BOSTON, Dec. 10, 2001--Despite new security fears for the largest gathering of Jews in North America, Reform Judaism last week (Dec. 5-9) shattered attendance records as the denomination rallied for solidarity in the shadow of "the Nazism of our day."

More than 5,800 Reform Jews tolerated metal detectors and detailed bag searches here in order to hold the 66th biannual meeting of the 1.5 million-member Union of American Hebrew Congregations. As a first-time security precaution, only members of Reform congregations could register, but attendance nevertheless came in 20 percent higher than ever before.

Observers said this year's turnout spoke volumes about Jews' desire to be together in a spiritual setting after this year's barrage of terrorism in New York, Washington and Israel. The meeting functioned largely as a celebration of Jewish culture, beginning with a pro-Israel rally and ending with a grave reminder to be vigilant.

"Islamic radicalism is the Nazism of our day," said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the UAHC, in his Sabbath address. "Like German Nazism, it rejects reason, worships death and abhors freedom. It too has a blazing belief in violence and is consumed by a hatred of Jews and Judaism. ... (This war) will be won by hunting down and destroying those who seek to destroy us."

As leader of Reform's 915 congregations, Yoffie steers the largest and most liberal branch of mainstream American Judaism. The group grabbed headlines two years ago by re-embracing ancient worship traditions and rituals that had been sidelined over the years.

This year, terrorism held much of the limelight at the Hynes Convention Center. More than 400 people packed a ballroom one morning, for instance, to hear how the Bush administration may have jeopardized civil liberties by profiling and detaining 1,200 individuals. Terrorism's fallout even delayed the arrival of featured speaker Rabbi David Ellenson, the new president of the Reform movement's main seminary, Hebrew Union College. On day two of the meeting, he returned from an emergency trip to Israel, where he had quelled the fears of seminarians abroad after a suicide bomber killed 15 bus riders in Haifa on Dec. 2.

In Boston, responding as a group to recent trauma meant celebrating what several called the "family" of Jews. An old trend toward downplaying Jewish ancestry for the sake of assimilation in America seemed long gone as participants lined up to buy menorahs, prayer shawls and traditional head coverings by day, then danced to live Hebrew music by night.

"When you hear that music, and you look around and see thousands of other Jews moving to it, the feeling is just incredible," said Phyllis Silver, 61, of Boston. "They're hungry for Judaism, for the culture."

According to Ellenson, recent tragedies put thousands on a pilgrimage to Boston to experience time-tested connections.

"I think it has to be viewed at least partially as a response to Sept. 11, otherwise it's hard to explain this radical increase in attendance," Ellenson said. "People feel a need to gather together, to express solidarity, to seek the sources of our religious tradition for comfort in these times."

At Janet Appelbaum's congregation in Seattle, several of her peers canceled biennial plans due to fears of flying or being a target for anti-Jewish violence at a large gathering of Jews, she said. But in the end, she joined with the record numbers in deciding the payoff was worth a risk.

"I thought for a short period of time about (more than) 5,000 Jews being gathered in one place," said Appelbaum, a 54-year-old first-timer to the biennial, as she tried on a kippah to cover her head before God. "But this was something I wanted to do. This is like an extended family, and there's a lot of support in hard times among family."

Yoffie reminded the crowd, however, that family strength is a byproduct of hard work -- and of educating younger generations. Saying Jewish schools have "fallen victim to the plague of low expectations," he called for a surge of new commitment from synagogue leaders, parents and other volunteers to educate 120,000 enrolled children. "We must mobilize ourselves for religious education as we have in the past for the State of Israel and the fight against discrimination," Yoffie said.

"Only by supporting teachers, respecting teachers and being teachers will we succeed in transmitting Jewish wisdom to our children."

On policy matters, Yoffie chastised Jews who support school vouchers in hopes that their own parochial programs will benefit.

"I am embarrassed and ashamed when I hear such arguments coming from Jews," Yoffie said, citing a breach of church-state separation when tax dollars get redirected from public to private schools via vouchers. "The public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life. How dare we deny it to others?"

Before adjourning, delegates approved resolutions calling for:

  • Improved treatment for the mentally ill in prisons, including access to medicine and exemption from the death penalty.
  • China to end religious persecution of all kinds and provide detailed information about persons in state custody on account of religious belief.
  • Congress to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as "wilderness," effectively banning oil exploration there, and to fund research into alternative energy sources.
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