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Stranger in a friendly land
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Stranger in a friendly land

URJ biennial brings new experiences to native son

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Driving down the Mass Pike a couple of weeks ago, I saw all my old haunts. Waltham, where Brandeis, my alma mater, is located. The tunnel underneath a well-known New England grocery store that inexplicably sits above the highway. 

I stopped in Brookline to pick up food at the kosher supermarket, just a couple miles away from the Jewish elementary and high school I attended. And I passed Cambridge, where I lived for six years before leaving the Bay State. It all seemed so familiar, as if I’d only been gone for about 10 days instead of 10 years.

Then I pulled into the parking garage at the Marriott Copley Place in Boston proper, which is connected to the Hynes Convention Center, site of the five-day Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial Convention I was to cover. Immediately I felt like an outsider.

The reasons were many. For one, though I’ve spent countless hours in Boston, and even shopped at the Copley mall several times, this was the first time I had ever slept in the Massachusetts capital. Sure, if anyone asks where I’m from I’ll say Boston, but that’s because few people who live out of state have heard of Newton, where I was born and raised (for some N.J. synergy, check out its moniker: “The Garden City”). 

There’s also a natural awkwardness for press at these kinds of events. In contrast to the more-than–6,000 biennial attendees and staff members who wore blue and white nametags to gain entry to the convention center, the few members of the media were provided with bright orange IDs — perhaps to warn attendees to be wary of the press, I thought.

But mostly, it felt odd because I’ve always worn my Judaism on my sleeve, on my head, and, at a few kosher delis, on my white shirts. I’ve been to more Jewish events, conferences, dinners, retreats, and fund-raisers than I can remember, and visited hundreds of synagogues and Jewish communities around the world. I majored in Judaic studies at a college where the majority of the students were Jewish—not to mention that I am the editor of a Jewish newspaper. Yet there, about 20 minutes from my parents' house, I knew only three or four of the 6,000 people in attendance. Vaguely. What’s more, for an Orthodox guy, this wasn’t like any Jewish experience I’ve had before.

For example, the URJ very graciously invited this non-paying member of the fourth estate to eat at their massive Shabbat dinner, and they ordered my meal — and that of a handful of others who so requested — from a local kosher caterer. I was assigned to a table with a dozen members of a delegation from California who all knew each other. As I sat there smiling awkwardly, a waitress handed me a massive cake box covered in plastic wrap, the contents of which included rolls, salad, a main course, fruit, a brownie, and plasticware. My dinner companions, polite and welcoming as they were, couldn’t help but stare at this red-faced stranger as he reluctantly accepted this most obtrusive of boxes and failed in his efforts to open it inconspicuously.

While my own observance is traditional, I’ve spent many Shabbatot with those whose ritual practices differ sharply from my own. Still, it took some getting used to walking from the Marriott through the Copley mall — my first time in a mall on Shabbat — to get to the convention center where rabbis scrolled through Facebook feeds on their iPhones. I also felt mildly uncomfortable at having to explain to URJ staffers that I couldn’t sign in for the lectures and workshops.

I had no theological issues with any of this — who am I to question anyone else’s religious practices? — but I admit I was disturbed by attitudes toward Israel I encountered. Liberal-minded Jews’ discontent with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate has been well documented (and well founded, in my opinion), but it was unnerving when words like “apartheid” and “occupation,” or terms like “human rights abuses,” were used repeatedly to describe the Jewish state. 

It was even more difficult to witness so many fellow Jews explode in cheers and applause at the mention of these words by various speakers. As I wrote last week, a woman sitting in front of me jumped out of her chair repeatedly and pumped her fists as if she were watching the seventh game of the World Series instead of listening to Israeli author David Grossman blast his birthplace. Criticizing Israel when it’s warranted is fine, but I felt this and other displays of enthusiasm directed toward the real or imagined missteps of our ancestral homeland crossed a line. 

That aside, the biennial showed me a side of Judaism I rarely get to see, and the up-close-and-personal view was educational and enjoyable. It was heartening to watch so many members of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), the Reform movement’s national youth group, sitting on the floor Shabbat afternoon, passionately singing in unison. And many of the tunes I heard for the first time at the Kabbalat Shabbat service were beautiful. 

Most of all, I appreciated how everyone I interacted with was friendly, open, and entirely non-judgmental. That’s a lesson we can all take home, regardless of where that is.

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