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STAR finds its first lights

NEW YORK, Feb. 6 (JTA) — In the past decade, Rabbis Laurie Rutenberg and Gary Schoenberg have hosted more than 7,000 unaffiliated Jews for Shabbat and holiday meals in their Portland, Ore., home.

Through Gesher, an organization they founded, the Reform-trained rabbis demonstrate home holiday observance and teach families how to bring rituals and traditions into their homes.

Now, with two local congregations — a Conservative one and a more traditional one — they will be training people who are active synagogue members to host less-involved families from their own congregations.

The new project aims to create “a deeper sense of belonging to the synagogue community and shift the view of synagogue membership from a kind of service that you pay for to a partnership in creating community,” said Schoenberg.

With a grant for $50,000, the Portland project, called Restoring the Holiness of Community, is one of 25 new efforts to benefit from STAR, a new $18-million philanthropy that hopes to help synagogues reach — and positively impact — more American Jews.

STAR, which stands for Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, is allocating a total of $565,750 this year, in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.

The philanthropy, one of several new initiatives focusing on synagogue transformation, was founded in December 1999 by mega-donors Charles Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman.

Although Schusterman died in late December, and the organization has not yet found an executive director, STAR is nonetheless moving forward with the projects it announced at a special gathering in September.

In addition to awarding grants, it also is meeting with leaders of the religious movements to determine whether their synagogues need consultants to help them improve, and if so, how best to train them.

STAR is also bringing together a group of 25 rabbis to design something called Star Tech, Internet-based professional development courses for rabbis.

So far 170 rabbis have expressed interest in participating, said Sanford Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

For both the consultants and the Internet project, STAR will work closely with the religious movements and not compete with services they already offer, Cardin said.

That approach may in part be an effort to overcome some bad feelings that surfaced at STAR’s summit for a hand-picked group of 150 Jewish leaders, when Steinhardt ruffled feathers with a declaration that the Reform and Conservative movements were “accidents of history.”

At that event several rabbis and communal professionals privately bristled at the philanthropists’ blunt criticisms of synagogues, but nonetheless expressed hope that the new initiative would draw needed attention and funds to congregational life.

At the time, several critics questioned whether STAR’s grants would draw many proposals, since it allowed only a month for applicants to put such proposals together, required that all projects involve more than one stream of Judaism and obligated them to pull together matching funds in five weeks.

The matching fund requirement is to ensure that the projects have local support, said Cardin.

In the end, with 140 proposals requesting almost $7 million, STAR appears to have suffered no shortage of interest.

Some grantees said the STAR grant offer — as well as its requirement that different organizations collaborate on projects — has already spurred them to develop better relationships with other organizations.

STAR is a remedy for the fact that “in the synagogue world, we don’t generally think about what’s going on in the next community,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

A consortium composed of his group, 18 local synagogues, agencies and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles received a $50,000 grant for collaborative programming.

In addition to being a forum for sharing ideas on a range of topics, the consortium will help train volunteers throughout the region to teach adults basic Jewish skills, such as following Shabbat prayers and reading from the Torah.

STAR has “helped us think outside the box” and “given us added incentive to think this way,” Diamond said.

In addition to the Portland and Los Angeles projects, the $50,000 beneficiaries in the recent round of grants are:

• The SAGE Leadership Institute in Boston, a multi-synagogue effort to provide a yearlong educational and leadership training for Jews in their 20s;

• Lilmode V’Laasote, a communal learning cooperative in which newly ordained Orthodox rabbis conduct workshops and serve as educational resources to the Jewish community of Boca Raton, Fla.; and

• Panim Online, a demonstration project in Seattle to create customized Web sites for four synagogues, train congregational staff to maintain and market their sites and launch at least three mini-courses on the Internet.

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