The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, December 13, 2013

Notes from Biennial 2013, San Diego

Rabbi David Segal
13 December, 2013
Dear friends,

Greetings from San Diego, where I’m deep into the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial conference. I wanted to check in before Shabbat with a few notes on what I’ve experienced and learned here.

I attended a session led by Makom, a department of the Jewish Agency that supports deeper engagement between the Diaspora and Israel. It began with a 30-minute dramatic presentation about a rabbi having a “bad day”: an encounter with a congregant running an Israeli film festival at the shul, who has chosen all pro-Palestinian films; an encounter with his secretary, who has some surprising beliefs about Israel; and an encounter with a major donor who is so turned off by the film festival choices that she pulls her donation. The audience was then invited to offer suggestions about how the conversations could have been different and better, and the actors replayed the scenes based on the feedback. At the end, Makom’s Yonatan Ariel brought it to a close with some advice on having productive Israel conversations within a congregation. He said we need to learn to be better at both hugging AND wrestling with Israel, because neither approach alone is true to the complex, vibrant reality of the Jewish state.

This session dovetailed with a goal I have of bringing the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Israel curriculum to our community. Its mission is to elevate our relationship with Israel beyond one of crisis to a deeper, sustainable connection based on Jewish values and covenant. Stay tuned for more details about that.

I also went to a session about “public space Judaism” by Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute. He outlined guidelines for doing Jewish outreach in public spaces where people can “stumble over them” – grocery stores, parks, etc. Of course, we already do this in important ways with our mountain minyans, Sukkot at Rock Bottom Ranch, coffee with the Rabbi in town, etc. But there are exciting ways to expand this, e.g. teaching about Pesach in the matzah aisle at Whole Foods, teaching a regular Torah study at a local library or coffee shop, and more. I hope to incorporate some of these ideas right away. In the end, the goal with this kind of program is to engage people who don’t step into the synagogue, for a whole slew of reasons. And we know from the numbers that that’s 70% of Jews – only 30% actually make synagogue a part of their Jewish life. If we are willing to make the commitment, we can reach people where they are and expand our spiritual reach, bringing more people closer to the spiritual core of Judaism.

I attended a fantastic panel about religious pluralism in Israel with Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon. It was a dynamic and inspiring session about the exciting political and educational developments in Israel leading toward more pluralism, better inclusion of non-Orthodox Jews in governance and public funding, and challenges to the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on certain aspects of Jewish life. Hartman spoke beautifully about reminding ourselves that democracy IS a Jewish value, and that being deeply Jewish today means assimilating the healthy, modern concept of democracy. In the end, they both encouraged us, American (Reform) Jews, not to give up our fight for these values in Israel, even as we continue to be concerned for Israel’s security.

On Thursday night we heard from URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who spoke about where we’ve come from, especially since the 2011 biennial, and laid out a vision for the future. He named several major areas of challenge and inspiration, all based on episodes of the narratives of our ancestors in Genesis (the reading of which we complete this Shabbat):

1. Audacious Hospitality, like Abraham and Sarah

Can we get better at welcoming? Not just the specific moment of someone walking into Shabbat and being greeted, but in everything we do? In reaching out past our walls, past our usual demographics, past our typical programs? Outreach needs to become a core of what we do. Can we redouble our efforts to be maximally inclusive? Of interfaith families, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities (visible and invisible), of anyone who may be marginalized and searching? How about the “nones”, those who identify as not religious and not affiliated? So many of them are spiritual searchers – can we make our tent big enough to include them as well, not only to get them in the door, but to learn from them about reinvigorating our own spirituality?

Intermarriage, he said, is not a disease. Rather it is the natural byproduct of the open society in which we live – and which none of us wants to close. What would we prefer to more intermarriage – more anti-Semitism? We are and can be even more the denomination that brings interfaith families into Jewish life, changing them, yes, but also changing for the better who we are by adding their voices and experiences to our own.

2. Social Justice
, like Abraham's calling out God to act justly
One of the hallmarks of Reform Judaism continues to be our commitment to tikkun olam. We are at the forefront of curbing gun violence, promoting equal marriage and ending workplace discrimination, seeking comprehensive immigration reform, and others. Even as we pursue these goals, we must remember that not everyone in our communities shares a progressive political approach, and that while we must share a commitment to a just society, to caring for the poor and marginalized, we need not all share liberal or conservative policy answers to these pressing moral and political issues of our day – and yet we must work harder to remain in sacred community, even as we disagree. Ultimately, we know that Jewish social justice is a key way of engaging the younger generation of Jews. In that spirit, we are hoping to start a post-b’nai mitzvah service learning program in February of 2014, in which 8-12th graders will volunteer in the valley community on a regular basis and learn about the Jewish values that undergird the mitzvot they’re embracing.

3. Bound to the Land of Israel

Through programming initiatives and partnerships with various organizations, the URJ and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ, our Israeli counterpart) continue working to grow the Reform presence in Israel, and to connect more Reform Jews, particularly our youth, with the land and people of Israel. There are more options than ever to spend days, weeks, a year in Israel, learning and connecting with its history and culture. We continue to forge relationships with Israel’s leaders, both political and cultural (indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu will address this biennial gathering on Sunday morning). I would like to explore, with our AJC community, the possibility of a trip to Israel, as well as, perhaps, a partnership with a sister (Reform) synagogue somewhere in Israel.

Rabbi Jacobs began and concluded with a surfing metaphor: there are big waves of social and spiritual change crashing all around us. We will need talent and skill to ride them, but the rewards are great if we step up to the challenge. Surf’s up!

I also attended a panel discussion about the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, with Rabbi Elka Abrahamson (President of the Wexner Foundation), Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Dr. Sarah Benor (HUC-LA), and Mark Pelavin (URJ). Toward the end, they were asked to offer an "audacious idea" for the Reform Movement that could be a game-changer. Elka said synagogues should close their doors on Sundays, i.e. no Hebrew school. Let the Jewish day of Shabbat be the day of Jewish gathering. "I would take one hour of my child experiencing Shabbat over three hours of Hebrew school on a Sunday morning," she said. Of course, we are ahead of the curve on this one! Sarah said that every congregation should hire a Chief Relationship Officer, tasked with getting to know every member and newcomer, and connecting him/her with others of similar interest. Ideally that could be my role as the rabbi, if we could rethink some of the usual tasks and duties assumed to be the rabbi's responsibility. Some exciting possibilities... Rabbi Kolin said we need to create spaces where everyone can be him/herself and truly feel welcome. She challenged us to create sacred places where no one feels the pain of isolation or not belonging. Much food for thought.

Soon we'll head to the Shabbat evening service, led by the clergy team at Temple Beth Elohim Wellesley, which includes Noah Aronson, who has been a regular guest at our summer concerts in Aspen. Shabbat worship in the San Diego Convention Center with 5,000 of our closest friends!

I hope everyone has a sweet and inspiring Shabbat. Special thanks to Shereen Sarick and David Joseph for being our sh'lichei tzibur (service leaders) tonight.

To learn more about the biennial and to live-stream or watch recordings of some of the speeches, visit

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi David Segal


  1. Thanks for the very informative report. We are so glad we can have clergy here who constantly seek ways to make Jewish life meaningful for our congregants and the larger community, both Jewish and not.

  2. Great summation of some incredible talks, gatherings etc. The "Public Space Judaism" somehow reminds me of 'Flash Mobs". Rather than singing the Hallalujah Chorus in Macys, how about a chorus or 2 of L'cha dodi (sp) or a rousing version of Hava Nagila? That would be fun and attract some interest I'm sure. :)


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