Unpacking the URJ Biennial
by Jaclyn Cohen
Every two years, the URJ gathers together thousands of Reform Jews – lay leaders, synagogue employees, clergy, entertainers, NFTYites, and more – to connect and reconnect, pray, learn, network, and altogether grasp the movement of the Movement.
The first Biennial I attended was in 2001, just a few months after 9/11. I was the president of my temple youth group, I was 17 years old, and up until that summer, I had no concept of NFTY or a greater Reform Movement. Then my home synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, rejoined the Union, and I was asked to represent them at Biennial. The experience was unforgettable.
Twelve years ago, my mind exploded with the excitement and energy – the ruach – of the Movement and especially of its youth. And this weekend in San Diego, I felt that same ruach as I participated in the most exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking, and innovative programming and prayer I have witnessed in a very long time.
Biennial is a bit of a blur. There are so many people and so many things happening simultaneously. You’re constantly running into people you haven’t seen in years. You want to catch up, but you also want to make it to a session, maybe two! The programming is overwhelming in the best way possible; it feels a little bit like Jewish Disneyland with all the stimulation and the taglines. Some people (and I tried very hard not to give myself a hard time about this) get serious FOMO – “Fear of missing out.” – because, truly, there’s just so much going on. And you want to do Every. Single. Thing.
Some of the programmatic highlights for me included:
- Learning best practices for young adult engagement from synagogues and communities that are doing it right
- Observing a case study in the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement taking place at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego
- Participating in a workshop for Reform California, led by many of my friends and colleagues
- Discussing the synagogue of the future with Rabbi Sharon Brous and Rabbi David Stern
- Reconnecting and connecting with HUc-JIR alumni and students from all four campuses and hearing the outgoing president, Rabbi David Ellenson, bless incoming president Rabbi Aaron Panken on his journey
Then there were the services. Friday night was a stunningly beautiful service led by the clergy team of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts – a synagogue whose innovative educational programs were often used as case studies during my Jewish Education Master’s program. Saturday morning I participated in hands-down the most creative and exceptional Torah service of all time primarily led by Cantor Andrea Buchdahl of Central Synagogue and Amichai Lau-Lavie of Storahtelling and Lab/Shul.
What made the Torah service so amazing? It was creative, it was fun, it was engaging, and it had serious depth. The best way I can describe it: thirteen platforms were set up around the giant plenary hall. Each platform served as a bimah, and those who had been asked to stand there (representatives from various URJ organizations) had a Torah with them on their bimah. The 5,000-person plenary chanted the Torah blessings together, and then each platform had a reader who read for each separate aliyah within earshot of their section. It gave me chills. It was beautiful. And it was interspersed with stellar “sTorah-telling,” a particular highlight being Shira Kline acting as the biblical character Dinah.
It reinforced, so very much, all that is possible when we think outside the box.
And then, Saturday night I had the most incredible opportunity to introduce the plenary program: an event honoring 100 years of the Women of Reform Judaism and celebrating 75 years of NFTY. The program was a celebration of amazing female musicians, role models, educators, and social activists. It honored Anat Hoffman, the fearless director of IRAC, and it blessed the generations of old and new in sweeping musical tributes. It was just so good.
If you didn’t catch it live, please do yourself a favor. Watch the replay, celebrate and dance and sing with the women, and enjoy it through Jewish Life TV.
The Biennial experience got me so energized, so pumped, about all that lies ahead for us soon-to-be rabbis. It made me see so clearly how the Movement is growing and shifting, how its leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs is a visionary who practices what he preaches, how committed and passionate so many of its constituents are, and most of all, the evolution to which the Reform Movement is committed and in which it is invested so deeply. That includes opening our arms to change, embracing that which we do not know, engaging with all those who are “othered” to us, and being exemplars of “audacious hospitality.”
To the next chapter, for a new day is dawning…
Until then, time for sleep!
Jaclyn Cohen is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Originally published at Almost a Rav