What is a Biennial Shabbat, and why you won’t want to miss it

As the name implies, the URJ Biennial takes place every two years. Bringing together all of the congregations affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, it usually includes around 4,000 people representing hundreds of congregations from North America, along with those associated with Reform communities in the UK and Israel, and often other parts of the world too. The energy is incredible. The Biennial showcases some of the best of what Reform Judaism in North America has to offer: best practices for creating vibrant, welcoming congregations, leadership development for members of synagogue board and committee members, energized social action initiatives, the best of the Jewish musicians who are performing and creating new music for our services and our camps, and opportunities to learn from some of the best scholars at Hebrew Union College and beyond.
This year, Biennial comes to Boston for the first time in quite a few years. It’ll be held at the Hynes Convention Center Wednesday, December 6 through Sunday, December 10. We’ve already sent out a communication via email about the opportunity to attend the mid-week leadership-oriented sessions or the Fri–Sun Shabbat celebration experience, and there is still time to join the fifteen members of Congregation B’nai Shalom who have already signed up to go to these parts of the convention. We also communicated back in October via email, for the first time the Friday night Shabbat service and song session has been opened up for those within fifty miles of the Boston area to come and have the live experience of over 5000 Reform Jews praying in the same room together. It is available on a first-come, first-served basis and is free, but pre-registration is required and will fill quickly.
A Shabbat service with that many people joining their voices together is quite an experience. Then the song session begins. Every top musician and song-leader in the movement is up on stage, leading the room in the largest ever sing-along, with all the words up on the big screens. The energy is remarkable.
I have been attending Biennial since I transferred to Hebrew Union College in the third year of my rabbinic school studies. Coming from a country of 300,000 Jews, of whom only about one-third are affiliated with non-Orthodox branches of Judaism in approximately sixty-five congregations, I was blown away by an event with over 4,000 Reform Jews and a movement of over 900 congregations, representing nearly 1 million Reform Jews! Our vibrant, mid-sized congregation here in Westborough is part of something so much bigger. Like all other Boston-area congregations, we are not holding our own Friday night service during Biennial and want as many of our members to have this experience as possible. Watch out for emails with information on signing up, where we will also be asking if you’d be interested in group transportation to and from Congregation B’nai Shalom that evening. For those who can’t make it in person, the Shabbat experience along with other major keynote presentations and performances throughout Biennial, will be live-streamed on the Biennial website at http://www.urj.org/biennial.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz