Categories
Holiday omer

Lag BaOmer in a Time of COVID

Counting the Omer seems like a simple mitzvah. It doesn’t take long—a blessing, the recitation of the number of days and weeks. The trick is that you have to do it in the evening, every evening, for forty-nine days. I find that type of consistency hard. Despite attempts at setting an alarm or signing up for emails, I invariably forget a night, maybe on week two or three, four if I’m lucky. This year, I put Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s book The Omer: A Counting on my bedside table. That worked well until I took it to the synagogue one week for Friday night services, only to find it waiting for me on the bimah, one week and several uncounted days, later.

While I appreciate the spiritual tie between Passover and Shavuot—journeying from liberation to the moment of entering into a covenant with God—the daily counting has always been difficult. Similarly, the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer (literally the thirty-third day of the Omer) has seemed a little inaccessible. Sure, I love a good bonfire with some s’mores and I’m not opposed to shooting arrows, but the meaning behind these activities has always felt a little thin. Last year, Lag BaOmer was notable as the first time that our community gathered in person since the pandemic, and our joy was more at seeing one another again than the celebration of this holiday.

However, this year, more than two years into the pandemic, I’m finding new meaning in Lag BaOmer. Each week our mi shebeirach list grows longer as more people get COVID, some for the second time. Students miss dance recitals, baseball games, and their proms because they test positive. And although the spring has finally arrived in Maine, it feels as if this pandemic will never end. Considering all of this, this Omer period of semi-mourning seems appropriate. Fittingly, one reason for this mourning is in memory of a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. On Lag BaOmer, the plague lifted and not only were the survivors able to bury the dead, but they also celebrated. This week flags fly at half-mast as we mark the grim milestone of the one millionth American death from COVID. Our modern-day plague has not ceased. In this time of our mourning, the holiday of Lag BaOmer reminds us of the importance of finding joy even in the midst of sorrow. We don’t know when this plague will cease, if ever. But we do know that despite our difficulties, finding joy is essential. This Lag BaOmer I’ll be celebrating with my community, not because an ancient plague ceased, but because this holiday reminds us that we must create and seize moments of joy even in the midst of mourning.


Rabbi Erica Asch leads Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine. She is also the President-Elect of the CCAR.

Categories
Social Justice

The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion and the Legacy of Two Courageous Reform Rabbis and Religious Leaders Pre-Roe v. Wade

While we anticipate—and work to fight—the disastrous consequences resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s plan to drastically curtail reproductive rights in the United States, we can take a lesson in leadership and courage from the 1960s and two New York City CCAR members—Rabbi Lewis Bogage and Rabbi Israel Margolies, z”l—who were instrumental in forming the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion before the 1973 passing of Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was against the law in New York State when Rev. Finley Schaef approached Rev. Howard Moody, both serving churches in downtown Manhattan. Rev. Schaef, haunted by the memory of being unable to help a woman seeking an abortion for her daughter who became pregnant under tragic circumstances, suggested that the two of them organize clergy to refer people for safe and affordable abortions. Rev. Moody welcomed the idea and the two called a meeting with other clergy and legal advisors to form the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of religious leaders organized to refer women for safe and affordable care.  

The group devoted many hours to planning and arranging the details. They attained a direct-dial telephone number and housed an answering machine at Rev. Moody’s church. They charged no fee. To ensure their doctors were trustworthy and not overcharging, the administrator of Judson Church, Arlene Carmen, pretended to be a pregnant woman and checked them out. If questioned by the police, they would claim that the referrals were part of confidential pastoral counsel. And they were committed to using the word “abortion” in the name of their consultation service so that people knew what they were doing, would be able to find them, and hopefully reduce the stigma so often associated with abortion. And they enlisted the participation of other Greater New York City clergy, including Rabbi Bogage and Rabbi Margulies. 

Finally, on May 22, 1967, a New York Times front-page article announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, listing twenty-one clergy—nineteen ministers, plus Rabbi Bogage and Rabbi Margolies. The article described the goals and work of the CCSA, listed each clergy member by name and congregation, included the call number, and quoted from the CCSA statement which underscored that a doctor performing an abortion is “living by the highest standards of religion and of the Hippocratic Oath.”  

The calls and referrals started immediately, reaching 800 by the end of 1967, 3,000 in 1968, and 10,000 in 1969. According to estimates, by the time of the Roe decision, the network expanded nationally to 2,000 clergy serving 100,000 women without a single fatality. There were a few clergy arrests and legal inquires, but nothing ever came of it all, and with the Roe decision, many of the clergy turned to other social justice needs.  

  

Sources:  

Tom Davis, Sacred Work, Rutgers University Press, 126–135. 

Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf, To Offer Compassion, University of Wisconsin Press, 23–32. 

Dennis S. Ross, All Politics Is Religious, SkyLight Paths, 25–31.


Rabbi Dennis S. Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, is Acting Interim Specialist for the CCAR, and author of A Year with Martin Buber: Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion for the Jewish Publication Society Daily Inspiration Series. 

Categories
Social Justice

‘I Will Keep Fighting for Our Rights to Control Our Bodies and Our Lives’: Rabbi Hara Person’s Remarks at the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C.

In response to the draft of a United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which leaked to the public in early May, the Central Conference of American Rabbis—which believes that abortion access is a Jewish value, a human right, and part of comprehensive healthcare—cosponsored the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice, presented by National Council of Jewish Women, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, was asked to address the thousands of attendees in Washington, D.C. Here, we share her remarks.


I stand here today, a Reform rabbi and the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in tribute to my great-grandmother, Lena.

I stand here 100 years after my great-grandmother Lena had two knitting needle abortions on her kitchen table. She turned to the best of bad options because she could barely feed the children she had. My great-grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She lived to tell the tale. When abortion became legal in this country, she made sure her family knew her story.

Taking away access to abortion is not pro-life. Banning abortion is about taking power away from and punishing people with uteruses.

I am here to say proudly that Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believe that abortion access is essential healthcare, a basic human right, and a Jewish value.

