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On a Friday afternoon in early November, I got home from school, changed into a dress, and picked out my favorite cardigan. I fixed my hair, did my makeup for the first time all week, and grabbed a blanket. Plopping on the couch, I turned on my TV to the Jewish Life Television channel. Suddenly I was transported 2,149 miles away, to Shabbat evening services with 5,000 other Jews at the URJ Biennial.
When I found out I would not be able to attend Biennial, I was heartbroken. My gut told me I needed to be there, and yet I knew I would instead have to spend the weekend at home. I yearned for the inspiration I needed, the fire I knew would come at Biennial, so when I learned that the plenaries and services were available to me over livestream, you can be sure I was willing to use all of my phone data to watch them!
I drove to school during the week listening to the words of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, NAACP President Cornell Brooks, Rabbi Danny Freelander, and many, many more. Each night, I called my closest friends and heard them rave about how inspired they were at Biennial. And on Shabbat, though a screen, I had the opportunity to feel the immense power of 5,000 Jews praying together in unity. Five thousand Reform Jews. Five thousand voices yearning for progress and justice. Five thousand Jews who were joined by many others that weekend.
Watching services, I was overcome by a feeling of pride for what I stand for and the movement I am a part of, and I was overcome by a need, a deep-rooted gut feeling that I needed to celebrate Shabbat with my congregation that night.
And so I did. I called everyone I could think of from my youth group, rallied them to services, and together we filled a row in our sanctuary. From thousands of miles away, Biennial created a beautiful moment of unity in my congregation, and I continue to be overcome with pride.
It's the pride I am filled with during High Holidays, the pride that filled me during my summer at URJ Kutz Camp, the pride that fills me at every regional NFTY event — that is the pride Biennial stirred in me. And suddenly, I wasn’t alone in that pride. My newsfeeds filled with Facebook posts exclaiming gratitude for Reform Judaism, tweets saying “I’ve never been more proud to be Jewish." Post after post after post, livestream after livestream after livestream, from the outside in, I got to watch 5,000 Jews fill with pride.
If that’s not awe-inspiring, I’m not sure what is.
So often we let our identity as high schoolers, as Americans, or as teens take over our Jewish identity. We dwarf our pride for Judaism, and it is moments like the week of Biennial that bring it out, not only in me, but in everyone who had a chance to experience it one way or another. It’s jaw-dropping, seeing others fill with the passion that’s inside of you, too - and during the Biennial, I discovered that there’s a certain magic to getting to see it happen from the outside in, too.
There’s a Jewish saying that’s embodied in song that says “kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar meod”, meaning “the whole world is a very narrow bridge." The phrase speaks about the smallness of the world and of the unity, and goes on to speak of the bravery needed to make it beautiful. I believe Biennial and its effect on me, and so many others, could not be encompassed any more beautifully by another phrase.
To be so passionate and proud of your faith and your movement, as happened at Biennial, takes bravery. It takes a strength to know that once you care, you may hurt because of that care, and that is OK. It is this passion and pride that brings us all together on our narrow bridge.
Biennial brought so many Jews together with pride and passion, and, to put it simply, there is nothing more powerful than experiencing that very pride and passion, whether you were physically in Orlando or sitting on a couch watching it through the TV in your living room.
Shir Attias is NFTY-SW's religious and cultural vice president.