Jewish life in the Lowcountry is vibrant even though our numbers are smaller than larger Jewish communities in the big cities of our nation. I believe that being small is not a bad thing.
In fact, it can be a distinct advantage because members know that every person matters if we are to keep the operation and viability of the temple going from generation to generation. From a rabbi's perspective, it is nice to be able to get to know one's congregation in a much more personal way; that becomes more challenging when a congregation becomes so large that it resembles a corporation more than a house of worship.
Yet, there are times when numbers do matter. When I recently attended our movement's biennial convention in Orlando, I felt that thrill and adrenaline from being surround by five thousand Jewish participants who gathered together for almost five days to worship, study, sing, debate and generally to reaffirm the mission of Progressive Judaism.
The convention offered is a combination of experiencing Jewish religious life, culture and politics that all seem to blend together into a wonderful tapestry of Jewish spirituality. Our movement is progressive and tends to be liberal in its religious and political viewpoints, focusing on a big tent approach to diversity, inclusivity and to experimentation on many kinds of worship experiences. We just passed, for example, the first resolution on transgendered persons, encouraging our country to embrace them and bring them into the mainstream of American life.
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We listened to experts on the Middle East. One of the most interesting was from the acclaimed Israeli columnist Ari Shavit, who spoke of the challenges and opportunities Israel faces today both from outside adversaries and from within the body politic of Israeli Jews and Arabs.
One of our biggest issues is welcoming interfaith families who have children. Imagine the reaction when a panel appeared at the plenary with the actor Michael Douglas discussing his experience with Judaism. HIs two late-in-life children wanted a bar mitzvah even though their mother was not Jewish nor, technically, their father. Yet, it all worked out.
"It took me until age 70 to say I am a Jew,' Douglas told the convention.
Once again, we see that religious life in progressive Judaism requires us to go outside the box. When we do, we often times receive more blessings by creating that big tent for Judaism.
Certainly, one of the highlights of the convention was the speech by Vice President Joe Biden.
The huge crowd welcomed him with tumultuous applause and, as he appealed for quiet, he said, "If you continue to applaud, I may reconsider my decision to run."
He got down to business by basically saying farewell and thank you for the support my movement has given him. He focused on the relationship between Israel and America and between Israel and the administration. He emphasized the unbreakable "steel" that binds both countries. As one would expect, he reassured us of President Barack Obama's support. He also said that Iran will never be permitted to have a nuclear weapon. Needless to say, the crowd was jubilant in its response.
One of the great things about such a convention is the variety of experiences. One minute we are arguing politics, the next we're in workshops studying sacred texts, the next worshipping and the next shopping in the exhibition hall for gifts and books. We reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. We are see and hear new music groups and singer songwriters and cantors who perform and inspire us the same way such groups do in conventions for other religions. We see the big picture of where each of the congregations belong in the bigger picture of the larger movement.
One of the most enjoyable scenes was the role of the youth groupers or high school students from around the country who joined us. To have their energy and spirit would inspire anyone, and it reminded us that even though studies are showing more and more young adults are supposedly moving away from religion, there is still a reservoir of energy and enthusiasm for our faith from our youth.
The truth is that a lot of what I have described is not so different from other kinds of conventions that those involved in their local churches attends. It is part of the beauty of American religious life.
We all need the pilgrimage to that larger audience to reaffirm what we do on a daily basis.
I am glad to be home and back to the mission of tending to the vineyard of the Lord.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.