By: Andrew Steiner: Student Coordinator, Urban Mitzvah Corps; Social Action Chair, NFTY Garden Empire Region
A few weekends ago, just before Hanukkah, I journeyed to Chicago to attend my first (of hopefully many) URJ Biennials. For many years, friends, family, and Jewish professionals have told me about how incredible of an experience Biennial was, so I was ecstatic to have this unique opportunity. I attended Biennial as a delegate for NFTY Garden Empire Region (GER) as the Social Action Chair, and as a delegate for Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) as the UMC Student Coordinator. These leadership positions that I currently hold gave me the opportunity to attend Biennial with a unique perspective and to have an experience that I couldn’t have imagined prior to being there. Sitting in a room with 5,000 other Reform Jews who all knew the same prayers, tunes, and songs as I do was surreal. Everywhere I turned, whether during Shabbat services or the song sessions, everyone was singing and beaming with pride.
This was unlike anything I have experienced in my sixteen years of life. I ran into so many people I know from my involvement with Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, NJ, NFTY, URJ Camp Harlam, and Urban Mitzvah Corps, and had the privilege of meeting many other teen leaders and Jewish professionals from all over North America. I roomed with two teens from Wisconsin and one from Massachusetts, and we all shared what NFTY means to us, and how proud we are to be Jewish. We discussed the sessions we attended and the services we participated in, and each of us felt a deeper connection with Judaism as the weekend went along. I had the opportunity to sit in on two sessions, a session for teen advocacy and a session about Hanukkah in Israel. During the teen advocacy session, I learned new ways to fundraise, to spread awareness about a topic of interest, and how to get more involved in the community. I plan to share these innovative ideas with my local youth group (TEWTY), NFTY-GER, Urban Mitzvah Corps, and my high school, Golda Och Academy. During the session about Hanukkah, I was able to use my previous knowledge of cooking and learn new techniques on how to cook like an Israeli. The famous Jewish chef, Tina Wasserman, facilitated the session on how to make Tahini Sufganiyot, Hanukkah gelt from chocolate truffles, and Israeli couscous salad. While at Biennial, I also got to hear and join along with many famous Jewish singers such as Dan Nichols, Alan Goodis, and the band, Nefesh Mountain. These song sessions and concerts reminded me of my Jewish roots that started at URJ Camp Harlam and have continued through NFTY-GER and Urban Mitzvah Corps. Singing my favorite songs with everyone at Biennial was something I’ll always remember.
Biennial was one of the most impactful and enjoyable experiences of my life. I learned, sang, talked, and ate my way through Chicago, and I wouldn’t change any of it. I hope to have the chance to attend URJ Biennial 2021 in Washington, D.C. to build on this incredible experience.