Summer 1973 – I was a rising high school senior; and a recently elected officer in my local NFTY region, LIFTY. I was also just coming off my first summer at the then UAHC Joseph Eisner Camp Institute for Living Judaism. I had been tapped by our LIFTY Advisor some months earlier to serve as one of three Youth Chairpersons to serve on the Local Arrangements committee for the UAHC Biennial Convention to be held in New York City that fall. I was honored to have been asked, though at the time, I really had little understanding of what I was being asked to do, or what I was getting myself into. By the time that Convention ended, my life had been touched and changed in ways I still reflect upon four decades later.
Biennial 1973 was an incredibly memorable Convention. For starters I had never seen so many Jews together in one place (save for some protest marches outside the United Nations – it was the days of the efforts to free Soviet Jews.) Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who was stepping down at that gathering suddenly died, just before we gathered to welcome Shabbat. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who was stepping up as President, took to the bimah that Friday night to console the thousands of us who were gathered at New York’s Temple Emanuel, shared Rabbi Eisendrath’s message, word-for word. He set a standard for what it meant to be a rabbi to a community in shock and mourning which I have never forgotten. Elie Wiesel’s Ani V’Atah: A Song Lost and Found, set to music composed by Darius Milhaud, had its World Premiere at Carnegie Hall (and with my fellow youth chairs, I was treated to a seat in a dress circle box – I still remember Loui Dobin spotting us from below and saluting the three of us sitting in the box). There were hundreds of youth delegates from NFTY, and this was my first large-scale gathering within NFTY. Oh yes, and they tried to change the name of the Union from UAHC to Union for Reform Judaism. I quite distinctly remember that afternoon plenary session. There was heated debate, the premature launching of a new logo (still the URJ’s logo) and the noisy, cantankerous defeat of the motion. (I was pleased to be in attendance years later when the name change was re-visited and adopted at a subsequent Biennial.) While I was already seriously considering a career path within the Jewish community, the 1973 Biennial cemented my interest and elevated my passion. It was life-changing and Jewishly life-affirming for me in countless ways.
Fast forward forty years. It’s been almost two weeks since I returned from the URJ’s most recent convocation, in San Diego. In the four decades since that first Biennial, I have attended more of these gatherings than I have missed (at least from the late 1980’s when I assumed the pulpit in Jackson, Mississippi.) Biennials are always frenetic, over-packed affairs that offer wonderful opportunities for learning, networking, worship, and feeling one’s place as part of a larger Jewish community. At this year’s Conference, I found myself in something of a reflective mood as I realized that there are few things in my life that I can trace back four decades (though I’m in my sixth decade.)
By the time I left San Diego on Sunday, December 15th I realized that I was feeling an internal buzz akin to that I felt back in November 1973. It was heartening to renew the feeling of being part of a larger community that has such vibrancy, creativity, commitment to Jewish ideas and values, and so much more. Mind you, there’s almost always been such a moment for me in each Biennial I have attended. However, this year’s gathering of nearly 5,000 Reform Jews from around the globe struck me in a very powerful way. The Shabbat Morning Service, during which Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi/Cantor Angela Buchdahl led us so powerfully and sensitively in worship and learning; along with Rabbi David Ellenson’s powerful valedictory d’var Torah and his incredibly moving blessing of Rabbi Aaron Panken, his successor as President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were moments I will never forget. They took me back to 1973 and the power of Rabbi Schindler leading that gathering in a powerful, yet difficult time.
At this year’s confab there was much talk, as you might imagine, about the recently released Pew Report. The deliberations were far from uniformly feel-good kumbaya conversations. Yet, even in face of the challenges which lie before us as a people and as a community, I came away from Biennial 2013 feeling a sense of the heart and pulse of our Reform movement that was evocative of 1973. There’s much work to be done, and with some weeks of sabbatical before me, while I look forward to the break and all that it holds, Biennial rekindled the flame in a very powerful way. I look forward to rejoining my colleagues and my Temple Shalom family in a few weeks as we continue our journey, face the challenges, and share the beauty, warmth, wisdom and inspiration of our rich Jewish heritage with all who enter our doors.