Categories
Rabbinic Careers

CCAR Interim Rabbis: Helping Jewish Communities Navigate and Maintain Strength During Transition

One of the many rabbinic roles that the CCAR helps Reform congregrations fill is that of the interim rabbi. Congregations searching for interim rabbis may need additional time to hire the right rabbi: a long-term rabbi may have retired or left, or there may have been a crisis in the synagogue community, and the synagogue is in need of revitalization. Interim rabbis fill a crucial need in synagogues, partnering with lay leaders and staff to prepare a congregation for the arrival and success of a long-term rabbi, helping bridge important gaps in Reform communities, and ensuring that these communities receive the care, attention, and strong Jewish leadership they so deserve.

For most congregations, rabbinic transitions function best when an interim rabbi steps in to help maintain continuity, drive necessary change, and help ensure and grow vitality.

The work of an interim rabbi can be extraordinarily meaningful as much of the focus of this work is on strengthening Jewish communities in ways that will help the congregation’s next settled rabbi succeed. All kinds of rabbis—included retired or active—should think about doing interim work.

What makes a good interim rabbi? Rabbis interested in helping communities navigate and maintain strength during a year of transition, or active rabbis who are looking for a change or a new challenge.

The CCAR offers annual training for rabbis interested in the interim rabbinate and provides ongoing learning opportunities for members currently serving in an interim capacity. 

Below are some voices of current interim rabbis who share the many reasons why this role is so meaningful.

We encourage CCAR members to consider becoming an interim rabbi.

If you’re interested in learning more about interim rabbis, visit CCAR Rabbinic Search Services. CCAR members can sign up for December 2024 Interim Rabbi Training here.


RABBI BATSHEVA APPEL

Serving a congregation that has acknowledged their transition is fulfilling. My very presence opens a space for them to expand their thinking about who they are and who their next rabbi might be. Sharing best practices with the staff and leadership offers new possibilities that they may never have considered or thought too difficult to enact.

Seeing the institution as a whole, including systems and things that have receded to the background, because that is the way that it has always been done, allows them to reflect on what is working for them. Listening to a broad swath of the constituent communities of their congregation uncovers strengths and challenges that might not have been considered.

No matter what else, the congregations and institutions that we serve are not static, they change. That change might be long-planned or sought. That change might be abrupt or tragic. All institutions change and all institutions go through transition. Interim training is key for those of us who are serving as interim rabbis or are interested in serving as interim rabbis, but it is helpful for rabbis serving congregations in general because it helps us to understand how to support congregations in transition, and all congregations are in transition. The skills learned in interim training will be useful in your rabbinate.

RABBI DENNIS ROSS

As an interim rabbi, I’m often asked if it’s hard to leave each year. It is. We go through intense times together, on a personal level and as a congregation. It is hard to leave But it is also my privilege to serve the Jewish people this way.  An interim rabbi serves, as well, albeit one congregation at a time. We sustain and build communities, address congregational needs, and enhance the leadership capacity of staff and leaders. Everything we do helps prepare the congregation for the next rabbi, who benefits from a smoother transition, stronger start and, hopefully, a longer and a more fulfilling tenure.

I’m going into my sixth interim position, and it continues to be my “privilege” to:

  • Support a staff member in finding a less confrontational way to express their upset in challenging situations.
  • Ensure that the synagogue governance structure is working effectively and efficiently
  • Take initial steps to rebuild or recreate a teen engagement program.
  • Bring reassurance, hope and focus following a congregational trauma.
  • Uplift the legacy of an emeritus/emerita when years of service are taken for granted.

… And more.

It is only recently that our movement has begun to embrace the idea of interim service. For many years, a congregational rabbi would retire or take another position, a new “settled” rabbi would arrive, and the congregation would move forward in a positive direction, and this still happens in many situations. Yet, our congregations and entering rabbis find they are in a much better place when an Intentional Interim Rabbi serves the Jewish people by serving them.

