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.
December 19, 2013

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.”

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