The Power of Collective Effervescence at the URJ Biennial
Last week, a truly incredible and significant segment of the American Reform Jewish people – more than 3,500 rabbis, lay leaders, administrators, staff, and volunteers – converged on Toronto for the 2009 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial. Speaking as a Reform Jew who grew up in near-ignorance that my community transcended Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, Maine, I was overwhelmed by the nearly tangible energy omnipresent throughout the five day Biennial. I think I know why.
In 1912, Émile Durkheim, a sociologist living in Sydney, Australia, completed his greatest work on the origin and early practice of religion: The Elementary Forms of The Religious Life. Drawing primarily on field notes of religious practices in Aboriginal communities, Durkheim concluded that religion was fundamentally and necessarily a social phenomenon and that religion as part of the human experience was rooted in a process of collective effervescence. Effervescence is “people power;” it is the high energy generated when large groups of people congregate and forge a collective identity and an understanding of the sacred, one which guides and sustains that community during those times during which they cannot commune as a group. Taking Durkheim’s suppositions a step further, we can see that even after its genesis, collective effervescence can invigorate, strengthen, and cement the bonds that form a religious community.
Knowing how to define collective effervescence, however, is wholly different from experiencing it as a force. I saw and heard and – most importantly – felt the energy created as thousands of Reform Jews gathered, united by a commitment to the Jewish people. Together, we studied, learned, connected, ate, drank, prayed, spoke, and listened, and throughout I felt that we were doing so not as disparate individuals but as an interconnected community. That effervescence exploded into Shabbat services, it underscored every speaker and presenter, and when Rabbi Yoffie announced the new initiatives on ethical eating and technology, it roused me – and, I hope, others – to action.
The Biennial, for all the other benefits and reasons to attend, finds its true raison d’être in the Reform Jewish collective effervescence grown from the people gathering there. The energy produced by the Biennial will be utilized by attendees in a variety of ways depending upon the jobs they do and roles they play for most of the year; I know I will try to draw upon it and expend it in fighting for social justice in my work here at the Religious Action Center.