URJ Biennial Recap – Day 5: “Hineni”


Is it really over already? We spend two years looking forward to each Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, only to have the five days of learning, singing, laughing, and praying go by much too quickly. Many of my friends and colleagues liken the feeling to our sadness leaving overnight camp at the end of each summer – we miss it immediately, and can’t wait for the next time that we are all together again.

Biennial wrapped up on a high note. I had the privilege of attending a “NFTY (North American Temple Youth) Themed Morning Service,” filled with camp music, ruach (spirit), and ritual. Those in attendance clearly knew when to clap, what phrases to call out in response, and all of the most beloved harmonies. The service highlighted, as many of the weekend’s events did, the tragic loss of Debbie Friedman. Her music led to a massive paradigm shift in how Reform Jews pray, both at camp, in Youth Group, and even in synagogues. For those of us who grew up on her melodies, they almost feel like they are “Mi-Sinai” – like they have been around since the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai. Debbie is truly missed by us all.

Following services, we moved toward the final plenary of Biennial. We learned that Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who served as Director of the Transition Team for Rabbi Rick Jacob’s new URJ Presidency, had been appointed Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. He spoke with enthusiasm, energy, and excitement as he encouraged those in attendance to vote positively for the new Campaign on Youth Engagement. The CYE will work actively to create meaningful programming that will engage our students after Bar and Bat Mitzvah, through high school graduation. The audience voted, not just with “Aye,” but with a resounding “Amen!” Stephen Sacks, the new Chairman of the URJ board, shouted, “The Amens have it!”

We were finally granted the opportunity to hear from the brand new President of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down, led us with courage, dedication, and a sense of kavod for all that Judaism and Jewish tradition have to offer. Rabbi Jacobs promised to maintain the wonderful efforts, but also to make enormous changes. Immediately, all could see a change in tone: Rabbi Jacobs didn’t wear a tie, his top button was unbuttoned, and he did not stand behind a podium. He walked with vitality and animation at the foot of the stage, and he laid out much of his vision. He explained that everything is up for discussion and evaluation.

It became clear that the theme for Biennial seemed to be Hineni – Here I am. President Obama emphasized this phrase, as did Rabbi Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs told us that Judaism is a religion about the WE, not the ME – we all have the responsibility to answer the call of those in need, of those who are seeking community, and of our congregations.

The WE extends beyond the Reform Movement, as well – Rabbi Jacobs reminded us that we must always remember that we are part of Klal Yisrael – the whole community of Israel. The WE also leads us to Jews who aren’t necessarily within the doors of our synagogues – we must try to meet them where they are (coffee shops, homes, bars) if they don’t feel at home inside our four walls. The WE includes the land and people of Israel, and we must work to ensure that all of our teens and congregants have a chance to go.

Though Biennial was coming to a close, Rabbi Jacobs shouted out – “We are just getting started!” With this sense of purpose, passion, and enthusiasm, we all gave him a huge standing ovation and felt like we were all a part of a large, thriving, Reform Jewish community.

This is a time of transition for the movement, as, as a Reform Rabbi who cares deeply around Reform Judaism, I am excited to see where we are going to go in the coming years. Though change is always scary, I feel that we have strong, steady, and creative leaders in place. Based on Rabbi Jacobs’ decades of a congregational rabbinate, I know that he recognizes what it feels like in “Congregation-Land.”

Soon after, it was time to say goodbye. We packed up, hugged and cried, and even gathered around an impromptu singing of “L’chi Lach” that started up in the hotel lobby. I’m going through some #URJBiennial withdrawal, but I know that the feeling is always there inside of the hearts of all who attended. We will bring the sense of passion home to our own congregations, and work to infuse our work with a renewed sense of purpose.

So, URJ, Hineni – Here I am, waiting with anticipation, trust, and a willingness to come along for the journey. B’hatzlachah – Good luck!

See you all in San Diego in 2013 for the next Biennial!