Highlights of the URJ Biennial: A Call to Action by Many

I  have attended many Jewish conferences, but the URJ Biennial this year was the largest – over 5,500 Jews of all ages.  I attended this particular conference as a consultant to the URJ.  I was engaged in March 2011 to help the URJ professionals and lay leadership in a variety of capacities related to the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which was launched Movement-wide at the Biennial.   I wanted to share with you some of the highlights of the conference.

Cheers

You know when you hear the words to the Cheers theme song, you feel a sense of comfort – how a smile comes over you?

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name.

 

You wanna go where people know,

people are all the same,

You wanna go where everybody knows

your name.

 

source: http://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/cheerslyrics.html

Whenever I attend a Jewish conference (and I attend a lot of them), I get this feeling.  When a group of Jewish professionals (and/or passionate lay people) come together, they come to explore and generate solutions to those “troubles [that] are all the same.”   They come to be social, make connections, and celebrate being Jewish.  The idea of going where “people are all the same” is a strong underlying pull at any Jewish conference – just being a Member of the Tribe starts you out on common ground;  there are no strangers in the hallways, no strangers in the elevators, no strangers in the sessions – only friends you just haven’t met yet.

An interesting aspect of attending a Movement-based conference, is to watch alumni of camps, Israel trips, day schools, Jewish college and rabbinic programs, congregations, youth groups, etc come together in a giant reunion.  The re-gathering of these groups exemplifies “Be glad there’s one place in the world where everybody knows your name.”

A Call to Action

With over 700 people in the room – educators, rabbis, cantors, teens, parents, lay people, philanthropists, and other Jewish professionals – the Vision Team of the Campaign for Youth Engagement called the Reform Movement to action in combatting the “hemorrhaging” (as one speaker put it) of post-b’nei mitzvah drop-off (which stands at close to 80%).  While it might be easy to say that this problem is the responsibility of parents and Jewish education leaders, the Vision Team challenges that it’s the responsibility of all of us … that each of us has to make it “My Campaign.”  And I agree.

This 80% post-b’nei mitzvah disengagement from Jewish life isn’t just a Reform Movement challenge.  Statistically it impacts all non-Orthodox Jewish communities.  As professionals engaged in Jewish life, we are the minority.  We likely were the 20% that stayed involved through high school and into college.  So kudos to us … but really, we can’t ignore the 80%.  It’s incumbent upon each of us to reach out to the institutions we are involved in – as lay leaders and professionals –  and ask “Where are the teens in this organization?  Do they have a seat on the board?  Do they have a voice in programmatic and policy decisions?  What is the strategy for engaging and empowering teens within our organization?  What groundwork are we laying with pre-teens and their families to ensure post-b’nei mitzvah connections?”  and finally, “What am I doing to build relationships with the pre-teens and teens of this community?”

To view the Campaign for Youth Engagement Biennial Forum, click here.

Raised Voices

This year recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Religious Action Center (the RAC).  You can watch the full presentation celebrating the occasion on the RAC website.  But the most poignant piece for me is when singer/songwriter Julie Silver took the microphone.  She boldly stood and said, “I am a Lesbian, I am a Jew, I am an Ima, and I am a partner.  Every piece of me is deeply affirmed by the Reform Movement.”  She continued to laud the work of the RAC, but when she said, “Because the RAC raises its voice, I can raise my family,” she basically said it all.   Watch Julie’s speech here (trust me, it’s worth the click!).

While the Reform Movement as a sect of Jewish life has taken the lead in raising its voice on a variety of issues, including helping to de-marginalize the LGBT community, I believe that most of us in my circle are passionate about raised voices and standing for those whose voices are limited.  Let’s just be sure we continue to do so.

One Big Song Session

When the President of the United States (aka POTUS) comes to speak to your group, the timing is … well… unpredictable.  Sometimes he arrives early and therefore your plans are scrapped, and sometimes he gets delayed, and you have to fill time.    And sometimes, both happen.   On Friday, December 16,  POTUS was scheduled to speak at some point during the URJ Biennial Plenary session.  At first, we (staff members) were told he was going to speak last during the two-hour plus plenary.  The agenda was moving forward.  The RAC celebration ended with a beautiful rendition of America led by the very talented musician Josh Nelson and then it seemed the agenda was going to be shuffled – POTUS must have arrived at the hotel.  But he wasn’t quite ready.  So Josh did what Jewish musicians do, he led the crowd in a song … and then another … and then another … and then another.  From Maoz Tzur to Kol HaOlam Kulo to Great Balls of Fire, Josh led the crowd in one heck of a warm-up for the Prez (click the links to watch some brief video of it all).  The entire situation reaffirmed for me that all Jewish gatherings need a good ‘ole song session to help build community.

Hineini

When President Obama finally addressed the 5500+ person crowd at the URJ Biennial, no one expected him to open with a d’var Torah.  But that’s exactly what he did. [He has brilliant speech writers!] After sharing that his daughter is on the b’nei mitzvah circuit and the several disagreements in their home as to what was appropriate to wear to the parties, he transitioned into a few words about this week’s Parsha – Vayeshev.  In Genesis 37:13, Jacob asks Joseph to go to his brothers and he responds, “Hineini.”  POTUS focused on this word – Hineini and the meaning of not only “Here I Am” but “I am Ready.”  Several times throughout his speech he recalled this word and his readiness to stand by Israel, and to work on health care, and to stand by LGBT communities.  I can’t do it total justice, so I encourage you to take 30 minutes and listen to Obama’s full presentation here.  (Besides, then you can combat this misquoting the NYT did regarding a Palestinian state.)

But if we expect our President to be ready to stand with us, we have to hold each other accountable for being present and ready to serve the Jewish people – locally, nationally and globally.  When is the last time you were called upon and you answered, “Hineini”?

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