[URJBiennial] The Biennial begins!

Greetings from the URJ Biennial! (Well, from my hotel -- internet costs $25/day at the Biennial, darn it all.) This morning my mother graciously schlepped me the three hours to Houston; after lunching at Zula, near my hotel, we found our way to the George R. Brown Convention Center...which is enormous: the size of a city block and several stories tall. She dropped me off and I found my way to the third floor, where registration was in full swing. As I was standing in line to register, a man stopped me to admire my "I [heart] Elat Chayyim" pin and to ask where he could get one -- it made me happy to encounter another afficionado, though we didn't have time to chat. (I wish I'd thought to ask them for a whole bagfull to hand out here!)

I immediately ran into Diane, the cantor from Wisconsin who comes to CBI every year for the Days of Awe, and into Liz, the other delegate from CBI. (What were the odds? In a building containing five thousand people?) Liz and I walked a short while together through the big hall filled with merchants -- selling Judaica of every kind, tallitot and kippot, Hebrew-language software, books and CDs. There I ran into two folks from InterfaithFamily.com (one of whom was Edmund Case, the publisher, who I'd met at a reading in New York a few years ago). It made me happy to see them here, and I promised to return and talk with them more.

I chatted briefly with a few different soferim (Torah scribes), all three men with friendly eyes and long beards, and then walked by a booth showing a video about the soferet (female scribe) -- I think it was about Aviel Barclay! That felt neat, too -- like seeing a glimpse of an old friend across a crowded room, even though she and I haven't yet met in person. Anyway, I promised myself I'd return to the dealer's room later; there's a lot of shiny there, and something tells me I'll be leaving with a few new things in my bag.

After jotting down these notes, I started attending panels. Stay tuned for posts about those; thanks for accompanying me on this wild Biennial adventure.

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On Sunday, I'm heading back to Texas: first for a few days with my family in San Antonio, then for the URJ Biennial, the 68th General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be held in Houston late next week. Some five thousand Reform Jews will gather in the Houston convention center for three and a half days of workshops, browsing Judaica merchandise in the exhibit hall (I expect to come home with a few new kippot, and probably some books as well), davvening, and schmoozing.

Frustratingly, they've frontloaded the program with a bunch of great things at the same time on day one. How will I choose between "Defining the Role of the Non-Jew in Our Congregations: Policies of Mutual Respect and Invitation," "Blogs, Chat Rooms, and LiveJournal: What the E-Generation Is Doing Online," "Desexing the Text: Translating Sacred Text Today," and "Are Dietary Laws Kosher for Reform Jews?" Assuming there's wifi in the convention center, I intend to blog the panels I attend; I guess I can hope that somebody else will blog the ones I don't make it to.

Speakers will include Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service; Rabbi Joseph Telushkin; and, according to the URJ site, King Abdullah II of Jordan via satellite. (Though after yesterday's suicide bombings in Amman, it's possible he may have other things occupying his attention...)

Somewhere in there, a ton of resolutions will be voted-upon. Some are broad-reaching: opposing the politicization of science, ending global poverty, denouncing the use of torture. Others are smaller in scope: support for Reform Jewish college students, assorted bylaw changes.

I've never been to a major denominational convention, so I'm not entirely sure what to expect, but on the whole I think this is going to be fun. I'm particularly curious about what Shabbat is like there. Thanks to Elat Chayyim I'm no stranger to gloriously immersive Shabbat experiences, but I can't imagine kabbalat Shabbat in a crowd of five thousand!

If any of you will be there, comment and let me know -- I'd love to find a way to connect.

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