Reliving the URJ Biennial: Speeches, Video, and More

Inside Leadership

Reliving the URJ Biennial: Speeches, Video, and More

Jewish musician Dan Nichols plays guitar on stage with a line of teens behind him linking arms and a screen depicting the world above them

The Union for Reform Judaism's 74th Biennial Convention ended on Sunday, but we're still reveling in the joy and inspiration of the five-day event. If you missed it or simply want to relive the experience, here's a roundup of some of the speeches, videos, and other content from the conference. We'll be adding more as it becomes available, so keep checking back! 


  • The Honorable Charlie Baker, governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, opened the Biennial and welcomed us to Boston with "Finding Common Ground," his address about the importance of recognizing, respecting, and working through our differences in opinion. “Freedom of speech, of religion, of the press. Those aren't just words,” he said. “Properly understood and appreciated, they create an open door to diversity of opinion, of culture, of religion, and they make it possible for very different people to find common ground on which they can create and do great things.”
  • One of our keynote speakers was the indefatigable Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a modern-day social justice hero and tireless activist. In "We Need a Moral Revival," he told the audience, “If we don’t do this work [of social justice], God may forgive us, but history will not.” The full text of Rev. Barber’s speech is available online, but it’s very much worth watching the video of his rousing address, which inspired Rabbi Rick Jacobs to tweet, “Take us to church!”

Thursday Morning

  • In her address "Because of the Reform Movement,” URJ Board Chair Daryl Messinger spoke about the power of our movement on an individual and communal level. “We are water, not wood,” she said, quoting a poem written by a URJ Camp Newman alumnus. “We create what matters. We build strong communities, and together, we inspire Jewish life that matters.” After she asked attendees to finish the sentence “Because of the Reform Movement…,” we rounded up a few of the incredibly moving and diverse responses.
  • Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose study exposed elevated lead blood levels in children in Flint, MI, as a result of the city’s water crisis, received the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for her work. Dr. Hanna-Attisha spoke passionately about standing up for the displaced and the marginalized among us, saying in "We Must Do Better,"  “As a country, as a society, as a movement, as a civilization, as a resistance – as humanists – we must all work toward equality and justice and opportunity for all our children. But it will take all of us to be brave and to speak up.”

Thursday Evening

  • In “Israel is Worth Fighting for,” Israeli author David Grossman, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Award of International Literature, spoke to North American Reform Jews about the importance of speaking out about Israel – not only to offer love and support but to express concern when appropriate. He told the audience, "Israel is worth fighting for! Not only must its borders be protected, but [the vision of vibrant Jewish life] that lies within those borders. We need you.”
  • Speaking about the power of youth engagement, Rabbi David Stern told Biennial attendees, “Our children are not our future. They are our present.” In "We Have Company," he told a story of an interaction in his early teenage years that inspired him to become a rabbi – and talked about how we can inspire today’s Jewish youth to continued engagement and greatness, too.
  • Miriam Chilton, the URJ’s vice president of youth, built on Rabbi Stern’s words with "When We’re All In, We Win," speaking about the potential for youth engagement and how much further we have yet to go. “Let’s partner to give more youth the gift of a vibrant Judaism, one that resonates for them,” she said, encouraging the Reform Movement to begin to engage more youth than ever before.
  • In his State of the Union address “A River Flows from Eden,” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs uses Biblical water references as a metaphor for the future of our Reform Movement: “Those of us who lead, love, and live in congregations know how indispensable they are to helping Jewish life flourish. We are making even our best congregations better, and we always will. And when we ask ourselves those ever-present, ever-important questions – How can we can ensure that we stay relevant and effective?”


  • Keynote speaker Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke in "The Right Fights to Have" about how she became interested in social justice work, starting with the bankruptcy crisis. “These are the fights grounded in human empathy,” she said. “They are the fights that are about more than seeing the struggles of our fellow citizens; they are the fights about seeing ourselves in other people’s stories.” Before she left the stage, she received an extended standing ovation from attendees inspired by her dedication to justice.
  • During Friday night worship services, April Baskin, the URJ's Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, spoke about "Cultivating a Culture of Inclusion." "While statisticians claim that intermarriage is the cause of dwindling Jewish participation," she said, "the stories of my parents and thousands of interfaith couples, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and Jews with disabilities tell a more multi-dimensional story: Many of us have not waned in our Jewish commitments, but instead have had our efforts to participate and join Jewish community thwarted by intentional and unintentional barriers."
  • Friday night worship services were followed by Shabbat Song Session, one of the best and most joyful parts of every Biennial convention. Watch the video on Facebook and sing along to some of your favorite Jewish and secular tunes alike. 


  • In his Shabbat Morning D’var TorahRabbi Rick Jacobs got right to the point: “I won’t mince words. My question for us is simple: Are we at a breaking point in Diaspora-Israel relations? Is our relationship with our Israeli siblings, like that of Joseph and his brothers, in the pits?” He went on to speak about the current state of Diaspora/Israel dialogue and the challenges we face, as well as the potential for partnership: “Let us celebrate two great centers of Jewish life bound together in shaping the destiny of the Jewish people.”
  • Actress and activist Fran Drescher took to the URJ Biennial stage on Saturday night to host “A Night of Light,” a variety show that began with Havdalah service and went on to raise up eight themes to complement each night of Hanukkah. We watched Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ light-hearted “How Do You Spell Hanukkah?,” heard beautiful Ladino music from The Guy Mendilow Ensemble and other musicians, and heard video messages from news anchor Juju Chang, teen activist Jazz Jennings, and Congressman Joe Kennedy on kindness, compassion, and welcoming.

Catch up on all the goings-on of the URJ Biennial by checking out the hashtag #URJBiennial on Instagram and Twitter, and don't forget to follow the URJ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for year-round content.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Kate Kaput is the assistant director, messaging and branding, on the Union for Reform Judaism's marketing and communications team. In this role, she serves as a content manager and editor for A native of Temple Beth Shalom in Hudson, OH, and an alumna of the Religious Action Center's Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Fellowship, Kate holds a degree in magazine journalism and lives in Cleveland, OH, with her husband.

Kate Kaput

Published: 12/11/2017

Categories: Strengthening Congregations
What's New
Womans hand on a laptop keyboard with a seder playing on the computer screen
Mar 26, 2020|the staff of the URJ and other Reform Movement partners

Find More in The Tent

Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.