Last week I attended the URJ’s 73rd Biennial Convention in Orlando. It was a gathering of 5000 Reform Jews from among the 900 URJ Congregations in North America. It was my fourth Biennial, and probably the best one I have ever been to. This year they did things a little differently for Biennial by dividing the sessions into four tracks of learning: Tikkun Olam, for those focused on social action; Audacious Hospitality, for those focused on how congregations are emulating the catch phrase embraced by the union two years ago in San Diego; Strengthening Congregations, for those trying to invigorate their membership and entice new families; and Transforming Texts for people like me who love to learn with the union’s top Torah teachers.
There were also some fantastic plenary sessions with amazing presenters. There was a panel on Israel with author Ari Shavit, Israel’s youngest Member of Knesset Stav Shaffir, and Past President of the URJ Rabbi Eric Yoffie. There was a moving tribute to Rabbi David Saperstein, currently serving as the United States’ Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and a speech by Vice President Joe Biden that felt like he was chatting with us in his living room.
The goal of this trip was to give us some ideas and inspiration for our own congregation, and in this regard it was successful. I want to point out three things I learned from Biennial this year that I hope to set into motion here at CBT.
I want to start at the end of Biennial and work my way backwards. After four intense days of biennial, most people do not go to the Sunday morning sessions. Usually we fly out on Sunday and cannot attend, but this year there was a study session with Rabbi Lauren Berkun from the Hartman Center Institute. My guess is that very few people in this room are familiar with either Rabbi Berkun or the Hartman Center, so suffice it to say that both of these names elicit ooh’s and aah’s from my circle of friends, and she absolutely deserves great kudos for the lesson she prepared for us. Her session was called, “Who is a Jewish Leader?” and it looked at Abraham, Hannah, and Rabbi A.J. Heschel as exemplary Jewish leaders. She gave us a midrash from Genesis Rabbah about Abraham from Genesis 12:
Adonai said to Abram, “Go forth from your land…” R. Isaac said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace (birah) all in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that this palace has no manhig (no one who looks after it)?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner (ba’al) of the palace.” Similarly, because Abraham our ancestor wondered, “Is it possible that this world is without a manhig (manager)? The Holy One of Blessing looked out at him and said, “I am the owner (ba’al) of the world.”
A birah, that is translated here as “palace,” was actually more like a tenement house. It was an apartment complex that was susceptible to catching fire. So a birah doleket, a tenement house all in flames, would actually be a relatively common thing. If there was a fire, the manager of the building, the manhig, would run around and wake up the residents. Abraham asking, “Where is the manager?” is logical. What is interesting is that God answers, “I am the owner,” not the manager. So Abraham in this Midrash, sees the world on fire and asks where the manager is. God comes down and claims ownership, which implies that there is no manager. So when God calls to Abraham, it is not a call out, it is a call for help. Abraham sees the world on fire and complains aloud that there is no leader, and God says, “Yes. You need to be the manager. You need to be the leader.”
God is calling for us all the time. The world is on fire, and it is up to us to step up, rouse the residents of the world, work to put out the blaze, and encourage others to act alongside us. That is the leadership we learn from Abraham, and because I know how important learning is to our community, I look forward to sharing more of what I learned from this three-hour text study with you.
The next thing I want to point out is my Saturday lunch session with Allison Klein, that I attended with our president, Sam Backer. Ms. Klein wrote a book that I cited during my report to the congregation last month called “Matterness,” and a lot of what she wrote helped inspire a part of our current visioning with the board of trustees. One of the first things she did during her presentation was to open up the floor to anyone who wanted to share a story about when they feel they didn’t matter, and then she asked people to share a story about when they mattered. After 20 minutes of taking other people’s stories, she pointed out the commonality. Every time people felt like they did not matter, they were not listened to, and every time they felt like the mattered, they were. Most of these stories are about one touch--one moment when the person’s whole experience with the organization was affected.
Instead of sharing one of these stories, I want to share a story I heard from here at CBT. Since I do not have permission to share names, suffice it to say that a person came in to the synagogue with their child years ago, and they were hanging out near the back because they were wearing jeans. They were greeted by a not-to-be-named Director of Education, who told them that we don’t care what people are wearing here, just as long as they are here. Now I know that there are differing opinions about dress code and bimah etiquette, but for a person who is coming to CBT for the first time to be welcomed with open arms no matter what they were wearing, that one moment made that family a faithful CBT family, and I am so thankful that we have people here who get it. We are a community who understands matterness at our core, and if I were not a Jewish professional I know that I would want my family to make CBT our Jewish home, because you make us feel like we matter.
Finally, on the first day of the convention I went to a session called, “Words Shape Worlds,” which was about listening to individual stories and using them to engage our community to move them to action. Take the story I just told about being welcomed in jeans. It would be easy for me to say, “We welcome all people, and we have no dress code.” That would be factual and effective, but it only speaks to our head. Hearing the story of someone who felt intimidated by their own outfit choice, and derived comfort from a caring member of CBT speaks to our heart. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story can be used as a spark to ignite change in our community.
Case and point: for the past few months I have been hearing from people about what they are lacking from CBT. This is great, but I have been making a mistake when I hear their complaints. I have been defensive and explained that we already do these things. This is wrong, and I am going to try to change the message from “we already do this,” to “tell me what you are looking for.”
But I cannot do this alone.
The board doesn’t know this, but I am about to ask them to invite you all to their homes so that we can listen to you. I am going to challenge them on Sunday at our next board meeting, but I am telling you all now so that together we can hold them accountable. Each board member will be asked to invite 10 people to their home to listen to their stories, and bring them back to the board as a whole so that we can try to make improvements that will provide what they are seeking whenever possible. My hope is to teach them some of what I learned to the board, so that they can lead sessions for you.
We all have stories to share, and we all have needs that can be filled. The solutions to the needs of some occasionally do not serve the needs of others, but in the words of Allison Klein, “Somebody might get left out does not means we should just leave everybody out instead.” We acknowledge that our different stories provide different opportunities, and that is exactly what makes a thriving community. An open tent, so to speak, with multiple opportunities for entry, many ways to be heard, and many chances to connect with like-minded Reform Jews who are passionate about Jewish learning, Tikkun Olam, and Matterness.
I would be remiss if I did not mention what a valuable experience biennial is. The next URJ Biennial will be December 6-10, 2017, in Boston, MA. In addition to the sessions I described tonight, there are opportunities to pray together, hear incredible new Jewish music (Cantor Natalie Young performed on the Jewish Rock Radio Stage, for example), and even do some pretty cool shopping. Of course, there is a lot of schmoozing, and one of my favorite things to do at a biennial is to take my own congregation out for an incredible dinner.
I hope you will join me in Boston in 2017, and I know you will be a part of making what we learned in Orlando come to fruition here in Fountain Valley.