Today we have safe options for abortion, and these options must be protected and accessible to all. Taking away abortion access goes against our most deeply held American values of religious liberty and equality. It goes against our Jewish belief of prioritizing an actual life over a potential life.

Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believes that every one of us should have the right to make personal healthcare decisions based on our own faith and values.

In memory of my great-grandmother, Lena, I will keep fighting for our rights to control our bodies and our lives. The fight will be difficult but what a blessing to be in it with all of you.

Categories
CCAR Press omer Prayer Shavuot

CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar on ‘Omer: A Counting’

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, shares insights on writing Omer: A Counting. It is available as a print book, an inspirational card deck, a print book and card deck bundle, and as a companion app on Apple, Google Play, and Amazon.


What is the Omer? What spiritual meaning can it provide for contemporary Jews?
The seven weeks of the Omer offer an invitation to walk a spiritual path from constriction to expanse. On the holiday of Shavuot, we will explore seven spiritual principles: decision, discernment, choosing, hope, imagination, courage, and praying. Each one, powerful on its own, can be a sort of north star and illuminate a path toward personal and spiritual growth.


How do you suggest that someone who has never counted the Omer before get started? How can Omer: A Counting enhance their practice?
For forty-nine days, or seven weeks, we take on a discipline, an obligation to mindfully enter the day, to be aware of its potential power to matter, to make a difference, to count for something. Awaken your routine with intention, with attention.


To get started simply begin or end your day with a moment of thought. Perhaps you sit in a beautiful place in your home, perhaps you leaf through a book that’s been inspirational to you. Perhaps you just take a walk or look out the window. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, even five minutes will do. And you say to yourself, today I make myself count for something good.


The book is divided into seven spiritual principles. How did you come up with these principles? What is their significance?
I offer an original set of spiritual principles for the seven weeks of Omer, listed above. These principles are points of light to illuminate a path towards spiritual awareness as we attempt to be free from what enslaves us.


Was there something new that you learned while writing this book?
It was very powerful for me to articulate the seven spiritual principles as stepping stones. Each one can be an entire practice on a spiritual path that sometimes feels more like a zigzag than a straight line. For example, every internal change begins with the spiritual principle of decision: we decide to behave a different way, to live a different way, to interact in a different way.

Rabbi Kedar is available to teach online on topics in her books. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois. She is the author of two CCAR Press books, Omer: A Counting (2014) and Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice (2019).

Categories
Poetry Rabbinic Reflections

‘Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed’: A Poem about Reproductive Justice

In response to the leaked draft of the decision of a majority of justices of the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, CCAR member Rabbi Zoe Klein wrote a poem entitled “Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed,” styled after the Viddui, a prayer meaning “confession,” recited just before Yom Kippur. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has long supported reproductive rights and, in the strongest terms, urges the Supreme Court not to restrict abortion rights and certainly not to reverse the groundbreaking and liberating decision in Roe v. Wade. If the leaked opinion is in fact a harbinger of a Supreme Court decision soon to come, CCAR rabbis will grieve; and without delay, we will continue our ongoing struggle for reproductive liberty.


Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman with kidney disease whose doctors say her pregnancy is
life threatening,
the woman who has high blood pressure whose doctors say her
pregnancy may kill her,
the woman with clinical depression and suicide ideation who is criminalized for saving herself,

the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of heavy spotting,
the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of an irregular period,
the girl who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because she has only just started puberty,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman suffering an ectopic pregnancy who is called “murderer”
on her way to her appointment,
the parents who are told their baby will be born with anencephaly,
without a brain, and are called “murderers,”
the woman who is told there is no heartbeat and is called “murderer”
on her way to the clinic,

the woman who miscarries and is criminalized because she cannot
prove it was natural,
the parent who is told that if born, their baby will live in excruciating pain and won’t survive past infancy,
the girl who is ostracized, shamed and criminalized
while he who impregnates her is free,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the family who doesn’t have health insurance
and barely survives paycheck to paycheck,
the woman living in a rural, remote town who cannot afford
the transportation, hotel and time off for a procedure,
the partner who loses their job for taking the days needed
to travel over state lines for their spouse’s care,
the children who are not taught sex education and are not
given access to birth control,
the families who are not given paid parental leave or affordable childcare,
the woman who religiously took birth control to prevent pregnancy,
but the birth control failed,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman who is a victim of reproductive coercion
by a domestic abuser,
the woman who is impregnated as a victim of sex trafficking,
the girl who is impregnated through sexual violence
and then retraumatized by the court,

the girl who is overpowered by a relative or person of authority,
the woman of color who faces racial and ethnic disparity in medicine, and less access to quality contraceptive services,
the Ukrainian woman refugee who was raped by the same Russian soldier who murdered her children,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…


the mother who is imprisoned for acquiring misoprostol
to end her teen daughter’s traumatic pregnancy,
the mother who is imprisoned for having an abortion in order to better feed and care for her children,
the woman who is imprisoned for terminating a pregnancy
that was not conceived in love,

the daughter who suffers long-term agony from terminating her pregnancy in unhygienic environments, at the hands of untrained individuals,
leaving her to suffer vaginal and rectal tearing, future infertility,
uterine perforations, hemorrhage, sepsis, blunt trauma, poisoning, and ruptured bowel, the daughter who is too scared to ask for help and dies of torturous infection and blood loss from the rusty tools
of a medical charlatan, the daughter who doesn’t have any reason
to trust lawmakers and adults, and suffers excruciating, unnecessary death.

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

For all of our failures to protect you, our daughters, mothers,
partners and friends,
Don’t forgive us. Don’t pardon us. Don’t lead us to atonement.


Rabbi Zoë Klein is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. She has written multiple novels and short stories, she has written chapters in a number of collections, including The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, and she has written articles for numerous publications, including Harper’s BazaarTikkun, and Torat Hayim.  Her poems and prayers are used in houses of prayer around the country.

