Ron’s Cool Ideas

As I visit different synagogues, I pick up little ideas, things that people do, that resonate. As I come across the really ‘cool’ ones, I’m going to report them in this ongoing column of “best practices.” Enjoy!

Ron Wolfson






  • At Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, the closing moment of Neilah on Yom Kippur afternoon includes the blowing of the shofar (from all corners of the sanctuary), Havdalah, and, then, ushers pass through the congregation with baskets of candy (caramels, small Hershey bars, etc.) for a communal “break-the-fast” bite for a “sweet” new year.
  • How to enable a congregation to smell “b’samim” spices during Havdalah is always a challenge. Using one “b’samim” container takes too long.  I have seen “cinnamon apple” tea bags passed around to each person. But, the coolest thing yet I recently saw at Beth El Synagogue in Omaha. A volunteer created “b’samim bean bags” by sewing fragrant spices into soft palm-sized felt “pockets” that are kept in a large container, and literally “tossed” to congregants at the appropriate moment in the ritual.
  • At Valley Beth Shalom, a huge, fully air-conditioned tent was erected to house a “family service” for  High Holy Days. According to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the ambience in the tent was so intimate and wonderful, the congregation is considering making the tent a permanent prayer space.


  • A sign on the doors of the sanctuary: “Do Not Enter: Service in Progress”
  • Congregants leaving Kol Nidre services at approximately 10:00 pm…walking across the grass to their double-parked cars…and the synagogue’s automatic sprinklers turning on! (Make a note: reprogram the sprinklers Kol Nidre and S’lichot nights to avoid drenching your people!)


At Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, New York, I discovered two very cool ideas:

  1. In the school wing of the synagogue building, a brightly decorated central hallway was identified by a large sign that read: “Malka Me-Zahav Lane.” This “major artery” of traffic serving students, teachers and family members was named after a former beloved Principal, Malka Me-Zahav” to honor her many years of service to the congregation.
  2. As a result of families asking for more meaningful experiences and time with their religious school kids, Temple Beth Sholom now offers a “Shabbat Family Study” program. Families arrive Friday afternoon for a 45-minute study experience before Kabbalat Shabbat. Depending on the grade level, different teachers engage the families in a variety of study experiences. As Gimmel, Daled, Hay and Vav families entered the classrooms, people grabbed a snack of veggies and hummus, and then sat together for the program.

One of the sessions I witnessed is called “Vav Class Beit Midrash,” led by Rabbi Jeni Friedman, and featuring the very cool “Speed Chevruta.” Based on a technique the congregation picked up from Limmud (Great Britain) and Limmoud (France), pairs sit down across the table from each other, introduce themselves, answer one personal question (hobby, favorite color, favorite. candy) and then begin a short text study together. Jeni modified this to three rounds of parent/student study. In the first round parents study with their own children, introducing themselves and answering a question that maybe parents and kids don’t know about each other. For the next two rounds, everyone moves down a space to have completely new partners and it begins again. In this way all the parents get to know all the kids in the class and vice versa. I have rarely seen sixth graders as involved and excited about studying a text….with their parents…and the parents of their friends!

At the appointed time, all the families joined with the congregation in a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat, followed by a lovely Shabbat dinner. This model is offered 4-6 times a year.


At Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore, when someone offers a name up for inclusion in the “Mishebeirach” for healing, they are given a card to send to the person whose name was remembered. It has the logo and address of the congregation on top, and the following text:


During our Shabbat worship service this past week, your name was included in our prayer for recovery and healng. Before the open Torah Scroll, we expressed our prayer that God’s presence bring you strength and well-being; that those who are providing for your care be endowed with the necessary insights, skills and compassion; and that your family and friends share in ove and support at this time. Our community wanted you to know that you are in our thoughts and prayers. We look forward to hearing that you are doing well. We wish you (HEB: refuach shlaymah) – refu’ah shelemah, a complete and personal comfort.



At Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY, Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman invites everyone in the congregation to join in a “circle of love” during the singing of “Mishebeyrach.” Everyone joins hands with someone nearby, linking all the participants in the service.


Another cool thing at Larchmont Temple, the memorial plaques along one wall of the sanctuary are three-dimensional, jutting out from the wall, creating a small ledge. A basket of stones is provided for congregants to place upon the plaque of loved ones when a yahrzeit is observed, just as one would place a stone on a grave marker.


At Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, Marin County, California, congregants bake challot every week in a “Mitzvah Bakery.” Congregants and others who cannot come to synagogue can call in to request a Shabbat challah. On Friday night, as congregants gather before services, a table is set up with challot individually wrapped in plastic bags. Each bag of challah has a “Mapquest” map taped on it with directions to someone desiring a challah. Congregants peruse the maps to see if someone lives near them or on the way home. The Shabbat I was in attendance, more than 20 challot were “taken” by the members to be delivered!


Here are a few “cool ideas” from Rosh Hashana 5770 at Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, California:

  • The Hazzan began his chanting of “Hineni” in the very back of the sanctuary, miked so everyone could hear, and walked slowly down the center aisle. The rabbi had instructed the congregation to rise when he got to their row, creating a kind of “wave” effect. It was quite dramatic! By the time the Hazzan climbed the steps of the pulpit, the congregation was spiritually primed for the Amidah.
  • The rabbis once again this year invited any “lapsed choir members” to join the congregational choir on the pulpit for the annual singing of Lewandowski’s “Halleluyah.” More than 30 people responded!!!
  • Rabbi Noah Farkas offered a lovely sermon about the Jewish approach to environmental issues, including a call for “change” this High Holy Day season….as in “change” your incandescent light bulbs for compact flourescents. He ended by asking “How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?” Instead of answering with a funny punch line, he announced that the congregation, in addition to initiating the “VBS Green Team” and inviting everyone to a Water Conservation Symposium on October 15, was distributing 1,000 CFL light bulbs during the second day of Rosh Hashana. Sure enough, everyone leaving the synagogue today was offered a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power energy saving light bulb, with a reminder label about the date of the Water Conservation Symposium.


What cool things happened in your shul?