By Alanna Berman
More than 5,000 Jewish leaders are expected to attend the Union for Reform Judaism’s 72nd annual Biennial event at the San Diego Convention center this month. The largest gathering of North American Jews is always a draw for synagogue leaders and lay people who wish to “do Jewish, better,” with speakers and sessions appealing to a wide range of participants. The friendly programming offers attendees the chance to learn, pray, share ideas and connect with each other, as organizers hope the San Diego community will do on Dec. 11-15.
Highlights this year include the largest Shabbat dinner in the world, inspiring Torah study sessions and an evening of entertainment in the Gaslamp District that will be open to the community. Speakers include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu, Knesset Member Ruth Calderon, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson and URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. The event is obviously a great program for the San Diego community, and highlights the URJ’s efforts at being the most inclusive Jewish branch.
“The Biennial is a big enough creature that it has different goals for different people,” Mark J. Pelavin, director for Biennial, says. “Some people will come away with really enhanced skills to enable them to be really great congregational leaders. Others will come away with new music for their congregational repertoire, and others will come away with a deeper understanding of the issues facing the Jewish community today, and I hope that everyone will come away uplifted and motivated by the learning and worship opportunities [at Biennial].”
For the first time ever, community Shabbat services will be open to all members of the Jewish community, whether they are members of a URJ-affiliated synagogue or not. Pelavin says this is part of a continued commitment to openness on the URJ’s part.
“We want to welcome anyone who wants to be with us to come with us.” He says.
That theme continues with the wide range of topics being presented at Biennial too. In the past, URJ staff have generated the workshop topics, but this year, community members and attendees could submit topcs of their choice. The result was more than 2500 suggestions that were narrowed down to the 100 on this year’s program.
“Topics range from synagogue management to contemporary political issues to deconstructing the morning services and understanding how they were put together to fundraising techniques to deeper Jewish learning, so they are really a broad range of topics.”
URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs will speak to the Biennial crowd Thursday night about the future of URJ. Later, Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu will address the crowd.
“We couldn’t be more excited about [Netanyahu’s participation], and it is the first time that a sitting prime minister has addressed the biennial, so we are very honored,” Pelavin says.
Also on Thursday night, Biennial takes over the Gaslamp district, in participation with various venues to promote contemporary Israeli and Jewish musicians. Josh Nelson, Dan Nichols, Julie Silver, Rick Recht, Billy Jonas, and Neshama Carlebach are among the musicians who will play for general audiences that night, bringing Biennial to the entire San Diego community.
“We are mindful that we are a large and diverse movement and that people come to biennial for a lot of different reasons,” Pelavin says. “We wanted to be sure that people had the opportunity to go deeply into whatever they were interested in, as well as to sample things that they think they might be interested in.”
For more information on the Biennial and to register, visit urj.org/biennial.