Action: The Biennial as Change Agent
by Julie Schwartz



Jewish martial arts classes at Congregation B'nai Israel,
Boca Raton, Florida, inspired by the 2011 Biennial.

In December 2011, 180-family Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) in South Windsor, Connecticut sent as many members as it could to the URJ's Biennial outside Washington, DC. It was the culmination of TBH’s 2010–2011 Jubilee Year, and President Ann Hughes believed the Biennial, rather than a retreat, would best invigorate the congregation. Rabbi Jeffrey Glickman also knew that “the URJ would plan a convention well beyond anything our temple alone could accomplish.”

“We rented a bus, with faith that we could find the funds and people to attend,” Hughes says. It wasn’t easy, but that December, 36 TBH members aged 13 to 80, couples and singles, a true cross-section of the congregation, headed for Jewish immersion—a kind many had not experienced since they were children at camp, and others never had. “We were surrounded by 5,000+ people who all ‘get’ what it means to be Jewish, who care deeply about their faith, and who understand its relevancy to our lives,” Rabbi Glickman says.“We left for Biennial as a group of skeptical individuals and returned as a committed team,” Hughes adds. “We had a block of rooms close together; in the evenings we’d meet and enthusiastically share what we had learned. Our ideas quickly grew into big dreams of what we could accomplish.”

Leaders and congregants had a different mindset when they returned. “Biennial helped people here realize that Judaism is their religion,” Rabbi Glickman says. “It’s not about a rabbi coming in and Judaizing them; it’s participatory. They saw what Judaism could be and they wanted to have more of it, and on a deeper level. We also now offer basic, intermediate, and advanced Hebrew; plus, members are learning the prayer service and how to read Torah.”

“Before Biennial,” Hughes says, “people would grudgingly agree to be chair of ‘Development’ or ‘Membership,’ but they had little interest or support from other congregants. We returned with focus groups brimming with ideas, and those groups became active committees.” Two new lay-led groups formed: a Rosh Chodesh Circle and a Jewish Book Group.

TBH committees now work synergistically. For example, every committee, from Adult Education to the youth group, contributed to this past December’s “Chanukah Hop,” which took place on Friday night at the synagogue and at the homes of different congregants on each of the other nights.

The music at Biennial was also a game changer. “Seeing thousands of people singing and praying together, right away we knew we wanted to bring that energy to our synagogue,” Rabbi Glickman says. After Biennial, TBH did just that by finding the funds to hire a full-time cantor. Now Cantor Scott Harris introduces a new melody for a song or prayer every month or so—often a single line with a catchy tune—and, the whole congregation is learning the songs and prayers. “We start each service with Cantor Harris playing Shabbat melodies as people walk in and shmooze,” he says. “Even before the service begins, there is a feeling of Shabbat, of something Jewish happening.”

Rabbi Glickman reports that “attendance at Friday night services has doubled since the Biennial. We’ve been averaging 50 to 75 people at services each week—a large number for a small congregation. And now people tell me they look forward to Shabbat; that it’s a seminal part of their week. They attend services not because they’ve been ‘guilted’ into it, but because they want to be there.”

TBH struggled with declining membership and dues revenue in the years preceding the 2011 Biennial, after some congregants who lost their jobs were unable to contribute financially. “Biennial empowered us,” says Hughes. “It prompted us to form our first membership committee in 18 years, and taught us how to succeed. We learned what worked for others and applied it. Now, if someone shows an interest in TBH, s/he receives a phone call and an invitation to a ‘new member’ dinner or a synagogue event. We say, ‘We’ve made a reservation for you and would love for you to come; don’t worry about buying tickets.’” Already TBH has added 12 new households, a net gain in membership.

“Most importantly, our members are now working together to create a more joyful Jewish community experience,” says Hughes. “When you have that, other people see it and want to join you.”

