2013 URJ Biennial

Community and Leadership, Whether You’re at Biennial or Not



by Rachel Roth

[Editor's Note: The following post was presented as a drash at an executive meeting of the American Conference of Cantors on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.]

One of the most interesting statistics that I found in the Pew Study is the somewhat low rate of importance of being part of a community as being essential to Jewish Identity. Only 25% of Reform Jews—29% of all Jews—said that being a part of a community is essential to their identity as a Jew. Yet, when I watched the video on the URJ Biennial website, the message to the lay leadership of the Movement is clear: Come to San Diego and be a part of the community that is “the URJ.”

What does that mean?

Martin Buber tells us (in the book The Martin Buber Reader—Essential Writings) that, “The world yearns to become a community…World and humankind are predisposed by creation alone to become a community.” He goes on to say “When people really engage with each other, experience each other and respond to this experience with their own lives, when people have a ‘living middle’ at their center, then community can arise among them.”

Yet, of the Jews surveyed in the Pew Study, only one quarter of them believe that being a part of a community is an important part of their life as a Jew. So, is there a disconnect? Is it important to be a part of a community to be a Jew? Clearly, those of us sitting in this room believe it is important. So, how do we reach the 75% who don’t believe that they need to be a part of a community to be Jewish? They are already proud—the survey told us that 96% of Reform Jews and 94% of Jews overall are proud of their Judaism. How do we, the leaders of the largest Movement in North America, convey to those who are proud but not part of a community that the community still needs them?

Buber’s words seem to be at the center of the lack of community we see today. When people engage, they feel a part of the community and they want to continue. But when they don’t engage—and when they don’t feel a need for engagement—community is no longer important to their identity.

So, what do we do about it? How do we cause the community to arise?

This is something the URJ board and leadership struggled with for this Biennial. When the decision was made to open the Biennial to non-URJ congregational members, it was not without controversy or discussion. It is the dues of the congregations represented around this room that create the financial ability for the URJ to put this together. But, Rabbi Rick Jacobs has a vision. “We have opened the Biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform Movement,” he told JTA in an interview. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”

In these few short days, the overarching goal is to create a community that the attendees — those lay leaders of our own congregations – will take with them so they can in turn teach others and engage others in what it means to be a part of a larger community. We hope they bring the “living middle” of the music, the worship, the workshops, the speakers, and the camaraderie back to their friends and families and not just the members of your congregations.

In this room are the leaders of the largest movement of Jews in North America — but not necessarily the most engaged. This week, we have an opportunity to make strides in the direction of engaging the greater community.

Basketball great, Michael Jordan said, “Earn your leadership every day.” As I think about the reason that we have come together this week in San Diego, I can’t help but think about the leadership opportunities we each can earn as we walk the halls, greet people, learn in the classrooms and pray in the worship services of this Biennial gathering. You’ve heard it said many times when we gather together as the American Conference of Cantors that we should “wrap ourselves in the flag of the ACC.” This time, I would ask you to take it one step further and wrap yourself in the flag of Judaism. Not even Reform Judaism. Just Judaism.

Model that behavior of being a committed and engaged leader for your board presidents and Sisterhood members who are here to celebrate together. Model the spirit of collaboration and engagement as we walk the halls and greet each other and make new friends. Let us create that “living middle” that seeks to engage Jews of every generation to be a part of our community.

Rachel Roth is the managing Executive Director of the American Conference of Cantors. This post originally appeared on the ACC’s website.

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