Categories
News

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum: 50 Years as a Rabbi Dedicated to ‘K’lal Yisrael’

Though my career has been primarily in academia, I have sought to remain active as a rabbi. After Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), I completed my PhD at Harvard University in Near Eastern languages and civilizations under Professor Frank Moore Cross (1972–1978). From 1976 to 1986, I taught and received tenure at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 1986, I joined the faculty of the University of Hartford as the Maurice Greenberg Professor of Judaic Studies, professor of history, and director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. In 1998, I became president of Gratz College as well as professor of religion. Since 2009, I have been president emeritus and professor emeritus there and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Simultaneously, I remained involved in the rabbinate. From 1972 to 1976, I was an assistant rabbi in a Conservative synagogue in Swampscott, Massachusetts. While in Omaha, I was the monthly and then High Holy Day rabbi in a Conservative congregation in Danville, Illinois. In West Hartford, Connecticut, I was the rabbi (mara d’atra) of Agudas Achim, an OU Orthodox congregation, for six years (1992–1998). Thus, I have had the privilege of serving and being recognized as a rabbi by Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Judaism.

My parents, Rabbi Milton Rosenbaum, zt”l, and Rebbetzin Thelma Rosenbaum, a”h, were devout Reform Jews who treasured learning. Their encouragement led me to graduate from an after-school Jewish high school where the language of instruction was Hebrew and the students were Conservative and Orthodox (among them Susan Gordon, the young woman I would marry). That experience led to my spending a semester during twelfth grade at the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. After majoring in Near Eastern languages at the University of Michigan and studying at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem, I entered HUC-JIR in 1968. Several of us there requested kosher food and the College-Institute willingly obliged, arranging lunch and dinner from a kosher caterer under Orthodox supervision. With advanced standing at HUC-JIR, I spent a year in Israel as a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University. I concurrently studied Talmud at Neve Schechter in Jerusalem, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Penimiah (American Students Center). At HUC-JIR, I was deeply influenced by two renowned scholar-rabbis: Professor Jakob J. Petuchowski, zt”l, and Professor Ben Zion Wacholder, zt”l.

These experiences led me to see halachic observance and traditional Jewish theology as central to my rabbinate. Though I considered these elements potentially compatible with the Reform Movement, there was a practical limit to implementing such an approach. While Reform Judaism was gradually abandoning its classical Reform roots and adopting a more traditional presentation in ritual, garb, liturgy, and language, it was not ready for halachah as binding.

For these reasons, I became a member of the Conservative rabbinate and formally joined the Rabbinical Assembly in 1975 while still in graduate school. However, as one dedicated to K’lal Yisrael, I gladly maintained membership in the CCAR. As the Conservative Movement moved theologically closer to Reform, I found my theological and halachic commitments made me more at home in Modern Orthodoxy, a fact that led to active membership in Orthodox synagogues and, eventually, to serving as the rabbi in one.  

Yet my devotion to K’lal Yisrael did not abate. In Omaha, Hartford, and Philadelphia, my wife Susan (a psychiatrist for more than thirty years) and I have maintained simultaneous memberships in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations. Though my theological and concomitant halachic commitments place me in the Orthodox community, I am unwilling to leave behind those of other Jewish streams. I continue to feel shekol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, “that all of Israel are responsible, one for the other” (Sifra, B’chukotai, 7:5). In a world characterized by division, this apt ideal continues to guide me as a rabbi and a Jew.


Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. The CCAR honors and celebrates Rabbi Rosenbaum and the class of 1972.

Categories
Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Between Brokenness and Wholeness: Rabbi Hara Person’s CCAR Convention 2022 Address

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s poignant address to the Reform rabbinate.


How amazing it is for us to be together once again, after three long years since we last gathered as colleagues. What an incredible milestone this is for us as a chevrah, a truly celebratory occasion. It feels unbelievably moving and replenishing to be here together.

And what a strange, hard time this has been. Two years and about two weeks ago, after a lot of struggle, we had just made the decision to go virtual for Convention. So much of that time, those early pandemic days pre-vaccine, were filled with anxiety and fear. All of us were making decisions on the fly—you in your communities, and us at the CCAR, figuring out how to quickly replan and reinvent ourselves. Priorities changed overnight. At the CCAR, we sent our staff home to set up remote office spaces. We changed our educational and support offerings to meet the needs of the moment. We organized coaching, advising, and counseling sessions for rabbis at no cost. We provided you with free or heavily discounted CCAR Press resources. We heard your stress and tried to provide you with care and support during the grimmest, grief-filled, scariest times. I remember one of you telling me that you had done eleven COVID funerals in one week. In one week! Unimaginable, the spiritual and emotional cost.

At the same time, strangely, without social gatherings and commuting, there was also time to be filled. I rolled the thousands of pennies that had migrated to my house after my father died. I seasoned my cast iron pans, and then did it again. I had time to watch the dirt in my garden slowly fill with flowers in bloom that first pandemic spring, giving me a much-needed sense of hope. That all seems so quaint now, given what was still to come.

When we last gathered in person at CCAR Convention in March 2019, no one among us could have foreseen the enormity of what we’d be facing in this intervening time, and how much we would be changed by the experience. Painfully, often in grief, sometimes at great personal cost, but also with creativity and tremendous learning, we persevered. You rethought your rabbinates, you experimented, you pushed through, and even if you sometimes fumbled—and we all did—you nonetheless inspired and led and brought comfort. When I look at and see what you’re managing, when I speak to you, when I hear what you’re doing, when I visit your synagogues, I see the miraculous. I see resilience in the face of all of this. I see innovation. I see vision. It’s truly amazing. There is so much to be proud of.

And yet, I know it’s been a very hard time, and a complicated time. I know you lost people in your own lives, and that grief continues. I know that many of you are exhausted and overworked, stressed and burnt out. I see how hard you’ve been working, and often under impossible conditions. I know you are doing more than ever, and in many cases with fewer resources, less support, and more difficulty. I know that.

