It’s one thing to conduct a Shabbat service, but it’s something completely different to lead one of the country’s larger Shabbats.
And Rabbi Jill Maderer was up for the challenge, as the senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia co-led Friday services at the 75th annual Union for Reform Judaism Biennial.
“There are 5,000 people filled with spirit and singing and praying and lots of incredible energy and, because of the size, it’s really quite a production,” Maderer said. “Leading up to it I was nervous — it was a completely different expectation. We worked on it for many months. And then, once I was actually leading it, the nerves melted away because I was excited to feel connected to everybody.”
There were 525 congregations from 54 states and provinces and 75 international congregations represented at one of the largest Jewish religious conferences held in the United States. Clergy, educators, lay leaders and youth leaders traveled to the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago to take part Dec. 11-15 in sessions on social justice, politics, Israel and Torah study.
“This biennial focuses on the ways the Reform Jewish Movement uses our strength to do good,” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in a press release. “We are thinking differently, collaborating across our network of congregations and communities, and enhancing important partnerships to strengthen the future of the entire Jewish community. Biennial will introduce several bold and impactful actions that the URJ will be leading throughout 2020 to address our most significant priorities — by connecting more individuals to a more meaningful Jewish life and by helping bring about more justice and wholeness in the world.”
One of those bold and impactful actions was the passing of a resolution involving reparations for slavery. Delegates voted to approve a resolution calling for the URJ to “advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to redress the historic and continuing effects of slavery and subsequent systemic racial, societal, and economic discrimination against Black Americans.”
Delegations from several Phoenix area synagogues attended the biennial, including Temple Emanuel of Tempe. For Michael Waxman, a member of Temple Emanuel and a member of the URJ North American board of trustees, it was his seventh biennial.
“I have just found these to be incredible, enlightening experiences, very educational and well worth the time,” Waxman said.
He said the best part was meeting members of reform congregations from around the world.
“I would certainly stress the social aspect of the biennial because that can’t be overlooked,” Waxman said. “It’s a wonderful experience, you get seated next to somebody for a program or an event and within about 15 minutes of Jewish geography, you have probably five people in common that you know.”
There was also Jacquelyn Null, an engagement specialist from Temple Solel. She was one of four members in her delegation.
She said the conference was a remarkable learning experience. She returned from Chicago with ideas for how to make Temple Solel more welcoming and accomplish the congregation’s goals.
“Overall, it was a great experience that everyone should do at least once,” Null said. “To be in a space with 5,000 other Jews and get to worship with them is incredible.”
The conference hosted 150 learning and training sessions led by 400 presenters.
“People really can take a lot of things back to their congregations to focus on, whether that’s social justice issues or new programming or board governance or how to create a more warm and welcoming synagogue,” Waxman said. “It just goes on and on.” JN