Biennial Impressions

Posted on January 14, 2018 by Gary Cohen

As many of you know, a large delegation from Temple Beth-El attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention, held in Boston on December 6-10. Our heads are still spinning and our hearts still dancing from the learning opportunities, significant speeches, musical presentations, and — the highlight of every Biennial — the very special opportunity to share Shabbat with thousands of other Reform Jews.

Biennial participants from TBE were Andrea Bradley, Dave Cohen, Gary Cohen, Liz Cohen, Sim Cohen, Lisa Friedman, Rachel Frish, Rabbi Arnie Gluck, Sarah Gluck, Leslie Klein, Beth Lavranchuk, Jim Lavranchuk, Jay Lavroff, Erica Milgram, Leigh Miller, Robin Osman, Cantor Emily Pincus, Amy A. Rubin, Amy E. Rubin, Talia Rubin, Elayne Weitz, and Steve Weitz. We thought you would be interested in hearing some of their impressions, shared in response to the following:

  • Loved the Reverend Dr. Barber; he gave such a powerful and empowering speech. He offered us a glimpse inside another style of worship, with the power and majesty of a preacher. A wonderful message and a wonderful delivery.
  • Loved the Baby Boomer Symposium — so many ideas about how we can continue to engage our baby boomers and our younger baby boomers. Developing relationships is the name of the game, and connecting with our community in smaller groups, and on issues and interests they share, will be key to our continued strength.
  • Loved the sing along after Shabbat evening services. Joy, song, energy.
  • Loved being IN a complete Jewish community, learning and worshiping together. Such strength in numbers, such joy in togetherness.

— Andrea Bradley


  • I was very moved by Reverend Barber. He was a wonderful way to start my experience at Biennial — very spiritual and motivating.
  • I went to a lot of the technology sessions, which were not particularly moving or inspiring. However, I did learn what many other congregations are doing to further engage their membership, and realized there is much more we can and should be doing.
  • I was only able to attend the Friday evening service, so I would say that that was the one I enjoyed.
  • My takeaway from Biennial: we are not alone in our struggles and successes. This was a great way to see the bigger picture of our community.

— Gary Cohen


  • Tough call, but I would say Elizabeth Warren. She maintains an incredibly positive energy despite the toxic environment she works in, and inspires us to join her in fighting the good fight. And her championship of consumer and worker protections is so spot on. I had never seen her in person, and feeling her energy was really inspiring for me.
  • I loved the workshop on Voter Engagement. Good new insights into how to do “deep canvassing” on issues, partner with interfaith groups, and move toward 100 percent voter engagement in our congregation.
  • The Wednesday-morning worship was intimate, welcoming, musical, and set a great kavvanah for the week.
  • The takeaway for me is deeper and broader engagement with congregations on immigrant justice and for Reform Jewish Voices of New Jersey (RJVNJ). For our congregation, it is the urgency of putting our Brit Olam plan in place.

— Liz Cohen


  • Rabbi David Stern. He spoke eloquently and concisely about a number of issues on welcoming others and growing our communities. Most significantly, he spoke about the way children and teens, in regard to their engagement in Jewish life, are often considered a statistic to measure and/or tout, rather than as Jewish souls to nurture. He was exceptional.
  • I found the session on speaking to our teens about Israel and Israel engagement on campus to be very meaningful. The depth of the panel was impressive, and they complemented one another in a way that made the learning coherent and meaningful. While the message conveyed is one we already embrace at TBE, it was a rich discussion. This message is that Israel education for younger children and high school teens needs to go beyond a “milk and honey” narrative that only attempts to teach love of Israel, and to expose children in developmentally appropriate ways to the complicated realities that exist and can go hand-in-hand with our love of Israel.
  • Having Dan Nichols and all the NFTY teens lead that worship was powerful.
  • Being surrounded by not just a few but thousands of committed Reform Jews who strive to live active, meaningful Jewish lives was very powerful.

