Open conference

Open conference

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke of  “audacious hospitality” at the URJ’s 72nd Biennial conference in San Diego. (Photo by Dale Lazar)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke of “audacious hospitality” at the URJ’s 72nd Biennial conference in San Diego. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

“Audacious hospitality” was the motivating motto at the Union for Reform Judaism’s 72nd Biennial conference, which ran from Tuesday, Dec. 10, through Sunday, Dec. 15, in San Diego.

About 60 Pittsburghers attended the conference, including a 35-person contingent from Temple Sinai, and 22  people from Rodef Shalom Congregation.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, spoke of audacious hospitality in his keynote address — recognizing the value of many different Jewish partners, as well as a mandate to make all feel welcome within the margins of Reform Judaism.

“For me, it’s very exciting because we are at the point of opening the tent to the wider Jewish world,” said Barbara Shuman, a member of Temple Sinai and a trustee of the URJ North American Board. Last week marked her 17th attendance at a URJ Biennial.

“What we need to do as a movement is welcome everyone to the Reform Jewish community,” she said, “and to be inclusive of a huge diversity.”

The openness of the movement was apparent in the variety of backgrounds of the presenters, Shuman said, which included members of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal communities.

“It was the first time the convention was open to other denominations of presenters,” she said, adding that the openness was a “recognition that we are part of a larger Jewish world, and that we can be in a partnership, and learn from others.”

Speakers at the convention included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke live from Israel via satellite; former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond; Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon; Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall; Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University.

“It’s very exciting to have so many different experiences and people to learn from,” Shuman said. “This audacious hospitality theme was something modeled at the Biennial by bringing in people outside the movement.”

In his address, Jacobs also focused on the importance of social justice and intensified Israel-Diaspora relations, as well as new youth engagement initiatives, including opening up the movement’s youth group, NFTY, to teens whose parents are not members of a congregation.

“The message is, ‘Your parents don’t have to join a congregation; we still want you to come and do Jewish things,’ ” Shuman said.

A highlight of the conference for many of the Pittsburgh attendees was the opportunity to worship on Shabbat with 5,000 other Jews, Shuman said.

And those services were innovative.

There were several “out of the box” elements to the morning Shabbat service, Shuman said, including choreographer Liz Lerman’s introduction of simple movements turned into a prayer, and a dramatic interpretation of the Torah portion by Amichai Lau Lavie, the founding director of Storahtelling.

“It’s a very moving experience to worship together with 5,000 Jews,” said Donald Simon, immediate past president of Rodef Shalom Congregation, and a new member of the URJ board of trustees. “It’s really a thing to behold.”

In addition to the services, Simon was inspired by a presentation by Ron Wolfson, author of “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.” Relational Judaism is related to the concept of audacious hospitality, he said.

“Audacious hospitality is an interesting phrase,” Simon said. “The concept is we need to be more than just welcoming, but we need to go out of our way to bring people in.”

Wolfson’s message, Simon said, is that congregations are spending too much time, effort and money on programming, and not enough resources on connecting.

“We need to go beyond having a caring committee,” Simon said, “to having a caring community where the entire synagogue is involved, creating small cohorts of people who relate to one another and take care of each other.”

The 22 participants from Rodef Shalom at the conference together constituted the largest contingent ever from Rodef Shalom, according to its president, Ann Roth.

Rodef Shalom raised funds to send the lay and professional leaders to San Diego, so that they could return with ideas and objectives to help propel the congregation into the future.

“Our objectives were to address youth engagement, social action and worship,” Roth said.

The group was scheduled to meet this week to prepare initiatives to present to the congregation’s board.

“I think the overriding message is building community,” Roth said. “It’s all about relationships.”

There are creative ways to worship and to engage everyone, she added. “The URJ is evolving. It’s a pleasure to see we’re all open to positive change.”

With 35 people in its group, Temple Sinai had the second largest contingent at the Biennial, said Rabbi James Gibson, spiritual leader of the congregation.

“We think it is very, very important that our people come and find inspiration,” he said.

There was talk regarding the Pew study at the Biennial, Gibson said, with discussions focusing on how to reach the vast numbers of Jews who have no institutional attachment.

“We have to respond to help with identity formation, and give people reasons to identify with Judaism in general, and synagogues in particular, because it is in synagogues where identity formation takes place,” Gibson said.

Also referencing Wolfson’s work, Gibson acknowledged the importance of relationship building in reaching out to the unaffiliated as well as those who are already members of a congregation.

“Relational Judaism is so much a foundation of what we are trying to accomplish at Temple Sinai,” Gibson said. “It’s all about the relationships we forge.”

“But if it’s only about relationships, it’s a social club,” he continued, adding that it is essential to sustain common values “that root us as a community.”

For Frank Schwarz, a past president of Temple Sinai and another member of the URJ board of trustees, the conference presented an opportunity to explore ways of meeting the needs of the older generation — a demographic that is sometimes neglected.

“There are a couple members of the congregation who are over 50, and we have to think about them, too,” Schwarz said.

To that end, he found the programming of a new congregation in Toronto, which focused on having distinct adult services in addition to family services, an inventive way of keeping older adults engaged.

The conference provided a forum to discuss a changing future, and the ways for the Reform movement to remain relevant to all of its cohorts, he said.

“Where we are going in the 21st century is not where we’ve been,” Schwarz said. “Change is always occurring. The question is, how are we able to embrace it and make Reform Judaism a movement that speaks to the Millennials as well as the older folks.

“We need to be audacious as we move forward, but we can’t forget our past,” he continued. “The dilemma is whether you live in the past or if you bring the past along with you.”

Because of changing demographics, part of that move into the future may necessarily include collaborations among institutions.

As an example of one such successful collaboration, members of Pittsburgh’s religious school J-JEP — a partnership between Rodef Shalom and Congregation Beth Shalom (Conservative) — were invited to conduct a session on their experiences in merging two separate schools.

“I was proud that Rodef Shalom was invited to present at a gathering of Reform Jewish congregations the success of our merged religious school program,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, its senior rabbi. “The opportunity to present alongside the best examples of innovative synagogue thinking was a great validation of our efforts.

“It’s validating that the work we’re doing in Pittsburgh in partnership with another congregation — in this case, from another movement — is recognized as significant,” he added. “My hope is that we can continue to build in this direction.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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