Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Final thoughts on the Biennial

Final thoughts : Blogging the URJ Convention
The biennial is important, in fact, it is the showcase for the Reform movement. This conclave is like a pilgrimage for Reform Jews getting connected to a larger community of Reform Jews in sharing new ideas and practical strategies for congregations. It also builds a amazing spirit of what Reform Jews believe in and cherish with regards to God, Torah and Israel. Communal and creative worship and particularly music is absolutely critical for sustaining Reform Judaism.
This Biennial is also about Rabbi Rick Jacobs and his leadership. This was the first Biennial that reflected his style and his agenda. 
One should understand clearly that the team planning all major events scripted it to present Rabbi Jacobs in a certain light that would reinvigorate the largely anemic URJ organization. Such new directions as more money for NFTY, the teen youth movement are examples of a new  day dawning for the URJ. New communities of Practice where congregations throughout the country collaborate on specific issues whether it is programming or practice is another example of this URJ. Financial cuts and selling off part of URJ building are part of cost cutting strategies.
I will list the aspects of the biennial I appreciated and those things I see as areas of growth.
Music is still strong. Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols are major players as well as Julie Silver. 
Communal worship is still huge.
Workshops are a hit and miss.
Networking and getting knowledge amongst colleagues and organizations  is critical. Very valuable piece of the Biennial experience.
Connecting with temple leadership outside of temple at the biennial is so important for growing our relationships.
Examine resources at bookstore and other venders  like books and music that we can use to enhance education at temple.
See old friends at Biennial that build connection and a sense of family.

Areas that need improvement.
I felt that the URJ still does not see how investing in grass roots organizing to develop new leadership for the future. URJ is basically a call center without any interest in connecting staff and regional lay leadership. The feeling I got was that URJ is more interested in proving their worth with the metric of how much service they can offer from who knows where they work from than demonstrating a real commitment to getting outside their box and see what reality in American Jewry is all about.
No commitment to college youth. They continue to talk the talk about youth initiative for teens. Where is the vision for our college kids? Same old response- Hillel. I'm sorry Hillel does not cut it for me any more. We need to do more for college age Reform Jews.
I think they need to have better options for folks who want to attend the biennial for a day or two. There is still a disconnect about having the high costs and high priced registration fees. It cuts out so many who just can't afford to stay the entire week.  Again I wonder about the disconnect here with the reality with the grass roots.
Rabbi Jacobs: a new era has arrived.
No doubt that Rabbi Needed to come off in a positive way. This was his first Biennial and the impression he left was a very effective image. He exuded an aura of informality and warmth. His pulpit presence was what any congregation would relish from their rabbi.
He made every effort to project spirituality and kavannah. 
His two hour info commercial speech where he outlined his priorities and ideology gave us something to think about. 
Rabbi Jacobs is earnestly trying remake himself. He moved from the left on Israel to the center. He is trying to show he can be the CEO who can command respect of the business community by advocating the sale of a floor of the URJ building in New York. He is trying to remake himself as the ideological oracle for Reform Judaism around the world. He says we are living in a post ethnic world of Judaism. He affirms that god did give the Torah to the Jewish people and that humans wrote the Torah. I'm curious to see what kind of narrative he will create to substitute for peoplehood and for Torah from Sinai?
It's good that Rabbi Jacobs told the story of his visit toRabbi Krinsky of Habad in acknowledging their success. He tells us that he told Rabbi Krinsky that he respects all the different ways Jews practice. In fact he goes on to say Reform Jews care about Shabbat, kashrut and,Israel. They just care differently than Chabad does. I sense he may want think through how he feels Reform Jews should or could embrace these ideas. I hope he can come up with something more definitive about meaning in relation to these ideas.
He has gotten off to a good start. People like him. He is tall and good looking.  
Audacious hospitality is an important point he raised about how all of us have to stretch to be more welcoming of new members if we have any chance of keeping membership strong and steady.
Rabbi Jacobs is probably just what The Reform movement needs at this juncture of our history. He has the program vision but he has to work at articulating a stronger and clearer ideology about what it means to be Jewish today and to be a progressive Jew. Programs and ideology go together if the spirituality he is looking to revitalize has a real chance of ushering in a period of renewal for American progressive Judaism

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