URJ Biennial Update: More of the Same With Some Slight Re-Packaging

by Robert Evans & Avrum Lapin

Live from the URJ Biennial in Toronto!!!

We write this piece in Toronto while the Biennial of the Reform Movement, the largest Jewish gathering that this year is being hosted by the city’s gracious Jewish community, continues (although you will be reading this as we wing our way home).

With more than 3,700 registered attendees, the URJ Biennial has been a looked-forward-to event that always offers diverse educational and religious experiences. And 2009 is no exception, except . . .

  1. as expected, attendance is down by about 25%. However, almost 500 of the affiliated 800 congregations have representatives, making this again an important opportunity to bring passionate Jews together to talk about common agendas;
  2. the various sessions, which are somewhat reduced in number to reflect fewer attendees, seem to represent re-hashing of tried-and-true topics although there is a significant emphasis on “green topics” (not money, however);
  3. there is little controversy, even though some tough topics are everywhere: inter-religious dialogue, dealing with interfaith issues, and environmental concerns all seem uppermost in some reasonably well-attended meetings.

We have talked informally with hundreds of people from across the globe attending the gathering. Universally, they are disappointed at the lowered attendance but happy they are re-uniting with leaders from other Reform congregations to share snippets about their successes since 2007, when the event was last held in San Diego. No doubt friendships grow and war-stories get shared. . . on podiums and in the hallways.

Perhaps the most important take-away message we have to offer from the convention applies to the work that we all do and it is a lesson that Biennial leaders need to ponder: how can we do the best job possible at engaging (and re-engaging) Jews in the Jewish world for Jewish causes? Too many folks here the past few days are asking if the captain of the Titanic was in charge of Biennial planning. (Hopefully not!) In its current format, is this a gathering that has the same meaning and value today that it is had since its earliest convening or has its raison d’etre changed?

As an example, only two educational sessions were held (reduced from 5 or 6 from previous Biennials) on fundraising; one would think that fundraising and related development issues would have been uppermost on the minds of Biennial planners, given that the worldwide recession impacted almost every congregation in the movement. Instead, two well-attended sessions focused on preparing for capital and endowment campaigns and reviewed important steps critical for dealing with fundraising in difficult economic times. Nothing on planned giving, creative ways to handle fundraising efforts, and other topics that related to how organizations should be talking about charitable support. Fear?

Perhaps the highlight for us relating to successful fundraising was the active canvassing of delegates by teenagers representing the Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto and asking for “toonies for togetherness,” building on the securing of the two-dollar Canadian coin. The teens’ collective passion and zeal clearly captivated many (including us) who reached into their pockets and responded with money. Remember the number fundraising rule: unless you ask you don’t get!

We did feel a tangible and cautious note of optimism . . . that the environment for synagogue life in North America and concomitant philanthropic support are evolving from total despair into a more positive outlook.

One other lesson to carry for others: more than 700 locals served on the host committee and were everywhere in the vast expanses of the Convention Center, guiding, chatting, and representing Toronto’s Jewish community. Similarly, success in campaigns (and volunteer life) today requires drawing on willing volunteers.

Final question: The URJ Biennial concluded on Sunday, on the heels of the General Assembly of the Jewish federations, the second largest Jewish event in North America. How could calendars collide like this and be so blatantly conflicting? If ever we were to heed one of the important messages from the URJ Biennial regarding a new/better spirit of organizational cooperation, communication and mutual support is the value of working together better and in sharing information. Transparency is the critical word today and so is cooperation. Hopefully, we, in the Jewish community, will value these ideas and implement better systems going forward to foster an integrating of ideas and lessons learned for all to benefit.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishhilanthropy.com.