Biennial: The Antidote to Pew Study Anxiety

Soon after I finished reading the Pew Research’s Religion and Public Life Project study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the first thing I did was to register for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention in San Diego. Getting together with 5,000+ committed Jews ranks high on my short list of responses to the more worrisome portions of this landmark study of American Jewish identity and values.

To Agonize or Not to Agonize: That is the Jewish Question
The Pew study lays out its analysis of the successes and challenges facing the Jewish community. Depending upon how one reads the study, there is much to celebrate and much to fret about. The internet is replete with analyses, praises, and critiques of the study and its conclusions. Of course, we can soon expect the conversation to move from there to what we can do to strengthen the identity and religious commitment of Jews and the Jewish community.

My experience suggests that significant signposts can be discovered at the URJ Biennial convention. Each Biennial offers just the Jewish spiritual high and the programmatic low down to guide front line Jewish synagogues regarding the way forward. That is why I am attending the Biennial and taking with me many of the leaders from my congregation – and that’s why you should too. 

Our Temple Transformed by Biennial Attendance
Over the years, the congregations I have served and my own Jewish life have been transformed by the Biennial. Most recently, the 2011 Biennial in Washington, DC, challenged us to rethink our youth engagement activities. After that gathering, Congregation Or Ami’s clergy and lay leadership evaluated our offerings and created a new process and program. We have since enjoyed a 20% increase in post-b’nai mitzvah youth participation and a stellar reputation for our Tracks for Temple Teens (“Triple T”) program.

Previous Biennial conventions inspired us to deepen our congregation’s accessibility for Jews with disabilities, to articulate officially our outreach to the LGBTQ Jews and Jewish families, and to pursue an energetic foray into e-newsletters and social media. Similarly, we have answered the call to innovate our worship services, expand our Torah study, and creatively embrace and educate interfaith couples.

Transdenominational Participation Promotes a Wide Variety of Perspectives
I am even more excited about this year’s Biennial because for the first time, the event is open to those outside the Reform Movement. Registration will be open to anyone, not just to members of Reform synagogues. The cross-denominational and cross-organizational interactions promise to point all of us toward more comprehensive analyses of and workable responses to the challenges the Pew study illuminated.

Jews of all stripes – lay leaders and professionals, youth, congregants, and clergy – gather together to be energized, inspired and uplifted. Intellectually challenged by the high level scholars and Jewish thinkers, we participants face the challenges that the study only talks about. The ability to network with leaders and thinkers from all over the Jewish world makes the Biennial the place to retreat, respond, and rejuvenate.

Bonding at Biennial
Personally, I cherish the opportunity to spend long hours in sessions, in services, and over meals with leaders of my congregation. Many a Biennial has provided the opportunity to deepen the bonds that ensure a smooth partnership back home at our synagogue. We create a common language and shared insight on national issues and local concerns. By seeking out leaders from other parts of the country who have faced and successfully addressed the issues, we have identified allowed us to return home with a “can do” attitude and a toolbox of options.

Finally, there is Shabbat. It is rare that a clergy person gets to sit and pray without the responsibility to act as Shaliach tzibur (communal worship leader). The poignancy and power of worshipping alongside 5,000 other Jews is unmatched. The kahal (community) is transformed by an emotional-spiritual high that our ancestors called hitlahavut (the passion of prayer). The study options – from the Shalom Hartman Institute, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, the Mussar Institute, and others – bring Torah to life and refill our souls with the succor from our Jewish tradition.

Stop Worrying and Set Your Sights on San Diego
We have been here before: worried about the present, anxious about the Jewish future. With the instantaneous conversations afforded by the internet and social media, those worries are compounded and seemingly pervasive. Yet, I am breathing easy. Not because I know the way forward. Not because I understand fully the problems we face. Rather, because as the Jewish world continues to get worked up about the Pew study on American Jews, trying to wring meaning from it and prophesy the path(s) ahead, I know that I will be at the best place I can be to address these issues: spending five days with 5,000 thinking Jewish leaders at the URJ Biennial Convention in San Diego.

Will you join me? Find out more and register now.

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Rabbi Paul Kipnes

About Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rabbi Paul Kipnes the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. He serves as rabbinic dean at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and as vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights). He also co-edited a national CCAR Journal issue on New Visions for Jewish Community. Under his leadership, Congregation Or Ami has won national awards for social justice programming, for innovative worship programming, for outreach to interfaith families, and for engaging family education, and for best overall use of technology in a synagogue. Or Ami also wins the hearts of its families for its Henaynu caring community, which reaches out during times of need. He serves on the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education clinical faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings can be viewed on his blog, Or Am I? He tweets @RabbiKip.

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