Reform Judaism Biennial 2015

“Across North America, people hunger for real connections. They want – they need – to be part of meaningful communities,” said URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

“Connection” is a wonderfully appropriate theme for organizing my impressions of Reform Judaism’s Biennial, which I attended this November along with Wendy Nelson. Biennials are always infused with tremendous energy, creativity, and inspiration, all heightened by the connections made throughout the span of the five-day, dawn-to-dusk program. This year’s was no different, but perhaps especially so, due to the historic votes on membership dues and on transgender equity, as well as the final, moving address by Vice-President Joseph Biden.

I invite you to read my comments below and challenge you not to get excited about the possibility of being part of a Biennial yourself, since the next Biennial will take place in Boston on December 6 – 10, 2017. I can’t recommend it enough to our lay leaders and members. For anyone seeking a deeper connection to Reform Judaism or a fabulous learning and worship experience, it is an outstanding opportunity.

“Just connect…” at Biennial 2015 included:

  • The power of connecting with 5,000 URJ members
  • Connections among congregations – MUM dues vote fundamentally changes the structure and style of dues payments in an effort to address the needs of congregations in the 21st century economy and society
  • Connecting with all, fostering diversity, being enriched by it. Response to the URJ’s historic transgender resolution was unanimously positive. It was truly special to be present for our movement at its best, modeling for faith communities in the US and worldwide its deep commitment to acting on our belief that everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and calling on other Jewish groups to be advocates for transgender rights.
    • The policy calls on Reform congregations, and organizations like camps and schools, to welcome people of all gender identities and refer to them by their chosen names, genders and pronouns, to provide gender-neutral restrooms where possible, and to work with transgender rights groups “to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity,” possibly including “cultural competency training” for religious school employees. The resolution also calls for changing to gender-neutral language, even if it means altering the wording of traditional prayers, though in reality, Reform Judaism has been making such changes for years. And the resolution urges governments to adopt transgender rights measures.
    • Connecting with those outside our congregations – an oft-repeated phrase and concept at the Biennial was “Audacious hospitality” – the URJ’s emphasis on proactively welcoming and embracing those both inside and outside our congregations
    • Connecting the generations – from 6 weeks old to 97! – the Biennial modeled  full inclusion and celebration of Reform Judaism’s youth – camp, NFTY, young children present with parents. One unexpected Biennial highlight was a haftarah commentary by a remarkably-talented senior at Mr. Holyoke College, who spoke about the prophetic voices speaking against the tyranny of standardized testing in higher education. This young woman had me on my feet – at a service!
    • Connecting with the movement’s great musicians. Biennials beautifully showcase the diverse and rich musical talent in the movement. Multiple service styles, late-night music sessions, a musical stage with rotating roster of recording artists all highlighted the amazing talent of the movement, bringing fresh ideas for FJC’s own musical culture.
    • Connecting with the RAC – Social Justice as the core of Reform Jewish belief and practice comes through fully at the Biennial, which included an address by Rabbi David Saperstein, former director of the RAC and now U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
    • Connecting URJ’s work/spirit with American society and politics (i.e. race relations, Joe Biden, David Saperstein)
    • Connecting URJ with progressive Judaism around the world, from Israel to Russia
    • Connecting with a local Christian church in a Sunday outing to a megachurch, with opportunities to speak with its leadership, view its professional-quality audio visual system, learn about its modernizing methods, and experience music-infused worship

Session highlights:

  • In this Together: A Conversation about Why and How People of Faith Are Pursuing Racial Justice in the 21st Century, with American Methodist Episcopal Reverend Jennifer Bailey, Founder of Faith Matters Network. Named one of “15 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2015,” Rev. Bailey is an ordained minister, community organizer, and emerging national leader in multi-faith movement for justice who believes that people of faith can be game changers in the fight to build a more justice, compassionate, and peaceful world. Rev. Bailey discussed with clarity and passion the problem of structural economic justice in our country, and the URJ offered insights from congregations from around the country and how they are engaging in their communities in community conversations and work around race and racism.
  • Ensuring Your Congregation’s Future: Creating a Pipeline of Educated Lay Leaders. This workshop, in a format characteristic of the Biennial, offered talk and takeaway notes of best practices from congregations with successful leadership program.
  • Variety and quality of Worship experiences. The cantors and rabbis exuded  warmth, professionalism, and inspiring leadership in the Shabbat services attended by 5,000 plus worshippers. Of note was the calling of groups for blessings before and after Torah reading – groups defined by the nature of their engagement with Reform Judaism. The largest group turned out to be those who came to Reform Judaism from the outside – whether another denomination or from another faith tradition. Weekday services (both morning and evening) included two that we found especially moving: a Tzedek (Justice) service that highlighted that theme in our liturgy and music, and a remarkably moving service led by a group of actors, singers, and clergy from Toronto that stunningly mixed Broadway, liturgy, and a passage from Tuesdays with Morrie.
  • Presentation by Glenn Kurtz, Three Minutes in Poland. Kurtz’s riveting presentation was based on his book by this title, which unravels a rare family film to tell the story of the Jewish community of a small Polish town. Fascinating! I am trying to bring Glenn Kurtz to FJC so that you, too, can experience and be moved by this story of Jewish life, loss, and the magic of historical research.