Congregational leaders and staff enjoy a morale boost when an interim highlights the community’s strengths that were “hiding in plain sight” until the interim speaks about them. The community benefits when longstanding and beloved practices are identified, sustained, and strengthened. Everyone is better when unaddressed program needs are met, and the capacity of staff and leaders is enhanced.

RABBI DARRYL CRYSTAL

I have served 18 congregations as an interim rabbi over the last 20 years. I have learned that without a doubt that interim rabbis do important and meaningful work: An interim year is a critical time in the life of a congregation. A colleague may retire, move to another position, become ill, or there may have been conflict related to the colleague’s departure. Congregants are concerned about the present and future of the temple. Interim rabbis learn about the dynamics of transition. Interim rabbis can be an experienced leader who is a non-anxious presence.

There is also the rich opportunity to learn from congregations: As each person has a unique mitzvah that they bring to a congregation, so does each congregation have unique gifts. It may be a dynamic musical tradition, inspiring tefillot, social justice, new ways to engage people, commitment to youth, or Jewish learning. There is incredible creativity in the Jewish world today.

Overall, interim rabbis get to become part of the great story of Judaism in North America. Many of the congregations I have served are part of the extraordinary history of Jewish life in the United States. From Congregation Mikve Israel, the third-oldest synagogue in the United States, to founding congregation of the Reform movement, to temples that represent the growth of suburban Judaism, to synagogues that are embracing the future and shaping Judaism for today and tomorrow, as an interim rabbi you are part of the story and a messenger of the dynamism of Judaism.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi James Mirel: 50 Years of Joys and Sorrow Serving the Jewish Community

On July 28, 2006, a deranged antisemitic man with a gun entered the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and murdered my congregant and dear friend Pamela Waechter. She was one of a handful of American Jews who have been murdered for being Jewish.  

The Islamic terrorist was found to be sane by the jury and sentenced to life in prison. Pam‘s life was over in a bloody barrage of gunfire. 
 
At her funeral, our temple was filled with fellow Jews and many government officials and others, well over a thousand people who were still in shock. That was most traumatic and yet most important day in my life as a rabbi, when it fell to my shoulders to bring comfort to her family and to the community. Pam’s memory will stay with me forever. She truly died al kiddush HaShem—for the sanctification of the God and the Jewish people.  
 
When she converted many years prior, I am sure her rabbi reminded her that historically being a Jew can be a source of personal danger and persecution (as is required in the Talmud), but no one could have imagined that it could lead to her being gunned down in cold blood just for being a Jew or working in a Jewish setting. 
 
Fifty years of thousands of funerals, weddings, bet mitzvah, and other life cycle events. All meaningful at that moment, most of them forgotten in the details. 
 
But every once in a while, having served in the same community all fifty years—and I pray more to come—someone will see me on the street and say something like, “Rabbi, you really made a big difference in my life.” 
 
These are the moments in which I know I made the right decision fifty-five years ago when I entered HUC-JIR in Los Angeles with a college degree in philosophy and a hundred dollars in my checking account. What a journey. I have been blessed in so many ways.  

Baruch HaShem.


This year at the CCAR Convention 2024 in Philadelphia, we celebrated all of the CCAR rabbis celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate. We are honored to include Rabbi James Mirel in this year’s 50-year rabbis and ordination class of 1974.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Passover

Reclaiming a Place for Women at the Seder Table

Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the author of From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt, she discusses the importance of acknowledging the crucial role that women play in the Passover story and elsewhere in Jewish tradition.

Many women sense that elements of Jewish tradition leave them mute and unrepresented. We cannot deny the exclusion of women from the public realm over the course of far too many generations, but if we take a close look at the events that form the basis of the Passover holiday, we will find that strong, active, and optimistic women occupy a central place in the narrative. This is an important precedent for women in our time who are looking for their place in Jewish tradition. The story of the redemption from Egypt began and was made possible by dint of the actions of dedicated women who refused to give in to despair.

