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Over 200 Rabbinic and Lay Leaders From Across North America Gather at Fourth ChampionsGate Conference

Aug 4, 2009 -- For three days in July, Orlando, FL, was the epicenter of a series of nationwide conversations in Modern Orthodox communities across North America when the 4th Annual ChampionsGate National Leadership Conference convened more than 200 rabbinic, educational and lay leaders from 50 communities across North America to address the most pressing challenges facing the movement.

The conference, sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), has grown from a gathering of 40 lay leaders in 2005 to become a major event involving prominent leaders from many sectors of the Modern Orthodox world. Its creation and growth were made possible by the vision and support of Mindy and Ira Mitzner ’81Y, University Trustee and chair of the CJF advisory council who offered his ChampionsGate resort as the conference venue at no charge. Mr. Mitzner also recently endowed the deanship of the CJF, held by Rabbi Kenneth Brander, in honor of his father, prominent philanthropist David Mitzner.

“ChampionsGate 2009 was a profound celebration of a vision of Jewish values and community. We modeled hope, not fear, and aspiration rather than crisis,” said YU president, Richard M. Joel. “We demonstrated to community leaders how we can partner together and create a tremendous resource to help build community.”

Rabbi Brander said this year’s conference surpassed expectations. “ChampionsGate strengthened an emerging network of passionate and committed lay and professional leaders who understand the need to leverage the efforts of one another and partner effectively to realize specific goals,” he noted.

The program addressed key issues in a direct and open manner, based on the input of participants throughout the year as well as the changed economic and social landscape since last year’s conference.

“We are marshalling the energies of the University in service to the community. Our intention was to inspire and provoke substantive dialogue, reach consensus on the issues that we can really do something about and create working plans that will enable lay leaders and professionals to enrich Jewish life and accomplish great things for the wellbeing and future of our people,” Rabbi Brander said.

Speakers included Jewish leaders such as Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston; Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program; Rabbi Dovid Stav, chair of Tzohar Rabbis in Israel; and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The program brought to the fore the expertise of YU staff and faculty. Harry Bloom, director of planning and performance improvement for YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership, spoke about ways to address the chronic challenge of making Jewish day school more affordable in a session on “Community Economic Realities, Priorities and Values.”

Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Professor of Jewish Education at Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, addressed generational shifts that are impacting young adults’ religious observance after the post-high school in Israel and other social dynamics, while Dr. Efrat Sobolofsky ’95W, ’06W, director of YUConnects, a CJF program that facilitates social networking for singles, discussed the perceived pressures on young Orthodox singles.

Dr. Steven Nissenfeld, clinical professor of management science at Sy Syms School of Business, spoke about his experience running leadership seminars to help rabbinic and lay leaders work more collaboratively. Morris Isaacson, director of interactive media, introduced participants to new technological tools that will create community.

The conference brought teams of people together in task forces to address solutions to specific challenges. “We’re stronger when we work together because we all bring our own expertise,” said Rabbi Ari Rockoff, director of community partnerships for CJF. “This was not just a gathering for the purpose of gathering, but a dynamic ongoing community of community leaders engaging in non-stop dialog together.”

Conference participants have formed task forces that will look into ways to use technology to connect community members and continue the conversations that took place at ChampionsGate, generate ideas to address issues affecting Orthodox singles and develop best practices for governing boards and institutions.

The conference highlighted the work of the Community Growth Initiative, which was a product of a task force team formed at ChampionsGate last year. Co-chaired by Rick Guttman from Houston, TX and Barbara Ast from St. Louis, MO, the project introduced, a Web site that will be a “one-stop shopping” resource for young Jews looking to move to smaller communities and cities outside the New York City tri-state area.

“The quality of the sessions was unparalleled,” said Sharon and Michael Feldstein, lay leaders from Stamford, CT. “It made us proud to be associated with YU and we gained tremendous chizzuk [strength] meeting other like-minded individuals in communities across the country.”