— Lisa Friedman


  • Rabbi David Stern gave an eloquent and passionate presentation about how supporting the Jewish growth of our youth demands the fullness of our devotion. Our youth, he said, are not our future; they are our present.
  • Rabbi Donniel Hartman gave a clear and insightful talk about the breakdown in understanding between Israel and world Jewry. Israelis see Jewish sovereignty as the only way to keep Jews safe and secure. American Jews believe that Jews can live in safety and security under American democracy, and see Zionism as an opportunity to reach for values higher than survival.
  • Nava Tehila’s Shacharit chanting service was moving, spiritual, and deeply engaging of all the participants. Powerful!
  • It is good to be part of a movement that stands for big and important things. Collectively, we are a powerful Jewish phenomenon in our time. That being said, we face many challenges that test us to rise to our best.

–Rabbi Gluck


  • I loved Rabbi David Stern’s speech. He preaches so beautifully and with such depth of feeling and content. His statement that children are not our future but our present and that we must “ treat them not as hothouses to be experimented with to achieve some demographic end, but as living, breathing, laughing, thinking members of our communities” resonated deep within me and touched my heart.
  • I enjoyed learning with Shira Kline — musician, early childhood educator, and master teacher — who shared her special approach to t’fillah for young children.
  • Friday-morning worship with Nava Tehila was a gift for the soul and the highlight of my Biennial experience.
  • Sharing Shabbat services with several thousand Reform. Jews never fails to be moving, inspiring, and uplifting!

— Sarah Gluck


  • Elizabeth Warren! Her message that the fight for justice can be worthwhile even if you do not achieve your ultimate goal was inspiring.
  • Rabbi Michael Marmur: “Judaism is like peanut butter.” There is crunchy and smooth. Most importantly, it is best to learn and grow and not try to suppress the aspects of it that you have trouble incorporating in your own life.
  • Morning worship with students from HUC New York was a beautiful blend of music and liturgy — spiritual and not performance-oriented. Plus, it was wonderful to see the students who are our future clergy create such a beautiful experience.
  • I think the Biennial demonstrated the importance that the URJ is currently placing on Jewish values and how we can put them into action at a very challenging time, when many in our country need allies and a voice. The issues addressed were economic justice, health care and immigration reform, just to name a few. I was reassured to see the URJ find its voice.

— Beth Lavranchuk


  • Rabbi David Stern, head of the CCAR. He not only spoke about the critically important issue of the role of young people in the Reform movement and Judaism in general, but did so with such genuine feeling and emotion that I could not help but get caught up in what he was saying. I particularly enjoyed listening to him recall his own experience growing up, when a member of his congregation gave him 12 blank, post-dated checks as a bar mitzvah gift to use monthly as he saw fit, thereby demonstrating confidence in his judgment and ability. His statement that “we’ve got company” (our young people) was very powerful.
  • “Hot Topics on College Campuses.” It was very interest-ing not only because I follow such issues (e.g., BDS) closely and currently have two kids on campuses, but because the attendees were a great mix of students, parents, clergy, and synagogue leaders, each of whom brought their own perspective. The students were especially interesting. They spoke of interacting positively with Jews of all backgrounds. We also discussed the subject of Reform rabbis on campus and in Hillel. I talked about the success of Rutgers and how it can and should be replicated elsewhere. I also had a pointed discussion with Rabbi Jonah Pessner on the topic, especially about why the Union should pay greater attention to what’s happening at Rutgers.
  • Shabbat morning. Good energy, nice stories behind the aliyot. I have to say, though, that if you strip away the distinctiveness of those honored with the aliyot and of sitting with nice folks from out of town, and get down to the basics, I think our services at TBE are better, more thought-provoking, and more enjoyable.
  • We need to make sure that we regularly program for and engage with congregants of all ages. For example, as was discussed in one of the sessions I attended, baby boomers are statistically the largest cohort of temple members, yet many temples focus most of their efforts on young people with religious school-age kids. We have started addressing our own varied demographics and interests through our affinity groups. The effort deserves and commands further attention.

