What I Learned from a Case of URJ Biennial FOMO

November 10, 2015

Not everyone I know attended the URJ Biennial, but it felt that way. I ran into people from every school, youth program, and synagogue I’ve ever worked with or attended. My friends and colleagues who missed it complained of a condition called “Biennial FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out).

But even those of us at the Biennial weren’t immune to FOMO. At any given time, there were 20 different sessions to attend, on four specialized tracks: Audacious Hospitality, Strengthening Congregations, Engaging our Youth, and Tikkun Olam (Repairing Our World). There were concerts, exhibits, shopping, and services, stretching from 7:15 a.m. to well after midnight. Often, I’d run into someone on my way to an event and end up reconnecting instead.

Though I was excited to be in Orlando, I was lucky if I got outside for 15 minutes each day. I spent an hour in the pool total; I never made it to Disney.

I was glad, then, when we arrived at Shabbat which, while not exactly restful, brought everyone together for a shared Shabbat worship experience.

Biennial services are not to be missed: 5,000 Jews gather together; music is led by a choir, a band, and the leaders of our movement; spontaneous horas break out so often that I’m not sure we can call them “spontaneous” anymore. It is the closest a Reform Jew will ever get to a tent revival.

These massive tefillot don’t just create an inspiring prayer experience in the moment. They set the trends for the next two years with new music, new uses of technology in prayer, and new challenges to address as a movement.

The four tracks were integrated masterfully into the service: young people from NFTY and Reform college programs read Torah and spoke eloquently about issues such as gun violence prevention and the negative impacts of standardized testing on minorities.

The most powerful moment came when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, called upon various groups to recite the Torah blessings, gathered around Torah scrolls stationed throughout the ballroom.

The first aliyah was for people like me: born and bred in the Reform movement and loved every minute of it (a lot of rabbis in this group). The second aliyah was for those who had grown up in the movement, but hadn’t been engaged in it until a person or program got them fired up about Reform Judaism (quite a few Jewish professionals in this group, too).

The third aliyah was for people who came to Reform Judaism from the outside: people who were raised in another religious tradition, people who were raised in another movement, and people who grew up with no affiliation at all, Jewish or otherwise.

Because Biennial is a conference for the Reform Movement’s leadership, you’d think the first two groups would be the largest. But far and away the largest group was the last one, the group composed of those who were at one time on the margins and somehow, perhaps against all odds, found their way in.

Watching this massive group of people chant the Torah blessings, I started to have a different kind of FOMO. This Fear of Missing Out was for all the connections I wasn’t making, all of the members – and potential members – of our community we weren’t reaching. For every person reaching out to place their hands on one of the Torah scrolls, there had to be at least 10 who had never made it in the door.

Just four months into my current rabbinic position, I began to wonder: Who is out there that we have yet to welcome into our tents?

What sparks have we not yet kindled in those who sit in our pews, or in those who have yet to walk through our doors?

And what barriers – physical, socioeconomic, and spiritual – are keeping us apart from one another?

After the blessings were chanted, we read the story of Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and I thought about how each of the story’s main characters shows audacious hospitality: Eliezer, who travels to a distant land to lead a young person toward her destiny; Rebecca, who rushes to meet the needs of a weary traveler; Abraham, who sends out an emissary to find the right person to continue his family’s traditions; and Isaac, who invites someone new into his tent, and loves her unconditionally.

In the 21st century, we need to be all of the characters in this story: reaching out and inviting in, providing sustenance and showing love.

If we don’t, think of all we might miss out on.

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