December 17, 2023, Washington DC - From December 15-17, nearly 1,000 Reform Jewish leaders and clergy from across the world gathered in DC to honor the 150th anniversary of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). The gathering, which occurred shortly after one of the most painful moments in Jewish history, provided a unique opportunity for participants to reflect on the inspiring and impactful history of the Reform Movement in North America and recommit to the larger mission that has seen the Movement grow into the largest stream of North American Judaism.
"Coming together this weekend to celebrate how far we've come as a Jewish movement, at one of the most difficult and dark times for Jewish communities in our history, was just incredibly powerful and emotional for us all," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. "Over the past 150 years, the URJ has never wavered from our core identity as a religious Movement that finds deep nourishment from our ever-evolving and joyful practice of Judaism. We desperately needed this spiritual fulfillment and renewal that being together in prayer, study, and celebration afforded us at this dark time. As we look to the future, it is my hope that all who joined us this weekend had a chance to truly celebrate how dramatically we have transformed Judaism, and the Jewish people will join us in our recommitment to build that bold and better tomorrow together."
The weekend's events featured panel discussions, workshops, educational programming and moments of meaningful worship and celebration. The October 7th terrorist attack on Israel, and the surging rise in antisemitism, was top of mind for all participants, and Israel and antisemitism programming was a central focus of the weekend, including info sessions with MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv and a panel on antisemitism with current college students. Other topics of discussion were diversity and inclusion, interfaith relations, congregational and community engagement and building the pipeline of new leaders.
"People love to say that young people are the future - except that the future is now," said Hebrew Union College rabbinical student Evan Traylor. "With the chaotic, hateful world around us, it's even more important that young Jews are ready and empowered to lead. After the URJ's 150th celebration, I'm even more confident that we - young rabbis and cantors, educators, and lay leaders - will be the ones leading all of us into the future. A diverse, loving, passionate future that will truly bring goodness and peace to each and every person."
The event began Friday afternoon with a powerful and emotional fireside chat on Israel and antisemitism with Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and URJ Board chair Jen Kaufman. Speaking as the first Jewish White House principal, Mr. Emhoff shared: " It's tough right now, it's tough right now for us. The words that keep coming up from many people, are 'I feel alone and hated.' And nobody wants to feel alone, and nobody certainly wants to feel hated… This thing we're all feeling as American Jews reminds us that we cannot let it take our love of being Jewish away from us. We cannot let it take our joy away from us."
Following the chat, Rabbi Adina Allen, founder of the Jewish Studio Project, lead the participants in an art-focused project which highlighted how the Reform movement is finding inclusive and innovative ways to engage communities in times of crisis. The event then moved into shabbat programming, including a communal Shabbat dinner, a moving Kabbalat Shabbat worship service and a rousing Shabbat song session featuring 150 years of music in the Reform movement and its camps.
In his d'var Torah, Rabbi Jacobs shared: "Our theology; our synthesis of faith and reason; our forms of worship, rituals and celebrations; our focus on our partnership with God in shaping a better and more hopeful world for all God's children - all speak to the aesthetics, the hopes, and the moral imagination of so many Jews, indeed, of many in our broader societies. Our task is to build on this foundation, to inspire more souls, to build more genuine communities, and, to use our communal positions of success and influence in our politics and culture to advocate for policies that will build a more just, compassionate, and loving world. Truly, our work is far from finished."
Saturday morning began with a soulful and spiritual worship service featuring Israeli leaders who shared thoughts and reflections on what Israel has experienced since the October 7 th terrorist attack. Following his sermon, Rabbi Jacobs led lay leaders in a Mi Shebeirach for survivors and victims of all forms of misconduct and abuse, reminding the Movement that the celebration of our milestones must also include a recognition of our past harms along with a renewed commitment to survivors.
Saturday afternoon continued with breakout sessions focused on nurturing Jewish communities by engaging on topics on shared humanity, justice, belonging, learning, evolving and Israel and Jewish peoplehood. The day ended with an innovative and interactive video and musical tribute to the Reform movement's past and looking ahead to its future. Created by Rabbi Larry Hoffman and Rabbi Dan Freelander, and hosted by CNN's Dana Bash and David Gregory, the presentation "150th Anniversary Celebration: Creating the Jewish Future" looked back on the personalities and promises that shaped the Reform movement's past; and ahead to the vision and imagination that will guide the future of the Reform movement in North America, Israel, and around the world. Rabbi Hoffman was honored at the conclusion of the program for his lifelong commitments and lasting impact on Reform Judaism in North America.
The final day of the event kicked off with a panel of interfaith leaders- Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh and Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber - who, in conversation with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, discussed how they have navigated challenges in their work, what the landscape of opportunities looks like and what resonates for them all as we think about our future. The event concluded with a panel discussion with Reform Jewish leaders in the US and in Israel about building the Jewish future, followed by an inspiring and uplifting closing plenary with a musical tribute and a powerful call to action for all Reform Jews to carry the messages from the gathering home to their communities.
"Coming here and being with this hevre was a way to recharge my spiritual batteries, especially with everything going on right now," said Rabbi Dara Lithwick, Reform Jewish community of Canada. "I deeply appreciated the inclusive nature of the event, particularly the references to Canada and North America, and the efforts that were made for us to be with our Israeli counterparts so we could show support for one another. Rabbi Jacobs's closing remarks were a powerful reminder for me that even in these challenging times its still imperative to keep doing the work of coalition building and not retreating into ourselves. Just holding on to Jewish joy is something that will be important for me going forward."