(December 19, 2011 / JNS) NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—With President Barack Obama headlining the program, an estimated 6,000 people attended the 71st Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) biennial, whose registration had to be closed for the first time in the event’s history.
No doubt, the commander in chief was a huge draw, but there were plenty of other reasons to come to Washington, DC for North American Jewry’s largest gathering. Here are 10 of those reasons—some of which might surprise you.
Spreading Reform Judaism in Israel
Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), said that at the biennial, his group was “doing our best to get folks engaged with helping build the Reform movement in Israel.”
Better known to have a simple binary split between religious and secular Jews, rather than American-style denominations, Israel actually has an increasingly significant Reform presence, Allen said, with 300,000 Jews per year involved in some aspect of the movement (either as regular synagogue members, or by attending a single prayer service or other program).
Mike Bates has been selling pianos for 40 years—including five to URJ for use at the biennial. In the biennial’s exhibit hall, he displayed an “AvantGrand” hybrid digital piano with the hope of making congregations around the country aware of the Yamaha product.
The AvantGrand is a “virtual acoustic” piano, Bates explained, that is all electric but sounds and feels like a traditional piano—you feel string-like vibrations when you play it, even though there aren’t any strings. Temple Sinai in Los Angeles was one of the first congregations to buy one, Bates said, and Cantor Arianne Brown “started using it for everything.”
Bringing Jews to Cuba
Pierre J. Wessel, a licensed travel provider to Cuba, manned a booth to teach attendees that there is in fact a significant Jewish presence there—plus, a legitimate way to visit a country that hasn’t exactly been America’s best friend. Wessel works with religious organizations, mostly synagogues, to plan their Cuban missions. He said that 80 percent of Cuba’s Jews live in Havana, while the rest are spread out in small pockets across the island.
“Our goal is to work with the Jewish community in Cuba, really,” Wessel said.
The Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) saw the biennial as a chance to “make sure that libraries continue to be valued,” said Etta Gold, a librarian at Temple Beth Am in Miami. When synagogue budgets are slashed in a tough economy, the first item often cut is their library, she said; Gold is a full-time staffer at her synagogue library, which also employs two part-timers.
“The challenge is that books are still necessary and around,” Gold said.
AJL has 1,300 member institutions around the world. The organization does see “tension” in the increasing popularity of electronic books, but Gold still believes the electronic products are better for traveling or quick reads, and aren’t directly replacing hard copies.
Restoring Torah scrolls
Rabbi Moshe Druin, who is from a Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic background, brought “Sofer on Site” to the biennial to make Reform congregations aware of his organization’s Torah scroll restoration services. Sofer on Site deals “with all congregations—period,” Druin said.
“The Torah belongs to Jews, not to any one group,” he said.
Fighting for food stamps
Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger circulated a petition that read: “I want American food and agricultural policies to reflect my Jewish values.” Mazon’s main goal in doing this was to advocate for changing the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill to include more funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—more commonly known as “food stamps.”
Preserving congregational legacies
David Sarnat, head of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, was on hand to make small, historic synagogues aware of a program to “develop legacy plans that help them leave a footprint, so that they’re not forgotten.” Sarnat’s consults with dwindling congregations on how to best handle their Torah scrolls and other valuable assets; the group currently works with 15 congregations, but there are 150-200 in North America who could benefit, according to research by American Judaism expert Dr. Jonathan Sarna.
“We don’t have a product to sell, we have a process to sell,” Sarnat said.
Exploring gender roles
The Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) held their own large-scale conference alongside URJ’s biennial. But the Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ) also had a significant presence, holding a session titled “How to Get Men Back in the Synagogue.” Men in the Reform movement “don’t feel that they need to be there as much,” said MRJ’s Richard Fishkin, who explained that the brotherhood of his synagogue in Baltimore used to have 800 members but is down to about 300.
Fishkin said he hoped to encourage biennial participants to start new brotherhoods in their own congregations.
The American Conference of Cantors (ACC) was there to “make sure that Reform Jews are aware of what a cantor can add to congregational life,” said Kerith Spencer-Shapiro. There are many congregations who aren’t aware of the breadth of what cantors can provide as official clergy members and educators, on top of leading services, she said.
Supporting youth professionals
The Reform Youth Professionals’ Association (RYPA), a start-up about two years in the making, used the biennial as its launch weekend. RYPA is providing a support network for Jews engaged in informal youth education (rather than formal Hebrew school teachers), ranging from clergy to volunteers to full-timers to part-timers.
“It’s a big umbrella of people who qualify,” said RYPA’s Chase Foster.