Barak Day 1

Today was a full day at the Biennial.  I decided to skip services this morning, since we were up so late last night.  Did you notice the time of my post last night?  The morning started with a plenary session.  These sessions are a combination of music, speeches, awards, and business.  The session started with Julie Silver leading us in singing.  She is one of my favorite artists.  Next, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the RAC, introduced house majority leader Eric Cantor.  Although the majority of the delegates don’t agree with Mr. Cantor politically, the speech was well received.  He stayed focused on international issues where there is more agreement.  Mr. Cantor stressed the need for continued support of Israel by the US government. not tolerating any form of antisemitism, and not letting our political differences get in the way of supporting Israel.

Next, Lynn Magid Lazar, the president of WRJ, presented Ambassador Nancy Brinker the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for Service to the World Community.  Ambassador Brinker is the founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  Ambassador Brinker’s speech was moving and emotional.  It along with the other major speeches from the plenary session can be found on the URJ’s YouTube page.  I urge you to view these.  Next Rabbi Eric Yoffie presented another Bearer of Light award to Rabbi Richard Hirsch.    Rabbi Hirsch was honored for being the founding director of the RAC and for being the “architect” of Reform Zionism.  Rabbi Hirsch gave a moving speech.

Following the plenary session, I attended another learning session about how do we connect with our kids and bring the “camp” experience back into our congregation.  A number of ideas were presented to encourage getting more kids to the URJ camp programs as well as bringing the feeling of camp into our congregation.  The second learning session I attended today was a presentation on improving the content our temple web sites.  Stay tuned for some changes which may be coming to our web site.

In between the two learning sessions, was the kick-off on the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE).  Here is the description of the session.

We know that youth and families can find relevance, community, and purpose in our Reform Jewish communities. And yet, our synagogues lose connection to 80% of the children who become b’nei mitzvah. Join us as we stand together with leaders of the entire Reform Movement to reverse this trend by launching the Campaign for Youth Engagement, a Movement-wide strategic commitment to successfully engage in a majority of Reform Jewish youth by the year 2020.
Join the leadership of our Movement, including the URJ, ACC, CCAR, ECE-RJ, HUC-JIR, MRJ, NATA, NATE, NFTY, PARDes, and WRJ for this dynamic and interactive forum. Learn how to take action in your congregation and be part of this historic moment when we come together to commit to the Jewish future.

What we see at Vassar Temple is no different than many other congregations.  The Reform movement is committing to make a change.

Before dinner, we attended a very moving musical Ma’ariv service.  After dinner was another plenary session.  The session was opened by a male a capella group Six13.  The featured speaker at the plenary session this evening was the Isareli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.  Mr. Barak expressed the thanks of Israel to the Reform movement and the United States for their ongoing support of Israel.  He stressed that Iran must be prevented from gaining nuclear weapons, and that internally to Israel, the state must remain Jewish and democratic.  In addition to Mr. Barak, we heard from David Boies and Ted Olson.  They were also awarded teh Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for their joint work in overturning proposition 8 in California.  The plenary session concluded with the passage of a number of resolutions.

We concluded our evening with a great concert featuring Michelle Citrin and Craig Taubman.

Watch out for tomorrow’s post when when it is “Barack Day 2”.

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A Microcosm of the Biennial

Today was the first day of the URJ’s 71st Biennial Convention.  Bob Abrams and I left the Hudson Valley early this morning.  We drove down to the Washington DC and made very good time, arriving just after noon.  We found the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD.  This will be our home for the next 5 days.

Once we checked into the hotel and received our credentials we were offer to explore the conference area and get our bearings.  Today ended up being a microcosm of what makes up a biennial.  First I attended to 2 very well done learning sessions.  The first was on Technology and Your Synagogue.  The focus of the session was more on the philosophy of incorporating technology into congregational life rather than the nuts and bolts of how to do it.  The second session also had a technology focus.  It was titled The Social Sermon.  In this session, I learned how a congregation had used social media to work with their rabbi over the period of 1 week to generate a sermon which was delivered at Friday night services.  Both of these learning sessions gave me real concrete ideas which I will be able to bring back to Vassar Temple.

After dinner, we went to the exhibit hall which had just opened.  We were able to explore about 1/2 of the hall before it was time to head to the first plenary session.  The exhibit hall many vendors displaying art, jewelry, and other Judaica.  There were also vendors who are more on the business or management end of synagogue life.

