On the road again with Rabbi Bloom at the Union of Reform Judaism Convention
I am driving on Interstate 95 in the Washington D.C. metro area heading onto I 295 into National Harbor, Maryland. To my surprise I see a charming convention city town. The Gaylord Hotel and its convention center is the centerpiece along with other nice hotels and boutiques settled along the Potomac River. National Harbor, Maryland and the Gaylord Convention center plays host to the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial convention.
Here there are 6000 Jews, the largest population to date attending the Biennial convention, gathered together to learn, celebrate, worship, study, socialize in myriads of workshops and learning sessions. Congregation Beth Yam is well represented with 10 participants. We should be proud of the commitment our leadership is making by joining this sacred community of five days.
In addition to the URJ convention the Women of Reform Judaism are having their convention concurrently with the URJ. Suffice it to say that the experience of so many reform Jews together in one convention center is sure to be a an enriching experience. For many it is a reunion and for the first timers the experience of walking through the enormous exhibition hall and seeing so many booths with fantastic Jewish artists and Jewish organizations from all over the world might feel overwhelming in a wonderful way.
This afternoon I entered a workshop of about 100 participants and listened to the panel discuss different ways congregations can welcome and integrate interfaith families. Our own Marcia Frezza was one of the panelists. The Outreach movement devotes itself to this effort to create the kind of environment inside congregations where families can feel like they really are part of congregational life.
Dinner followed and then we returned to the convention hall for the rest of the evening. All I can say tonight was that I felt like I was on a 3 and one-half hour tour without ever moving an inch. I say this because the diversity of activities on the program was so broad and diverse. Truthfully I could not see any real connection between these programs but they were, nevertheless, fascinating.
We heard from Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the retiring president of the URJ and he brought out the incoming successor Rabbi Richard Jacobs. Rabbi Jacobs announced the new URJ initiative for the next ten years on youth engagement. We listened then to a famous and incredibly humorous psychologist and author Dr. Wendy Mogel who gave an insightful and astute analysis on the state of Jewish parenting while making us laugh at the way Jewish parents today over indulge their children. “Good Jewish parents gone bad.”
After Dr. Mogel, we were watched the next speaker introduce Natan Scharansky. Remember he was the famous prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union until he was freed in 1986. He became the symbol of the free soviet Jewry movement. He is a short man but a giant of Jewish conscience. Scharansky immigrated to Israel and eventually wrote several books, served in the Israeli cabinet and now heads the venerable Jewish Agency. He spoke to us about the tremendous importance of sending young people to Israel with the birthright program that over 300,000 Jewish young people from America have gone on the Birthright program. He also spoke about the contribution that American Jewry has made to Israel especially in teaching Israelis about Jewish spirituality that they might not experience in Israel. Scharansky acknowledged that both Israel and American Jewry can benefit each other.
Next the program was going to honor the memory of the beloved singer of Israel Debbie Friedman. She died this past year. She was an amazing soul who turned around the world of Jewish music for the synagogue and, therefore, the spirituality of Reform Judaism. The tribute to composer Debbie Friedman continues even to the point that the Reform movement’s Cantorial School was renamed as the Debbie Friedman School of music. A band performed one of her compositions. Then they announced the first Debbie Friedman award for someone who excels in Jewish music. The first recipient of the award was Theodore Bikel. At 87 years old, Bikel came out on stage and spoke about Debbie Friedman and in respect to Debbie; he sang three songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and ladino.
At that point the official activities concluded. I was grateful. Yet then the entertainment began with several prominent musicians entertained the late night enthusiasts. I would say that was enough for the evening. It is an amazing and exhilarating experience to be here and we are just getting started!