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Meet Abby Reiken, Woodlands’ New Director of Congregational Learning

Abby Reiken’s experience with Jewish education has, from the beginning, been simultaneously typical and non-traditional—typical in
that it mirrored that of so many other Jewish kids of her generation; non-traditional in that it never followed an expected path.

Growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in a non-observant Jewish household, Abby found the highlight of each year to be the celebration of Jewish holidays, which involved large gatherings of her extended family. “I found real positive connections with Jewish traditions in this really meaningful family time,” she says.

And although she was not a fan of her childhood temple’s Hebrew School program (which she found boring, but which was such a “nightmare” for her younger brother that he spent most of his time in the principal’s office), she was interested enough in learning more
that she signed up for Hebrew High School—where she was surprised to discover that she was the only student attending of their own accord; all the rest claimed to have been bribed by their parents to attend. “I really wanted to learn,” she says. 
Her takeaway: “We can do better than this. Jewish education shouldn’t turn kids off.”

The Key is Listening

And so it was that, as a student at Brandeis, majoring in psychology and receiving certification as an elementary school teacher, she found herself drawn more to Jewish than secular education. “I started teaching Hebrew School on the side to make extra money,” she recalls.
“And I fell in love with learning about Judaism by being an educator.” As a student teacher, she found herself drawn to the Jewish students and “frustrated that each month revolved around Christian holidays.” So, after graduation, she pursued graduate work in education and Jewish Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and then received a Master’s of Education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was, she says, “a way to be Jewish and give back to the Jewish community through my teaching skills.”

The sense that “we can do better” has informed everything Abby has done in Jewish education throughout her career, and underlying that conviction has been an approach rooted in listening to people and, as she puts it, “embracing where every family is and creating different experiences about how Judaism can enrich their lives so that they can find their way in.”  

Because “I didn’t grow up with an observant background,” she explains, “I didn’t make assumptions that people just want to come to services or observe the holidays in particular ways.” She has advocated for congregants to be treated in nonjudgmental ways that inspire them to engage in Jewish living without pressure or guilt. Toward that end, she says, she has found it critical to “think about how we can work in an intentional way that can make a difference, build relationships, value people’s perspectives, and understand where they’re coming from, rather than judging and saying, ‘I know better’—see what they need and then make it happen.”

And that, she says, is why she’s felt connected to the progressiveness of both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements (prior to her appointment at Woodlands, she served as education director at Reconstructionist congregation Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains). The “openness of the Reform movement,” she says, “starts with where people are at. The question is, ‘Do you want to learn and have an experience?’ Yes? Well, terrific. Let’s go! That approach benefits the Jewish community more.” It also, she has found, benefits the broader community.

While a family educator at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, Abby ran a project—for which she won a METNY USCJ award—that
provided birthday parties for kids at the city’s Open Arms Shelter. Her approach wasn’t based on a structured program designed by temple members based on their own expectations. Instead, “we talked to the people at the shelter and found out what the kids wanted. We found out what they needed, where the gaps were. It wasn’t helping just in the way we wanted to help, but in the way that was truly needed.”

During this year of COVID, she notes, “listening to families and students about where they’re at and what they need” proved especially effective at Bet Am Shalom, where she helped to create outdoor programming and worked with lay people in the community, allowing people “to connect, get to know one another, and not be so isolated.”

Community Building

This approach to bringing in the community is something she hopes to continue at Woodlands, as well. “There are so many unaffiliated Jews in our community,” she says. “When synagogues only focus on serving members, there are not so many places for unaffiliated Jews to go. If we’re providing a chance to gather and build on informal connections, for members and non-members alike,” she says, “non-members can see a way in. They can see what community is and redefine what being part of a synagogue community means.”

Abby’s philosophy, not so coincidentally, dovetails perfectly with a statement Rabbi Mara made while discussing what the Woodlands of the future might look like for a recent article in Makom. “We should be a central meeting place,” she told writer and temple member Gary Stern. “The synagogue has to speak to people’s lives, so that Judaism at Woodlands is the vehicle for people to have a sense of purpose.”

Mara and Abby have, in fact, known each other as part of a network of Jewish education directors for quite a while and traveled together to Israel on a pilot Israel program through the Jewish Education Project. “I’m so excited to work with Mara,” Abby says. “I know what kind of impressive educator she is.” And Mara says the same about Abby. “I've always been impressed with Abby’s innovative spirit and the high caliber of her work,” Mara says. “She's thoughtful, collaborative, and easy to be around, and she’s going to fit in great at Woodlands!”

In fact, says Abby “I’ve been very impressed by everyone I’ve met in this process,” starting with Mara and Cantor Lance and including the search committee, the temple leadership, and other temple members. “This is exactly the kind of community I was looking for,” she says.
An added bonus, she notes, is that coming to Woodlands allows her to be part of the Reform educators’ network which, she explains, is “most impressive in terms of providing connections both to other educators and to educators’ materials.”

Opening Doors

Abby moved to White Plains from Massachusetts in 1996, after her husband, Steve, a research scientist at Columbia University, got a job offer in New York. White Plains provided proximity to some favorite cousins as well as to New York City itself. Her two oldest daughters, Rose, 22, and Liora, 19, have taken further advantage of New York by attending Barnard. Rose, who graduated last May, is spending this year on a teaching fellowship in Israel before pursuing a career as a history teacher in a progressive New York City school that responds to the needs of all students. Liora, who is a freshman, took a gap year between high school and college by participating in a Young Judaea program in Israel. Abby’s youngest daughter, Maya, is a sophomore at White Plains High School.

When Abby was interviewing for her new job, she created both an adult ed experience and one for teens. She focused on the same text and topic for both groups, but rather than attempt a conversation between them (where “the teens would clam up,” she says), she created a shared Google doc. That opened the door to follow-up conversations where the learning could be shared.

Opening the door is clearly a key part not only of Abby’s educational philosophy, but also her skill set. We—and she—are excited to see what—and who—comes in.  —Mike Winkleman

Thu, April 15 2021 3 Iyar 5781