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Biennial: Re-imagining Jewish Life

What does Biennial mean to you?

Jan Marion (2013 URJ Biennial Vice-Chair from Temple B'nai Israel, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma):Biennial is a time and place for all people to celebrate and affirm what it is to be a Reform Jew. I strongly believe in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teaching that we are losing the power of celebration—“Instead of celebrating,” he wrote, “we seek to be amused or entertained.” In contrast, Heschel described celebration as “an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation,” and that’s exactly what we do at Biennial, by making new friends and reconnecting with old ones from all over the world as we immerse ourselves in five days of Jewish study, music, prayer, fellowship, and personal discovery. When I join a gathering of 5,000 committed Jews who represent 700+ congregations, I affirm that I am part of something greater than myself. I know that I do not stand alone. I am—all of us are—a link in a very powerful chain.

For me, another part of this conscious act of celebration is getting my batteries recharged as a congregational leader. After every Biennial—I’ve gone to nine—I head home to Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City with renewed vitality, encouraging our small, 300+-member congregation with the mantra “Yes we can!” I always come away with insights, ideas, and programs that enrich our temple. One year I learned about the URJ’s “Sacred Choices,” a comprehensive curriculum to teach sexual ethics to teens in a safe, sacred environment where young people can feel comfortable expressing other issues/pressures in their lives as well. When we introduced the program at our temple, we had no idea that one of the young people who would be taking the course was at a fragile crossroads in her life, heading down a destructive path and not feeling she had the strength to say “no.” The course gave her the moral code she needed and helped her to believe in her own worth. Much later, the mother of this young adult told me that our “Sacred Choices” program had saved her child’s life.

Ed Burger (2013 Biennial Chair from Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut): For me, Biennial is a time I do something I can never do at any other time in my life. I sing the Sh’ma together, in unison, with 5,000 other Reform Jews and feel like I’m with 5,000 friends. It’s very moving to me how through the power of that togetherness we transform an ugly exhibition hall into a sacred sanctuary. And I listen to my choice of experts in everything Jewish—from education and worship to accounting and budgeting—who are all under one roof, and then bring back the best of their ideas to benefit my home congregation. At the 1999 Orlando Biennial, for example, I learned about Synagogue 2000, a two-year program to revitalize and reenergize synagogue life. Our congregation adopted it, and our worship became much more engaging and interactive—plus it inspired our temple to be open and responsive to change in other areas of congregational life.

What was your most powerful Biennial moment?

Ed: Meeting President Barack Obama. At the December 2011 convention he delivered a powerful d’var Torah—with a great shout-out to NFTY. He made me feel like I was the only person in the audience he was speaking to, and other people I know felt the same way. And later, there I was, a CPA from Connecticut, shaking hands with the President of the United States.

Jan: For me one of the most powerful experiences happened at the 2001 Boston Biennial, which took place soon after 9/11. At the opening plenary, all of the congregational presidents throughout North America, including me, lined the main aisle of the convention hall. Then, about two dozen 9/11 New York Fire Department First Responders walked, three or four abreast, down that aisle between us, from the very back of the hall to the very front. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. As a Jewish American leader representing my congregation, I felt great pride to be part of the assembled greater Jewish community demonstrating solidarity, support, and gratitude to those who ran into the fray when others fled. What an affirmation of the human spirit!

Another great moment was during a service at the 1999 Orlando Biennial, when all the Jews-by-choice in the hall were asked to come up to the bimah for an aliyah to the Torah. So many Jews-by-choice—hundreds—stood up proudly and started making their way to the stage—and there was room for only a fraction of them. I thought to myself: We Reform Jews don’t just talk the talk about welcoming people into our faith, we also provide opportunities for them to become leaders in our Movement, and here they are!

What will make the Dec. 11–15 Biennial particularly unforgettable?

Ed: At our very first planning meeting, Jan stood up and asked, “Where’s the fun?”

Jan: “Where’s the fun?” has now become a mantra at every Biennial meeting. That’s because we really want people to have a great time at this convention. Besides learning and praying and connecting, we are committed to creating a joyful experience for everyone, and to that end, we’re going to do a number of things differently than in the past.

There will be more experiential learning. For example, on Saturday, in addition to Shabbat lunch and learn opportunities, we will offer experiential opportunities to “live Shabbat” with people who share your interests. For example, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs is a dancer, so we’re considering having a Shabbat afternoon of Jewish dance.

And there will be festivities, such as Saturday night’s Movement-wide celebration to wish Women of Reform Judaism a happy 100th birthday.

Ed: There will be more opportunities to make connections with people, or just take time out to relax over a sandwich and a cup of tea or coffee. In the center of our space at the San Diego Convention Center we are building “Kikar Biennial: The Biennial Town Square,” featuring, among other things, a café, an entertainment stage, WRJ’s “Sarah’s Tent,” and a resting area—a great place to hang out, meet your friends, listen to live music, and recharge.

And, concurrent with this, there’s going to be more downtime. At past Biennials we programmed every minute of the five days, and it was easy to get exhausted when programs started before 7am and ended at midnight. Not this time. Activities will start a little later in the morning and end earlier, so people can get more rest and spend more time with their friends.

We’re also making more open time on Saturday for people to enjoy beautiful San Diego—we’re right by the Gas Lamp District, with its bustling shopping and restaurants, and the U.S.S. Midway Museum, featuring the legendary Navy aircraft carrier with 60 exhibits and 29 restored aircrafts; plus the incredible San Diego Zoo, which is only a short cab ride away.

Jan: There will be more intensive opportunities to learn. For the first time we’re offering four-hour learning sessions led by top scholars from HUC-JIR, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and elsewhere. If you’ve always wanted a crash course in Hebrew, or to learn how to be a song leader—please understand that we haven’t committed to these particular subjects, but these are examples of the kinds of intensive learning experiences we want people to have—you can walk away from Biennial with personalized knowledge on a whole other level than ever before.

And we’re offering more personal ways to learn about timely, controversial issues. Last Biennial, for example, 400 people listened in a charged forum as RAC Director Rabbi David Saperstein squared off against neo-Conservative political commentator William Kristol on the subject “Liberalism, Conservatism: Which Better Furthers Jewish Values?” This Biennial we’ll be offering four such exciting forums—along with the opportunity for you to sign up to later participate in smaller group settings where you can converse with the presenters.

Ed: In addition, this will be our most diverse convention—we’re opening it up to any Jew who’s interested in participating. We are realizing Rabbi Jacobs’ vision of a big open house that showcases the Reform Movement to all kinds of Jews, affiliated or unaffiliated; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist; members of congregations in good financial standing with the URJ and those that are not. Rather than barring congregations from sending delegates, our message is: “We understand that these are bad economic times—we still want you to come.”

We want to welcome in anyone who wants to experience the power of celebration at the most exciting place to re-imagine Jewish life. Visit urj.org/biennial and join us.