The Hebrew women refused to knuckle under to Pharaoh’s murderous order and continued to bring life into this world. Jochebed, Moses’s mother, is one of them; she gave birth and protected her son from Pharaoh’s decree. Her daughter, Miriam, hid the newborn in a basket of reeds and set him floating on the Nile. The midwives who attended Jochebed also chose the path of rebellion and showed mercy to the Hebrew babies. Who were those midwives? Pharaoh called them “the Hebrew midwives” (Exodus 1:15). It is possible to read this and understand they are “Hebrew midwives,” but it is also possible to read the phrase as “the midwives of the Hebrews,” meaning that they themselves were not Hebrews but bravely cooperated with the women of the enslaved nation to keep the newborn boys alive.

Pharaoh’s daughter herself refused to take part in her father’s murderous plans. When she saw the helpless baby brought to her by the Nile, her human compassion overruled her social and class attachments. A midrash calls Pharaoh’s daughter “Bityah” (see Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 13a), and she has been regarded by the Jewish tradition as a righteous woman and even a Jew-by-choice. Miriam then ensured that Jochebed, her mother, would be the one to nurse Moses in Pharaoh’s house, so that he would imbibe—both literally and figuratively—his first human experiences in the arms of the people Israel.

Reading Jewish sources with a fresh eye makes it possible for women to demand their rightful place. This is not a mere act of intellectual sophistication, nor is it bending the texts to one’s own will. Just the act of reading the sources anew is liberating. It gives expression to multiple pure voices that have been suppressed and silenced—and after all, liberation is one of the central themes of Passover. Many people are now attempting not only to make the place of women equal to that of men at the seder table, but also to find special ways to highlight their function and role in the story of the nation and the family.


Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem. She is the chief editor of T’filat HaAdam, the Israeli Reform prayer book (MaRaM, 2020). From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar was first published in Israel in 2018 as Bazman and has been translated into German, Spanish, and now English.

Categories
CCAR Press Rabbinic Careers

Helping Shine the Inner Light: A Rabbi as Editor

CCAR Press Editor Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford discusses bringing a rabbinic touch to the work of guiding authors and their books through the publication process.

When I left the congregational rabbinate after eighteen years and started working for CCAR Press as their new editor, I had no idea what to expect. It is true that I worked for the URJ Press for two years as an intern while in rabbinical school, but my entire working life since ordination consisted of serving congregations. Being a rabbi, for many of us and definitely for me, was never just a job—it was holy service, it was my identity, it was my soul’s calling. What kind of rabbi would I be now?

We all have a different understanding of what it means to be a rabbi: a teacher, a leader, a guide, a counselor, a sh’liach tzibur (prayer leader), a manager. The list stretches on, and while I spent a great many hours in all of these roles, I have always believed that being a rabbi means recognizing and affirming others’ inner lights, and helping them shine those lights into the world. I worried that even though I was ready to leave congregational work I would no longer be able to do that work of seeing and uplifting inner light. In the past two years as editor at CCAR Press, I learned how pointless that worrying was.

As an editor, I am extremely privileged to read and work with our authors, phenomenal colleagues who already have a strong sense of their inner light. Sometimes, though, it is hard to translate that sense into words on paper, and this is where I can lean into my sense of what it means to be a rabbi. I try to find the essential voice that flows through the books I edit and clarify, refine, and shine a light on it. I am an editor, yes. And I am also serving as rabbi to the text and its author—recognizing and affirming the author’s inner light as revealed through their words, and helping them shine their lights even more clearly and brightly into the world.

When I left the congregational rabbinate after eighteen years and started working as an editor, I didn’t know that I would still be serving as a rabbi, albeit in a novel (no pun intended) way.


Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford is the editor at CCAR Press. She is a contributor to Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Israel Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Oded Mazor: Israel, on The Day After (היום שאחרי)

Rabbi Oded Mazor is a Reform rabbi living in Jerusalem, where he leads Kehilat Kol Haneshama. During CCAR’s annual rabbinic Convention—held this March 2024 in Philadelphia—he was asked to address an audience of his rabbinic peers and reflect upon life in Israel during the war, specifically the day after the war ends. Below are his powerful reflections.


We were asked to talk about “the day after.”  

In the last few days, two quotes from the תפילה (t’filah, prayer) passed before my eyes, bringing two different feelings that many of us feel these days, about the present and about the future.  

On Shabbat, the words that struck me the most were not easy ones. Do you remember the words ואל תטשנו יי אלוהינו לנצח (Al titshenu Adonai Eloheinu l’netzach)?i How should we translate these words? What does the word לנצח (la’netzach, forever) refer to in this phrase? Does it mean, “God, don’t ever forsake us?” Or does it mean, “God, don’t forsake us forever?” It’s not the same thing.  

I’m going to refer to a few people in my congregation, Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem.

The first, her name is Esther. She is eighty-seven years old. She teaches a Torah class every other week, for twelve years now. She’s incredible! And she comes to me every other week with a suggestion for an alternative Haftarah for the next Shabbat, a different reading that we can have from the נביאים (n’vi’im, Prophets) or from the כתובים (k’tuvim, Writings), to understand the Torah portion in a different way, two weeks from now!

Two years or so ago, when we were in the middle of Covid, and I met with her and spoke with her—and, thanks to her, we still have a morning meditation twice a week on Zoom, because even now that we’re allowed to be in the synagogue, the pace that we set during Covid, to meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 in the morning for meditation, we’re still doing it, with more than a minyan on most days. I remember sitting with Esther in her room, and the way she looked at reality and היום אחרי (ha-yom acharei, the day after), she said, “I know the cure is going to be found. We’re going to get over Covid. I’m just not sure I’m going to be here.” ואל תטשנו יי אלוהינו לנצח (V’al titshenu Adonai Eloheinu l’netzach). This feeling of my personal נצח (netzach), my personal “ever,” I feel that I’m already forsaken. Maybe this is going to be the reality. That’s what Esther was feeling during Covid. I think she feels like that again right now, these days.

But when we were saying the Hallel here in Philadelphia, the verse לא אמות כי אחיה (Lo amut ki echyeh, “I shall not die but live”) came to me from the Hallel, as an answer to my feeling of ואל תטשנו יי אלוהינו לנצח (V’al titshenu Adonai Eloheinu l’netzach), insisting on this לא אמות כי אחיה (Lo amut ki echyeh), ואספר מעשי יה (V’asaper ma’aseh Yah), “I will not die but live, and I will tell the deeds of God” (Psalms 118:17). Now obviously, we all know we’re not going to live forever; but as a mental source of strength to ourselves, we may affirm: לא אמות כי אחיה (Lo amut ki echyeh, “I will not die but live”). 

Thinking about the day after, I’m also thinking about the manager of our congregation, Anna. Her cousin is Karina Arayev. She’s one of the women soldiers kidnapped from the Nachal Oz base on October 7. For many, many, many awful weeks, Anna’s uncle and aunt (Karina’s parents), and the whole family—which is a rather small family of Ukrainian Jews—didn’t know anything about Karina and her situation. Three weeks ago, Hamas released a short film with three women talking. One of them was Karina. That’s the first time that they received any message, if we can call it that.

When Anna is thinking about היום אחרי (hayom acharei, the day after), there is no יום אחרי (yom acharei, day after) without Karina coming home. Karina’s parents, Anna’s aunt and uncle, told her that very explicitly: If she doesn’t come home, there is no day after. We try as a community to be there with Anna and her family the whole time through. When we say “the whole time through,” it means that, weeks ago, too many weeks ago, when the first groups of hostages were released, every time a group of hostages came back home and Karina was not amongst them, we were rejoicing with the families who received their loved ones back home; but we were in pain with Anna’s family, with Karina’s family, and the families of all the hostages who are still waiting and have no idea—and had no idea, until the first group of people came off the Hamas vehicle, and still have no idea. 

