The Orthodox Union awarded a $5,000 grant to the Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah synagogue for its TeLeM program, which seeks to bring people back to synagogue life.
An OU committee selected 35 synagogues, including ASKT in Glendale, from among 300 submissions across 34 states. The ASKT program was one of those chosen for “both out-of-the-box thinking and opportunities that are more likely to rebuild and reaffirm the value of synagogue and community and therefore encourage congregants to return for the long term,” according to an OU statement.
The synagogue was already gearing up to do the TeLeM program when the OU sent out the request for grant proposals. The TeLeM idea is to create fun events to help get members involved in shul life again, after many months of a difficult pandemic.
It’s already a success, said Rabbi Wes Kalmar, who leads ASKT.
One TeLeM session was breakfast and prayer, paired with a class on cheating in baseball from a Jewish perspective. This was followed by a Brewers game and tailgating.
TeLeM stands for tefillah (prayer), limmud (learning), and mischak (play). These are all part of each session.
“The idea was Sunday morning, have people come in the morning to davening. Then we did a free breakfast,” he said. The davening is the tefillah (prayer) part. Then, the learning, or limmud part, is a class led by Kalmar that somehow connects, however tangentially, with the play part. Thus, along with prayer, Kalmar discussed in one session whether it’s Jewish to hunt, followed by paintball.
A session on the limits of risk was followed by whirly ball. “I talked about the risk of COVID, the risk of the vaccines … from a halachic point of view. What activities are you allowed or not allowed to do, depending on how much risk was involved,” Kalmar said.
TeLeM is for all ages, with activities that may be particularly appealing to families and younger congregants. The sessions started in April and have been held monthly; next up is a paint night.
The grant has allowed the synagogue to charge reduced fees for the activities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us all that the shul experience creates a sense of community that is irreplicable,” OU President Moishe Bane said in a statement. “Shul leaders across the country are discovering new ways to bring back our communities stronger than ever – our families, our singles, our seniors and our youth – and we are thrilled to be able to partner with them on this endeavor.”
ASKT has held services through most of the pandemic, adjusting safety protocols grounded in expert advice as needed, according to Kalmar. Mask wearing and outside services have been part of that equation. Kiddush at the synagogue was re-initiated around Shavout in May. In-person social activities have suffered during the pandemic.
Kalmar sees the TeLeM program this way: “Tell ’em it’s fun to come back to shul.”