Is Anybody Home?

URJ 2013 San Diego Biennial; photo courtesy URJ.
URJ 2013 San Diego Biennial; photo courtesy URJ.

By Robert H. Isaacs

Is anybody home right now?

November is the season of major gatherings in the Jewish world. But this year, there is a confluence of conventions and meetings unlike at any time I can recall. Today, the URJ Biennial, with its estimated 5,000 attendees, wraps up in Orlando, just as the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly gets underway in Washington D.C. and more than 5,200 people are celebrating the global Chabad movement on the Brooklyn waterfront at the annual Kinus gathering. Immediately following is the USCJ Convention, which begins Friday in Chicago. These movements are diverse and, in some cases, pursuing religious, social and political agendas that are diametrically opposed to one another. Yet, from Reform to Conservative to Chabad, all are trying to make Jewish life more meaningful and relevant to larger numbers of people and to cope with on-going troubling news reports from the Pew organization about religiosity and affiliations in the United States.

At the URJ Biennial, I just spent five days speaking with participants from across North America, and the focus was very much on how to make Judaism more relevant, more welcoming and more engaging. Not for its own sake, but because they see that Reform Judaism can enrich lives and serve as a guiding force for those seeking to make a positive difference in the world.

In the movement’s continued drive to be welcoming and building on past initiatives, including those relating to gay rights, those assembled passed a resolution affirming the Rights of Transgender and Non-Conforming People. This is already being hailed as the most comprehensive and far-reaching policy adopted by any major American religious organization. While this was the headline grabber and was applauded and understood within the context of a movement that is seeking to represent an increasingly diverse American Jewish community, so many other day-to-day issues relating to filling the pews, burying the term “dues” and attracting funding were the hallway conversations.

We know that many traditional Jewish institutions everywhere are struggling to either reinvent themselves or to craft a new vision. At the URJ Biennial and I am sure at the other gatherings as well, the focus is not just “business-as-usual.”

In his wide-ranging speech to the attendees, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs noted that “too often, Jewish life looks like a collection of institutions hawking their wares and soliciting donations.” But he contended that “we wouldn’t be involved in Jewish life, let alone be here at this Biennial, if we didn’t have a clearer, stronger reason. We’re not just keeping the lights on. We’re committed to doing something of ultimate significance.”

“I want us to grow, not for the sake of being large, but so that our holy work will have greater impact,” he said later in the talk. “And I want us to grow not by watering down what we stand for, but by offering an unmistakable and undeniable vision of faith with purpose, faith that shapes each of us, our communities and ultimately the world.”

One of the reasons that rabbis, professionals and lay leaders attend these large, traditional gatherings is to be energized, to reaffirm everything they are working toward, and to gain new ideas about how to engage in holy work.

Worshiping with 5,000 people and accompanied by dynamic music, it is hard not to be inspired. The challenge is the same as it is for any intensive, immersive experience: How to bottle that energy, bring it home to their own communities, and use it to make an impact.

The initiatives and innovative programs that are being introduced and shared at these meetings are exciting and will, hopefully, lead to positive outcomes. Unfortunately, the reality is that moving forward will require new financial resources. For that reason, clergy and lay leaders must use these gatherings as an opportunity to engage donors and push for change. I’d urge those in attendance to return home and immediately pick a theme from the conference to share with congregants: Tikkun Olam, Israel activism, audacious hospitality, or engaging communities. Hold parlor gatherings or one-on-one meetings with donors. Think of ways to use the momentum and vision of the conference to bolster existing programs and create new ones. The vision is there, the inspiration exists. But to truly shine in the 21st century and beyond, our communities need dollars and need philanthropists who are willing to invest in bold ideas. These gatherings are moving and energizing events. But they must be judged on the hundreds and thousands of conversations that come afterwards.

Is anybody home right now? Unfortunately, if we look outside our comparatively small circle of heavily engaged Jews, too many Jews are failing to show up. Let’s give them more and better reasons to show up. Better yet, let’s figure out ways to make Judaism even more accessible, to bring it home. We’ve got the ideas. It is up to our leaders to share this vision and ask for the funding to put these ideas into practice.

Robert H. Isaacs is CEO of the Evans Consulting Group, a firm that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. The Evans Consulting Group advises nonprofits, manages fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, evaluated nonprofit business practices, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. He spent more than 20 years in executive roles at two large synagogues and a major JCC and is passionate about sharing what he’s learned. He can be reached at