Reform Biennial reveals movement’s strengths, challenges

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Biennial conference last week, Erev Shabbat offered a study in contrasts that perfectly illustrated the movement’s promise — and its problems.

Just before 6 p.m., as the sun sank into San Diego Bay, nearly 5,000 conference attendees from around the country poured into the San Diego Convention Center for Kabbalat Shabbat. From the back of the hall, a sea of heads sat quietly facing the bimah, where four clergy from Boston’s Temple Beth Elohim were leading the service. Tightly scripted, the worship was abridged, musically mellifluous and mellow. Then, at around the halfway point, a lively rendition of the Mi Chamocha sparked a sudden surge in the audience. People rushed into the aisles, eager to dance. 

It was a moment of inspired worship. And it was about to transform the sterile air of the convention center into a raucous parting of the Red Sea, when — the prayer leaders ended the song. 

Fast-forward three hours to the late-night “song session,” a Biennial favorite. Led by a star-studded cast of Jewish musicians — including Josh Nelson, Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Beth Schafer and Leo Baeck’s Rabbi Ken Chasen rockin’ the keyboard — it looked like the Jewish version of a Rolling Stones concert. It was a wild, uninhibited scene: thousands of people, arms in the air, jumping up and down, chanting, clapping, dancing horahs. Young and old, rabbi and congregant, lay leader and camp counselor all clustering together as transliterated Hebrew lyrics flashed on three giant screens and live tweets with the hashtag #Biennial13 practically shouted spiritual ecstasy into the digital beyond. 

“This is why I love being a Reform Jew,” Karen Sobel, a Jewish educator from Temple Beth Am in Miami, leaned over and said to me (full disclosure: I grew up at Beth Am). That’s when I turned toward her and asked, “Why doesn’t the prayer service look like this?”

These two Biennial events captured the strengths and weaknesses of the Reform movement as it tries to reinvent itself for the 21st century. On the one hand, last week’s five-day fest of community building, learning and forward thinking showcased the best the movement has to offer: creativity, flexibility, spirituality and soul. But, at the same time, difficult realities like the hard math of the Pew poll, which earlier this year revealed steep declines in membership — or simply, institutional blindness to spontaneity during prayer — reveal deeper anxieties about breaking script. Both poles were on full display last week at what has become one of the largest Jewish religious gatherings in North America, and highlighted that both this movement and much of American Judaism are at a crossroads.

“Synagogue Judaism as a whole is facing a challenge,” Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Chasen said during an interview. “Younger generations are somewhat affiliation averse. Millennials are more skeptical of membership organizations and are not necessarily given to a lot of the institutional staples that synagogue life is about.”

Judging by this Biennial, the URJ appears willing to confront this challenge by catering to a diverse palette of tastes and interests. Attendees were treated to an ample “buffet” of learning sessions, as Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller described it, from a four-hour seminar on Mussar, to “The Torah of Pluralism” and “Harnessing the Power of Social Media.” Speakers came from near and far, including Israel’s top brass: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (by video); rising star Knesset Member Ruth Calderon; Women of the Wall superhero Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center; and Modern Orthodox educator Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who flew in to accept an award on behalf of his late father, Rabbi David Hartman. 

“There’s an awful lot of inspiration that takes place here,” Chasen added, explaining why 38 of his congregants had accompanied him to San Diego. “The [URJ] does a very good job of bringing in everything from agitators to inspirers. This is a place where you can hear from the greatest rabbis, and also from Julian Bond.”

Bond, the former NAACP chairman, was one of many headliners, including New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, who spoke about food justice, and American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger. For the first time in its history, the URJ invited non-Reform participants to the conference, among them L.A.’s Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, an independent, progressive congregation, who spoke on the future of synagogues. 

 The inclusion of more outside voices was seen by some within the movement as a risky move (and according to one insider, “unbelievably debated”), but it proved the movement is willing to engage in the “big tent” Judaism they preach, welcoming independent communities as partners rather than alienating them as rivals.  

Radical inclusion was the theme of the day. In his 16-page, hour-plus state-of-the-union address Thursday night, Rabbi Rick Jacobs propounded a policy of “audacious hospitality,” echoing the movement’s longtime raison d’être

Bereisheit bara Elohim,” Jacobs said. 

