Since Last Biennial

by Rabbi Daniel Freelander

Since we last gathered for a Biennial convention two years ago in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism has been hard at work strengthening Reform Judaism in North America. We have had two interesting years of growth, of challenges and excitement with an eye to the future.

Our Movement is undergoing changes that will shape Reform Judaism for decades to come. This week we will have the opportunity to honor Rabbi Eric Yoffie and thank him for the innumerable ways he has shaped our Movement. And we will have an opportunity to officially welcome Rabbi Rick Jacobs and hear about his vision for the future.

The process of visioning for the future has already begun as the arms of our Movement, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, have joined with the URJ in convening a Think Tank to articulate a vision for Reform Judaism in the 21st century. You will all have the opportunity to contribute your thoughts to that vision at the Friday Morning Visioning sessions. Among the questions that we will be asking, “What unique contribution will North American Reform Judaism make to the world in 2020?  Who do we want to be in nine years? In fifteen years?

Of course not all transitions can be happy ones. We said goodbye to a dear friend this year when Debbie Friedman passed away. Her legacy will endure in the songs we sing and in the newly named Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. We will have an opportunity to pay tribute to her memory later this evening.

At the 2009 Biennial Rabbi Yoffie challenged us to increase the engagement of youth in our Movement’s programs. Last summer 10,000 young people passed through the gates of our summer camps and nearly 2,000 stepped off our buses on a NFTY or birthright trip to Israel. Since our last biennial we opened our thirteenth summer camp, Six Points Sports Academy, with enrollment exceeding 750 campers for this coming summer already. I hope that one day the next Sandy Koufax or Mark Spitz will be able to speak at this Biennial and share that they got their start at the Six Points Sports Academy!

We are already seeing the results of the 2009 Biennial resolution on Special Needs Camping. Three of our camps offer specific special needs programs, and all of our camps now employ professional inclusion coordinators each  summer. The notion that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, is strongest in our youth programs where we strive to help all young people find their place.

We’ve continued  our commitment to social justice and tikkun olam as we celebrate this week the 50th anniversary of the Religious Action Center. Despite the strains of our own economy, as a Movement we have continued to mobilize for those in need around the world, raising over $1 million dollars for relief efforts in Haiti.

In 2007 the Union for Reform Judaism began its partnership with the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign to send nets to Africa to fight malaria, one of the leading causes of death among children on the continent. Please turn your attention to the video screens to see what the campaign has accomplished in the last five years, one bed net at a time.

To date, we have raised over $750,000! But this is just the beginning. Our voices can be equally as powerful as our dollars. Starting with this year’s Biennial we are spreading the buzz by bringing the issue of malaria to decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Cards that we will send to Congress will be handed to you after this plenary session and will be collected by anyone in an orange BuzzKill T-shirt, at the Nothing But Nets booth or the RAC booth.

Ending malaria deaths in Africa is a tangible goal, but we need YOUR help, and more importantly we need your voice.

As we begin our work to catalyze change in our congregations, our Movement is thinking about the future, with congregations taking the lead. Rabbi Yoffie launched our URJ Incubator Grant Program a year ago to encourage congregations to dream, to develop new programs to reach out to people who are not normally engaged in Jewish life. Nearly 200 synagogues submitted proposals to the program, and we were happy to award Incubator Grants to twenty of them and are thrilled to report that the success of these twenty can be viewed here at the Biennial. We invite each and every congregation here tonight to dream about what you might do in the next two years and to apply for a 2012 Incubator Grant. Please turn your eyes to the screens for a short video about the incubator grants.

We invite you to dream big, be creative, and apply for one of the twenty, up to $5000 grants we will be awarding this coming spring.  Deadline for applications is February 28.  Please go to our website and check out the details.  Make change happen in your congregation.

Let me be very explicit about something which is implicit in this review of the Union’s achievements in the past two years. These programs, these advances, this excitement—none of it would have happened without the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

During this Biennial convention you will hear a lot about Eric’s accomplishments. I will not be the most famous person to pay tribute to him. I will not be the most eloquent, or the most impassioned. But I will be the first!

And having worked with Eric every day for far longer than either of us cares to admit, I know some things about Eric that others don’t. Not just where he keeps the stash of Diet Coke in his office, but the wisdom and menschlichit he brings to bear on every question.

Eric brings a passion to his work, to our work, that is contagious. Most of you know what a powerful speaker he is, many of you have had an opportunity to learn what a gifted teacher he is, but only a few of us have gotten to learn what a trusted colleague and loving friend he can be. I admire many things about Eric, and my admiration for him peaks around these Biennials.  The vision and leadership and courage he has shown in an extraordinary series of sermons are a source of profound inspiration to me and to so many of us.

But Eric’s offstage roles are just as moving. Watching him speak with a Temple President about a particular challenge.  Seeing him gracefully resolve a disagreement between staff members – yes, they sometimes happen.  Or hearing him offer words of support to someone in a personal crisis.

Many of you see Eric’s leadership only once every other year, but for the past 16 years, I have had the pleasure and honor of seeing it every day.  I have learned more from Eric than I can ever express, and for that I am deeply grateful. Friends, please join me in welcoming the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

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