5,000 Reform Jews to Converge on Orlando

5,000 Reform Jews to Converge on Orlando

David R. Cohen

David R. Cohen is the former Associate Editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times. He is originally from Marietta, GA and studied Journalism at the University of Tennessee.

More than 5,000 Jews, including dozens from the Atlanta area, will gather in Orlando, Fla., the first week of November for the 73rd Union for Reform Judaism Biennial.

With a theme of “Bringing Congregations Together,” the event is scheduled for Nov. 4 to 8. It is the largest Jewish religious gathering in North America. Representatives from 900 Reform Jewish congregations, including 13 from Georgia, will learn, pray, share ideas, network, make Reform movement policy and create engagement opportunities for their 1.5 million congregants.

Of the 13 congregations from Georgia sending delegations to Orlando, three registered enough delegates early to qualify as Gold delegations, earning them assistance from the URJ in getting the maximum value out of the hundreds of workshops at the conference.

More than 5,000 Jews gathered at the last URJ Biennial in San Diego in 2013.
More than 5,000 Jews gathered at the last URJ Biennial in San Diego in 2013.

The Gold designation is based on the size of the delegation relative to the size of the congregation. Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick and Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb earned the classification.

“We usually have about 15 people that attend the biennial,” Kol Emeth Rabbi Erin Boxt said. “For me personally, there’s something really exciting and amazing about 5,000 Jews in one place. As a younger Reform rabbi, it also gives me a chance to connect with my colleagues who are new still and lets us have a greater impact on the movement.”

The 2015 biennial will be held at the Orlando World Center Marriott and will focus on youth engagement and a Youth Social Action Symposium, as well as an interactive exhibit highlighting the past 75 years of Reform Judaism.

Planned activities also include Torah study and learning sessions with celebrity speakers.

“The worship, music, camaraderie and ruach at the biennial are some of the main things that people come for and take away from this event,” said Mark Pelavin, the URJ’s chief program officer. “Different people come to this event for different things, but I think all of them will be able to take back real hands-on lessons about how to be stronger congregational leaders and how to build stronger communities.”

Featured speakers include Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, New York Times journalist and author Jodi Kantor, and actor Michael Douglas.

“Attending the biennial allows us to bond with fellow congregants from our synagogue as well as those from other temples,” Temple Sinai board President Scott Zucker said. “We also have the joy of experiencing wonderful entertainment from some of the best Jewish entertainers in the world. For me personally, I will have the chance to work with other temple presidents from around the country to discuss vital issues of synagogue sustainability. My truly favorite part of every biennial is experiencing Shabbat with over 5,000 others during Friday night services. It is a spiritual experience that cannot be matched.”

The festivities kick off Wednesday, Nov. 4, with a Shacharit service at 8 a.m.

“The biennial is one of the best leadership training opportunities,” said Temple Sinai member and URJ trustee Debbie Pinsky. “So it’s important for us to be represented. Before every biennial, we have an orientation with the delegation to hear the goals of the current leadership and try to cover as many sessions as possible so that we bring back information to grow to fit our goals and make Sinai better.”

Temple Sinai is taking 16 congregants and staff to Orlando, including new Bunzl Family Cantorial Chair Beth Schafer, who has organized Friday night music at biennials the past decade while being based at a congregation in central Florida.

Other Atlanta locals who are featured speakers or presenters include The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg, Rabbi Lydia Medwin, Jonathan Amsler and Mark Jacobson; Rabbi Lou Feldstein, formerly of Congregation B’nai Israel; musician Sammy Rosenbaum; and Temple Sinai Education Director Marisa Kaiser.

“I think the biennial is important because we are the largest movement of Jews in the world,” Rabbi Boxt said. “In order for us to stay relevant, we have to continue together and bounce ideas off each other. It’s great to reconvene every two years to make sure we’re on the same page.”

Going (Almost) to Disney World

Thirteen congregations from Georgia are sending delegations to the 2015 URJ Biennial:

Temple B’nai Israel (Albany)

Congregation Children of Israel (Athens)

Temple Emanu-El (Sandy Spring)

The Temple Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (Atlanta)

Congregation Children of Israel (Augusta)

Temple Beth Tefilloh (Brunswick)

Congregation B’nai Israel (Fayetteville)

Congregation Dor Tamid (Johns Creek)

Temple Kol Emeth (Marietta)

Temple Beth Tikvah (Roswell)

Temple Kehillat Chaim (Roswell)

Temple Sinai (Sandy Springs)

Congregation Mickve Israel (Savannah)

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