— Jay Lavroff


  • I work closely with Rabbi Josh Weinberg in a cohort called “The Teaching Israel Program,” so I tried to go to his workshops to hear what he had to say about ARZA and Israel in general. Rabbi Weinberg is an amazing speaker who always has great things to say about the Zionist movement. I felt I could easily connect to what he was saying.
  • The workshop that I felt I could take away the most from would be the inclusion course, led by Lisa David and Lori Zlotoff, along with others. They explained ways that we can make temples, camps, etc. more inclusive for children with disabilities. As a teacher’s assistant at my school for kids with disabilities, as well as experiencing this at Temple Beth-El and Camp Harlam, I feel I could use some of the tips shared to help make my communities more inclusive to all.
  • My favorite worship experience was the Thursday afternoon service presented by Kutz Camp for teens. I have participated in various creative services over the years, but none quite like this one. It was very hands on. For example, we were given a single strand of yarn for the Mourner’s Kaddish, and were given the choice to do what we wanted with it. I now wear this piece of yarn around my wrist with four knots in it. One each for my grandparents, all of whom have passed away.
  • I signed up for Biennial not knowing exactly what it was. I knew most of my friends from Israel were going, and was excited for the chance to see them again. However, I did not expect to be so blown away by all the speakers, presentations, and services. I left Boston with so much more knowledge than I had before. I enjoyed the teen track, as well as having conversations with many adults. Having the freedom to choose which workshops to go to and to manage my own time was really nice to do.

–Erica Milgram


  • Rabbi Michael Marmur made the greatest impression on me. Words fail to describe how outstanding his teaching is. He is brilliant, inspiring, thought-provoking, funny, and much more. If you ever have the opportunity to see him teach, don’t miss it!
  • The session Best Principles for Congregational Engagement — From Seekers to Congregational Leaders was most impactful for me. Four interesting speakers shared a wide variety of ideas for congregational engagement.
  • After the Shabbat evening service, I participated in the song session, Israeli dancing, and the kumzits (singalong). While these activities were not exactly worship experiences, they took place on Shabbat, felt sacred, and I enjoyed them immensely.
  • My takeaway is to start with why and focus on relationships, not programs.

— Robin Osman


  • Senator Elizabeth Warren was great, but the most impactful speaker for me was Marc Freedman, who spoke at the Baby Boomer symposium. His remarks offered me a new perspective. The session on the Eight Principles that Drive Strong Congregations was the most interesting. Good concepts to mull over and strive toward.
  • The morning service on the Wednesday before many people had arrived. It was just some lucky newcomers and the choir. The singing in that service was simply beautiful. I felt lifted up for the start of Biennial. Also, Ma’ariv on the first afternoon was an interfaith service. The minister’s words were so moving and the Muslim call to worship was hauntingly beautiful.
  • My one takeaway is to cultivate a longer-term orientation, a “future focus,” if you will.

— Amy E. Rubin


  • Friday night services were my biggest takeaway. I loved looking around and seeing close to 6,000 Jews chanting, singing, dancing, and praying together, as though we were all one. And I also loved the fact that almost the entire service was in Hebrew.

— Elayne Weitz


  • I thought Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech was both affirming and inspiring. Her words reminded me that, no matter what the political landscape, our individual and collective efforts of speaking truth to power really make a difference in the lives of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
  • The Baby Boomers Symposium reframed my understanding of this slice of life. Generally speaking, never before has there been such a large age cohort that’s this well educated, this financially secure, and this healthy. For people of my generation, the years following middle age but preceding old age are their own discrete period of both challenge and opportunity. While many boomers are ready to retire from decades of work, we want to stay engaged and continue to make meaningful contributions to our communities, including our synagogues.
  • I love the Shabbat services. I find that uniting my voice in worship with 6,000 fellow Reform Jews is a completely uplifting experience.
  • Our Reform Movement is alive and well! United in our efforts, we can bring Jewish values to life and help to create a world of justice, wholeness and compassion.

— Steve Weitz

There is much more to tell, and we look forward to sharing with all of you over the coming months. In the meantime, please take some time to experience some of the Biennial online by visiting and following the links to transcripts and videos of the many speakers, and song sessions.

Originally published in the January-February 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.