At that same time, we are facing challenges in regard to our beloved Reform institutions, challenges that make us question so much. If that wasn’t enough, we are facing fears about what endangers not only our souls but also our physical selves. As many of you have said, being a rabbi shouldn’t be dangerous. And yet it sometimes is just that. With the three ethics reports that have come out from our beloved organizations, the terrible events in Colleyville, the overall rise in antisemitism, and questions about the future of our institutions, there is no doubt that this moment we’re in is a hard one.

I feel it too. There have been times when I—like so many of you—feel weighed down by such a sense of brokenness. There have been many dark moments this past year, many moments of feeling that brokenness deeply within my soul. When I took on this job of serving the Reform rabbinate, I believed I would be doing something that I could be proud of. I thought I’d be able to focus on moving the CCAR into the future.

I could not have imagined that I would be managing the painful and dispiriting work of unpacking the ethical misconduct of rabbis and our institutions. To be the face of the CCAR in this moment is, to say the least, complicated. There have been moments of pain, deep shame, and bleak and utter darkness. Yet I know that this pain pales in comparison to the pain carried by the brave individuals who’ve come forward.

I can’t help but think back to that last in-person Convention in 2019 in Cincinnati, the city in which our founder Isaac Mayer Wise’s legacy is so present. As I was preparing to speak to you all for the first time at that joyous time, before I was even in the role of Chief Executive, I thought about our founder’s legacy. Legacy looms large at the CCAR. We are, after all, one of the three legacy organizations of the Reform Movement, along with our partners the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). We have a storied history that goes back to the nineteenth century. But what does it mean to be a legacy organization? What is the legacy that we have inherited, and perhaps even more importantly, what do we want our legacy to be?

B’reishit teaches ki afar atah v’el afar tashuv, that we come from dust and return to dust. That’s humbling, to be reminded of our nothingness, but it also prompts us to consider just the opposite—that it is what we do in between those states that matters. While we are blessed to walk this earth and be in relationship with each other, what are we doing to create a legacy of positive change, to make a difference, to help right wrongs, to give voice to the voiceless?

We have so much to feel good about, both in our history as Reform rabbis as well in the present. Our Reform predecessors helped define American Judaism. We have reformed liturgy and published generations of prayerbooks. We have marched for social justice and advocated for equity and civil rights. We were the first rabbinic organization to ordain women. Our rabbis published the first English-language modern Torah commentary that included contemporary scholarship, and our rabbis also created the first women’s Torah commentary. We have officiated at countless life-cycle events, celebrating with and comforting Jews decade after decade. We have taught and inspired and written books and sustained communities, and so much more. Part of the challenge of this moment is holding the complexity of all the good that we rabbis have done for people, the community, and the world, all the ways that we have lived out our values since our founding in 1889, together with the ways that we have fallen short.

We come from dust and we return to dust, but in between we have choices to make about the legacy we leave. I want our legacy to be an honorable one, a legacy of integrity and morality, a legacy of inclusion and respect. And I also want to say, wrongdoing on the part of some does not negate all the tremendous good done by most.

But in the midst of our proud Reform rabbinic legacy, and in the midst of all of your important and good work, there is misconduct that, rather than setting an example of menschlichkeit and being our best selves, was instead behavior that did the opposite, behavior that created a legacy of hurt and pain. There were, and continue to be, colleagues who have displayed the worst of human behavior. And other colleagues who either didn’t recognize the behavior for what it was, or didn’t do the right thing to eliminate that behavior from our community. 

Our institutional t’shuvah isn’t just necessary—it’s the right thing to do. I’m grateful to the CCAR T’shuvah Task Force for the thoughtful work they are doing to inform this process. And as we know, t’shuvah is not just a one-time formal statement, but as Maimonides taught, the changing of behaviors going forward. Words without action—and a deep-seated commitment to change—are meaningless. To that end, the CCAR is making t’shuvah a fundamental part of our organization, every day through our actions, by improving our processes, hiring an ethics staff member, supporting the ethics committee in increased training for its members, and hiring professional investigators, as well as engaging in many conversations about experiences with our system and history.

I am very grateful to the Ethics Committee for approaching their difficult work with integrity and dedication. Even before we received the Alcalaw report, their suggestions of ways to continually upgrade the process already had a significant impact. So too the Ethics Process Review Committee has made continual changes to the Ethics Code, almost every year. The attention to ongoing upgrading on the part of both committees is remarkable. Hopefully, as a community, we will vote in many of the needed changes to the current Ethics Code that the Ethics Process Review Committee is currently working on in a special session, even as the Ethics Task Force envisions what an ethics process of the future may look like.

But here, today, I want to begin to apologize out loud.

I’ve heard so many painful stories over the last year. Some happened years ago; some are more recent. Not all are about sexual misconduct. Some stories aren’t about the ethics process at all but are about the way a colleague was hurt by the CCAR. Some are stories of bias or diminishment. And let me be clear—some of the pain that has been expressed is because the ethics system actually worked as it should and held rabbis accountable, and though warranted, that can be painful. Regardless of what, when, or how, the pain is real.

When Abraham speaks to God to argue the case for sparing the people of S’dom, he begins by stating that he is but afar v’eifer, dust and ashes. Abraham invokes humility as he speaks up for the voiceless and argues for what he believes is right. Not only do we come from dust and return to dust, but our texts acknowledge that in our lifetimes we sometimes go through periods of being covered in dust and ashes. There are times in which we are brought low, bowed down in sorrow and grief, before we can rise again.

In this last year, I have often felt buried in both the dirt and the ashes of this pain. I want to say clearly: I am sorry that CCAR rabbis have caused pain. I’m sorry that the CCAR has caused pain. I’m sorry that our legacy is tarnished.

I came to the rabbinate considerably after the vatikot we’re honoring at Convention and owe so much to those first pioneer women, my older sisters who led the way. But I too have my stories, my experiences in the rabbinate and in our Reform institutions, as a mother with one and then two young children while a rabbinic student, as a career-long non-congregational rabbi, as an oddity in many ways, all of which have shaped my rabbinate—sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully. Moreover, having been one of the early women at a formerly men’s college as an undergrad, I know very well that merely opening the door to let us in doesn’t mean equality has been achieved and bias has been overcome.

