Reform Biennial Will Showcase 'Vitality and Openness' by Including Outsiders

Event Will Be Open to Non-Reform Members For First Time

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By Uriel Heilman

Published December 02, 2013.
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(JTA) — First there was the Conservative movement’s October biennial conference, billed as “The conversation of the century” and opened up to presenters from outside the movement.

Then came the November General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which featured a “Global Jewish shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate” led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world.

Now comes the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be distinguished from past years by — you guessed it — opening up to outsiders.

For the first time, the conference, which will be held Dec. 11-15 in San Diego, Calif.,will be open to participants who are not members of Reform congregations. Learning sessions, which in past years were run almost exclusively by Reform staff, will be led in many cases by presenters from outside the movement. The Friday night prayer service will be open to all, not just conference registrants. And the night before the service, performers from the conference — from musicians to comedians — will go out to venues in the surrounding neighborhood to share Reform Judaism’s good cheer with greater San Diego.

Reform leaders say they’re not trying to be trendy; they want to bring the conference in line with the movement’s philosophy.

“We have opened the biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform movement,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the union’s president, told JTA in an interview in his New York office. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”

Jacobs said he wants visitors from outside the movement to “experience the incredible vitality and depth and openness of Reform Judaism in the 21st century.”

For Jacobs, the biennial will be the first he is running. The last one, held near Washington and featuring President Obama as a speaker, was the movement’s largest conference ever and marked the transition from the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs’ predecessor.

This year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to address the conference – a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, though he’ll probably deliver the address via video rather than in person.

Other presenters include New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute; Ron Wolfson, a star of the Conservative movement and a professor at the American Jewish University; Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon; and Sharon Brous, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who leads the popular IKAR community in Los Angeles.


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