I attended my first Biennial in 1987 in Chicago, when I was 16. Rachel Shabbat Beit-Halachmi, then a leader in our synagogue and NFTY, invited me to attend. Anatoly Sharansky (now Natan Sharansky), symbol of Refusnik’s worldwide, had just been released and came to the Biennial.
And when they brought him to the dais, the NFTY members spontaneously ran forward, armed linked, singing as only chutzpadik youth can:
Anatoly as long as you are there /We the children of Israel share your prayer. /Anatoly as long as you’re not free /Neither are we. (Doug Mishkin)
Our hearts soared—we welcomed a dissident, a global leader for freedom. Ani v’atah n’shaneh et haolam. We believed we could change the world. And we did.
I’ve been to every Biennial since 1987, save for two. Why keep going? Beyond the programming and the gathering and the worship and the leadership development, somewhere in the back of my psyche I’ve been hungering to recreate that perfect moment from my youth. There have been terrific conventions along the way and memorable speeches and worship and awards. But this past week in San Diego, I felt that same energy, that same sense of Jewish promise and potential, that same hope and belief that we could transform the world as I did 26 years ago. There isn’t “one” thing that made this Biennial so magical; all the parts fit together to make a more beautiful whole.
It was Duncan on the bimah, a 13 year old advocating for marriage equality, because his rabbis and his congregation call forth their youth to believe in justice and speak for human dignity and it was Jonah Pesner’s stirring tribute to Nelson Mandela.
It was the soaring Shabbat morning worship with Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Cantor/Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (a classmate of whom the kvelling knows no end).
It was learning Torah with Paul Kipnes, Donniel Hartman and Amichai Lau Lavie and Shira Klein and Sharon Brous, Yehuda Kurtzer and Ruth Messinger who stirred our souls in ways that were provocative and soul stirring and agonizing and inspiring.
When David Ellenson placed his hands on Aaron Panken’s head and blessed him as he becomes President of HUC-JIR, it felt as though we were watching the first s’micha.
Rick’s Thursday night address was captivating and bold and creative, as were many of the workshops.
The URJ Professional leadership didn’t shy away from the tough issues facing congregations and our relationships with the URJ and the world, but they weren’t defeatist or depressive. The Campaign for Youth Engagement is serious, compelling, and resourced.
Friday night’s D’var Torah was a personal, clarion call to engage in gun violence prevention on the eve of the first anniversary of Sandy Hook. We celebrated Women of Reform Judaism and Anat Hoffman, who lifts our souls and whose tenacious advocacy for an Israel hospitable to our values and our dignity and our worth is prophetic.
At Biennial, we wept together, as colleagues and friends, for Phyllis and Michael Sommer, as they held their dying son Superman Sam, who was their son and touched all our hearts. The bitter and the sweet, darkness and light, together.
In Chicago 87, I met Dolores Wilkenfeld, a strong, elegant, gracious leader of WRJ. She was a courageous role model, a visionary supporter of NFTY and women’s reproductive health care. On motzei Shabbat, I embraced Dolores again. She’s a bit older now, as WRJ celebrates their 100th Anniversary and NFTY 75th. But seeing her, remembering all that we have done and become in the past quarter century, I was transported back to the future. Old friends, a new beginning.
To all the URJ leadership, professional and lay, who organized this Biennial 13; for all our colleagues who taught sessions and lead worship and embraced each other with ideas and weeping and tenderness; for everyone who continues to challenge us to be the most creative, welcoming, inviting movement in Jewish life, who demands we surpass our prophetic ideals of justice and compassion, who will settle for nothing less than spiritual excellence, I lift up my heart in my hands and offer deep, profound, humble gratitude. Thank you.
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz serves Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, MN.