And yet, even with all that, it turns out that we also have what to be proud of. We knew we had to revamp our ethics system and were moving forward with this work even before new allegations came to light in this last year. And moreover, we actually have an ethics system, a system in need of further upgrades, yes, but an existing, robust system that has been updated and changed year after year by you, by your votes. The path ahead is filled with repair, rebuilding, and healing. But this too can be our legacy—the commitment to create a better, safer future, and to always improving what we do and how we do it.

I am grateful that we have both an Ethics Task Force and a T’shuvah Task Force hard at work right now, helping to create a better future for us all. I am also grateful to be able to work with my partners, Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the URJ and Dr. Andrew Rehfeld at HUC-JIR, as we begin to navigate what we can do better together, and grateful as well to Rabbi Mary Zamore at the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) for her unwavering commitment to justice.  

Not easily, and not without pain or cost, but progress is happening. Rabbi Zamore and WRN leadership have suggested that we join together in a Day of Lament in the next months. I believe that this will be a meaningful and significant experience for us as a community, and I’m appreciative to be able to partner on this project. In addition, CCAR will be working with URJ and HUC-JIR to plan a Yom Iyyun around themes of repentance and other related topics for the community as a whole. Both of these plans are very preliminary right now, but I believe in the power of ritual acts, communal study, and deep, vulnerable conversation. More information about all of this will be forthcoming in the coming months.

There is so much important work ahead of us. I am energized by all the possibilities. And indeed, in this incredibly difficult time, despite all the really hard and painful work, CCAR has continued to grow and evolve in really exciting ways. As you have hopefully seen, one of the things we will be voting on tomorrow is new Vice President positions, one of which is the Vice President of Varied Rabbinates, as a response to the evolving reality of where and how our rabbis serve today and what kinds of support you need. That’s a significant step forward for us as a Conference, a new milestone.

And another very big milestone—we are taking the very first steps toward a new Reform Torah commentary, including a new translation. It’s very early in the process, but I’ll have more to share with you in the months to come.

Accelerated by the needs of the last two years, we now have a robust wellness program under Rabbi Betsy Torop, CCAR Director of Rabbinic Education and Support, in addition to the pandemic pivoting and all the other fine work she and Julie Vanek, CCAR Education Specialist, are doing in that department, including this Convention. You don’t necessarily see her work, but if it wasn’t for the thoughtful fiscal and operations stewardship of Laurie Pinho, our COO and CFO, we would not be able to function, never mind flourish, and without Laurie’s leadership we certainly would not be able to run a hybrid convention.

The department we used to call “Placement” has evolved into the fuller and more inclusive Department of Rabbinic Career Services, and I’m so grateful that our interim directors, Rabbi Deborah Hirsch and Rabbi Michael Weinberg, were willing to put their retirements on hold to come help us for the year. With their help, and with your feedback and input, we’ve re-envisioned that department and created a new structure for the future, which includes two full-time directors with separate portfolios to better meet your needs. I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin this summer, when they’ll take over as Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services respectively, and help us keep moving the department into the future. With this new structure, we will be able to better serve different kinds of rabbis at all moments of the rabbinic career lifecycle. I’m grateful too for Rabbi Dennis Ross and Rabbi David Thomas, both serving as interims in specific career-related areas this year.

CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken came in only months before the pandemic but despite that challenge, the Press has thrived under his leadership. Director of Strategic Communications Tamar Anitai makes us look good in social media spaces and helps us navigate the complex world of communications. Our Development Department recently welcomed Pamela Goldstein in a new position as the Director of Advancement, who together with Lisa Tobin, our Director of Development, is working hard to provide all the services and resources that you rely on and help us find ways to keep growing into the future. Our Special Advisor in Ethics, David Kasakove, came into a brand-new position at a historic moment, giving us wise and careful guidance. I am also grateful to our two emeriti, Rabbi Steve Fox and Rabbi Alan Henkin, who generously continue to provide insights and help when asked.

I also want to thank and acknowledge my amazing assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, and the rest of our team: Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather, Jaqui D’ellaria, Michael Santiago, Ariel Dorvil, Chiara Ricisak, Rabbi Jan Katz, Dale Panoff, Nathan Burgess, Rodney Dailey, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, and Rabbi Don Rossoff, as well as our HUC-JIR interns Madeline Cooper and Ariel Tovlev. And we are soon to be joined not only by Leora and Alan, but also by our colleague Rabbi Annie Belford-Villarreal, who will become the new editor at CCAR Press this summer. Most of these amazing staff members are either here this week in person or back home helping to run the online version of Convention, and I urge you to introduce yourself and say hello when you cross paths.  

I want to say a special thank you to CCAR President and my partner and friend, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, for his wisdom, calm counsel, and caring heart. I also must thank the whole CCAR board, who provide incredible support and thoughtfulness, and all of you who volunteer with the CCAR in such a huge variety of invaluable ways. I am so very grateful to the many, many CCAR members who work so hard on behalf of our Conference.

I said earlier that I feel weighed down by brokenness. But one thing I am learning in the midst of this incredibly difficult time is to not walk away from brokenness. Brokenness calls, and I am trying to embrace it, to face it, to learn from it, and to walk through it.

At the heart of our Jewish tradition is the idea that brokenness is part of life rather than an aberration. The challenge of holding within us that tension between brokenness and wholeness is a deep part of our collective story. In just a few weeks, as we celebrate our freedom at the seder, we will break the middle matzah. Doing so reminds us that we live in a broken world, that we ourselves contain brokenness. 