“In the beginning, God didn’t create synagogues or rabbis or denominations or even Jewish people. No, God created a wondrous universe teeming with beauty, complexity and possibility.”

But the notion of audacious hospitality is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, when intermarriage was considered a curse word to most American Jews, the URJ led the way in welcoming the stranger by embracing interfaith families and Jews by Choice. Also in the 1970s, the movement became the first to ordain women rabbis, with the Conservative movement following suit a decade later. And in March 2000, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the organizing body of Reform rabbis in North America and Canada, became the first major religious group to officially sanction gay marriage. 

This time, Jacobs again singled out interfaith families, adding in people with disabilities as deserving of better treatment. “Being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity,” he said. “You can say it all you want, but it’s a fact of life.” Indeed, the Pew study found that half of those who identify as Reform Jews are married to a non-Jewish spouse.

On that point, Jacobs was quick to point out a biblical precedent with Moses: The most important leader in Jewish history, he reminded, was “a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians who married a non-Jewish woman of color.”

The movement’s aim at broadening its reach is admirable, but the Pew study tests the notion that inclusion can sustain Reform Judaism.

“The Reform movement needs to remember that no matter how much programming you have, some people just won’t walk through that door,” said Rabbi Elka Abramson, president of the Wexner Foundation, in a plenary panel on the implications of the Pew results.

Abramson pointed out that the movement’s ideological obsession with being a “big tent” will not solve all of its problems. “Bigger doesn’t mean better,” she said. “If the Pew study tells us anything, it’s that we’re in the era of radical risk.”

But, she warned, “If we change the way our congregations function, there’s a loss for those of us who love the way things are.”

One longtime URJ board member I spoke to, who requested anonymity, said he is doubtful that the promises made at the Biennial will come to pass. 

“I call it the Obama Syndrome,” he said of Jacobs’ address. “You tell a viable story, and you deliver crap. You sell hope but deliver sand.” 

Dara Frimmer, associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is more optimistic. “I heard that the Reform movement is in a position to be the most influential group of people and institutions to help shape the next generation of Jews,” she said of Jacobs’ speech. Frimmer came to San Diego with more than 20 congregants and 10 temple staff, adding that their “enthusiasm for Reform Judaism and for Temple Isaiah skyrocket as a result of the [Biennial] environment.” 

Whatever challenges the movement faces nationally, Frimmer said her congregation is thriving: “We are overwhelmed with people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “We are full. Are we the exception? I don’t know, because I have peers who are also actually in synagogues that are thriving.”

 But from his perch, Jacobs said he sees the movement approaching a “dramatic juncture.” 

“You can’t have your eyes open and look at what’s going on in Jewish life if you don’t have deep concern — I do,” he said during an interview. “But I like to channel worry into constructive, productive action. The people who sit around and worry, ‘Why don’t young people care about being Jewish?’ — I don’t want to spend five minutes thinking about that. I interact everyday with people who do care, and I think our job is to help them discover how we could all care more.”  

Israeli Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed to the Biennial itself as demonstrating great promise and possibility: “Five thousand people came. Is the cup half-full or half-empty?” he asked. “Something meaningful and important is happening here. Why because something isn’t everything does it mean it’s not enough?”

“We’re a people who live by Dayenu,” Hartman added. “That’s our national anthem. Five thousand came. They care about their synagogues; they care about Judaism; they care about their religious life.”

David Suissa: Why won’t liberals defend Israel?

As I was reading about “engagement” — the new buzzword regarding Israel that came out of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial this past weekend in San Diego — I wondered: Did anyone at the convention notice the other hot word circulating regarding the Jewish state?

This one would be the all-too familiar “B” word: Boycott.

While America’s largest Jewish denomination was discussing its engagement with Israel, the American Studies Association (ASA) became the country’s largest academic group to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities. This comes on the heels of a similar boycott last April, by the Association for Asian American Studies.