Nati is not a member of our congregation. She is definitely a very close friend of our congregation. She’s not a member of our congregation because she lives on Kibbutz Or Haner, a few kilometers from Gaza. The next kibbutz up the road, further from Gaza, was not evacuated. The next kibbutz to the west was the kibbutz that stopped the terrorists from infiltrating Or Haner, Kibbutz Erez. Nati and others from Kibbutz Or Haner were moved to Tiberias on October 8. They were there for a month, and then they were offered to move from Tiberias to Jerusalem, to the Orient Hotel. Have you ever been to the Orient Hotel? That place was, for three months, a refugee camp for the people from Or Haner. Nati is the chair of K’hilat Sha’ar HaNegev, led by our dearest colleague, Rabbi Yael Vurgan. When they were moved from Tiberias to Jerusalem, Yael made the connection between Nati and me, and we met in the lobby of the Orient Hotel, which didn’t look anything like what you remember from the Orient Hotel’s lobby. The walls were the same, but nothing else. And I sat there with Nati and her husband, Damian. From that meeting on, every Kabbalat Shabbat and every Shabbat morning, Nati and their younger son, Noam, were with us at Kol HaNeshama. Noam would come and stand next to me and with the other children from Kol HaNeshama for opening and closing the Ark. And his job came to be holding my סידור (siddur, prayer book) when I put the Torah Scroll inside the ארון (aron, Ark), and then I would give him a hug when we sang דרכיה דרכי נועם (d’racheiha darchei no’am, its ways are ways of pleasantness).

A month ago, they returned to their home in Or Haner. What does היום אחרי (hayom acharei, the day after) mean, when you return to your kibbutz, just a few kilometers from Gaza, and the kids go to school, and some of their friends are not there anymore and will never be? And some of their friends will be there, but still are someplace else around Israel and not yet allowed to come back. What it meant for Nati: Returning home is to go pick the lemons from the lemon tree in their yard. היום אחרי (hayom acharei, the day after) will be to know that this lemon tree will give lemons again next year as well. 

And if we’re talking about picking lemons, Debbie is a member of our congregation. Debbie retired from being a lawyer at משרד הרווחה (Misrad HaR’vachah, the Ministry of Welfare) just a few months ago, in August. She didn’t know what she was going to do in her retirement. What she has been doing for the past five months—on top of worrying about her three children, all three of whom were recruited to the army—she has been organizing our volunteering in agriculture, twice a week, every week, for the past four months. Ten to twenty people on each group from Kol HaNeshama, from the area, and people from abroad who hear about it and ask, “Can we join?” One of them is a very dear friend of mine, Rabbi Aaron Goldstein from London. When he told me that he was coming to visit a month and a half after October 7, he asked, “Can I do anything with you?” I said, “OK. Let’s join the agricultural volunteering,” and we planted broccoli. The name Aaron gave it is “brocco-therapy.” It was walking in the field and planting broccoli, one after the other, one after the other. “The day after” will be when Aaron comes again with his congregation and shows them, “You see, this field? Now we’re going to plant another line of broccoli together.” 

My deepest sense of היום שאחרי (hayom sh’acharei, the day after)—and I hope this time I won’t dissolve into too many tears—every day is when I drive my children to school, to the יד ביד (Yad b’Yad, Hand in Hand), bilingual school in Jerusalem, that has been functioning incredibly in these months. Since it’s a rather new building, they have enough shelters in the building, so they were able to return to a regular schedule in the school as soon as anyone was allowed, because they have enough shelters. Many other schools had to require the children to come in shifts—a day yes, a day no; in the morning or in the afternoon—because they only had so much room in the shelters. But the Yad b’Yad school in Jerusalem, of all places, has enough room in the shelters to have everybody coming on the same day from the first day that was allowed in Jerusalem. And every day when I get the privilege that my schedule allows me to drop them off and pick them up at school, and see their teachers and see their friends—Jews and Arabs, Palestinians who live in West Jerusalem, Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, Palestinians from across the checkpoint to Bethlehem, from Beit Sahour and Beit Jala.  

