Last week, a group of seven people from Temple Emanuel left Pittsburgh for the URJ Biennial in even colder Chicago.
“The URJ Biennial offers an opportunity to compare notes with similar congregations, learn best practices from around the movement, connect with colleagues and friends, and grow even more excited about the future of progressive Jewish life in America,” Rabbi Aaron Meyer says. “All Biennials feature amazing scholars, great educational sessions, moving worship opportunities, and more. The 2019 Biennial focused on issues of inclusion. Our communities, our religion is stronger when it makes intentional space for all.”
Kathy Ginsberg, a member of Temple Emanuel’s Board of Trustees and Worship Chair, attended for the first time. She heard about Biennial before she even became Jewish. Some of her Jewish friends had gone and reported what a remarkable experience it was. “This year, with my taking on a larger leadership role at Temple, I felt the time was right,” she says.
Ginsberg knew it was the largest gathering of Jews in North America, but she was unprepared for the number of folks roaming around. “It was amazing to sit in the plenary sessions and Shabbat services with 5,000 other Reform Jews!” she recalls. “Talk about the power of community!”
Tracy Barnett was also a first-time attendee. She says she decided to go for a couple of reasons. She’d also heard from prior attendees what a wonderful experience it was. Then, when she reviewed the schedule, she saw how many classes applied to her position on the Temple Board as co-treasurer and hoped to learn new things to help her be a better board member. She mainly took classes regarding governance and temple finances, since those are her areas of interest.
“I learned new approaches for fundraising and governance approaches,” Barnett says. “I wish the breakout sessions had been longer to be able to hear more about what other congregations were doing. But I do feel that we at Temple are ahead of the game in the way we get input from the whole congregation in major decisions (rabbinic transition and mission/vision).”
Ginsberg enjoyed a session by Ariel Burger, an Orthodox rabbi who was Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant for many years. Other sessions she attended were on worship, social justice issues like climate justice and gun violence prevention, and helping to integrate both Jewish adjacent members and members with disabilities into temple life. “I was very impressed by the number of young people there who were doing important social justice work while still in college,” she says, calling it very inspiring.
This was Temple President David Weisberg’s second Biennial. He says it was great connecting with other presidents, of whom there were 250 in attendance. “We were able to share ideas and common issues,” he says. “Best practices can be brought back and potentially utilized at Temple.”
In fact, two other synagogue presidents reached out to Weisberg after they heard about the success of our interim and settled rabbinic searches. Both congregations have long-tenured rabbis soon to be retiring and asked about our processes. Temple’s Tashlich & Tacos was also recognized as a top innovative program. “Many other congregations loved the idea and would consider a version of it for their own synagogue,” reports Weisberg.
High school junior Anna Schwartz, NFTY-PAR VP of Programming, also attended. She spent her time with other NFTY teens and NFTY programming, but participated in the general Biennial programs as well. She called it an amazing experience.
When asked how this Biennial compares to others, Rabbi Jessica Locketz says every Biennial has its moments – the ones that make their impact and inspire her. This one was no different. “To name a few…hearing about the interfaith efforts in Omaha, NE was a powerful reminder of the importance of building a larger religious community that includes all faiths and all peoples,” she says. “When President Rick Jacobs spoke about ‘widening our tent’ to include Jews of color, Jews on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Jews with disabilities, etc…it made me feel good about all we have accomplished and ready to take on all the work we still have to do to make a diverse Jewish community a reality.”
Rabbi Locketz was able to network with educational colleagues about innovations in their schools and talk to vendors about new curricular resources that she hopes to share with the Torah Center Advisory Board as they navigate changes to the Torah Center program. “I am excited about what is in store for our students and their families!” she says.
She most enjoyed seeing colleagues and friends, as well as spending time with the lay leaders that attended as part of the Temple delegation. “Attending sessions and sharing meals together gives us the rare opportunity to deepen relationships and engage in conversations about Temple’s future,” she says.
Rabbi Aaron agrees. “The Biennial is designed to expose lay leadership to the best and brightest in the Reform Movement,” he says. “While I enjoyed seeing friends, connecting with congregants from previous cities, and some personal growth opportunities, the highlight by far was traveling with our great delegation from Temple, comparing notes after provocative and inspiring sessions, and thinking about the future of Temple Emanuel.”
Likewise, this was the most important thing that Ginsberg feels she got out of attending Biennial. Executive Director Leslie Hoffman also enjoyed the introspection. “For me, one of the best parts of attending the Biennial is having the opportunity to step away from day-to-day operations and take the time to reflect on why we (Temple) do what we do,” she says. “A recurring theme in the sessions that I attended was the importance of making sure that everything that we do aligns with our mission and vision. As we are in the midst of reshaping our congregational mission and vision right now, I am excited to work with our rabbis and lay leadership to shape our future.”
The next URJ Biennial is December 8-11, 2021 in Washington, DC (National Harbor).