The first plenary session this evening officially welcomed us to Washington DC.  There were a number of speakers from the URJ including the incoming chairman of the board, Steve Saks, Senior VP of the URJ Rabbi Dan Freelander, current president of the URJ Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and incoming president of the URJ Rabbi Rick Jacobs.  We learned that this is the largest biennial in history.  there are 6,700 attendees representing 541 of the 900 URJ congregations.  The biennial is completely sold out.  On Friday night over 4,000 Shabbat dinners will be served.  This will most likely be a world record for the largest Shabbat dinner.  More on this Friday night.

There were 2 main speakers this evening.  The first was Dr. Wendy Mogel who is the author of Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and Blessing of a B-.  Dr. Mogel talked to us about raising Jewish children today.  It was both funny and inspirational.  The second main speaker was Natan Saransky.  He spoke to us about what we can do for Israel and what Israel can do for us.

The plenary session concluded with a special tribute to Debbie Friedman.  There were spoken and musical tributes to Debbie.  The tribute culminated in the announcement of a new award, The Debbie Friedman Award For Contribution To Music.  The first awardee is Theodore Bikel.  Following a short speech, he performed 3 songs for us.  One each in Hebrew, Yiddush, and Ladino.

Following the plenary session, we headed over for some late night entertainment.  We saw a great song session featuring Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Beth Schafer, and Doug Cotler.

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All Ready For Biennial

Well, I’ve finished most of my pre-biennial planning.  I have worked through the schedule and selected the workshop/learning sessions I plan on attending.  I am left with only a few “ties” where I haven’t made my final decision.    Those will be made dynamically as I go along through the week.  You also never know, if something new may appear during the week.

I am including my tentative schedule below, so you can get an idea of what goes on at the biennial.

Seth’s URJ Biennial Schedule


02:00PM 03:30PM Technology and Your Synagogue URJ Biennial 7 – National Harbor Conference Rooms
03:45PM 05:15PM The Social Sermon: Connecting Torah Study, Community Building, and Social Media URJ Biennial A – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
05:30PM 06:15PM T’filah: The Sacred Ties of Song URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
07:00PM 08:00PM Exhibit Hall Gala Dessert Reception URJ Biennial A – Maryland Ballroom
08:15PM 10:15PM Welcome to DC Plenary URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:30PM 11:30PM Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Beth Schafer URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
10:30PM 11:30PM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Peri Smilow URJ Biennial Event Hall


10:30PM 12:00AM ARZA Reception URJ Biennial 1 – Potomac Ballroom
10:45PM 12:00AM Small Congregations’ Reception URJ Biennial Event Hall
07:15AM 08:30AM Beit Midrash: It Takes a K’hilah to Raise Jewish Teens URJ Biennial 7 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
08:45AM 10:15AM Joint Plenary with WRJ URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:30AM 12:00PM Idea Exchange: Congregational Presidents URJ Biennial 12 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
10:30AM 12:00PM How Do We Connect, Inspire, and Engage Kids: What We’ve Learned from Camp URJ Biennial F – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
02:00PM 03:30PM Campaign for Youth Engagement: Committing to the Jewish Future URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
04:00PM 05:30PM Using Your Website to Tell Your Congregation’s Story URJ Biennial F – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
04:00PM 05:30PM Shaping Your Synagogue’s Future Through the Voices of Congregants: A Strategic Planning Approach URJ Biennial 1 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
05:45PM 06:30PM T’filah – Kesher Shir: Connecting Through Song to One Another and to God URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
08:15PM 10:15PM Plenary URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:30PM 11:30PM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Joel Chasnoff URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Mattan Klein and the Seeds of Sun Playing a Tribute to Naomi Shemer URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:30PM 11:30PM Michelle Citrin and Craig Taubman URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom

FRIDAY DEC 16, 2011

07:00AM 09:30AM T’filah and Visioning Breakfast URJ Biennial C – Prince George’s Exhibition Hall
08:30AM 09:15AM I Have Seen it With My Eyes: Visual T’filah URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
09:45AM 11:15AM The Big Picture: Enhancing your Congregation’s Communications Across Multiple Platforms (Intermediate) URJ Biennial 4 – National Harbor Conference Rooms
12:45PM 03:00PM Plenary URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
03:15PM 04:45PM How Congregational Leaders Can Better Know What Congregants Think, and What To Do With That Information URJ Biennial F – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
04:15PM 04:35PM Taking Your Services Onto the Web: Live Streaming (20 minute session) URJ Biennial J – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
06:15PM 07:15PM Shabbat Services (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
07:45PM 09:45PM Shabbat Dinner (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Prince George’s Exhibition Hall
10:00PM 11:00PM Oneg Shabbat Song Session (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom


