making space, granting permission, and employing fearless empathy we can begin to allow our majority Jewish populations to define and design for themselves a Jewish life they can call their own.”

The next day, early risers had the opportunity to choose between a “dance party,” walk around the farm, or morning musical prayer circle, led by renowned Jewish song artists Emily Aronoff Teck (Monday) and Rick Recht & Friends (Tuesday). Monday’s presentation began with an overview of findings from the 2016 PJ Family Results Survey and the powerful impact PJ Library is having on Jewish engagement in homes and local communities. Of the 20,000 + survey respondents, an amazing 99% of Jewish families receiving PJ Library books feel proud to be Jewish!

Throughout the day, we each attended two 90-minute workshops and two “successful effort” sessions led by selected PJ Professionals. I had the opportunity to co-lead the Tikkun Olam/Social Action Program session, where 27 attendees learned more about how we implement our own open-space programs in Orlando, and I shared our program design for a Tikkun Olam Park Cleanup Day.

Every minute of the day was spent learning, even during meals! These meal table sessions gave us the opportunity to talk to various program professionals in very small groups on a wide variety of topics – everything from social media to applying for grants to submitting our own book manuscripts for consideration. Monday night wrapped up with a Performing Arts Showcase featuring Emily Teck & The Bible Players with Rick Recht.

Tuesday was just as busy as Monday, and Fiona and I left the conference with our heads filled to the brim, and ready to start applying new ideas and practices into our own community.

Here in Orlando, it is an honor for the Jewish Federation to be part of the Jewish journey of so many families. Nearly 550 families each month receive PJ Library books, and another 80 participants join us every four to six weeks at our community engagement programs. PJ Library Greater Orlando was recently approved as one of 17 new PJ Our Way Partner Communities. Tweens who are about to age out of PJ Library can enroll in PJ Our Way, for ages 8.5 to 11, and select their own Jewish-themed chapter book each month. We are currently working with a tween and mom committee, and we are looking forward to bringing engagement programs to tweens in the new school year! Be sure to check out our “commercial” introducing PJ Our Way Orlando, starring our very own tween committee!

If you want to see what some of our local PJ Library programs look like, we invite you to view photos and videos at our PJ Library Greater Orlando Facebook page. Please be sure to “like” PJ Library Greater Orlando after your visit.