With a focus on social justice, more than 6,000 Reform Jews from across North America — including more than 50 professional and lay leaders from Pittsburgh — gathered in Boston last week for the four-day Union for Reform Judaism Biennial.
The largest Biennial of the URJ to date came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and prepare to move its embassy there.
So, when keynote speaker Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., addressed the crowd on Friday, speaking largely about working to help the powerless, she also weighed in on Trump’s decision regarding Israel.
“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. “I believe a two-state solution remains the best chance for peace for all who remain in the Holy Land. I also believe neither the U.S. nor any other outside power should impose a solution, and that is why I am concerned about Trump’s decision, which I believe makes it more difficult to reach that goal.
“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.” While Trump’s announcement affirmed the movement’s view that “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” its leaders “could not support the decision” to move the embassy “absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process.”
In a follow-up statement, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said: “We do, however, commend the President for affirming the importance of moving the peace process forward, and clarifying that these decisions are not intended to restrict final status decisions of the Israelis and Palestinians — including the borders of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and border issues generally.”
URJ’s criticism of Trump’s announcement contrasted with the full-throated welcome for the move by most of the largest Jewish groups.
“My sense is that nobody here is particularly opposed to Jerusalem ultimately being the capital, and ultimately the U.S. Embassy moving there, but it needs to be part of a plan for peace and not a unilateral action,” said Lynn Lazar, a Temple Sinai member who is on the boards of the URJ and the World Union of Progressive Judaism and is also the immediate past president of the Women for Reform Judaism. She added that she feared Trump’s announcement would be “disruptive,” and “there will actually be violence.”
“I think people are very concerned this will be counterproductive to working to a two-state solution,” Lazar said.
Relations were already strained between the Reform movement and the Israeli government before last week’s announcement. 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.
“There has been a lot of talk about egalitarianism and pluralism in Israel,” at the Biennial, Lazar said. Those topics coincided with other issues regarding equality, such as racial equality, that were a focus of the gathering.
“There has been a lot of public speaking about Israel and how supportive we are of Israel,” Lazar added. “Just because you are part of a family, that doesn’t mean you can’t be critical.”
For Lazar, Warren’s address was one of the highlights of the convention.
“The entire room was entirely engaged,” Lazar said. Warren “talked about being a voice for the people of the United States and for those who don’t have a voice or power — standing up for those who can’t and welcoming the stranger.”
At its opening plenary session on Wednesday night, the URJ presented an award to the Rev. William Barber, founder of Repairers of the Breach and one-time leader of the North Carolina NAACP. Barber collaborates frequently on social action projects with the movement’s Religious Action Center.
We don’t have a scarcity of money. We have a scarcity of moral will.
In his speech, Barber said 14 million children living in poverty will suffer more under the tax overhaul bill now being reconciled on Capitol Hill.
“We don’t have a scarcity of money. We have a scarcity of moral will,” he said to loud applause.
Susan Friedberg Kalson, a member of Rodef Shalom and chair of the Biennial Resolutions Committee, praised Barber’s speech.
“He’s in the best tradition of black churches, an incredible public speaker,” she said. “He carries the mantel of the civil rights movement and is very serious about standing up for justice. We have an obligation in our shared texts to do justice in the world.”
On the same night, delegates unanimously adopted resolutions on racial justice, school discipline and redistricting. Other resolutions passed later in the week addressed climate change, the global refugee crisis and student sexual violence in schools.
The resolutions are designed to “be representative of our movement and to be broadly representative of the diversity of Reform Jews, including political diversity,” according to Kalson, who added that the resolutions include calls to action.
“Now, the real work begins because the resolutions are the starting point,” she said.
The record Reform gathering attracted delegates from 500 congregations, 51 states and territories, six Canadian provinces and 12 additional countries, according to the URJ. Delegates include clergy, educators, lay leaders, youth leaders and high school and college students.
Pittsburgh was well represented at the gathering, including 25 members of Temple Sinai, which was recognized as an Exemplar Community for its work in inclusion of those with disabilities.
Rodef Shalom had 23 delegates at the conference, with other Pittsburgh participants coming from Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Temple Ohav Shalom and Temple David.
Former Pittsburgher, Cantor Leslie Niren, was honored by being chosen to lead the music for the main worship session on Saturday.
Kalson, speaking by phone from Boston on Friday, said she was looking forward to heading into Shabbat, “praying with 6,000 fellow Reform Jews and doing text study and celebrating our commitment to our faith and our people and the future of Judaism.”
The experience of being together with so many others who care about community was energizing, Lazar said.
“It’s kind of a Jewish soulful regenerative experience, being with 6,000 people who want to be engaged in community,” she said. PJC
JTA contributed to this report.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
This article has been updated to include that members of Temple David also attended the conference.