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How to Create an Epic Shabbat Experience for 5,000 People

How to Create an Epic Shabbat Experience for 5,000 People

Planning the Boston Biennial

Convention hall full of people during Biennial Shabbat worship service

I’ve reported on 20 Biennials and, invariably, delegates say that one of the high points is praying together with 5,000 Reform Jews.

What makes these Shabbat services so impactful is not only their sheer magnitude, says Cantor Rosalie Boxt, the Biennial’s worship director, “it is the dynamic of holding up a mirror that reflects who we are and opens a window onto what’s possible in a worship space. Encouraging people to take innovative ideas back to their congregations in the spirit of the Biennial theme – reimagining Jewish life – requires that we find the right balance between presenting new liturgical melodies and motifs and using the familiar ones that make worshippers feel at home.”  

Boxt and her planning team also face the challenge of creating a service that integrates t’filah (prayer) and tikkun olam (repairing our broken world). The Kabbalat Shabbat theme in Boston – refuge and refugees – ties into the Torah portion, Vayeishev, the story of  Joseph’s coat of many colors and how his jealous brothers ruin it. People will be asked to leave behind an extra coat at the end of the service, to be distributed to homeless families in Boston. This request, comments Larchmont Temple’s Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, who will lead the Friday night service with Cantor Sheera Ben-David of Temple Sholom in Chicago, IL, stems from “the realization that once we were the coatless, wanderers hungry for compassion, in hopes of warmth and a place we could call home.”

If worship is the star of Shabbat at Biennial, its supporting cast – inspiring Torah study, engaging luncheon speakers, and performances by some of the world’s most celebrated Jewish musicians – can elevate the sacred day even higher.

Torah study begins before Shabbat morning services, which will be led by Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple in Atlanta, GA, and Cantor Leslie Niren of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX. People will be able to choose from among 14 options, ranging from Rabbi Daniel J. Swartz’s session, which asks what we can learn from Joseph’s response to an ancient climate change crisis, to Rabbi Darryl Crystal’s exploration of the ethical evolution of Joseph’s brother, Judah, and the roots of heroism. All Torah study leaders will be alumni of the Religious Action Center’s Eisendrath Legislation Assistant program, in honor of its 50th anniversary.

Another Biennial favorite are the lunch sessions following Shabbat morning services. There will be a record-breaking 17 in Boston with an all-star line up: best-selling authors Anita Diamant, Bruce Feiler, and Abigail Pogrebin; scholars and thought leaders Jonathan Sarna, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Imam Abdullah Antepli, and Aaron Hahn Tapper; award-winning chefs and food writers Michael Solomonov, Steve Cook, Jeffrey Yoskowitz, and Liz Alpern; social entrepreneur turned national leader, ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt; change agents Anat Hoffman, Dan Libenson, Casper ter Kuile, and Angie Thurston; a three-generation panel on women in the rabbinate featuring Rabbis Sally Priesand, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, and Leah Berkowitz; plus  performances starring members of the American Conference of Cantors, Shira Kline of ShirLaLa headlining the family option, and the popular Israeli duo Or and Feliza Bascara-Zohar.

Following lunch, attendees can rest or choose from three Shabbat afternoon options:

  1. Join the audience of a live recording of the radio show and podcast “On Being with Krista Tippett.” In this first ever Biennial event, Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and best-selling author Krista Tippett will talk with Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Sarah Bassin about their pioneering work in building bridges of understanding between Muslims and Jews. Imam Antepli is chief representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University and a senior fellow on Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Bassin is associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and former executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
  2. Participate in a musical prayer concert with Nava Tehila, an ensemble from Jerusalem promising a “journey on the wings of Shabbat through original music, chanting, and guided meditations for an opportunity to rest in the moment, connect to ourselves, to community, and fill our hearts with gratitude and joy.”
  3. Attend a film screening of “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” hosted by the film’s director, Roger Sherman. The film follows Chef Michael Solomonov as he visits the vibrant restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as organic kitchens off the beaten track, sampling remarkable food traditions as diverse as those of Morocco, Persia, Lebanon, France, Italy, and Russia, all of which have helped create the new Israeli cuisine.

So what makes Shabbat at Biennial an epic experience? Come and see for yourself.

The Union for Reform Judaism's 2017 Biennial will be held in Boston, December 6-10, 2017.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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