The Antidote to Pew Study Anxiety

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

To Agonize or Not to Agonize: That is the Jewish Question

The Pew study lays out its analysis of the successes and challenges facing the Jewish community. Depending upon how one reads the study, there is much to celebrate and much to fret about. The Internet is replete with analyses, praises and critiques of the study and its conclusions. Of course, we can soon expect the conversation to move from where we are to what we can do to strengthen the identity and religious commitment of Jews and the Jewish community.

Experience suggests that significant responses can be discovered when we take advantage of unique opportunities to gather together with others who share these concerns. For me, this happens whenever I attend a Union for Reform Judaism Biennial convention. Each Biennial offers the Jewish spiritual high and the programmatic low down to guide front line Jewish synagogues regarding the way forward. That is why I am attending the Biennial and taking with me many of our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) leadership. And that’s why you should too.

Our Temple Transformed by Biennial Attendance

Over the years, the congregations I have served and my own Jewish life have been transformed by the Biennial. Most recently, the 2011 Biennial in Washington, DC, which challenged us to rethink our Youth Engagement activities. Following that gathering, Or Ami’s clergy and lay leadership quickly evaluated our offerings and created a new process and program. We have since enjoyed a 20% increase in post-B’nai Mitzvah youth participation and a stellar reputation for our Tracks for Temple Teens (“Triple T”) program.

Previous Biennial conventions inspired us to deepen our congregation’s accessibility for Jews with disabilities, to articulate officially our outreach to the LGBTQ Jews and Jewish families, and to pursue an energetic foray into eNewsletters and social media. Similarly, we have answered the call to innovate our worship services, expand our Torah study, and creatively embrace and educate interfaith couples.

Transdenominational Participation Promotes a Wide Variety of Perspectives

I am even more excited about this year’s Biennial in San Diego because for the first time ever, the Biennial is open to those outside the Reform Movement. Registration is open to anyone – not just to members of Reform synagogues. The cross denominational and cross organizational interactions promise to point all of us toward more comprehensive analyses of and workable responses to the challenges the Pew study illuminated.

Jews of all stripes – lay leaders and professionals, youth, congregants, and clergy – gather together to be energized, inspired and uplifted. Intellectually challenged by the high level scholars and Jewish thinkers, we participants face the challenges that the study only talks about. The ability to network with leaders and thinkers from all over the Jewish world makes the Biennial the place to retreat, respond and rejuvenate.

Bonding at Biennial

Personally, I cherish the opportunity to spend long hours in sessions, in services and over scrumptious meals with leaders of my congregation. Many a Biennial has provided just the opportunity to deepen the bonds that ensure a smooth partnership back home at our synagogue. We create a common language and shared insight on national issues and local concerns. By seeking out leaders from other parts of the country who have faced and successfully addressed the issues we have identified allowed us to return home with a “can do” attitude and a toolbox of options.

Finally, there is Shabbat. It is rare that a clergy person gets to sit and pray without the responsibility to act as Shaliach tzibur (communal worship leader). The poignancy and power of worshipping alongside 5,000 other Jews is unmatched. The kahal (community) is transformed by an emotional-spiritual high that our ancestors called hitlahavut (the passion of prayer). The study options – from the Shalom Hartman Institute, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, the Mussar Institute, and others – bring Torah to life and refill our souls with the succor from our Jewish tradition.

So Stop Worrying

We have been here before, worried about the present, anxious about the Jewish future. With the instantaneous conversations afforded by the internet and social media, those worries are compounded and seemingly all pervasive. Yet, I am breathing easy. Not because I know the way forward. Not because I understand fully the problems we face. Rather, because as the Jewish world continues to get worked up about the Pew study on American Jews – trying to wring meaning from it and prophesy the path(s) ahead, I know that I will be at the best place I can be to address these issues: spending five days with 5,000 thinking Jewish leaders at the URJ Biennial Convention in San Diego. Maybe you will join me as well?

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?