Day Three and Four
I am combining Friday and Saturday.
Like all of us we go to meetings and attend sessions on Friday. Let’s face it convention workshops are a hit and miss experience. Somehow I do not think that is what you need to know. I say this because the focus of all the momentum of the Biennial is Shabbat. So let’s begin at the end of the day.
It is now 5:15; the convention hall is packed with 5000 people. The Shabbat experience begins with a 45 minute warm up session of music and singing. Cantors, rabbis, folk singers, and an Israeli Jazz group are all performing, sharing, and inspiring the holy assembly. They are thirsting for the great moment of transcendence. I mean 5000 people singing and swaying together are expecting something awesome to happen. They want to feel holiness and rapture in a Jewish sense. You can feel the anticipation pulsating through the crowd. The music is just getting us in the mood and spiritual temperature is rising.
This session leads into the worship service. It flows so well not only with singing (very little responsive reading) by the clergy but even better when there is a fifty or more Biennial choir on the stage. The tone is not powerful or loud or rock and roll type of liturgical music. It is more delicate and contemporary in the compositions. Most of the melodies were new.
There were two speakers during the services. The first was a woman who narrated her story of being shot by a neo-Nazi in a JCC pre-school where she was working with small children as a teenager herself in southern California in 1999. The congregation was touched by her story of bravery and her message of fighting for better legislation against gun violence. Of course her place in that service later fit into the theme of the first anniversary of the slayings of the children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
The second speaker was Rabbi Jonah Peshner who is one of the leadership team of Rabbi Jacobs. He spoke about Nelson Mandela and the biblical patriarch Jacob.
The service is concluded and the crowd moves into the dining halls for Shabbat dinner. Beth Yam had two full tables of our representatives. I don’t want to brag on my congregation but I have to say how proud I was to be with them. Old colleagues and friends came over to me and were so impressed to see how many people we were from Hilton Head. Then our president Mike Weingarten brought out all the Beth Yam tee shirts and we put them on and posed for a special group picture. Who could ask for a delegation with more spirit and joy than our congregation?
We light the candles; recite the Kiddush, and the motzi. The meal is either chicken or fish. The food was not bad considering what one expects from convention meals. I must say I was particularly happy to have my entire family together with our group.
Then the moment arrives we have all been waiting for at the Biennial. What is it? The dinner is over and everyone quickly files back into the hall where we had services. We commence the traditional Shirah or song session. This consists of all the best of the best of Reform Judaism’s folksingers and rock performers light up the room. They brought the music and the spirit and caught on like wild fire. The singing commenced and the people started dancing and singing. Lines of dancing grandmothers, kids, parents and whomever else marched, danced through the aisles with such smiles on their faces. Never have I seen so many happy Jews in one place. The music just lifted us all up to another spiritual rung. People are hugging each other, others are crying in Shabbat joy and exultation. All ages become one in dance and song. Beth Yam members are among the dancers. You wouldn't believe the energy of our people. We were among the most energetic and spiritual. OOPs there I go again bragging on my congregants!
The evening is over and the crowds file out with a wonderful feeling of spiritual energy even if they are tired. Private receptions follow and in some smaller halls there is more music for those who still want to go the extra mile. Surely our delegation will sleep well tonight.
The Shabbat morning service was conducted by Rabbi Jacobs and Cantor-Rabbi Angela Buchdahl who was cantor at Central Synagogue in New York and was just elected as Rabbi. She is both a cantor and Rabbi and a former assistant rabbi to Rabbi Jacobs. She is from Takoma, Washington but her mom is South Korean Buddhist even though she raised her Jewish with her Jewish husband. We are certainly a tapestry of racial and cultural diversity in Reform Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs made a big deal out of her looking Korean and still pointing out that she was Jewish and how people had to learn how to get used to that kind of diversity.
Rabbi Jacobs told the congregation that the old era of ethnicity in American Judaism which we all grew up in is over. In fact the mantra today is that we are all living in a post ethnic time of Jewish life and that identity formation for Judaism will have to depend on much less than the old standards like, “this is what you’re supposed to do,” or “My parents practiced Judaism and so we too observe.” That kind of momentum is almost gone, according to Jacobs. Instead he is saying that we have to get much more proactive and reach out to bring these folks in to the fold.
Truthfully, I love the Shabbat morning services at Biennial not because it is a service in a conventional sense. It feels more like a program of music and inspiring narration by Rabbi Jacobs. The show piece and drama of it is rehearsed and programmed. Is it the way one has services in most places? Probably not. But we can learn a few of their tricks to make our services a bit more engaging.
At the Torah services they set up thirteen stations scattered throughout the hall with people standing and reading Torah as well as huge screens showing the yad and hands going through the Torah text. I think we could do that in our congregation especially at High Holy Days. People like those techniques which help them feel more connected to the pulse of the service. This is not a davening experience. It is a performance of musical pieces with carefully orchestrated drama. They even had group of actors narrating the story of Jacob blessing his children as though they were actually living at the time. The congregation loved it.
The groups who received special aliyot were in kids in honor of the 75th anniversary of the National Federation of Temple Youth, Past presidents of the Women of Reform Judaism who are celebrating their 10th anniversary, board of the URJ (now it is called the oversight committee of 250) and current presidents of congregations, and, finally, the leadership, faculty and alumni of the Hebrew Union College.
The sermon was delivered by Rabbi Dr David Ellenson who is the retiring President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is a respected scholar and beloved President who now returns to the classroom. He cried and he blessed the new incoming president Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken. The passing on of the mantle of leadership was effective and touching.
By the way the services began at 10 and ended at 12:45pm. Then everyone left and went into lunch and learn sessions. It just doesn't stop. I attended a session conducted by HUC professor Lawrence Hoffman on “The Once and Future Synagogue: Deep Down Lessons for a Jewish Future.”
Yes there was bit of time to get ready for dinner which was on our own. Our group ate together at the Marriott restaurant Marinas. It was great and we toasted Sisterhood at Beth Yam. The award the Sisterhood received was for great membership growth. How about our Sisterhood! Also you should see the quilt they contributed to the larger quilt that Sisterhood created nationally. Our Sisterhood is awesome. They are creative and dedicated. They make things happen for our Temple and for the community at large. I believe that every woman should be a member of Sisterhood and I hope all the women in our congregation will join and stay as members of this Temple’s Sisterhood.
Finally, the last part of the evening was an evening program honoring the 75th anniversary of NFTY and the Women of Reform Judaism. A special music piece was performed in honor of the occasion and the enthusiasm of the music and the singing and the memories of what Sisterhood means today and in our history was so powerful for all of us that night.
All of this was followed by a post program performance by musical artists Josh Nelson and Neshama Carlebach.