Also attending the December 2011 Biennial were Rabbi Marci Bloch and Marketing and Projects Director Kati Kristol of 1,000-household Congregation B'nai Israel (CBI) in Boca Raton, Florida. “Our staff tries never to miss a Biennial,” says Rabbi Bloch. “And while our rabbis are often workshop presenters, we always bring back fresh ideas.” Listening to incoming URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and incoming URJ Vice President Rabbi Jonah Pesner announce the “Campaign for Youth Engagement,” the two CBI leaders were inspired by the message to “meet students where they are.” “Seeing enthusiastic teens at Biennial spotlighted as ‘the future,’” Rabbi Bloch says, “encouraged us to further empower our teens to think of ways to become an integral part of synagogue life.”

Returning home, Rabbi Bloch and Kristol sat down with CBI Religious School Director Kim Beame, and shared their enthusiasm for an updated youth initiative agenda. A key component was continuing to transform their religious school curriculum from traditional, formal desk-and-paper to experiential, interactive, hands-on learning. “Kids spend enough time behind desks,” Beame says. “We decided to offer courses designed to spark their creativity, and to offer electives, giving them more of a voice.”

“Now,” she says, “the younger children learn about holidays with building blocks, art supplies, or Jewish cooking; and teens learn Jewish values through martial arts, or by creating Instagrams and posting them on our school’s Facebook page. A weekly dinner program has already attracted 40 students: seventh graders eat dinner with the rabbis, and eighth through tenth graders dine weekly with the youth group.”

Moreover, this year, CBI’s eighth through twelfth grades have had a 90% retention rate—and several teens who’d left after b’nai mitzvah rejoined the religious school. This success is partly attributable to CBI’s popular new Jewish Philanthropy class, a URJ-Jewish Teen Funders Network course. Sixty juniors and seniors are creating fundraising plans, choosing causes, issuing RFP’s (request for proposals), raising funds, and directing how those funds will be used. Some have even formed their own 501c3’s (non-profit charity). “As part of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, Rabbi Jacobs noted that philanthropy must be kept ‘front and center,’” Kristol says, “and indeed we’ve discovered that teens can be very passionate about causes they want to support.”

Recognizing, too, that “technology is how teens live in this world—so if we are going to meet them where they are, we have to be online,” Rabbi Bloch and CBI staff have recruited a 30-something CBI alumnus to create an Alumni Association website for graduates of the temple’s religious school. Partially funded by a URJ “incubator grant,” the website will post internships and job opportunities, information about Jewish life on university campuses, Jewish Instagrams, Facebook links, Jewish music, Israel trips, NFTY news, and more.

“We know what teens are excited about and how they like to communicate. The last Biennial enabled us to up our game—to use that knowledge to make CBI a more exciting place for them,” says Beame.

Before the 2011 Biennial, 130-household Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation in Loudoun County, Virginia was struggling to grow. It was particularly difficult to attract families with very young children, as the congregation is too small to support a preschool and young families typically waited to join until their children were ready to attend Hebrew school. Sometimes they signed up as late as third or fourth grade, making it more difficult both for the children to learn Hebrew and for the families to develop strong social and emotional bonds to the synagogue.

Then, at the Biennial, Jennifer Elgin, an attorney who serves as the congregation’s Vice President of Community Events, attended a session entitled “Meeting the Needs of Today’s Families With Young Children.” “The workshop was packed with suggestions, and I took notes furiously,” Elgin says.

After Biennial, with financial support from an anonymous donor, the BCRC Young Family Initiative was born. To meet its goal of attracting and engaging new families with very young children, BCRC adopted two key recommendations at the Biennial session: improving pre-K programming and revising dues structures.

“We added a monthly Pajama Havdallah, led by an outside song leader who specializes in programs for young children,” Elgin says, “and the kids love it. Now we also have a Sunday morning play group following religious school and have held several tot concerts.”

At the Biennial, Elgin had also learned how to upgrade the temple’s website by using the URJ’s Web Builder 2.0 template, which facilitates adding photos and videos, as well as posting calendar events. “Now our web look is more dynamic and warm—a truer reflection of who we are,” Elgin says. “And that’s important, because the website is often the first glimpse potential members have of our temple.”

