From Pew to Phew in Sunny San Diego: Reform Jews Come in From the Cold

The sunny California skies lend to the cheerful spirit among the Biennial attendees: but the growing challenges facing the Reform movement are on everyone's minds.

As my plane bound for San Diego sat on a snow-covered runway in Newark, New Jersey being de-iced for the third time, the flakes coming down fast and heavy, all I could think was “If this flight makes it to California, it means that God surely hears the prayers of Reform Jews.”

All across the northeast and Midwestern United States, the wintry weather made it a challenge for those travelling to the Union of Reform Judaism’s Biennial meeting, where some 5,000 Reform Jews from across North America - and others from around the world - were coming to share ideas and find inspiration to deal with the growing challenges in local life.

The flight was packed, and more than three-quarters of them were clearly Biennial-goers. Either that or someone had randomly swept a block on the Upper West Side or raided a Woody Allen film casting call and put everyone they found on a plane.

The flight did, miraculously, make it off the ground and across the country, and the passengers to their hotels adjacent to the massive San Diego Convention Center, where the Biennial was being held.

The sunny skies of Southern California lent to the cheerful spirit among the Biennial attendees, most of whom felt lucky to have left their drab wet weather behind - including those, like me, who had travelled all the way to San Diego from Israel, leaving behind the heavy winds, flooding, and power outages back home.

As the local volunteers from the San Diego community greeted us as we walked into the event, and apologized for the unusually cool but still sunny Southern California weather, which meant that a light sweater was more appropriate than a T-shirt, we could only laugh.

As the Biennial opened and the first learning sessions began, spirits were high and participants were earnestly eager to get started. The sessions that opened the conference were a new format for the Biennial - four-hour sessions called “Intensives” where they could focus for a long time, covering a wide range of topics.

A major focus, however, was the challenge of affiliation that the Pew survey made clear - trying to fill the gap between the number of North Americans who identify as Jewish, and those who actually decide to participate in community life.

In a session called “Social Media for Synagogues,” a room full of people listened intently as a young communications expert gave them tips for responding to Facebook posts, and how to use Twitter and YouTube to reach out to the unaffiliated. Next door, successful deli owner Ari Weinzweig, decked out in a rainbow-colored T-shirt discussed “The Art of Giving Great Service” and talked participants through ways to integrate his famous “Zingerman Deli’s” approach to synagogue life.

For those who were looking less for the practical and more for the spiritual, there were sessions on “Mindfully Transforming Congressional Life" and “The Magic of Hebrew Chant.”

The Biennial is a kinder, gentler form of convention, clearly a gathering of a familial tribe with relationships dating back to youth groups and summer camps. In another new Biennial element, following the trend of providing space for participants to hang out and relax informally - creating a ‘living room’ of sorts called “Kikar Biennial” where they could sit on sofas and listen to informal talks and musical performances. On a sofa, Karen Kollins, associate director of the URJ’s Camp George sat with her former rabbi, Eleanor Steinman, who is now the Director of Programs and Fund development for an organization that connects North American gay and lesbian Jews with Israel.

The Biennial attracts the committed core of Reform Jewish life - the professionals and the congregational presidents, looking for new ideas and inspiration.

Mark Pelavin, the director of the Biennial, compared it to an element in one of the toys of his childhood. “When I was a kid I had Hot Wheels, racing cars that went around the track. There was a special piece that gave the car a boost and made it go faster. I think for those who participate, the Biennial is a boost. They spend four days intensively worshipping and studying together and that it gives them that boost to take back with them to their their everyday lives and community roles.”

It may be a womb-like atmosphere of Jewishness, but as Biennial attendees conferred intensely on how to enrich and life in their Reform communities, even in the lobby of the main conference hotel, non-stop Christmas music was being piped in.

The soundtrack of carols in the background as they spoke about Judaism seemed the perfect metaphor for the world that today’s North American Reform Jews live in and the challenges they face.