11:15PM 12:00AM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
08:00AM 09:45AM Presidents Council Breakfast URJ Biennial 10 – Chesapeake Conference Rooms
08:00AM 09:45AM Torah Study with Rabbi Uri Regev URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
08:00AM 09:45AM Torah Study Breakfasts (click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall
10:00AM 12:30PM Shabbat Services (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
01:00PM 03:30PM The Eichmann Trial: Jewish Encounters (Deborah Lipstadt)(CLOSED) URJ Biennial 3 – Baltimore
04:00PM 05:30PM A Six Pack of Singer/Songwriters URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
04:00PM 05:30PM Afternoon Programs URJ Biennial Event Hall
04:00PM 05:30PM Celebrate Chanukah Today URJ Biennial URJ Books and Music Store and Stage
09:00PM 10:30PM Havdalah & Evening Program (with WRJ) URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:45PM 11:45PM Late Night Entertainment (Click here for descriptions) URJ Biennial Event Hall

SUNDAY DEC 18, 2011

07:45AM 08:30AM T’filah – Engaging our Teens and our Teens Engaging Us: Worship with NFTY URJ Biennial Cherry Blossom Ballroom
08:45AM 10:30AM Closing Program URJ Biennial A – Potomac Ballroom
10:45AM 12:30PM Special Interest Session: URJ Conference of Presidents URJ Biennial 2 – National Harbor Conference Rooms

7 Days, 5,000 Jews

This evening I joined about 40 of our fellow congregants in our sanctuary.  Together we sang L’Cha Dodi, chanted the Bar’chu, Shema, and the other prayers as we welcomed Shabbat.  Following services, we made Kiddush and shared in an oneg Shabbat before heading home or to a local restaurant for dinner.

1 week from tonight I will be doing the same thing, just in a different venue.  Bob Abrams and I will be just outside of Washington DC at the URJ Biennial.  On Friday evening, we will join 5,000 other Reform Jews from around North America and welcome Shabbat.  We will chant the same prayers as we did tonight.  Will the feeling be different?  I’m sure it will.  I have attended biennial in the past, and it is extremely moving to share Shabbat with so many people.  Following services, Bob and I will join others at biennial for Shabbat dinner.  We will make Kiddush and then share dinner together (all 5,000 of us).

Watch for my updates from biennial throughout the week.

Restroom Renovation Update

The restroom renovations are continuing.  Here are a couple more pictures.  In the men’s room the new vanities have been installed.  In the ladies room, we now have a fresh coat of paint on the walls.

The vanities and sinks are now also installed in the women’s room.  Soap dispensers have been installed in both restrooms.



Vassar Temple 7th Grade Religious-School Students Prepare and Serve Lunch at the Lunch Box

Vassar Temple’s 7th grade students prepared and served a hearty meal at the Lunch Box on Sunday afternoon.  Vassar Temple’s social action committee organizes various groups from the congregation to prepare and serve lunch one Sunday a month at the Lunch Box.  For more information, please contact

Biennial Here We Come

On Wednesday, December 14, Bob Abrams and I will head down to Washington DC for the 71st URJ Biennial.  There we will join 6,000 other Reform Jews from across North America for five days of workshops, sharing of ideas, study, worship, and inspirational speakers.  I will be blogging about my experiences daily while I am at the biennial like I did two years ago from the biennial in Toronto.  You can find my blog from two years ago here.

Many of the sessions will be webcast live.  I invite you to follow my daily updates as well as the webcasts.

Restroom Renovations

Our restrooms are currently undergoing renovations.  Here are a couple pictures of the ongoing work.  The entire cost for all the work is being donated by our wonderful sisterhood.  Thank you to all the members of sisterhood for their donation.

Welcome To The Vassar Temple Blog

I’d like to welcome you to the Vassar Temple blog.  This blog is another opportunity for members of Vassar Temple to share their thoughts on issues relating to Vassar Temple and the broader Jewish community.

For many of us in the Vassar Temple community, we are new to blogs.  According to wikipedia the definition is “A blog (a blend of the term web log) is a type of website or part of a website supposed to be updated with new content from time to time. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video.”  As you can see, our blog will allow us to share information of interest with members and non-members of the congregation.

I’d like to invite you to join our community by sharing information of interest.  Please contact me at if you would like access to post to our blog.  Anyone can make comments on existing posts.  The blog joins Vassar Temple’s other presences in cyberspace.  Our website, facebook page, twitter feed, and the new religious school web page.

I’d like to extend my thanks to our religious school director, Dr. Joel Hoffman, for establishing the blog.