Some of their teachers were not allowed to come to school in the first few weeks, because they’re on the other side of the checkpoint. Some of their teachers couldn’t come to school because they have little children who had nowhere to go, and the other parent was in מילואים (miluim, reserve duty). And these teachers have to come to school and teach in the same class. And I was told an incredible story by one of my kids’ teachers. In another class, the Jewish teacher was teaching, and the Muslim teacher was there with her. One of the grown children of the Jewish teacher walked in the room in uniform, having come back home from the army. He asked his mother to go out with him for a coffee. His mother told him, “I can’t go. I’m teaching now.” And the Palestinian teacher said, “Of course you should go with him! He’s your son! He came home!” She understood that as a mother, even though that son came into the class in uniform, and I can only imagine what that meant for the Palestinian teacher. That mother had to go with the son who came from the battlefield. What they didn’t know was that the reason he came to get her to go out for coffee was that, at the coffee shop, the other son who came home from מילואים (miluim, reserve duty) was waiting.  

My children came with us to many of the הפגנות (hafganot, demonstrations) in Jerusalem in the past few months. The two younger ones said that they’re not willing to come any more after, at one of these demonstrations, they saw how I was screaming,  לא תהיה לבן-גביר מיליציה (l’Ben-Gvir lo tihyeh militziah, “No private militia for Ben-Gvir!”). There was a proposition that there would be some kind of force that would be under Ben-Gvir’s direct supervision. I think that got them really scared, not so much Ben-Gvir’s militia, but seeing me screaming that way. They prefer being with their Arab Palestinian homeroom teacher, their Jewish homeroom teacher, and their friends, whom they might get along with or not get along with. It’s OK. They’re children in school; that’s what happens. It’s not heaven in that school. It’s the normal life that we want to see.  

It’s the day after that we pray for.  

Will Esther live to see it? Will Karina come back to see it? Will Nati really be able to feel it also in Or Haner, seven kilometers from Gaza? Will Debbie’s three children, coming back from the army, be willing to take part in it, after what they have experienced?  

But my children are going to school. And on מוצאי שושן פורים (motz’ei Shushan Purim, the night that Shushan Purim ends), in Jerusalem, in the courtyard of Kol HaNeshama, we’re going to have an Iftar meal for the families of our daughter’s class. 

That’s the day after that I’m waiting for.  

Watch Rabbi Oded Mazor’s address here.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Challah as Chavruta: Rabbi Vanessa Harper on ‘Loaves of Torah’

Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, she explains the importance of challah in Jewish tradition, her creative process, and why it’s important to embrace alternative ways of engaging in Torah study.

What is the significance of challah in Judaism?

Challah is no ordinary bread. It is rich with religious and spiritual resonance, as well as powerful sensory memories that are often connected to community and culture, making it one of the few loci on which the increasing number of Jews who identify as cultural or non-religious—as well as religious and/or spiritually-oriented Jews of all denominations—are able to come together with equal levels of enjoyment, access, and license to innovate.

Religiously, challah connects back to the biblical practice of tithing (still in effect today for those who perform hafrashat challah with their dough; see Numbers 15:17–21) and to the sacrificial altar (many challah shapes are inspired by the twelve lechem panim described in Leviticus 24:5–9). On a spiritual level, making and shaping challah dough also offers a microcosmic connection to Creation. Culturally, challah has taken on many different flavors and shapes over the centuries, but it has always been a beloved feature of the Shabbat and holiday table. It’s a beautiful and delicious form of identification, as well as physical and spiritual nourishment!

Why did you choose challah as your artistic medium?