The early childhood initiative appears to be working. This past year, six new young families have joined the temple, as compared to only one the year before; and pre-K Sunday school class enrollment has increased from three children the previous year to eight this year. The end result is a slight boost to the temple’s bottom line, even though BCRC cut dues in half for families whose oldest child was in first grade or below, deferred their building fund payments, and reduced kindergarten and pre-K tuition. “It costs the same to pay a teacher to teach a class of three or eight students,” says BCRC President Mark Raffman. “And when you collect half the amount of dues while more than doubling the number of new families, you still come out ahead.”

Raffman also observes that “once young families join, they discover all of the other benefits of synagogue life they did not anticipate—friendships, a Jewish network, a feeling of community and connection. Many are diving into synagogue life. People who are CPAs are contributing services to the finance committee and others are volunteering to do email blasts as well as teach in our Sunday school. They’re helping to build our future.”

Elana Margolis, then co-president of 460-member Temple Sinai in Sarasota, Florida, a congregation with a sizable aging population, attended the 2011 Biennial in search of ways to revive its weak Caring Committee. She knew it wasn’t enough to have one member of the Membership Committee reach out to congregants who were ill, isolated, or celebrating simchas, in addition to her own sending an occasional card or making a needed phone call or visit.

At Biennial sessions, she asked lots of questions; afterwards, she networked with other synagogue presidents to discover what worked for them. “I quickly came to the conclusion that Temple Sinai’s efforts fell apart because the job was too encompassing for any one person and too important for a sub-committee,” she says. “Upon my return, our board supported my recommendation to give the issue the attention it deserved by amending the by-laws to create a new Vice President of Caring.”

After completing her tenure as president, Margolis stepped into the new VP of Caring role, and three board members donated the necessary funds to launch initiatives she had read about in Becoming a Kehillat Chesed: Creating and Sustaining a Caring Congregation (URJ Press)—a resource also brought to her attention at Biennial. “This past year,” Margolis says, “we distributed honey sticks to wish all congregants a Sweet New Year, delivered Rosh Hashanah flowers to homebound members and members in assisted living or nursing facilities, sent Chanukah and Purim packages as well as Starbucks cards to college student members, and sent birthday cards to all our preschoolers, regardless of whether their families are synagogue members.”

And, Margolis says, “now about a dozen Caring Committee volunteers, with home-baked challahs or Care Bears in hand, supplement clergy visits to homebound and hospitalized members. We’re receiving positive feedback from everyone we reach out to. It’s all about staying connected.

“I’m an optimist,” Margolis adds. “Attending Biennial reinforces that. It gives you the freedom to try things and just see what works, but it also instills in you the sense that your efforts will be successful.”

How can a congregation turn an invigorating Biennial experience into lasting change? Here are four tips:

If your synagogue is located close to the Biennial site (San Diego in 2013—urj.org/biennial13, Orlando in 2015), offer to serve as a host congregation. “Every temple volunteer will receive a free pass for one day of the conference,” Elgin says, “and the more people you have attend, the more excitement it will generate in your congregation. That’s what happened in ours.”

Following Biennial, sit down with your temple staff and brainstorm. “We brought back so many new ideas,” says Rabbi Marci Bloch. “By holding a session with those unable to attend, we crystallized our own thoughts, determined which initiatives would work best at our synagogue, and planned ways to put them into action.”

Attend with a goal in mind, but be open to new ideas. “I was hoping to find ways to build membership, and when I attended the session on attracting young families, things began to click,” Elgin says. “Surprisingly, I also came back with many other ideas, such as holding a series of holiday classes designed for interfaith families—which I’d love to make happen next year.”

Use Biennial as a retreat. “With 36 attendees and printed TBH T-shirts, we were the most popular—and recognizable—group at Biennial,” Hughes says proudly. “And meeting every night for a pow-wow was the perfect bonding experience. The teens who attended became the nucleus of our youth group—which we didn’t have before. I’d like to see the URJ offer a special rate for large groups from a single synagogue, to allow others to experience Biennial the way we did.”

When Hughes initiated her campaign to send a large group of congregants to the Biennial, few congregants believed it would change anything. “Now they are believers,” Hughes says, “and I’m a ridiculously better synagogue president than I was before.”

Julie Schwartz is a freelance writer, public speaker, New Orleans tour guide, and president of the New Orleans Chapter of Hadassah.

Union for Reform Judaism.