Back home, spring flowers are bursting through the desolate winter dirt of my Brooklyn garden. What looks bleak in one season can become celebratory in the next. This I know: out of dust and ashes, beauty arises. In the coming weeks, we will taste the bitterness of oppression as we joyfully celebrate liberation. Brokenness may bring us low, but it is only a chapter, not the whole story. Our narrative continues. As we move from dust to dust, we continue to write our story, and in so doing, continue to create our ongoing and ever-evolving legacy. We have so much to be excited about. I look forward to growing and building the CCAR with you in the months and years to come.

Categories
CCAR Press Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

CCAR Press Interview: Jessica Greenbaum on ‘Mishkan HaSeder’

Jessica Greenbaum, coeditor (with Rabbi Hara E. Person) of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, shares her experience working on the Haggadah. Mishkan HaSeder is available as a print book, ebook (Kindle and Google Play), and now as a Visual T’filahTM.


How did you come to serve as a coeditor for Mishkan HaSeder?

Mishkan HaSeder was one of those long-gestating dreams. I met Rabbi Hara Person in 1990, and as we became friends and I reveled in the poems she had paired with Torah text in the Women’s Commentary, it seemed inevitable that we would also pair passages of the Haggadah with poetry —and for the same reason, to feel closer to the text. We also knew that by choosing poets of any faith, time, and place, their work would reflect the universality of the story of the Exodus. We wanted participants to feel the seder as a microcosm for the human experience.

Mishkan HaSeder contains a wealth of poetry alongside the seder text. How did you choose which poems to include?

From her work with the The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and other texts, Rabbi Person had a clear method. We looked at every page of the Haggadah and then distilled meanings, symbols, and philosophies found at that moment in the seder. To find poems that reflected or refracted those ideas, we cross-indexed them with our own knowledge of poets and poems, with online databases of poems, and we thumbed through books upon books. It’s not hard to find poems that have a relationship to the story, but finding the very right ones that pop open the moment to new understandings and resonance—that was our goal, and it was thrilling. Like Torah, the story of Passover is ever-expanding; we wanted to find poems that sparked this dynamism.

What role can poetry play as part of the Passover experience?

Emotional intimacy! For example, Mishkan HaSeder’s very first poem, by Karl Shapiro, imagines a 151st psalm (there are only 150 in our liturgy) that begins, “Immigrant God, You follow me.” From the start the reader is offered, within this story of moving toward freedom, an example of freedom to reimagine one’s relationship to God and to the story. “The 151st Psalm” is followed by Jane Hirshfield’s great poem “Optimism,” which begins “More and more I have come to admire resilience”—because not only does Passover embody resilience, but so does survival for peoples all through time. When the Haggadah instructs us to honor the stranger, resilience is needed there as well, to strengthen our resolve against forces of exclusion on any number of levels.

What makes Mishkan HaSeder different from other Haggadot?

Many wonderful Haggadot offer paths from the traditional liturgy to a deepened awareness of the living presence of the Exodus story in the present day. One thing Mishkan HaSeder holds is an entire second Haggadah within it; people who want to conduct a seder with very little of the traditional liturgy can lean on the poems themselves to reflect the signs and wonders of the story. And because readers are used to understanding poems through a very personal scrim, participants can come to the evening knowing that their individual sensibilities have a seat at the table and a voice for the discussion. Mishkan HaSeder can also act as the salt and pepper at the table—the poems sprinkled within whatever text a host chooses.

Did you learn something new while editing the book?

I was grateful to become more conversant with the traditional liturgy and the relationship of one part of the seder to another. There will always be more to know, of course, but each layer of understanding offers new layers of discovery—and new ways of feeling profoundly connected.

Learn more about Mishkan HaSeder at mishkanhaseder.ccarpress.org


Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker. She is the coeditor, with Rabbi Hara Person, of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah.

Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Healing, Restoring, and Renewing: Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ CCAR Convention 2022 Sermon

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR President Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ powerful, moving sermon addressing the Reform rabbinate.


In Masechet B’rachot, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who sees his friend after thirty or more days have passed recites “Blessed is the Eternal One who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time” (B’rachot 58b). Commentators have debated whether it should be recited if some correspondence or conversation took place in the interim. But as I look at each of you gathered here, 350 rabbis, joined together for the first time in three years, and those of you joining us virtually, with the most genuine sentiment I say,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה  

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu v’kyimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh! It is so renewing for us to be together again: studying, praying, laughing, learning, debating, and probing questions of meaning. Perhaps now more than ever, we understand the wonder and the joy of being together as colleagues. 

After two years of isolation, of weddings and b’nai mitzvah without guests, of Zoom holidays and classes, of services led with only a camera or a screen before us, and of funerals with no one present to comfort the mourner, I would suggest that on the heels of a pandemic, we feel depleted, not simply because of endless redesigning of our work, but also because we were deprived of the renewing spirit of community found in serving others in person. Now, at this gathering, our thoughtful study or the simple conversations in the hallway or over a meal will have even greater resonance for us, as we seek to replenish and be restored. 

To be restored—that is very much what Torah speaks to this week, in Parashat Tazria. While some would say it is that portion that only a dermatologist can love, perhaps these instructions of priestly leadership may also bring heightened meaning to us at this time. For we have known the residual effects of isolation from a plague, of being separated from community. And we rabbis now sense what the ancient priests must have felt: the exhausting responsibility of keeping those isolated in contact, reassured that they would be reconnected to community, that the צרעת tzara’at would pass, that all might be restored.  

But of course, even in being restored, nothing can be exactly as it once was. Because we are not the same as we once were. And neither is our world. Since we were last together, we have experienced massive disruption in our work, in our families, and in the larger world. We have known tzara’at of the fabric of society. Consider for a moment a quick review of the last two years: the first pandemic of our lives, widespread illness and death, a threat to democracy, racial tension, rejection of past injustice, the rise of nationalism and antisemitism, terror aimed at synagogues and even our brave colleagues, a war that threatens Europe and brings with it an unparalleled refugee crisis, and so much more. Chaos is the backdrop that drapes our daily lives. Our tzara’at is disruption that afflicts the order in which we once labored.  