These nasty assaults on Israel don’t just violate the spirit of academia; more importantly, they discriminate against the Jewish state. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the ASA president himself, Curtis Marez, who admitted to The New York Times that there are plenty of nations in the world with a worse human rights record than Israel’s.

So, he was asked, why pick on Israel?

In a statement that might well enter the anti-Semitic Hall of Fame, Marez replied, “One has to start somewhere.”

Forget about starting with nations where women are stoned to death, gays are lynched and children are murdered. 

No, Marez has to start somewhere — so why not start with the Jews?

Activist lawyer Alan Dershowitz issued a clever challenge to Marez’s group while they were considering the boycott: “I asked them to name a single country in the history of the world faced with threats comparable to those Israel faces that has had a better record of human rights, a higher degree of compliance with the rule of law, a more demanding judiciary, more concern for the lives of enemy civilians, or more freedom to criticize the government than the State of Israel.”

As Dershowitz writes in Haaretz, “Not a single member of the association came up with a name of a single country. That is because there are none. Israel is not perfect, but neither is any other country, and Israel is far better than most.”

Here’s the point: You can be the biggest peacenik in the world and criticize Israeli settlements all day long and still be completely justified in expressing revulsion at the blatant discrimination routinely inflicted on Israel.

Which brings me to the new buzzword on Israel for the URJ — engagement — which Allison Kaplan Sommer describes in Haaretz as “the trendy umbrella term that both acknowledges the existence of disagreement in the relationship, and endorses using any avenue of interest to get Reform Jews more involved with Israel.”

These disagreements, which include the need for greater respect within Israel for non-Orthodox streams, are genuine and should not be downplayed.

But here’s my question for URJ head Rabbi Rick Jacobs: You spoke eloquently at the biennial about your deep love for Israel and the need to engage Israel, but why did you not speak about the need to defend Israel against unfair and discriminatory attacks?

Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the global lies that have soiled the name of Israel?

Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the hypocrisy of the United Nations, where Israel gets condemned more than the top 16 violators of human rights combined?

Why did you not call on your movement to fight and expose the anti-Zionist BDS movement that aims only to delegitimize the Jewish state you so love? 

I get that the focus of your movement’s relationship with Israel is based around a healthy and honest engagement of issues, with some “tough love” thrown in, just as one would do with family.

But there’s something else one does with family: One defends it when it is unfairly attacked.

One thing I admire about Rabbi Jacobs is how he jumps over the walls that often divide the Jewish family, as when he recently attended the annual gathering of the Chabad movement. I’ve heard him talk of how we can all learn from one another.

So, next time the rabbi is in Tel Aviv, I have an idea for another wall he can jump: Visit the offices of Shurat HaDin (the Israel Law Center), and hear from legal expert Nitsana Darshan-Leitner how the ASA boycott violates international, federal and state law in the United States, and how her group plans to defend Israel against this illegal and unconscionable assault.

Also, hear about the group’s track record of bringing lawyers from across the world to prosecute institutions, governments and private companies that discriminate against Israel. If you like what you hear, find out how your movement can help.

Fighting discrimination — whether against Israel or any other country — should be a proud liberal cause. One can engage and even criticize Israel and also fight to defend it against unfair attacks. Liberal icon Dershowitz, who criticizes Israeli settlements, is a rare case of a liberal lover of Israel who’s not afraid to take the gloves off to defend the Jewish state.

He should be the keynote speaker at the next Reform convention.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Reform biennial opens to outsiders

First there was the Conservative movement’s October biennial conference, billed as “the conversation of the century” and opened up to presenters from outside the movement.

Then came the November General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America, which featured a “Global Jewish shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate” led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world.

Now comes the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be distinguished from past years by — you guessed it — opening up to outsiders.

For the first time, the conference, to be held Dec. 11-15 in San Diego, will be open to participants who are not members of Reform congregations. Learning sessions, which in past years were run almost exclusively by Reform staff, will be led in many cases by presenters from outside the movement. The Friday night prayer service will be open to all, not just conference registrants. And the night before the service, performers from the conference — from musicians to comedians — will go out to venues in the surrounding neighborhood to share Reform Judaism’s good cheer with greater San Diego.

