More than 5,000 Reform Jews from across North America gathered in Chicago Dec. 11 through 15 for the Union of Reform Judaism’s Biennial. Professionals and lay leaders from several Reform Pittsburgh congregations, including Rodef Shalom Congregation, Temple David, Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Temple Sinai, attended the meeting.
According to Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of Rodef Shalom, the Biennial illustrated the “tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm about finding the direction for liberal, progressive Judaism as we enter, now, the third decade of the 21st century.”
Bisno pointed out that a recurring theme of the meeting included “how we can engage the next generation … those that were there and those that were not there. How do we reach the people that are now part of our community, by generations in some cases?”
The Biennial occurs every two years in a different city. This year’s event featured speakers including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, author Jodi Kantor, historian Deborah Lipstadt, former ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro and URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs; daily worship and Shabbat services; and 125 learning sessions that covered leadership development, membership engagement and development, early childhood and youth education and social justice leadership.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills Executive Director Leslie Hoffman noted that the Biennial showcased how welcoming the Reform movement is to Jews of all identities.
“When you’re there, among all those different people from all those different locations, you realize how different the face of Reform Judaism is outside of Pittsburgh.”
That changing face now includes not only Ashkenazi Jews, who continue to be the base of the Reform movement in North America, but also “Jews of color, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Jews by choice and interfaith families,” according to Rabbi Jessica Locketz of Temple Emanuel. “I think it’s becoming more of an umbrella for all sorts of people identifying with Reform Jewish principles.”
Rabbi Amy Asin is the URJ’s vice president and director of strengthening congregations. During her presentation on Dec. 12, she introduced a term that proved popular among many of the attendees: “Jewish-adjacent.”
Rodef Shalom member Susan Friedberg Kalson, the immediate-past chair of the resolution committee and current chair of the Commission on Social Action, explained that the term “goes back several decades” and includes “non-Jewish family members who interact with our movement.”
“I know in the Torah,” she continued, “that there are examples of people we would now call Jewish-adjacent who are part of our community, although not a Jew.”
The breadth of the Reform movement was on display Friday night when more than 5,000 Jews gathered for what was billed as the largest Shabbat service in the country, which included a 100-member volunteer-choir.
“It is the highlight of the Biennial to be together with 5,000 Jews praying and singing and sharing Shabbat,” Locketz reflected. “It’s always amazing to share that with lay leaders who have never experienced it before.”
For Lynn Magid Lazar, a member of the URJ board of trustees and a vice chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism as well as a Temple Sinai member, a high point of the Biennial came during Shabbat services on Saturday, Dec. 14, when a Torah that survived the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia was transferred to David Maxa, a soon-to-be rabbi for the Jewish community of El Chajim Prahad in the Czech Republic.
The Sefer Torah had been cared for by the North American Reform Jewish youth leaders at URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York, since being loaned by the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London in 1974. The scroll will now go back to the trust before returning to the Czech Republic, where it was written in 1890.
“It was an incredibly exciting moment. When the Torah was handed to him, it was amazingly emotional, when you think about the emerging, thriving communities in places like the Czech Republic,” Lazar said.
During the Biennial, delegates approved three resolutions. The first supports those affected by the opioid crisis. In it, the Reform movement resolves to advocate for the importance of addressing substance abuse; engage congregations and leaders across the URJ to end the stigma around substance use; urge governments to support evidence-based approach for opioid use, increase the availability of opioid reversal medications, expand access to government-funded programs, authorize funding to address the increase in substance use and craft polices to limit prescription opioid abuse. It also calls for congregations to educate their members and include naloxone in their emergency preparedness kits.
The second resolution calls for an end to private prisons. As Kalson explained it, “the bottom line is there’s a real inherent conflict of interest. You are making money by keeping people incarcerated and giving them the fewest possible resources because you want to keep making as much money as possible. That’s a problem.”
The last resolution supports the study of proposals for U.S. slavery reparations. It does not define what form those reparations should take; it simply calls for a federal commission to study and develop proposals on the matter. By approving the resolution, the URJ became the first major Jewish movement to endorse the idea of reparations.
Kalson said the URJ “wanted to put our flag in the ground and say, ‘400 years of systematic racism has damaged this country.’ It has, of course, damaged the descendants of slavery but it has damaged all of us. This is about how we right wrongs of the past so we can begin to heal.”
Temple Sinai member Frank Schwarz has attended the last 13 Biennials. His wife performed as part of the volunteer choir during Shabbat service. He said the meetings are a chance for him to recharge his batteries, “and it fulfills this need every time.”
He recalls Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai telling him once, “You can’t live on the mountaintop, but it’s nice to visit.”
The next URJ Biennial will take place December 8-11, 2021, in Washington, D.C. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.