These headlines of our day deeply impact our lives. Our tradition teaches that a tzara’at is not only to the affected patch of skin, but extends to the thoughts and the emotions, the fears and the hopes of everyone it touches. Our congregations, schools, Hillels, chaplaincies, and communities are not immune from this. As rabbis, we keenly feel the cultural pressure of skepticism of authority, polarization and the diminished value of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Further, the contemporary plague of disruption has touched every individual. There is widespread vulnerability and fragility. Frustration or anger bubbles up too easily. Relationships are frayed.  And for so many, mental health concerns proliferate. 

Our Torah enumerates the job description of the priest to examine and decree the tzara’at, the affliction. The procedures are detailed with the uncomplicated clarity of an instruction book. Yet, if we place ourselves in the shoes of the priests, we can imagine what might have been in their hearts as they carried out their tasks. More than making a simple pronouncement of tzara’at, that priest stood face to face with the afflicted, looking into their eyes. That priest saw the anxiety and fear of the afflicted person, the disruption to their lives and to their family that isolation brought, the pleading uncertainty written upon their faces. And what they saw there had to unsettle the priests, who, after all, accompanied the afflicted both to isolation and subsequently to their return to the community.  

We rabbis stand in the shoes of the ancient priests in our contemporary cultural affliction, the tzara’at of disruption. With tender care and sometimes with heavy hearts, each day we have the privilege to look into the eyes of our people.  And we stare in the mirror, seeing reflected in our own eyes our moments of deep and revealing thoughts. Colleagues, we are all מצורע m’tzora—afflicted with the plague and its ensuing dislocation. So many of us have struggled through the added demands and the lengthened hours, and received the frustrations of those we serve, even as we experience our own. The lesion of disruption has shaken us with our own vulnerability. We are burdened with self-doubt, overwhelmed by the demands, and seeking to balance so much in our lives when even the ground beneath us feels unsure. With our high expectations of self, we wonder if we are up to the enormity and complexity of the task.   

Now colleagues, as I look into your eyes, this I know: like the ancient rabbis before us and the priests before them, we are up to the task. We are the ones to rise to the moment, because this is the moment to which we have been called. But neither you nor I can do this alone. How much we need to turn to our colleagues with the vulnerable and searching questions of the heart, to help us clarify the direction we seek. We need to discover our strength not in appearing to stand tall through the storm, but in offering a generous hand to lift one another up to this moment. Even rabbis need a rabbi. So let us look to one another to comfort, challenge, teach, and guide us. And we need our Conference as well, not only for resources or knowledge, but for wisdom, strength, support, and care. Along with our volunteer leadership, our extraordinary and compassionate professionals—led by our rabbi, Hara Person—are endeavoring to shape a CCAR that is ever more responsive to those urgent needs of the rabbinic soul. And we look to you to help us do so. We all need to be kinder to one another, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to shape a nourishing environment of understanding and care. That is what a rabbinic chevra is at its essence. So, in these days together here and in the year that unfolds, let us be deeply honest and boldly vulnerable with one another, and let us respond with an equal generous measure of kindness and caring. In an age where k’vod harav כבוד הרב is devalued, we must elevate that fundamental principle within our own discourse. 

And colleagues, as our people in the wilderness relied upon the priests, our people today need us more than ever. I can assure you: that need will only grow. If we are to restore our people to faith in the bedrock strength of our tradition and in the comforting care of community, we will need more rabbis in every venue of rabbinic leadership. So, as I did last year, now even more urgently do I sound the warning that we are not raising up enough disciples. It has always been the rabbi who has identified and inspired Jews to become rabbis and to assure our future. We dare not wait for a young person to come to us to ask about the rabbinate, or we will leave Jewish life starved for leadership and strength. The crisis is upon us now, not for the next generation, but now and for the next years before us. We must look past the urgency of today’s many problems that confront us, to the longer horizon in which we lead and serve, for you and I are the solution to this looming crisis. We should engage in rabbinic קירוב keiruv (outreach), with our personal invitation to those we find promising. In this moment, reflect and consider those people to whom you could turn: promising teens, college students, young adults, and those in engaged in Jewish life in our communities. Initiate conversations. Invite them to enter a life of unparalleled meaning. We secure the future of Jewish life not only by our teaching and our deeds, but in the disciples that we inspire and invite to join us. Our history, our community, and our faith hold us accountable to that. 

In the rabbinic midrash of Sifra, (Parashat Nega’im 4:4) the text interprets the words לכל מראה עיני הכהן l’chol mareih einei hacohen (Leviticus 13:12) to mean that the priests could only carry out the sacred task if their vision was undiminished and their sight was undimmed. While the midrash meant blindness or visual impairment, I would suggest a different interpretation, that the priest could not serve the proper leadership role with a diminished sense of purpose.  And neither can we. 

So let us renew that in ourselves. Yes, our world is not the same as when we last gathered, nor are our daily tasks. But our role remains steadfast and clear. This beacon of light and faith still shines undimmed as our steadfast vision: I believe that the destiny of Jewish life is in our hands as rabbis. I believe that as rabbis we must restore ourselves, so that we might restore hope, clarity, vision, and resolve to every corner of our work and to every set of eyes into which we peer. I believe in the undiminished promise and meaning of what we rabbis do. I believe in our impact: in the teaching that can inspire, the word fitly spoken with a person we counsel or comfort at a bedside, or in what someone remembers years later of that moment in which we guided them. From all that I see, more than ever, I believe in what rabbis do, who we are, and to what we aspire. And I believe in us. For we are meaning makers. Our words, our wisdom, and our work can be enduring. And we would do well to remember that, all of us, especially at this moment in time. 

To the disruptive tzara’at of our day, may we bring healing. Let us begin with restoring ourselves, turning to one another, reconnecting to a chevra that inspires us with energy, learning, and support. Let us reconnect our people to that reservoir of meaning so desperately needed in their lives. Let us move beyond the exhaustion of the day to embrace the invigorating responsibility of shaping tomorrow. It is that courageous leadership that rabbis have always been called to do, especially in uncertain times.  

