Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future: A Recap of the URJ’s 150th Anniversary Celebration

January 4, 2024Crystal Hill

In December 2023, nearly 1,000 leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. to honor the URJ's 150th anniversary, reflect on our Movement's inspiring history in North America, and recommit to our mission. But one of the most important things the celebration offered participants was the chance to be together and connect. URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs shared that "coming together to celebrate how far we've come as a Jewish Movement, at one of the most difficult times for Jewish communities in our history, was just incredibly powerful and emotional."

Rabbi Dara Lithwick, of the Reform Jewish Community of Canada, agreed: "Coming here and being with this hevre [community] was a way to recharge my spiritual batteries, especially with everything going on right now. Even in these challenging times, it's still imperative to keep coalition building and not retreat into ourselves."

The global Jewish community continues to face rising antisemitism in the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel and the ensuing war. As such, the 150th anniversary gathering centered programming about Israel and confronting antisemitism. MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv presented informational sessions about the current conflict and college students led a panel discussion about antisemitism on North American campuses.

That's not to say that the 150th gathering only focused on the darkness of the current moment. We celebrated the past 150 years and discussed ways to usher in a bright, vibrant future. Participants attended workshops where they learned about building communities of belonging, discussed ways to foster and strengthen interfaith relations, brainstormed possibilities to encourage congregational and community engagement, and found ways to nurture and encourage future leaders.

The event began with a powerful fireside chat on Israel and antisemitism with Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and URJ Board chair Jen Kaufman, after which Rabbi Adina Allen, founder of the Jewish Studio Project, led attendees in an art project that highlighted how the Reform Movement is finding new, inclusive ways to engage with communities in times of crisis.

Rabbi Jacobs delivered the d'var Torah for the Kabbalat Shabbat service, during which he shared, "our task is to...inspire more souls, build more genuine communities, and use our communal positions...to advocate for policies that will build a more just, compassionate, and loving world."

Participants gathered for a worship service that featured Israeli leaders who spoke about what Israel has experienced since the terrorist attacks on October 7. Rabbi Rick Jacobs delivered the sermon and led the congregation in a Mi Shebeirachfor survivors and victims of all forms of misconduct and abuse, stating that the celebration of our milestones as a Movement must also include a recognition of the URJ's past harms and a renewed commitment to survivors and victims.

Later, attendees joined an interactive tribute to the Reform Movement's past. Created by Rabbi Larry Hoffman and Rabbi Dan Freelander, "150th Anniversary Celebration: Creating the Jewish Future" was hosted by CNN's Dana Bash and David Gregory. The presentation looked back on the personalities and promises that shaped our past and inspired the audience to look to the future of the Reform Movement with vision and imagination.

Hebrew Union College rabbinical student Evan Traylor left the gathering feeling empowered, sharing that, "I'm even more confident that young rabbis, cantors, educators, and lay leaders will be the ones leading us into the future - a diverse, loving, passionate future that will bring peace to everyone."

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