It might be more accurate to say that challah chose me. This project started as an experiment, and it turned out that challah dough happened to be a medium that ignited my creativity. One thing I love about working with dough is that it is a medium with boundaries—it’s not as versatile as clay, for instance, and you have to learn how to work with it—and that it is alive, and thus has some input into the final product, based on how it rises, etc. In that way, it’s very much like studying with a chavruta (study partner).

When planning one of your challot, how do you choose the symbol or image you want to bring to life?

I always start by reading the parashah, or studying texts on the holiday or month for which I’m shaping. I try to go in with my mind open to any words, images, or concepts that stand out to me, and I take a very broad idea to the kitchen counter. The interpretation usually starts to take shape as I’m actually working with the dough. I don’t always know exactly how it’s going to turn out, and sometimes the best shapes emerge when I go into shaping without any ideas in mind at all.

Why is it important to incorporate creative techniques when studying Torah?

Studies show that when we are actively using our hands, we activate different pathways in our brain, and we make connections we may not have otherwise made. I know that I certainly think differently and see through different lenses when I’m shaping dough than I do when writing a sermon or preparing a traditional text study, and so for me one of the great personal benefits of this practice is that it expands my understanding of Torah. For many people who do not process or express themselves best in traditional formats like reading, writing, and speaking, incorporating creative approaches to Torah study opens up an ability to approach the text at all, or to express a novel interpretation of its wisdom—one which might not have surfaced if the opportunity to work in another kind of expressive language wasn’t made available.

What are some lessons you hope readers take away from Loaves of Torah?

A person’s Torah is only revealed when we create space for the language which their soul speaks to flourish, and my deepest hope is that Loaves of Torah creates some of that space for new Torah to be revealed by inviting more languages and more voices into our Jewish learning and living spaces. This book is, at its heart, an invitation to engage with Torah in a way that is playful and personal, modern and multifaceted, and through that engagement, I hope you’ll find a lens that helps you make Torah your own.


Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is Senior Director of Adult Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Reform Rabbi in Residence at Gann Academy. She is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
CCAR Press Israel Passover

CCAR Passover Haggadah Supplement: Prayers, Poems, Songs, and Meditations in Response to October 7

In the months since October 7, 2023, CCAR members have shared powerful prayers and meditations focused on the war in Israel and the release of the hostages. The CCAR has compiled some of these resources into a Haggadah supplement, available to the public as a free PDF download. We hope that these readings make their way into Passover seders throughout the Jewish community. In this introduction to the supplement, Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, Editor at CCAR Press, reflects on celebrating Passover at this fraught moment.

Passover is our celebration of redemption. We remember that in ancient Egypt, we were slaves; we celebrate our miraculous exodus and freedom. We raise each of the four cups of wine to acknowledge the joy we feel that we live as free people today.

This year, however, our joy is tempered with the knowledge that not all Jews are free. The war in Israel that began on October 7, a day on which over 240 Israelis were taken hostage and approximately 1,200 Israelis were killed, is an ever-present reminder that in every generation, Jews must do the work to ensure our safety and freedom, so that we can work for the safety and freedom of all.

This year, our hearts are grieving for the more than 600 Israeli soldiers who have been killed in action, for their families and friends, and for the entire country—to which we are intimately connected—that has been thrown into turmoil, terror, and sorrow. May their memories be a blessing.

During our seders, we will remove ten drops from our wine glasses for each of the ten plagues that caused such destruction on the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness. So too, our hearts are heavy with the thought of the innocent Palestinians who have died or are suffering. The wine drops are a reminder that compassion is part of our seder experience, and our compassion this Passover is heightened.

Every single hostage who remains captive in Gaza is one too many. Echoing the words of Yehuda Amichai in his poem “The Diameter of the Bomb,” the diameter of the impact of each hostage taken is so much larger than just the impact on an individual. Their families, their friends, their communities, the entire country, and the worldwide Jewish community have felt the shuddering impacts of October 7. As we gather around our Passover tables—both personal and communal—our hearts are with our fellow Jews who are desperate for freedom. We hope that the readings included in this supplement can be woven throughout your seder so that our awareness—and our prayers—hold each hostage in our thoughts until all are free.

