Dana Dickson’s Notes from the Biennal

Alan Adato, Sally Frank, and I had the pleasure and honor of representing the Temple at the 73rd Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial in Orlando, Florida. It was a rewarding and nostalgic experience to be one among 5,000 rabbis, cantors, congregants, and Reform Jews who had chosen to attend this event.  

I had been longing for this moment to reconnect to my days of NFTY past. My teenage years were devoted to the Temple Youth Group board. In four years, I never missed a conclave in the Missouri Valley Region. I traveled to LA my senior year of high school for the NFTY National Convention. NFTY defined my high school years. Somewhere on this planet exists a cassette tape recording of Shir Hama-alot featuring yours truly. That’s where my Jewish adolescent journey ended.  

I left for college, moved around a bit, and my once active Jewish upbringing became less of a focus as, much like my twenty-something peers, I tried to figure out my life path. My life lacked a Jewish social network. I didn’t belong to a congregation and often had to be reminded it was a high holiday by my parents. I always identified myself as Jewish, and knew a day would come when I would reestablish my connection within a Jewish community.  

At 7:45 in the morning, on the third day of Biennial, I found myself at a NFTY camp style song session in search of a Debbie Friedman fix. I sat in one of the back rows, quietly singing along, the words easily coming back to me as though camp had been a few months before rather than two decades ago. I felt the emotions rise within me and I fought back tears. It was a beautiful hour and a reminder of the power of music and togetherness.  

Before attending the Biennial, an email was sent presenting four tracks (or themes) to choose from and follow throughout the week of the conference. I chose audacious hospitality. Audaciously hospitable is to be kind, open and inviting. As a religious organization, it is to know your audience, your congregants and community and find a way to be welcoming, warm and friendly. It appealed to me on several levels. As a teenager, I found these qualities in my relationships and friendships in NFTY. They were unique and special. They had a sound and a feeling and were shared among a group of people who chose to come together with a common interest in mind. As an adult, I found my way back to the Temple to be part of this community and to feel this same sense of belonging and fellowship.

Biennial exists to bring members of Reform Jewish communities – from across the country – together to discuss the current ideology of the Reform Movement. It is progressive, accepting and inclusive. It was such a privilege to be a part of a group of like minded people who share the same concerns of keeping our communities strong and know the challenges that we face in retaining and increasing membership. This is a shared concern and we are each trying to identify new ways of keeping things fresh, open and interesting.

There is nothing more beautiful or uplifting than the sound of 5,000 Jewish voices singing the songs of Shabbat. Familiar and comfortable. This sound confirms the importance of doing all we can to strengthen our Jewish community and always offering audacious hospitality to all our members and guests. This ensures that we have a community year after year, decade after decade. As a congregant in an accepting interfaith marriage, a board member, a parent with bar and bat-mitzvah future dreams, I feel confident that Temple B’nai Jeshurun will continue to strive to strengthen our community and our congregation while also providing hospitality that is welcoming, all inclusive, warm and friendly.

The Biennial was a rich and enlightening experience. I sincerely thank the Temple, the Board, and the contributors to the Mandelbaum Fund for the opportunity to attend. It was a privilege and I look forward to sharing my experiences with our congregation.