Temple Beth Hillel Celebrates Judaism At URJ Biennial, Awaits Obama Speech

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

Washington, D.C. --- December 14, 2011 .... They will be traveling over 350 miles from Greater Hartford, Connecticut to Washington, D.C. to join over 6,000 Jews for a five day magical mystery Jewish tour. A colorful trek which will take them from studying Torah to learning how to Blog and use Facebook to develop their synagogues. Listening to a wide variety of respected speakers from Natan Sharansky, Israel Minister of Defense Ehud Barak to Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and US President Barack H. Obama.

But what are we to make of these Reform Jews?

As a Conservative Jew who grew up in the US and has lived in Israel for over 25 years, I can say that Reform Judaism has received a bad rap. Much of the negativity stems from the Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox in Israel who do not recognize Reform Judaism as a legitimate Jewish entity. But who is to judge who is a Jew and who is not? If one is born a Jew or converts to Judaism they are Jewish. The Nazis had no problem detecting who was Jewish. They did not care if you prayed every day or hardly recognized a single Hebrew character.

From the little exposure I have had to Reform Judaism I can only say two things. These are Jews who practice Judaism. These are caring and tolerant people who open their minds and hearts to almost every issue from prayer, marriage and music to business, social justice and humanity and decide for themselves if it is for them.

"The Biennial is an opportunity for us to live Jewishly without other distractions, to build community, to connect with others who, like us, think they are the only person in the world who understands their perspective on what Jewish faith means in a small congregation," says Rabbi Jeffrey Glickman of Temple Beth Hillel. A Rabbi who gives beyond his own community in Connecticut and hands out food and blankets to the poor in Haiti and makes sure that trees are planted in Israel.

"To see what the newest insights are, to listen to the cries which are ringing out and to find ways of responding to them, to find out how our ancient truths are even more valuable in the 21st Century and to be moved."

Glickman's inspiration to join other Reform Jews in the URJ Biennial Convention is shared by many.

The URJ Biennial is a gathering that is held in a different city in the US every other year, where Reform Jews from across North America learn, pray, share ideas and make decisions about the policies of the Jewish Reform Movement.

The Biennial was created for all Reform Jews from URJ affiliated congregations including lay leaders and professionals, youth, congregants, clergy, scholars, affiliates, exhibitors, entertainers and musicians. It is the largest Jewish gathering in North America, and brings together nearly 5,000 people from more than 500 congregations and 14 countries.

I asked Ann Hughes, president of Temple Beth Hillel why she is going to the Biennial?

"The retreat was planned to build community and bring back knowledge to set a course for TBH's next 50 years, said Hughes. We have 36 members of our congregation going to the Biennial. We have a strong vested commitment to the goals of the retreat and on a personal level, I am seeking learning and connection.

Hughes adds: "To me, Judaism means actively striving individually and as a community to see God's image in each other's eyes and God's hand in the world around us. I think of Reform Judaism as a tree with tradition as its roots, God, Torah and Israel as its trunk and branches that reach out in new directions. We have many issues before us as we leave for Washington. Loss of identity due to over assimilation, fragmentation of the community into movements and the high cost of synagogue affiliation. We hope to learn, share and find solutions about these and many other issues at the Biennial."

For Carrie Ward of Temple Beth Hillel it was her son who inspired her to join other Jews in D.C.

"To my utter astonishment, my 14-year-old son told me he wanted to go," said Ward. "So it is my son's interest along with so many recommendations from friends and family members who have told me that is is an unbelievable experience. The Friday and Saturday Shabbat services are supposed to be amazing. My sister told me not to miss the Havdalah service. I'm looking forward to going together with such a large and dedicated group from TBH. It will surely be a very special bonding experience."

"Originally I was going to the Biennial because I've never been before and thought it would be a good experience," said Temple Beth Hillel member Stefanie MacGregor. "However, in light of recent events in my personal life it has taken on a new meaning for me. One I hope of spiritual enlightening and renewed faith."

And for Rebecca McCann of Beth Hillel it is a mission to re-new energy for her synagogue.

"Having attended the last Biennial in Toronto, I came away from there with a tremendous feeling of community," said McCann. "Three other members and I developed the Temple Beth Hillel Jubilee Steering Committee and worked for the past 2 years making our synagogue's Jubilee year very special. It's important to bring that kind of energy back to others at our synagogue to help ensure continued growth and community expansion."

There is no doubt that there will be plenty to see and do at the URJ Biennial. The only real question on this writer's mind is Barack Obama - the key speaker who will address American Jewry through the URJ Biennial on Friday.

Will Obama be reaching out for Jewish votes and if so will he have a change of heart on dividing the historic and biblical Jewish capital of Jerusalem? Will he state that Israel has a need for secure borders which transcends the 1967 borders, borders that would create security from another Islamic Jihad Gaza on the West Bank. Will Obama admit that it is the Palestinians, the PA who are destroying the peace process by refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, by refusing to sit down and engage in direct talks?

As for the Reform Jews who are now providing an election platform for US President Barack Obama, will they embrace all that he says or will they have the courage to speak up for the young children of Sderot and for thousands of other Jews who spend their nights in cold air raid shelters as Hamas fires rockets from Gaza at their homes and schools?

The Reform Jews who are to enjoy and embrace one another in Washington, D.C. will be on the front line with those Jews in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra'anana, Neve Ativ, Eilat and Haifa. Will they stand up for the security and future of Israel or remain PC silent?

It is going to be an interesting URJ Biennial.



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