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Reform Jews gather in Boston for Biennial meeting

Journal Correspondent

Rabbi Rick Jacobs opens the Biennial meeting in Boston. / Photo by Larry Constantine

DECEMBER 14, 2017 – BOSTON – What happens when you assemble more than 6,000 Jews in one building? Boston got a glimpse of that last week at the Hynes Convention Center when the Union for Reform Judaism gathered for its Biennial meeting, touted as the largest gathering of Jews in North America.

And the result? Out of its explicit embrace of diversity and inclusion emerged a notable unity and rededication appropriate to the run up to Hanukkah. The Reform Movement, the largest stream of Judaism in America and arguably the most left-leaning, upheld its reputation for progressive action with consideration of six resolutions related to current issues that ranged from the refugee crisis to sexual assault on campus.

As the meeting was set to begin, President Donald Trump announced that the US had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In a statement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he supported the move but expressed concern about the timing of the announcement:

“In declaring formally US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump has affirmed an age-old dream of the Jewish people and of all who care about Israel. Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of Israel. That is how it should and must be. The president correctly noted that a sovereign state is entitled to name its own capital. The Reform Movement has also long held that the US Embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.

“Yesterday, we expressed our serious concern about the timing of these actions. We still believe that they ought to be implemented in a manner that enhances the peace process and contributes to ensuring the safety and security of Israel. We continue to have significant concerns. In separating today’s decisions from a broader strategy, they may well undercut the administration’s peace process efforts and risk destabilizing the region. We do, however, commend the president for affirming the importance of moving the peace process forward, and clarifying that these decisions are not intended to restrict final status decisions of the Israelis and Palestinians – including the borders of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and border issues generally.”

From the first plenary on Wednesday night, opened by Governor Charlie Baker, to the closing breakout sessions on Sunday morning, the mood was one of celebration and determination punctuated by upbeat musical interludes and revivalist calls for action. Mixing back-patting plugs for the Commonwealth with observations on our trying times, Governor Baker, noted that when the New England Holocaust Memorial was built in 1995, prudent planners set aside extra panes of glass against the possibility of vandalism. For more than 20 years, the panes lay in storage until the two anti-Semitic incidents last summer.

The featured speaker of the evening was Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, founder of Repairers of the Breach and leader of the just-launched Poor People’s Campaign, who told the crowd that he had come to “wrestle.”

He spoke of  “the call and response of American history,” in which eras of progress in justice and equality have been followed by regression and oppression. Citing the prophets, he argued that the shocking rate of poverty and the growing wealth divide are not economic issues, not political or partisan matters, but moral issues. “I think,” he remarked, “it was Brother Isaiah who said in chapter 10, verse 1, ‘Woe unto those who legislate evil, robbing the poor of their rights and withholding justice from the oppressed.’”

It was Martin Luther King, he noted, who described America as suffering from a “high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” Calling for a national moral revival, Rev. Barber said America truly needs a poor people’s campaign. “The war on poverty was not lost. We left the field of battle.”

The following night, Israeli author David Grossman, 2017 winner of the Man Booker International Prize, was honored with the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for his contributions to Israeli society. In accepting the award, he noted that Israel as a democratic nation must decide its own future, but American Jews have a stake in that future. As advocates for pluralism, progressive Jews have a right, even a responsibility, to have their own vision for Israel and to raise their own voices in expression of that vision. Grossman believes it is disingenuous for Israelis to object to American “interference” when they, in turn, are so involved with the United States.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs drew laughter and repeated applause in a wide ranging presentation as he reiterated and elaborated on the themes of the conference – community, action, diversity, innovation, and faith.

Throughout the days, music from the Jewish Rock Radio soundstage filled an exhibit hall peppered with publishers and dotted with color-soaked displays of Judaica. Over 100 booths touted everything from Reform-centered tours of Israel to colorful matzohs imprinted with edible inks, from Judaica blending native South African with Jewish themes to apps for finding the nearest Reform shul anywhere in the world. And there was no shortage of tchotchkes.  PJ Radio, the latest launch from PJ Library, the homegrown program for young families now gone national, even offered a kid-friendly soft speaker and smartphone holder for the younger set.

A fitting bookend to the opening ceremonies, the last plenary before Shabbat featured Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who thanked the group for their commitment to progressive causes and for “inviting a Methodist to share in the celebration.” In an unabashedly political presentation, the senator commented on a growing loss of civility and the undermining of basic facts. “I never thought we would ever need a modifier to the word facts, as in ‘true facts’ or ‘facti-facts’ so they don’t get confused with ‘alternative facts.’”

The climax of the meeting’s orientation to social action was the vote on six resolutions, and all passed unanimously. In recognition of both the historic significance and urgency of the global refugee crisis, the first resolution called for more support for resettlement and making more resources available for immigrants. In pursuit of racial justice, one resolution called for, among other initiatives, deepening partnerships across racial lines and countering disproportionate incarceration. A resolution on school discipline and academic climate advocated for evidence-based approaches to fair and even-handed discipline and reduced use of force in schools. In the spirit of tikkun olam, the resolution on addressing impacts of climate change encourages congregations to act locally, to advocate for legislative and regulatory action, and to promote international cooperation. The resolution on student-on-student sexual violence focused on consent and healthy relationships and argued for best practices in reporting and handling of sexual violence cases on campuses. Finally, the resolution on redistricting reaffirmed the right to vote and for equality of representation and advocated for ensuring the integrity of the 2020 census and for fair and balanced redistricting.

Larry Constantine is a freelance journalist and photographer.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Arnold Pinsley December 14, 2017, 10:07 pm

    Funny, but there was no mention of the practice of teaching religion in the public schools which is a violation of separation of “church and state”. I attended public school in the Cambridge, MA in the 1940s where students were allowed to leave school for religious instruction for an hour Tuesday mornings at 9:30. In hi;gh school, all religious instruction took place after the school day was over. Armenians, Greeks, Italians, etc went to their places of worship to receive religious instruction and, in some cases, instruction in the mother tongue. There are communities in MA today, like Newton, where Islam is being promoted in public schools. I don’t think that this is a fitting use of class time unless students are being taught that historically Islam has viewed those of other religious beliefs as untermenchen and has treated them as such. Christians, Yazidis, and Jews have been treated thus for centuries.

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