I’ve had some incredible Shabbat experiences in my lifetime thus far…but this past Friday and Saturday have won the prize for best ever. Biennial attendees woke up Friday morning, and most of us only thought about one word: “Obama.” Yes, friends, President Barack Obama was going to be paying us all a visit at the 71st URJ Biennial here in Washington, D.C.
I’ve waited on some crazy lines before (for R.E.M. tickets in high school, for seats at a Conan O’Brien taping in NYC, to stand in Times Square for New Year’s Eve), so I am pretty familiar with the sense of camaraderie that can form while you stand for hours, waiting for a common interest or goal. Due to the intense security checkpoints and requirements, most people started lining up two hours before the doors were set to open for President Obama’s visit. And, of course, the doors were going to open at least two hours before he would actually appear and speak. Yep, it was going to be a long day.
But, my goodness, was it worth it! The program began with the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism. Presenters described, with great pride, the many endeavors and victories of the RAC over the years, victories that are consonant with Progressive Jewish values. Together, we’ve chipped away at inequalities plaguing women, minorities, the impoverished, the GLBT community, as well as communities abroad. We’ve advocated for equal rights, civil rights, better education, an end to segregation, reproductive rights, environmental concerns, and more. As we watched a video highlighting the efforts of the RAC, I was so proud to see snapshots from events that I was lucky enough to join in: the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, and the Save Darfur Rally of 2006.
Josh Nelson, a popular Jewish musician and composer, then took to the stage, with the admirably difficult job of keeping the thousands of Jews calm as we anxiously awaited the President’s arrival. He led us in melodies that were new and those that were familiar – how else would you keep us all entertained in that situation? We sang along, clapped, and felt the electric excitement in the air. CNN.com was already live-streaming the event, and Nelson probably got some unexpected PR.
President Obama was running on “Jewish time,” as it were, and we later learned that it was due to a noble reason: he was meeting for a few minutes with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who had spoken to the URJ crowd the day before). Yet, the Presidential Seal had been placed on the podium, and we were ready. Suddenly, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie took the stage to introduce the President. The crowd jumped to their feet and welcomed Obama with a rousing standing ovation. You could feel the overwhelming love and appreciation in the room. And, apparently, the feeling was mutual.
“Without the efforts of the Reform Movement,” Obama stated early on, “I might not be standing here today.”
President Obama made us laugh by discussing his daughters’ experiences at recent Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations they’ve attended (including the difficult fashion choices they have to make). He explained that his daughters taught him that every good speech has to start by discussing the Torah portion of the week, which he promptly began to do. He told us about his understanding of the word, “Hineni,” meaning, Here I am. Our patriarchs repeat this phrase throughout the Torah in response to Divine calls, and we must likewise continue to be present and involved actively in our world.
Obama mentioned the importance of saying Hineni to the poor and down-trodden. We must take care of those struggling with injustice and inequality. We must also continue to work for peace in Israel, and work toward a two-state solution. Though his efforts have yet to bear real fruit, the President said, “Just because peace is hard can’t deter us from trying.” As he spoke, the audience gave many standing ovations, and many were moved to tears. The energy was infectious and enervating. It was truly an honor to be there.
Before I knew it, it was time to prepare for Shabbat. Can you imagine praying in a room with 6,000 other Jews? The feeling is indescribable. We sang, danced, clapped, swayed, and prayed as one. We welcomed the Shabbat bride, took a collective deep breath together, and were carried along the waves of music and spirit. Personally, it was quite special to pray alongside my congregants, rather than in front of them on the bimah. We were able to put our arms around each other and sing, and I treasured each moment with the wonderful people from my home community.
We also dined together in what was possibly the largest Shabbat dinner in the history of the world. Though we had to nourish our bodies, we couldn’t wait to further nourish our souls at the evening’s Song Session. Cantors, Rabbis, Song leaders, and musicians from all over the movement took to the stage and led us in a huge singing event. We sang classic liturgy, favorite camp songs, and even “Sweet Caroline (“So good, so good, so good!”).”
There was even another song session after the song session (that’s how much we Reform Jews like to sing), but most folks went to bed. Shabbat morning began with Torah study sessions, followed by a large Shabbat morning worship service. Many attendees opted to sing in the Biennial Choir – quite a treat for us all! Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is stepping down from his 16 years as URJ President, gave a beautiful, moving sermon about the lessons he has learned from his adult children, one of whom is modern-Orthodox, and the other of whom is completely secular. Rabbi Yoffie spoke of the importance of being open to change, allowing others to make their own choices, and knowing what is important to you, yourself. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs prepares to take the wheel, we were left with a feeling of satisfaction and pride at the wonderful leadership of Rabbi Yoffie.
Study lunches followed, then more learning, and, after dinner, a Havdallah concert by Israeli superstars, David Broza and Rami Kleinstein. Though this particular Shabbat may not have been the most restful, it was certainly the most inspiring. It is hard to believe that we will all return to our home states on Sunday, and that we will have to wait another two years to come together like this.
Please stay tuned for one more Biennial Recap, as I reflect on the final day, as well as the over-arching themes addressed by the Reform Movement throughout the event. L’hitraot!
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.