Stories from the Field: Lauren Belferder - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Stories from the Field: Lauren Belferder

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Lauren BelferderLauren Belferder
Director of Youth Engagement
Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights, New York
Currently a student in Cohort 8 of the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR 

Lauren Belferder serves as the Director of Youth Engagement at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, New York. In addition to overseeing and running the Sulam teen programs, Lauren also coordinates the Teen Chazak program for children on the autism spectrum, teaches Religious School classes, and assists with the 6th grade Holocaust class. One the Sulam teen programs that Lauren has been directing is Sinai's Hand in Hand program, an innovative opportunity which allows teens to partner with the New York City Department of Homeless Services to bring children from homeless shelters to Temple Sinai for mentoring and social activities. Lauren’s dedication to the Reform Movement and her strong belief in the importance of education for students of all ages, has motivated her to lead over a dozen Birthright trips, as well as service learning trips for teens, through the URJ's Mitzvah Corps program.

At Temple Sinai, we have over 130 teens that we see every year and we asked ourselves, how do we keep them going during this pandemic? We started by coming from a place of positivity. The day we found out that everyone was going into quarantine, I said to the educators, not doing something isn’t an option. We need to figure out how to continue our programs remotely. We quickly got on the same page, recognizing where our students are at and the timing of their schedules and figured out what we need to do in order to continue creating the community we have built. The first program we were able to creatively strategize was our teen Cooking for a Cause class. I was able to send ingredients out to our students via Instacart so that we could host an online step-by-step cooking class together.

Virtual ProgrammingWe continued running the majority of our teen programs virtually. As one of the largest congregational teen programs in the Greater New York area, the teens join us annually to deepen their Jewish education, repair the world, connect to each other and thrive in a safe environment. The Sulam (Ladder) Teen Programs offer each member of our community a unique way to engage and find a connection. Each year we strive to offer 10 program options that are interest based and allow for community service opportunities for our teens. In addition, we have immersive experiences such as volunteer vacations and single-day events, where we bring Jewish values to life, further strengthening Jewish teen’s Jewish identities and connection to the community.

The challenge we faced now was continuing the community service component online, so we have paused some of those programs. After just a few days as the news spread of which programs would be continuing and which would be postponed, the participants started to reach out. They texted, called and emailed, asking and wanting to figure out ways for them to give back and help others in need during this unprecedented time. The teens have worked together to offer online tutoring services, and helping to deliver groceries to our congregants that are alone. The teens are currently planning and creating a fun activity workbook for our youngest members (2-5 year-olds) and are planning weekly “At Home” volunteer projects by partnering with another local area congregational teen program. The Hand in Hand teens are setting up a virtual call to work on a drive to send supplies to the Shelters they have been partnering with this year. These teens are incredible and are continuing to push us in the right direction.


Our programs that we could move online we did: interactives, learning programs, lectures, and speaker series including teen Holocaust class, as well as a Shabbat bake-a-thon. We added a teen text study as well as a weekly Havdalah service bringing in the alumni of the Sulam teen programs and its current participants to help bring the service to life.

What I think we did differently than other institutions is that we immediately reacted. Not in crisis mode, but in seeing where we are and what we need to do to ensure our youth have interaction. We reorganized by dividing up our youth and teens by age, then offered each grouping a fun, social activity for 45 minutes once a week. Each week a calendar goes out with the times for each class and activity. This calendar includes fun options to do with your family on Shabbat.  We also created calendars for all members to use to stay busy or have some fun.

Mindfulness Calendar

Here are some of the options for teens:

  • Mindfulness calendar - taking a walk, doing meditation, yoga.
  • Gathering together calendar - cooking, cleaning, crafting
  • Entertainment calendar - Netflix, podcasts, books

Here are some of the options for adults:

  • Friday: Shabbat service
  • Saturday: Morning minyan and Havdalah in the evening for adults and teens
  • Monday: Meditation
  • Tuesday: Cantor singing
  • Wednesday: Asking the Rabbi why
  • Thursday: Happy Hour

And we have restarted the regularly scheduled classes taught by clergy, but through Zoom.

This pandemic has enabled me to think creatively about the work we do, because as much as I have not enjoyed “social distancing”, it has given me a new spark. After a while you end up doing the same thing even though you may rethink it over time. It has been exciting for me to explore new topics and themes, and connect with our students in a different way. I continue to ask myself: How can we interact differently? What could be offered? What is important to be shared?

HUC-JIR's Executive M.A. program is generously supported by The Jim Joseph Foundation.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.