Blockbuster Achievements and Coming Attractions: The URJ in 2016

January 5, 2016Mark J. Pelavin

According to box office reports, I was not the only person who saw the new Star Wars movie over the long New Year holiday weekend.

In addition to having a great time for a couple of hours, I was struck by what a Reform approach the moviemakers took.

How so?

Well, The Force Awakens is clearly deeply rooted in the previous Star Wars movies. It carries forward not only their themes, but also many familiar elements, including characters C3PO and Han Solo, as well as an attack on a massive ship/weapon. It treats these features with respect and gives them new meaning. But they are only the baseline for the story, not its entirety. New characters claim their own place in the multi-generational plot.

Further, although the earlier Star Wars movies featured heroes who were almost entirely white and male, the protagonist of the Force Awakens is a young woman paired with an African-American man. And in its theology, too, the movie has changed with the times as various characters have different understandings of and relationships to “the Force.”

And therein lies the connection to Reform Judaism.

In the same way that we Reform Jews respect our Jewish heritage and traditions, we are more than willing to update them – infusing them with new approaches and meanings – to fit our 21st-century lives.

What does that look like?

For the URJ, in the last year alone, it looks like this:

  • We launched multiple Communities of Practice, engaging more than 70 congregations in work around issues of mutual concern and opportunity.
  • More than 5,500 Reform community leaders and professionals are engaged in The Tent, a private networking platform to access resources, share expertise, and get answers to questions about all facets of congregational life. Leaders also can contact the URJ directly through the Knowledge Network, a team dedicated solely to congregational inquiries.
  • The General Assembly, the largest decision-making body of the URJ, overwhelmingly approved a resolution formally supporting the inclusion of transgender and gender non-confirming people in Jewish life, a first for the Jewish community and among other major religious groups in North America.
  • Thousands of Reform Jewish teens, lay leaders, and clergy attended advocacy trainings, met with their legislators, interned with advocacy organizations, or attended sessions about social justice at URJ conferences, including the Biennial and NFTY Convention.
  • Scores of Reform clergy and their congregants carried a Torah scroll throughout the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, a 1,000 mile march from Selma, AL, to Washington, DC, in support of voting rights and other equalities for our nation’s disenfranchised citizens. The RAC was instrumental in organizing the event.
  • More than 17,000 young people participated in Reform Movement initiatives, and had more than 50 different programs from which to choose.

That was last year. Let me offer a few “coming attractions” for 2016 that not only build on our past successes, but also will, in the coming year, break new ground for the URJ’s strategic priorities.

In the realm of tikkun olam, the Religious Action Center will roll out a new strategic plan that increases leadership training opportunities and includes a new Community of Practice, Pursuing Justice: Becoming a Community of Action. As a follow-up to last summer’s Journey for Justice, our congregations will engage more deeply in work to promote racial justice in their own communities. On the climate change front, too, plans are in place to green locally and advocate globally.

In 2016, Strengthening Congregations will continue to address the wide array of topics that you, Reform Movement leaders, want and need in your communities. The Leadership Institute will engage leaders in our longtime, popular initiatives, such as the Scheidt Seminar, as well as new programs designed to help you inspire sacred action. Also in the works are plans to bring scholars and innovative programming to congregations through meetings of the URJ Communities, the launch of a new round of Communities of Practice, and the piloting of a number of resources around such topics as transition management and benchmarking and assessment. Keep an eye out for these newest resources in the coming months.

Our Audacious Hospitality work, which is well underway, is focusing initially on these key audiences: the LGBTQ community, interfaith families, individuals with disabilities, Jews of color, and young adults. Development of a tool kit, as well as live and online interactive opportunities are in the works so that congregations can strengthen their strategy and practice around welcoming and engaging all members of our communities as well as those who are seeking a path into Jewish life. Finally, we’re planning to share our Jewish inclusion and diversity expertise and depth of knowledge widely on social media, our websites and blogs – ReformJudaism.org and URJ.org – in The Tent, and through other media.

There’s lots that’s new and exciting in our youth initiatives, too. This summer we’ll launch of our newest west coast camp, URJ 6 Points Sports Academy in Los Angeles, California. Mitzvah Corps will see new and expanded locations and in-service opportunities, including a civil rights option through the south, a focus on workplace and economic inequality in southern California, and a social justice option in Israel. In addition, professional development opportunities – both virtual and in-person – are on the docket for our youth professional staff, some in conjunction with HUC-JIR. Lastly, the youth team is gearing up for registration for NFTY Convention, which will take place in just a little over a year!

We’re thrilled about all that’s ahead for the URJ in 2016, and eager to continue our sacred work with you.

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