Monday, November 9, 2015

The Biennial Convention: Part Two

URJ Blog Part Two: Saturday Night.

I left you right before Shabbat. If there is one thing that can put all the politics, debates and typical Jewish give and take it is the spirit of Shabbat at a URJ Biennial. First five thousand delegates gather together inside the huge conference center for the first stage of Shabbat which is a communal worship service. A cantor from Congregation Emanuel and Rabbi from Holy Blossom in Toronto led the services back by an amazing orchestra and choir. Worshipping with 5000 people is a unique experience because we generally have modest numbers during out weekly shabbat services. Don’t get me wrong our congregation does a pretty good job of showing up at services. Yet these kind of numbers certainly reinforce a sense of unity and solidarity in the Reform movement. It is the music that is most intriguing and uplifting whether we are listening to Cantors or singer song writers. The music lifts our souls and instrumental musicians really add so much to the spiritual experience. It was a great performance by the clergy.
The next step was to walk down the hallway to the Shabbat dinner. Everyone from Hilton Head sat together comprising about 12 individuals in our delegation. We ate and enjoyed each others’s company. Then the big moment occurs. We all proceed over to the big hall when the famous song session begins. Let me say this; The song session consist of every renown singer songwriter in the Reform movement along with the orchestra backing them up They take us all to a new level of enthusiasm and joy. It’s not worship just singing  and singing. People get up and form a dance line winding around the convention hall. I even saw sone of our delegates from Hilton Head bouncing up and down in an Israeli dancing mode!
Once that is over there are smaller group sessions for late night entertainment and singing. It goes on and one. Simply awesome!

Shabbat Morning
Services began and with music and aliyot from all sorts of constituencies  along with a sermon from Rabbi Jacobs on the need for the Reform movement to have audacious hospitality. Once again the scene of 5000 Jews in a convention hall in public worship is an awe inspiring picture. Then what did we do after services? Of course we go to eat lunch. In smaller rooms we ate lunch but with lunch there would be a speaker giving a talk after the lunch. IN my session I listened to an amazing presentation by well known Israeli columnist and author Ari Shavit. He came out with a book about Israel that many of us have read and which I reviewed for the congregation. For him it was an eye opening experience to see the Reform movement at its best. Like so many secular Israelis they have precious little knowledge or experience with the Reform movement. They know only secular culture or Orthodox Judaism. He said that from now on he would be an ambassador on behalf of the Reform Movement in Israel. My sense is that he was touched deeply by his time with us.
He is a moderate in terms of Israeli politics. He opposes the settlements on the West Bank and calls for a two state solution. More than that he recognizes the need tor Israeli society to reform itself on a whole list of issues from income equality to fighting to preserve Israel’s democracy. He believes that Israel must do a better job of integrating the haredi Jews and Arab Israelis into the mainstream of Israeli society. Don’t worry he is a big defender of the state lest you get the wrong impression. He has been touring the country especially visiting college campuses trying to encourage Jewish students to fight against Boycott Divest And Sanction movements against Israel. He knows like we do that this movement BDS is anti-Semitic at its core.Finally he is hopeful that peace is still obtainable. He knows that Israel must reestablish its standing in the world and it must work hard to make sure that Iran does not get the bomb. He was definitely an inspiring speaker and captured the hearts of the audience.
The next session I attended was a clergy only session with Rabbi Rick Jacobs. In that session colleagues shared their views of the direction of the movement. I think the most prevailing concern expressed to him from us was that the URJ needs to do more to be involved and supportive to the grass roots in terms of bringing together leadership both volunteer and rabbinic to strengthen the regions Jewish programming.
What’s next? Well our delegation went off to dinner. We ate together and engaged in a spirited discussion about the URJ and current events. That was for me a highlight of my experience with the leadership. We all go off to the various workshops but this was the time for us to process what we were feeling. 
Now comes the big moment. We got back to the Marriott just in time to go through the security check from the Secret Service to listen to a talk from Vice President Joe Biden. All I can say is this. He got up and gave a speech that focused on several points. It was a kind of farewell and thank you speech to the Jewish community. His first point was to thank the Reform Movement for its partnership with him for almost forty years in the Senate working on  the most important issues near and dear to him. Such issues as Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights legislation,Soviet Jewry and many other examples he gave  were part of his acknowledging the shared values of a progressive viewpoint and vision of American life. The second point he emphasized was his unbreakable support and the current administration’s support for Israel. Yes, he acknowledged the times of disagreement between Israeli and American leaders. On the other hand in the third point  he forcefully stressed the bonds between Israel and the US were like “steel.” He said ‘that no one prime minister or president and can alter that relationship.” As you would expect he reiterated that President Obama was the most supportive president in terms of providing Israel with a qualitative edge militarily in the Middle East. He covered the Iran Nuclear Arms Agreement by sharing his belief that this was the only way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and that ‘Iran will never be permitted to get one.’  

After he finished the audience arose into a tumultuous applause to VP Biden. The musicians returned and we all embraced each other singing Oseh Shalom. At this point it was about 11pm and we all walked into the exhibition center and purchased our gifts and materials. Shopping is a mitzvah too!

I have one more blog to do for you but Sunday morning will be  the last day of programming. It was a great biennial. Worship, Torah study, debate on the controversial issues of the day and talking about the movement and our respective congregations. That is a great recharge to the batteries of our leadership and that serves our congregation. Watch out for the final blog.

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