I am writing these words onboard an Amtrak train returning from Washington DC where I attended the most moving, uplifting, and fulfilling URJ biennial conference that I have ever attended. At this largest URJ biennial ever, we heard inspiring words from world famous statesmen. We welcomed and greeted the 2 Baraks (Barak Obama and Ehud Barak) with barak (hebrew for thunder) in the form of applause and ovation. I cannot explain how moved I was to be present as the leader of the free world declared to the Jewish people, “Hineini” I am here. But hineini isn’t about just being present, it is about “presence” in the deepest sense of the word. It is about dedication to stand with and up for something. He declared that he would continue to stand with Israel and with the Jewish people. In the living memory of some of those in the room were the times when Jews were not welcome at their local country club, and here we were listening to the President of the United States, an African American, talk to us about issues of substance and meaning, having heard our voices, our cries for social justice, healthcare reform, gay rights, equality for women, and Israel and declaring to us (in Hebrew no less) “Hineini!” Unreal.
President Obama wished us “Shabbat Shalom” and 6000 people gathered for Shabbat dinner (they’ve contacted the Guinness Book of Records on that one). Much to my shock, it was beautifully coordinated and we didn’t have to wait hours for our food.
Pre-Shabbat we had attended sessions on concrete issues: congregation management, B’nei Mitzvah teaching, dues structures, etc. (more programs on offer for each time slot than you can imagine!), but with Shabbat we turned our hearts to music and the study of Torah. Worship was conducted in a sanctuary of thousands and was projected on giant screens. The Rabbis and Cantors who lead the tefillot did so movingly (a special shout out to Cantor Frost and Cantor Novick who both sang so beautifully!) Into the wee hours of the night we rocked out at song sessions and in the morning, I was moved to tears by the speeches, sermons, and Torah study from the URJ leadership.
At this biennial, we said goodbye to Rabbi Yoffie as he ended his term as the president of the URJ. I have been often deeply touched by his sermons and was very sad to see him go. I consider him to be one of MY Rabbis and will truly miss how he consistently motivated me to be a stronger Jew and a better leader. Then we said hello and “Baruch Haba” (welcome) to Rabbi Rick Jacobs who will be taking the helm. He is dynamic with a lot of tremendous ideas. I am excited to see what he will do. We initiated the campaign for youth engagement, which I think has a great deal of promise.In the mean time, I encourage you to view the recorded webcasts of the plenary sessions and Rabbi Yoffie’s and Rabbi Jacobs’s sermons at this link.