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What I Learned in the Small Moments at a Major Jewish Conference

What I Learned in the Small Moments at a Major Jewish Conference

2017 URJ Biennial logo in three dimensions at entrance to Boston's Hynes Convention Center

The joy of the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial comes in many forms.

I’m the marketing director for the Union for Reform Judaism's Youth Division, and this year we had a booth in the exhibit hall. Re-stocking the booth one morning, I slipped out the side door that was closest to the storage area.

Across the hallway, a young African-American security guard walked toward me. Her face was full of purpose, and she was moving her mouth as if practicing something. I stopped to wait for her.

When she got within speaking distance, she blurted out, “Boker tov!” (Good morning!) The look on her face was triumphant.

I smiled, and replied heartily, “Good morning!”

She looked crestfallen. After a pause, she said, “You were supposed to say, ‘Boker or!’” (literally, “Morning of light,” and a common response to Boker tov.”)

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” I said apologetically, “but you found one of the few people in the whole place who’s not Jewish!”

We shared a laugh. She went on to say she had spent the few previous evenings trying to learn everything she could about the Jewish people – customs, preferences, language. It was her contention that if we all just made the effort to understand each other a little better, we would all get along.

“That’s very admirable,” I told her, “and you’re absolutely right.” Sometimes the most trenchant lessons also are the most obvious ones.

I’m part of an interfaith family. My wife was born in Israel, and we are happily raising our kids as Jews. I am honored to work for the URJ Youth Division because my kids have gone to a URJ camp for years, and I can say unequivocally that they are different and better because of it. Like that security guard, I try to be informed, even as my “outsider” status gives me a useful distance and perspective.

Do I sometimes miss the right Hebrew response? Sure. But in the end, language is just an organization of letters. It is the meaning – and the purpose – that matters.

The URJ Biennial is filled with a lot of big moments: inspiring plenaries, connections that often lead to transformative initiatives, and resolutions that shape the future of the Reform Jewish community.

Sometimes, though, the magic is in the small moments: A middle-aged Catholic man and a young African-American woman meet in a hall at a Jewish conference to discuss Hebrew. It sounds like the start of a bad joke.

But, in a world that is changing under our feet and in which the questions are coming faster than the answers, we need to start somewhere. If that beginning is a place of mutual understanding, then maybe one day soon we can all embrace a shared interpretation of shalom.

David Billotti is the director of marketing for the URJ Youth Division. He previously held positions at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Educational Alliance, and the JCC in Manhattan. He is the proud father of twins, a boy and a girl, who became b’nai mitzvah last summer. Although he provided no help with their studies, he did offer plenty of love and support.

David Billotti
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