President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel became an unexpected agenda item as 6,000 members of the Reform movement from North America gathered in Boston Dec. 6-10 for the URJ Biennial, their biannual convention.
The record gathering attracted delegates from 500 congregations, 51 states and territories, six Canadian provinces and 12 other countries, according to the Union for Reform Judaism. Delegates included clergy, educators, lay leaders, youth leaders, and high school and college students.
The relevance of the movement came to the forefront in a Dec. 7 address from Daryl Messinger of Palo Alto, the chair of the URJ’s board of trustees. Sexual assault was also discussed as the movement passed resolutions on the matter, spearheaded by leaders of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the movement’s national youth group.
Addressing the biennial on Dec. 8, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said the Jerusalem announcement two days earlier by Trump may make it more difficult to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians should determine the final status of Jerusalem for all parties,” Warren said to loud applause from the gathering. “If the president is serious about peace, I urge him to produce a comprehensive strategy to achieve it. That is what American leadership demands. That is what the Israelis and Palestinians deserve.”
Warren’s remarks echoed those of the Reform movement itself, which called Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem and moving the U.S. Embassy to the city “ill-timed.”
In remarks during Saturday Shabbat services on Dec. 9, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, “Before this decision, we expressed our serious concern — never, never about the concept — but about the timing of these actions,” absent a “broader strategy that enhances the two-state solution.”
He added: “Now that the decision has been made, our movement stands in solidarity with this recognition. Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of Israel. That is how it should and must be.”
Jacobs also condemned the violence that followed the Trump administration’s decision.
URJ’s criticism about the timing of the announcement contrasted with the full-throated welcome for the move by most of the largest Jewish groups, something Israeli diplomats noted in a session on how congregations can work with their local Israeli missions.
Relations were already strained between the Reform movement and the Israeli government before the president’s announcement on Jerusalem. The government had angered the non-Orthodox movements by freezing a plan to expand non-Orthodox and egalitarian prayer options at the Western Wall and moving to strengthen the Orthodox monopoly over conversions in Israel.
In his keynote address on Dec. 7, Jacobs announced a series of proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment. The drafting of those resolutions, which passed unanimously, was led in part by NFTY leaders, said Adam Friedman, 18, of Mill Valley, who serves as the group’s social action vice president.
“A task force was created about a year ago to address it,” he told J. “Since then, NFTY has been working a lot with [the Religious Action Center, the URJ’s political lobby] and [Women of Reform Judaism] to decide how we can best respond to sexual violence between the students in our community.”
The resolutions reach beyond NFTY, Friedman said, with plans to create sexual-violence prevention programs that Reform congregations can bring to their communities.
This summer, leaders of NFTY’s regional boards took a pledge to “further the issue in their region, and not to discuss any systems or games that might encourage sexual violence,” Friedman said, referencing the “points system” for keeping track of, comparing and ranking sexual experiences used in some American Jewish youth movements.
Messinger’s Dec. 7 address was, in essence, a defense of Reform Judaism from charges of irrelevance. She quoted a Shabbat dinner guest who told her, “Synagogues are going the way of the dodo bird, and denominations are a thing of the past. Why will the Reform movement matter to our children?”
“When we act as one movement, we can create a world that is more compassionate, just, and whole,” Messinger countered, highlighting the advantages of the organization’s size, before quoting some passages by several Reform leaders, including rabbis and a recent past NFTY president.
Speaking with J. by phone, Messinger said, “You’re not dying if you have 6,000 people come to Boston to participate in these workshops. Biennial was sold out and it was totally full.”
Messinger’s address also mentioned the loss of URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, which was virtually destroyed by the North Bay wildfires in October.
The record number of leaders attracted to the convention this year was no accident, Jacobs told JTA.
“It has to do with a particular moment we are in, in North America and also the wider world and in Israel,” he said. “People want to be together, they want new tools and new approaches for addressing our people and the world, and we want to address those big questions that hold us together.”