ARTICLEOpening the Portals Wider—An Interview with Rabbi Philip Warmflash

Rabbi Philip Warmflash’s Torah is a wide-open book, the dark letters and white spaces close to his heart, and always guiding his hands. Whether at a meeting of Jewish educators drawn from across the movements, of synagogue officers from around the city of Philadelphia, or lay people planning an outreach event for young families, he begins communal conversations by leading study of Jewish texts. A masterful teacher, he motivates Jews at all levels of learning to grapple with the ancient words and find relevance.

For more than two decades, Rabbi Warmflash has been working to improve the landscape of Jewish life in Philadelphia, always nudging and inspiring people and institutions to do better, to go deeper, to get over the fear of change, with Jewish values and learning as a compass.

As the founder and executive director of Jewish Learning Venture, Warmflash cares deeply about the Jewish future, about “making Judaism feel possible for people for whom it wasn’t quite on their radar.” At JLV, his work is multi-faceted, helping young families embrace Jewish life and bolstering the institutions that serve the community. They design and implement programs, share resources, facilitate the wider community’s sharing of resources, and promote and guide systemic change.

“Most organizations either do engagement, education, or congregational change. What we are doing is looking systematically at all three - how we can better reach and engage families raising Jewish children, and how we can help organizations to meet the needs of these families, whether on their own or in a collaborative fashion,” he says.

Indeed, the creative and entrepreneurial influence of Rabbi Warmflash and JLV in the greater Philadelphia area is pervasive: with young mothers gathering for a series of play dates through that result in Shabbat dinners in their homes, in workshops for synagogues that want to do better in terms of inclusion, in newly-merged and strengthened afternoon Hebrew School programs, in the One Book One Jewish Community series of events (the largest Jewish community-wide literacy event of it’s kind in the country), in forums for synagogue lay and professional leaders to share their best practices, and in many other ongoing programs.

Rabbi Warmflash’s work over the last two decades has varied in terms of new initiatives and structures, but serious engagement with Jewish life has been at the core. He has had, essentially, one job that has expanded and in which he has flourished, as the agencies he has headed have been renamed and reorganized. Jewish Learning Venture was formed through the merger of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education and Jewish Outreach Partnership, where he was also the founding executive director. In 2007, he received a Covenant Award for his work with JOP.

“The foundation of where my work comes from and where my passion comes from has remained the same,” he says.

“When the director of the Auerbach Agency left and I applied for the position, one of the things that seemed obvious was that both Jewish Outreach Partnership and ACAJE were involved in similar work, and it would be more beneficial to the community if the two agencies considered merging. That was in 2009. The merger that we were able to do was kind of a model for what we hope to do in other area of the community.”

In talking about organizational change, Rabbi Warmflash discusses the work of Allison Fine, author of “Matterness” and other books. “Matterness is the intersection of people and organizations when they come together in a positive and mutually beneficial way and a greater whole is formed. Among other criteria, Fine emphasizes the importance of listening and not just talking,” he says. In fact, he notes that Fine was once a synagogue president, and her advice, even as it is expressed in secular terms, echoes the challenges of Jewish organizational life.

Rabbi Warmflash quotes a fortysomething involved in one of their synagogue projects, who told him at a meeting, “I always thought about how we need to attract new people. Until tonight I never thought about how our congregation also needs to change!” That individual realized, through conversations with JLV, that they needed to make their synagogue more welcoming to a wide range of people in the community.

When asked about residual resistance to change, he replies, “That’s why the work is hard.”

“Part of the challenge here is a readiness for change, to show that it’s needed. We have a button that says, ‘Because we’ve always done it that way,’ with a slash through it.”

“Change is something we’re happy about when someone else is doing it,” he jokes.

“What our work is about is not change for change’s sake,” he continues, “but as a way of encouraging people inside and outside of our institutions, to find the holiness and meaning and personal connection in Judaism.”

 Now, he and his colleagues at JLV start every meeting with what he calls a limmud, a short piece of text from a Jewish source -- that might be familiar or not to the group – along with questions about what the text is saying. He explains, “I want people to see that Jewish texts speak to them, that they can grapple with Jewish texts and make it part of their vocabulary. Some volunteers have previously thought that having a connection to Jewish texts was only for the rabbis.” He adds, “I love the challenge of finding the right text for a particular group.”

One quote that they use a lot is from the late Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, “The old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified.” That notion of honoring tradition and embracing the new is essential to their work.

“I work to get people to an “Aha” moment, to lead people to rethinking ideas and taking new action. That’s really at the core of it -- and to support them in our communal journey. Text is one of the key strategies for getting to Aha!”

The distinctive JLV logo is an orange v-shape; the left half has right angles, the right is all curves. It might be a Hebrew letter, a flame, a calligraphic flourish, an L on its side or an abstract bird in flight. The bold image reflects the agency’s dynamic work and its full embrace of many perspectives, many ways to experience Jewish learning and Jewish involvement. JLV was twice selected by Slingshot as one of the most innovative Jewish organizations in North America.

One project that Rabbi Warmflash is particularly enthusiastic about is Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, bringing together six community agencies from around the country to share strategies, and to develop opportunities to learn and apply best practices in Part-Time Jewish Education from one community to the other. (Shinui means change.) They recognize the strength in collaborating, guided by the spirit of generosity. That spirit also guided Jewish Learning Venture’s initiative, Lev: Getting to the Heart of Jewish Education, through which the agency has facilitated local congregations in the process of choosing and implementing a new model of congregational education.

These days at his own synagogue, Rabbi Warmflash prefers the role of congregant. He is also a consultant for Shevet: Consortium for the Jewish Family (formerly the Whizin Institute).

“The change that I hope to inspire is a change in the way people think and connect with Judaism, wherever they are on their Jewish journey. The question is this: How do we increase accessibility to new Jewish ideas, and how do we open the portals wider?”

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