At biennial gathering, Reform movement expands its tent

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Union for  Reform Judaism president, spoke at the movement’s biennial conference in Orlando, Fla.Courtesy of URJ
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Union for Reform Judaism president, spoke at the movement’s biennial conference in Orlando, Fla.
Courtesy of URJ

Vice President Joe Biden received a warm welcome from thousands of Reform Jews at a conference that saw the passage of the most comprehensive resolution on inclusivity and gender rights by a Jewish mainstream movement.

Speaking Saturday before 5,000 Reform Jews at the 2015 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism in Orlando, Fla., Biden acknowledged the disagreements between the White House and the Israeli government over contentious issues like settlements and the Iran nuclear agreement, but maintained that the “core of our alliance is as strong as steel.”

During a 45-minute address, the vice president received a standing ovation when he pledged continued support to fight efforts at delegitimization of the Jewish state, likening delegitimization to anti-Semitism. Biden also defended his boss against comments made by Ran Baratz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick to serve as media chief. It surfaced last week that Baratz had made a social media post in March calling President Barack Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress “anti-Semitism.”

“There is no excuse, there should be no tolerance for any member or employee of the Israeli administration referring to the president of the United States in derogatory terms. Period. Period. Period. Period,” said Biden.

Baratz later apologized for his comments and for not informing the prime minister of them.

Rabbi David Saperstein, former director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and current ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was a recipient of Biden’s praise. Biden further thanked the Reform movement for its work on domestic issues, which he attributed to its immigrant history.

“You don’t forget,” said Biden. “That’s what I love about you. You do not forget.”

Cantor Michael Shochet, senior cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, called the vice president’s speech “remarkable.”

“I felt it was extremely personal,” he said. “It was not a canned speech, a stump speech.”

In a voice vote that spurred a standing ovation, the Reform movement passed an extensive resolution on transgender rights. The “Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People” was prepared by the URJ’s Commission on Social Action, explained Stephen Sacks, outgoing URJ chairman.

The resolution affirms the movement’s commitment to the “full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.” It calls on Reform congregations, congregants, clergy, camps, institutions and affiliates, including the NFTY youth group, to refer to transgender individuals by their name and gender of choice and to advocate for the rights of people of all gender identities, including gender-neutral bathrooms and using gender-neutral labels.

The resolution also calls on Reform institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies, as well as to call on institutions to create ritual, programmatic and educational materials “that will empower such institutions to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.”

It urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and the revision of U.S. and Canadian laws to ensure full equality and protection for transgender individuals.

Sacks said the people in the room, who took to their feet in a standing ovation, were “thrilled, thrilled,” following the passage of the resolution.

“I’ll tell you, the most amazing thing to me is, after the resolution passed, there was a young woman — 15 or 16 — she looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m transgender. I want to thank you because you all make me feel so welcome,” said Sacks, a Chevy Chase resident and member of Temple Sinai in Washington.

Shochet said that the passage of the resolution was emblematic of the “audacious hospitality” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs preached during the biennial.

“We open our tent to the world,” said Shochet. “It’s not just about creating a message of inclusivity for Reform Jews, but all Jews, all people seeking faith through Judaism.”

For Shochet, that was demonstrated profoundly on Shabbat morning when each person in the room was invited to participate in one of four aliyot. The first was reserved for those who grew up in and were profoundly impacted by Reform Judaism; the second for those who returned to Reform Judaism later in life; the third, and largest group, was for those who came from other Jewish movements or faiths; and the last was for everybody in the room.

NFTY, the movement’s youth group, made its own statement in challenging those present to speak out against gun violence. The high school students asked attendees, according to Shochet, to take action by pledging to share a d’var Torah on the subject, petition members of Congress and spread awareness through social media.

JTA contributed to this report.

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