As I write this article, I am watching one of the presentations for the 2020 Liberal Judaism Biennial. What an experience! There has never been an event like this in the history of Liberal Judaism, and the entire world is going through an unprecedented experience. No one would have wished for the terrible pandemic we are passing through. We mourn the loss of life, the suﬀering of those who have been struck down by the virus and have recovered, the many who have been isolated from their families and friends, and the terrible economic loss suﬀered by individuals currently and in the future, as the recovery for which we hope moves forward.
But as many have noted, the experience has, ironically, also given us gifts that we couldn’t have anticipated. With all its deﬁcits, the virtual world has allowed enormous numbers of people to connect, despite the physical limitations. This has played out in ways we couldn’t have predicted. The LJ Biennial is an example.
First of all, as of the last count I heard, upwards of 1,200 people virtually attended this Biennial, at least one from my High Holyday congregation in Texas, six time zones away. Attendees did not have the opportunity to meet in hallways or bond over dinner, but they did have the chance to connect with Liberal Judaism in a way they never would have in previous years. The professional staﬀ of Liberal Judaism rose to the challenge of creating this Biennial in completely unforeseen circumstances. We joined together in Shabbat services, with the texts presented to us on screen as we sang, prayed, recited and meditated. The technical limitations of Zoom prevented us from combining our voices in song, but technology allowed us to create a musical fabric for the event that had its own charm, and it was easy to sing along in our homes. Everyone is thinking about the possibilities that this situation has created, and there is a strong sense that services and activities in the future will feature the inclusivity that we’ve discovered through technology. Liberal Judaism’s leadership decided to provide the Biennial free of charge, and it will be interesting to see how that decision impacts on future fundraising and the economic infrastructure of our movement. And if you haven’t taken the opportunity to donate, it’s a good thing to do.
The Biennial took place just before Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of the Commandments. Until that point in the biblical story, the Israelites found out what God wanted when Moses told them. One of the revolutionary elements of the giving of the Commandments is that from now on, anyone could read them and have at least some idea of what God wanted (though millennia of commentary were to follow). As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message – not the whole message, but inextricably linked with it. The medium that carried the Jewish message changed radically at Sinai (and many times since). It also changed radically with the coming of the pandemic and the technological tools that suddenly became central to our engagement with Jewish life.
I think that most if not all of the NLJC community attended the Biennial. Each of us will have some favourite moment (and some not so favourite ones as well, of course). If you missed one or more of them, they were recorded, so you will be able to catch up.
I was particularly moved by the two tributes, one to the former Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Danny Rich, and the other to the former Chair of our movement, Simon Benscher. The larger theme of the Biennial was collaboration, and the presentations demonstrated it, as well as discussing it. Collaborations were featured that involved crossing boundaries: international boundaries, faith boundaries, ideological boundaries, and (in the case of the Lily’s Legacy project) the boundaries of time. Liberal Judaism has been my Jewish home since I arrived in the United Kingdom in 2011, and it was a lovely experience to celebrate and contribute to this Biennial, the likes of which we have never seen before and are unlikely to see again.
Rabbi Gershon Silins