December 18, 2011, National Harbor, MD The largest movement in Judaism recommitted itself to cultivating the next generation through its Campaign for Youth Engagement and announced a new emphasis on reaching North American Jews both inside and outside the walls of its congregations at its Biennial conference that concluded today. The 6,000 attendees at the Union for Reform Judaism's (URJ) 71st Biennial conference the largest gathering in the URJ's history also heard from national and international leaders and saw the historic changeover of leadership at the organization's highest level.
On Sunday, during the closing plenary session, the delegates passed a resolution on youth engagement that calls for considerable resources to be put behind this effort, including full-time youth professionals throughout North America and lowering the financial barriers to involvement in NFTY programs, early childhood education, summer camps, day schools, L'Taken Social Justice Seminars, Mitzvah Corps, and Israel experiences. For example, it was announced that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's Machon Kaplan program for college students will now be free of charge thanks to a grant from the Crown Family Foundation.
Following passage of the resolution, incoming URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs only the fourth person to hold the position since it was created in 1943 offered his first address as the new leader of the Reform Movement. He told the gathered audience that, "We've faced the hard truth about the staggering percentage of our b'nai mitzvah who are eyeing the door." Jacobs went on to say, "This exodus demands nothing short of a Movement-wide transformation of how we interact with our youth. In plain talk, we're focusing on relationships over programs. From early childhood to b'nai mitzvah to high school and then to college, we need a giant web of sacred strategies to give our kids roots and wings to stay grounded while soaring through this confusing world."
The support for the vision Rabbi Jacobs has offered can be seen in the extraordinary generosity of the Movement's supporters. The Campaign for Youth Engagement has already secured over $1,000,000 in seed money. 2012 will also see the continuation of efforts to catalyze congregational change through $100,000 in incubator grants which have been used to stimulate innovation. Congregations will also have access to new capacity building resources including a new platform for websites, and training for social media. And for the 14th year, congregational presidents will have the opportunity to participate in the Scheidt Seminar, which furnishes them with the tools to achieve the kind of engagement and change that has been a hallmark of this Biennial.
Rabbi Jacobs will be joined by a strong team as he assumes the presidency of the URJ with new board chair Stephen Sacks, Senior Vice Presidents Rabbis Danny Freelander and Jonah Pesner, other members of the team include Chief Operating Officer Barbara Saidel, Senior Advisor to the President Mark Pelavin and Director of Youth Engagement Rabbi Bradley Solmsen.
In his final sermon as leader of the Reform Movement for the past sixteen years, Rabbi Eric Yoffie offered his perspective on the state of the movement through the eyes of his children. His words spoke powerfully to the Movement's need to catalyze change both inside and outside of the walls of the synagogue: "If you want a restless, optimistic, risk-taking Judaism, come to us; if you want a touch of chaos, come to us." Yoffie went on to say, "We are young enough to have the courage of our doubts in a world of dangerous certainties. And what we have done before we will do again: we will touch and awaken that Reform gusto that, for most of our short history, spoke to the hearts of young and old alike, and blew like a fresh wind around the Jewish world."
Earlier in the week attendees heard from President Barack Obama, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak among others. Obama and Cantor both reinforced their commitment to America's strong relationship with Israel. After receiving an enthusiastic welcome from the audience on Friday afternoon, President Obama offered remarks that were laced with biblical and Jewish references including the weekly Torah portion, and he paid tribute to the history of the Movement and in particular its influence in Washington on such issues as civil rights, Israel and Soviet Jewry. He let the audience know that without the work of the Reform Movement "I probably wouldn't be standing here today." On Israel he said that "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable." But, probably his most well received line was one that echoes the Campaign for Youth Engagement: "Young people are going to lead the way, and they're leading the way."