The Biennial as Change Agent for Your Congregation

by Julie Schwartz

How can Reform congregations turn an invigorating URJ Biennial experience into lasting change? Here are a few tips from congregations big and small that have turned a trip to the Biennial into meaningful growth experiences:

Attend with a goal in mind, but be open to new ideas. Prior to attending the URJ Biennial in 2011, the 130-household Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation in Loudoun County, VA, was struggling to grow. Says lay leader  Jennifer Elgin, “I was hoping to find ways to build membership, and when I attended the session on attracting young families, things began to click. Surprisingly, I also came back with many other ideas, such as holding a series of holiday classes designed for interfaith families—which I’d love to make happen next year.”

After Biennial, with financial support from an anonymous donor, the BCRC Young Family Initiative was born. To meet its goal of attracting and engaging new families with very young children, BCRC adopted two key recommendations at the Biennial session: improving pre-K programming and revising dues structures. At Biennial, Elgin also learned how to upgrade the temple’s website by using the URJ’s Web Builder 2.0 template, which facilitates adding photos and videos, as well as posting calendar events. “Now our web look is more dynamic and warm—a truer reflection of who we are,” Elgin says. “And that’s important, because the website is often the first glimpse potential members have of our temple.”

Use Biennial as a retreat. In December 2011, 180-family Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, CT, sent as many members as it could to the Biennial. It was the culmination of TBH’s 2010–2011 Jubilee Year, and president Ann Hughes believed the Biennial, rather than a retreat, would best invigorate the congregation.

“With 36 attendees and printed TBH T-shirts, we were the most popular—and recognizable—group at Biennial,” Hughes says proudly. “And meeting every night for a pow-wow was the perfect bonding experience. The teens who attended became the nucleus of our youth group—which we didn’t have before. I’d like to see the URJ offer a special rate for large groups from a single synagogue, to allow others to experience Biennial the way we did.”

When Hughes initiated her campaign to send a large group of congregants to the Biennial, few congregants believed it would change anything. “Now they are believers,” Hughes says, “and I’m a ridiculously better synagogue president than I was before.”

Following Biennial, sit down with your temple staff and brainstorm. “We brought back so many new ideas,” says Rabbi Marci Bloch of the 1,000-household Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL. “By holding a session with those unable to attend, we crystallized our own thoughts, determined which initiatives would work best at our synagogue, and planned ways to put them into action.”

Julie Schwartz is a freelance writer, public speaker, New Orleans tour guide, and president of the New Orleans Chapter of Hadassah.

This post is adapted from a piece that originally ran in Reform Judaism magazine.

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