When the Israelites, received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they came together “as one person with one heart.” Learning can and should unite us. It is our shared heritage and each of us is enriched when we encounter the multiplicity of interpretations inherent in Torah.
This notion served as the basis of a bold joint venture among local synagogues, schools and Jewish organizations. For three years, Yachad brought together high school students from across the denominational spectrum for creative and inspiring learning. It had many successes. At the same time, systemic challenges have forced Yachad to reexamine its model.
Yachad was not the first attempt at a joint High School program in Minneapolis. Talmud Torah has been a collaboration between congregations for more than 100 years. Today, the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day draws students from across the denominational spectrum. Over the years, various programs from joint Confirmation programs to Tichon attempted to reach across movement divides to better serve our Jewish teen community.
In 2008, working with Rabbi Hayim Herring, then-director of Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR), we began exploring new opportunities for collaboration. Faced with shrinking resources brought on by the “Great Recession” and sensing a changing landscape in Jewish education, we sought a way to strengthen our educational offerings, to reduce competition for teachers, funding, and students, and to break down perceived walls between the movements.
This was no small task. The idea of a joint program might not sound revolutionary. But the Jewish community is diverse. We quickly recognized there were competing objectives, not to mention diverse understandings of Jewish tradition. Aligning ourselves behind common goals and a shared philosophy of education proved difficult. We first had to build bonds of trust and solidify commitment to one another. Thus, was born the Brit Yachad, a sacred covenant which bound us together as one group committed to the idea of collaboratively educating our teens.
Working with national Jewish education consultants and some of the best and most creative local educational minds, we began to build. From the very beginning, the Minneapolis Jewish Federation was fully supportive of this venture. Their leadership shepherded the process, eliminated hurdles and provided office support. Significantly, they helped secure funds to begin the planning process. Soon, our efforts caught national attention and momentum developed.
Our Executive Director, Dana Prottas and first board chair, Jed Stillman, worked tirelessly to create community buy-in and an impressive catalog of offerings. Even as excitement grew, the change was not without its challenges. Bringing our students together meant closing synagogue and Talmud Torah high school programs which had their own supporters, history, and successes. It also caused challenging financial implications for some of those institutions. But we pushed through those challenges as a community with the hope of building a successful and sustainable collaborative High School program.
For three years, Yachad did indeed succeed in bringing together hundreds of teens for some of the most creative and thoughtful educational offerings: moot beit din, glass blowing, Witness Theater, creative writing, LGBTQ Inclusion, lifeguarding and more. Weekly dinners and pop-up programs created an air of excitement.
Even with its successes, a number of factors have led us to a change in the Yachad model: The desire by synagogues and families to strengthen their connections during the high school years, the growth of alternative Jewish educational and social programs, the high cost of Yachad, and changes in families’ commitment to Jewish education to name a few.
What will the new model look like? Rather than trying to bring all Jewish teens together on a single night to a single location, we will make available to any Jewish teen the offerings of the entire community’s educational programs whenever and wherever they are offered. In the language of our educational consultants, we are moving from a centralized program to a “market-driven ecosystem” offered in a variety of forums.
Such a model would not have been possible without Yachad. Yachad helped us develop a high level of trust among clergy and between institutions. It challenged us to face an evolving understanding of the nature of organizational membership and the community is indeed stronger for having participated in this experiment in collaboration.
If only for a few years, Yachad was an impressive accomplishment that highlights the spirit of our community. It is a spirit of collegiality among the rabbis and Jewish professionals, synagogue schools and organizations. Just as significantly, it is a spirit of creativity and willingness to experiment among our lay leaders and donors to find and create 21st-century Jewish institutions still rooted in Sinai.
Rabbi Alexander Davis, Senior Rabbi of Beth El Synagogue and Rabbi David Locketz, Senior Rabbi of Bet Shalom Congregation, served as the first Rabbinic Chair People of Yachad.