URJ Biennial Closes with Audacious Agenda for Reform Movement
Youth engagement, partnerships, inclusion,
Israel-Diaspora relations and religious pluralism were key themes
December 16, 2013, San Diego, CA — The Union for Reform Judaism’s 72nd Biennial conference concluded today in San Diego after five days of intensive learning, praying and community-building. Over the course of the Biennial, attendees engaged in important conversations about Israel engagement, the challenges facing the advancement of women, worship innovations, managing congregations, and much more.
In his keynote address to the Biennial, URJ President Rabbi Jacobs discussed the power of practicing audacious hospitality, inclusion and outreach; new youth engagement initiatives; the importance of social justice; intensified Israel-Diaspora relations; and perseverance of our efforts for religious pluralism in Israel. He challenged the nearly 5,000 Jewish leaders in attendance to look to the future with confidence “to build a more vibrant, richer Jewish life for our people and communities.” He implored the gathering “to articulate an audacious vision of the way the world can become.”
Audacity was indeed the word of the week with several bold new initiatives unveiled for congregations including one focused on inclusion, in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation and another focused on Israel, with the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Rabbi Jacobs also unveiled bold plans for youth engagement, beginning with outreach to families with young children through a new, robust project with PJ Library, supported by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and several new endeavors to engage children and teens including:
- Integrating, expanding and deepening all youth programs — including 14 overnight camps, NFTY, and Israel initiatives — into year-round offerings with on-ramps for all teens, including those whose families are not members of URJ congregations.
- Expanding NFTY, the Reform youth movement, to include 6th, 7th and 8th graders, partnering with congregations to build a vital bridge to post-b’nai mitzvah involvement.
- Launching URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, the URJ’s 14th overnight camp, opening this summer outside Boston.
He added that “an essential piece of rebooting this system will be to attract, train, and retain a new generation of well-educated, innovative youth professionals. Rabbi Jacobs thanked the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Marcus Foundation, the Crown Family Philanthropies, for their partnership and support in the URJ’s youth engagement efforts.
Rabbi Jacobs also announced a new partnership between the URJ and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institutes of Religion (HUC-JIR). “So much of our shared future is in forging new leadership. We will be moving many of our New York-based URJ youth professional’s downtown to the first floor of HUC’s Greenwich Village campus. The visionaries of our new youth strategy are going to interface every day with HUC’s students, faculty, and administrators on all three North American campuses.”
Israel-Diaspora relations was a frequent topic of discussion throughout the Biennial. Rabbi Jacobs said: “We don’t speak as supplicants but rather as partners, in this redemptive, revitalizing project of the Jewish people.The bonds that link Israel and the Diaspora are mutually strengthening, and must grow even deeper. We will not stop and we will not be stopped.”
The bonds between Israel and the Diaspora were underscored when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the plenum this morning via satellite from Jerusalem saying, “”While the Wall may be in Israel,” he said, “it belongs to all of you, it belongs to you and to all the Jewish people, and I am committed to making sure that all Jews feel at home in our holiest site.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu applauded Rabbi Jacobs for his role in advocating for equality at the Kotel, which he said “is about what Israel has always stood for and what it will always stand for, that Israel is and must continue to be the homeland of the entire Jewish people. That’s the place where all Jews, including Reform Jews, experience nothing less than ‘audacious hospitality’.”
Earlier in the week, Rabbi Jacobs expressed that the Kotel was only the beginning of the fight for religious pluralism in Israel. “The Kotel is symbolically important,” he said, “but our appetite for pluralism and religious freedom extends way beyond those ancient stones. The time is long overdue for equality to reign throughout the State of Israel.Because of our deep love for, and commitment to, the ideals of the Jewish State, we insist on equality not just at the Western Wall, but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at funerals, in conversions, in the founding and funding of our congregations,” he continued to applause.
For her efforts in fighting for religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel, Israel Religious Action Center Executive Director and Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman was awarded on Saturday night with the Women for Reform Judaism’s Jane Evans Social Justice Award.
Delegates also heard from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden through a video message. Vice President Biden embraced the Reform Movement’s focus on important issues such as immigration reform, gun control, and disability rights.
Vice President Biden also underscored the Obama Administration’s commitment to Israel and stated, “No U.S. president has done more for Israel than President Obama.” In a reference to President Obama’sshout-out to NFTY during his 2011 Biennial address, Biden opened the video saying that “President Obama asked specifically for NFTY.”
Throughout the week, delegates shared ideas with one another and heard from experts in a variety of fields to think of bold, new ways to address the challenges and opportunities facing the Reform Movement. Rabbi Jacobs encouraged the body to be audacious in addressing the future of the Jewish people. “I say to you at this beginning of a new chapter of Jewish life: hazak hazak v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us all strengthen each other.Look to the future with confidence for ours is an awesome agenda.”
In the midst of the “awesome and audacious” Biennial agenda, the 5,000 participants came together to celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Beginning Friday evening, the tenor of the Biennial changed to one of renewal and sacred worship. A Friday night service and song session, brought attendees to their feet in jubilant prayer, song and dance. The Saturday morning service, led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi/Cantor Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City, and featuring a commentary on the week’s Torah portion from retiring HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson, was more interactive than past Biennials. Congregants were able to approach any of 13 platforms around the plenary hall to read aliyot (blessings over the Torah) and delegates stood in their seats to perform moving prayer as instructed by dancer, choreographer and URJ Faculty Member Liz Lerman.
“It was an incredible week,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “I hope the delegates and those who participated at home by watching streaming videos or by interacting on social media feel as invigorated by this conference as I do. I come away from this Biennial feeling more certain than ever before that great things are in store for our Movement”
For more information and to see video highlights and photos, visit the Biennial website.