For colleagues, we are not simply employees with job descriptions in organizations or congregations. As rabbis, we are “builders of our people,” “restorers of the breach,” and the priests who look into the faces of others and who see reflected in their eyes the divine image.  We are the guardians of Jewish life and guardians of its light. So together, let us walk with confidence and courage toward that light to restore what we were ordained to do. Amen. 


Rabbi Lewis Kamrass is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Senior Rabbi of Isaac M. Wise Temple of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has spent his entire rabbinate.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Karen Fox: Promoting Women in the Rabbinate, Reseeding Jewish Life in America

In 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. The resolution stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This was a groundbreaking moment in contemporary Jewish history, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah and leading the Jewish community. In 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who have followed her. Still, even today, the concept of women rabbis can be novel enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, in their geographical location, to serve on boards, and the list goes on. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis. 

During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. Here, we share the “firsts” of Rabbi Karen L. Fox, LMFT, ordained in 1978. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting. 


It’s quite amazing that 100 years ago the CCAR asserted the possibility of women’s inclusion as rabbis within the Reform community.  Although at that time, most women had not come out from behind a mechitza in synagogue settings, and if they did it was to allow family seating in services. Stepping into Jewish leadership would break the halachic/Jewish legal boundaries, the social expectations of women, and the psychosocial transference that congregants project to their rabbis. And yes, change takes time…perhaps 100 years or more.   

Finding courage  
In the 1920s, my great aunt Dr. Charlotte Schwarzenberger (Lotte) studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a PhD in Psychology.  Her sisters also pushed the envelope for that time— Frida became a LCSW, and Trude, a partner in a citrus import-export business with her husband. My grandmother Berta wanted to go to medical school, but she married early and had two children; she certainly would have loved the medical profession and had the intellect to pursue it. The influence of these great aunts, the Tantes, and my grandmother gave me courage to enter the rabbinate when there was only one woman rabbi yet ordained. 
 
Two male rabbis influenced me as well. Rabbi Haim Asa, a Bulgarian-born refugee became our family rabbi in Fullerton, California. He encouraged me to attend UAHC Camp Swig, and later to enter the rabbinate. His joy of Jewish people and community was contagious. Rabbi Richard Levy, the UCLA Hillel director while I was an undergraduate, also reflected joy and purpose in his love of the rabbinate, encouraging me, saying “It was fun!”  

When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, ‘None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.’ My response, ‘None of the other rabbis have been women before.’

Rabbi Karen Fox

Firsts, finally 
When I was ordained from HUC-JIR in 1978, I was approached by the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) to become an assistant regional director. That was clearly flattering—I only knew Reform Jewish life from my HUC-JIR studies, UAHC camps, and my home congregation. It was my opportunity to learn the administrative, social, and political agenda of Reform Judaism. And I grabbed it, also because I could stay in New York as a single woman.   
 
What I now know is that most regional directors were experienced rabbis with pragmatic congregational, administrative, and financial experience they could share with congregations in their areas. Looking back, I believe my unspoken function, was to serve as an informal orientation to Reform congregations regarding women rabbis.  

Rabbi Karen Fox and West New Jersey rabbis at a 1980 UAHC retreat.

In the hundreds of congregations in the New York and later the New Jersey region, I was often the first women rabbi people would meet, asking me all the awkward woman rabbi questions. I was not offended by their naive or intrusive questions as I understood I was among the first to shift this rabbinic leadership culture. Often I was the only woman professional who was not a secretary or assistant in meetings, board rooms, or conferences.   

When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, “None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.” My response, “None of the other rabbis have been women before.”  

I received three months and promptly shared this news with my women colleagues.  

I felt passion to be the best rabbi I could be representing Reform Judaism at that time and promoting women in the rabbinate as part of my purpose of reseeding Jewish life in America.    

I was supported by two outstanding colleagues at the UAHC—Rabbi Alan Bergman and Rabbi Sandy Selzer. Each suggested ways to handle the “old boys” network of the Union and the landmines of their agenda. My women colleagues were the angels to my right and left—especially Rabbi Rosalind Gold and Rabbi Deborah Prinz. 

Rabbi Karen Fox, gathering with women rabbis at a WRN Convention in California in June 2019.

A first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple 
I was a first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and I’m grateful to two men for guiding my path. I came to the position as rabbi and camp director because of previous relationships. I knew Rabbi Harvey J. Fields from my New Jersey days, and he had recently become the senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Steve Breuer, the executive director, had hired me as a teen to work at Camp Hess Kramer. They both came to bat for me before it was common for women to be on the pulpit and worked with the lay leadership to welcome me as a rabbi there. At Wilshire, there were many firsts: funerals, when folks didn’t really want a woman; weddings for those who had been longtime congregants. Some began with resistance and ended in lifelong respectful and significant relationships. Developing programming for women business professionals, offering support for families experiencing infertility, guiding women to leadership in prayer practice through adult b’nei mitzvah and minyan leadership, celebrating women’s seders in the 1980s; all of these acts were new at the time, as was bringing additional women rabbis to Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

Rabbi Karen Fox at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camp Hess Kramer in 1986,
with her children, Avi and Benjy.

 
Family first 
My brother Steven A.  Fox is also rabbi and was ordained two years after me, in 1980. He shared his 1980 ordination day with classmate Rabbi Michael Weinberg whose sister is Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (ordained HUC-JIR, 1979). I gave the invocation and she the benediction. Sharing the rabbinate has allowed us a shared language as siblings, a closeness within a circle of friends and family, and a commitment to common values.

Rabbi Karen Fox, with her brother, Rabbi Steven A.Fox, former CCAR Chief Executive.

I kvelled at his Installation to the CCAR as Chief Executive and cried at his retirement, knowing how proud our parents would have felt: Dave and Senta Salomons Fox came to American as European refugee survivors, as Dad said “with nothing,” and never imagined that their children would become significant Jewish leaders.   


Rabbi Karen Fox counsels, consults, teaches, and resides in California.