This week, the lay leadership (and most of the professional leadership) of the Union for Reform Judaism converged on San Diego, CA for the 69th (heh heh) Biennial. Basically, this is the big conference where Reform leaders educate themselves and each other, meet to talk about pressing issues, conduct the business of the Reform movement, and launch new products and initiatives.
Some Biennial news bites:
• Delegates (or, rather, anyone who managed to be at this morning’s Shabbat services) got to take home their own copy of the new siddur, Mishkan T’filah, which is now — after quite a few delays — officially out and available for temples or individuals to purchase. Fully discussing the new siddur would take a separate post, but I think it’s fair to say that most people here are pretty excited about it.
• Michael J. Fox received the Eisendrath Bearer of Light award for his activist work. People seemed to be inspired by his speech. I rode in an elevator with him when he was leaving his hotel to go to the award reception thing. He is, indeed, short.
• URJ Press and the Women of Reform Judaism (the movement’s sisterhood wing) released a new women’s Torah commentary. It is a hefty book and is the product of some serious scholarship. I don’t know who’s going to use it (and for what), but the buzz is that it’s a good thing.
Of course, one of the big highlights was the traditional Shabbat morning sermon from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ. In these sermons, Yoffie basically picks some big issues that the Union should be focusing on, and then unveils initiatives and programs that the Union is embarking on in order to address them. You can read the whole sermon (which took him an hour to deliver) here, but here are the big points, with some commentary:
1. Shabbat.
Yoffie says that Reform synagogues need to re-focus on Saturday. As it is now, Friday night is when temples celebrate shabbat. In most places, there’s either (a) no congregational Shabbat service, or (b) a small Shabbat minyan. Meanwhile, the congregation holds b’nai mitzvah services that are basically private Shabbat services for b’nai mitzvah kids and their guests.
Yoffie wants to end this trend, and has two ways to do it. First, have congregational shabbat services instead of private b’nai mitzvah services. Second, put immense energy into creating new Reform ways of doing Shabbat, of finding and appreciating real rest. Best lines:

For most of us, it will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit; it will not mean the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe; it will not mean an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions. We fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason.
It will mean instead approaching Shabbat with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism. It will mean emphasizing the “Thou shalts” of Shabbat—candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community—rather than the “Thou shalt nots.” It will mean expanding our understanding of rest, and defining in new ways what is, and is not, work. It will mean providing Reform Jews with the support of a loving community so that they can feel commanded without feeling coerced.

Yoffie is suggesting that changes happen in a grassroots way, but wants it to be a sort of project that lots of Reform temples undertake together.

2. Dialogue.
Yoffie wants official dialogue with the American Muslim community. He is proposing a partnership with ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America. He addressed their convention in August. The president of ISNA will address the Biennial tomorrow (Sunday). Best lines:

We chose ISNA as our partner because it is the closest equivalent to the Union within the American Muslim community. It has issued a strong and unequivocal condemnation of terror, including a specific condemnation of Hizbollah and Hamas terror against Jews and Israelis. It has also recognized Israel as a Jewish state and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These statements provide the framework of common values that we believe are necessary for a fruitful dialogue to occur.
We have no intention of avoiding the subject of Israel in our discussions. Some have suggested that we do so, but a Jewish-Muslim dialogue that does not deal with Israel and Palestine would be pointless.
…My friends, we enter into this dialogue with our eyes wide open. We know that there are not a lot of Muslim Zionists, and that ISNA—a large, unwieldy coalition—contains some elements that cause us discomfort. We also know that while we have had extraordinary success with dialogue in Great Neck, St. Louis and Omaha, so too have we had our share of failures.
But none of this deters us. We will not be like those in the Jewish community who assert a willingness to talk to Muslims and then find a thousand reasons not to do so. Our plan will be simple: We will not feed each other pabulum, and we will assert our convictions with passion, even as we remain respectful of our disagreements.
And we do this because of our deep conviction that America is different, one of the very few places where the promise of true pluralism is not too wild a hope; and because we know as religious Americans that in this great country, we are stronger and safer when we transcend our fears and work together, rather than apart.

3. Health Care
The Reform movement thinks that providing health care to everyone is a moral imperative. He talked for a while about this issue, but it all boils down to his insistence that our politicians need to work on a solution to this crisis now, not later.
4. Israel
Reform Jews must renew their dedication to the Zionist cause, even if we disagree with Israeli politicians. Not much chiddush here, but Yoffie used some strong words to describe the movement’s dedication, to denounce Jewish anti-Zionists, and to insist upon moderation.
5. More Activism.
This was part of the health care part of the speech, but I think it stands alone. The money lines say it all:

In recent years, there has been a feverish conversation among communal leaders about how to connect young adults to Jewish life. We all agree that they need Torah study, Jewish ritual and connection to Israel. But all of this has not been enough.
Well, here is my suggestion to these leaders about what they need to do next: They need to speak up for justice. They need to speak up loud, proud and unafraid.
Because our young people are very wise. They know that a Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real mission and therefore no real purpose. They don’t understand how Jews can pray for the sick every day and then do nothing to get health care to those who need it. In the end, if the Judaism we offer our young does not speak to the great moral issues of the world and of their lives, it will fail to capture their imagination or their hearts.

That’s all for now. If I have a sec, I’ll post some thoughts on the ISNA president’s speech tomorrow.