Reform leaders say they’re not trying to be trendy; they want to bring the conference in line with the movement’s philosophy.

“We have opened the biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform movement,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the union’s president, said in an interview in his New York office. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”

Jacobs said he wants visitors from outside the movement to “experience the incredible vitality and depth and openness of Reform Judaism in the 21st century.”

For Jacobs, the biennial will be the first he is running. The last one, held near Washington and featuring President Barack Obama as a speaker, was the movement’s largest conference ever and marked the transition from the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs’ predecessor.

This year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to address the conference — a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, though he’ll probably deliver the address via video rather than in person.

Other presenters include New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute; Ron Wolfson, a star of the Conservative movement and a professor at the American Jewish University; Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon; and Sharon Brous, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who leads the popular IKAR community in Los Angeles.

For the Reform movement, the question isn’t so much whether the four-day conference is a success but whether Reform Judaism can tackle the growing disaffiliation and disengagement in its ranks.

The recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that while Reform remains the largest American Jewish denomination, with 35 percent of American Jews, it ranks lowest of the three major movements on some key metrics of Jewish engagement.

Reform Jews are the most likely of the denominations to leave the Jewish fold. According to Pew, 28 percent of Jews born Reform no longer consider themselves Jewish by religion, compared to 17 percent of Conservative and 11 percent of Orthodox. Half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Just 43 percent of Reform Jews say being Jewish is very important to them, and only 16 percent say religion is very important in their lives.

At 1.7 children per couple, the birth rate of Reform Jews is the lowest of the three major U.S. Jewish denominations and well below the replacement rate. Fewer than half of those children are enrolled in any kind of formal Jewish educational or youth program. The median age of Reform Jews is 54.

It is in this context, Jacobs said, that he was brought on a year-and-a-half ago as president to re-examine everything the movement does. He has articulated three strategic priorities for the movement: catalyze congregational change, engage young Jews and expand the movement’s reach beyond synagogue walls. Some programmatic changes along those lines are under way.

Next summer, the movement will open two new summer camps. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a science and technology camp outside of Boston, will be its 14th overnight camp, and the movement’s first summer day camp, Camp Harlam, will open near Philadelphia.

Since May 2012, a pilot group of more than a dozen synagogues has been working to overhaul the movement’s approach to bar mitzvahs as part of a program called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The effort, the movement says, is intended “to reduce the staggering rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout.”

On the table is everything from how to make bar mitzvah preparation more engaging to making the celebrations themselves more traditional and meaningful. Dozens more synagogues are in the process of joining the program and adopting some of the more successful efforts.

Like its counterpart in the Conservative movement, the Union for Reform Judaism also is under pressure to demonstrate to its 871 member congregations that they are getting their money’s worth for the dues they pay.

The union now has a resource desk and hosts an online forum for congregational leaders to share ideas and resources. Consultants are available to provide congregations with strategic expertise. Congregational “network teams” work with synagogue leaders to figure out ways the union can be more helpful.

An initiative called Communities of Practice brings together like-minded congregations to work on strategies for programming for young adults, engaging young families, improving early childhood offerings and figuring out how to stabilize synagogue finances.

The union itself has shrunk slightly since Jacobs took over. Thirty employees were laid off in May 2012 as part of a general restructuring; the union now has about 350 employees. (Because it is a religious organization, the union is exempt from filing the 990 IRS tax forms that disclose detailed financial information, including Jacobs’ salary.)

For Reform Judaism to thrive, Jacobs says, everything needs to be reconsidered.

“When I was hired, that was the job description: Challenge everything, question everything, and make us stronger, make us more effective, make us more filled with the core meaning of the Jewish tradition,” Jacobs said.

“It’s not enough just to keep doing the same things with more vigor. You have to say: Is it effective? That’s exactly what is needed in every part of Jewish life. This is not a business-as-usual kind of moment.”

Cantor, Ehud Barak to address Reform biennial

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will address the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial.

The URJ announced plans for Cantor (R-Va.), the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress in history, and Barak, a former prime minister, on Tuesday.

President Obama already is slated to speak during the biennial taking place Dec. 14-18 in the Washington suburbs.