Download the free supplement here.


Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford is the Editor at CCAR Press. She is a contributor to Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments (CCAR Press, 2020). A graduate of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Rabbi Villarreal-Belford was ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and holds a doctorate in Pastoral Logotherapy from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Regrounding Ourselves in Our Purpose: CCAR President Rabbi Erica Asch’s CCAR Convention 2024 Sermon

The 135th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 10-13 in Philadelphia, where 450 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share the powerful sermon that CCAR President Rabbi Asch gave during the Convention Torah service. Her d’var Torah addresses the challenges of being a Reform rabbi after October 7, and the self-kindness, gratitude, and joy she hopes all Reform rabbis can find. Read the sermon below, or watch the video here.


March 11, 2024/ 1 Adar II 5784

How’s it really going?

How it started.

We all remember the beginning of our journey. Getting the letter, or email, that we had been accepted to school. Meeting our classmates. Studying. Student pulpits. Dreaming of what the future might be. And even hiking in the hills of Israel.

And then after years of rigorous study we made it. Ordination! Triumph! My class was not always that serious, I promise.

And now here we are—esteemed rabbis, established leaders, well respected members of our community. When people ask us how’s it going, we confidently reply, “Living the dream!” That is how it started. And this is how it’s going.

There’s an interesting thing about these memes. They always tell a positive story. And sometimes we feel that way. But often our reality of how it’s going might be this:

Too many things to do and a too messy desk. Four appointments I missed last week because I was so frazzled.

Or this:

Looking desperately for some inspiration and not feeling like I know what I want to say for a really big sermon I’m giving.

Or this:

Up in the middle of the night because the world is overwhelming.

The gap between how it started and how it’s going can seem painfully big. It can be hard to remember the honor and privilege, the excitement and optimism, the hope and joy that we once felt about being a rabbi.

So… how’s it going? How’s it really going?  Do you feel exhausted? Overwhelmed? Hopeless? Yes? Sometimes I do.

Because sometimes this job eats us alive. Even in normal times, being a rabbi means having to wear too many hats—we are religious leaders and fundraisers and administrators and a pastoral presence and transmitters of tradition and social workers and mediators and…and…and

And then came October 7.

October 7—and everything that has happened in the months since have shattered our world in ways we do not yet understand. It has taken an incredible toll on us personally. Yet, even as we work through our own trauma, we have continued to serve our communities. We are expected to be strong, and smart, and caring, and careful. We’re expected to have it all together.  

And we know that October 7 is neither the first nor the last crisis we will have to face. How many of us have led communities who have confronted the devastation of natural disasters made worse by climate change—floods, fires, hurricanes, and more? Raise your hands. How many have had to deal with a mass shooting that shocked your community? Who has had to deal with threats to your physical safety? What about an unexpected and tragic death? Those challenges, and ones we can’t even imagine, are part of the job. They will always accompany us on our rabbinic path.

All of this—the war and upheaval, the antisemitism and hatred, the pressing needs of our communities—all of it can wear us down. Sometimes, it can seem impossible to keep going. I hit my breaking point late October, a few weeks after October 7, just after a mass shooting in Lewiston, 30 miles from my home, after walking with a close friend through an unspeakably horrible experience. I was done. There was no way I could do this job anymore.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. And yet, in the midst of feeling so hopeless, I was lucky. I was lucky to have friends and colleagues I could turn to. I was lucky that the CCAR offers short-term counseling and I could talk to a rabbi about what I was feeling. I was falling, but I was caught by my family, my friends, and my colleagues. I know that not all of us have been caught in the same way.

This job is so hard, and we all have been carrying so much the past several months, and throughout our careers. That is why we must strive to rekindle the sense of joy and purpose that inspired us to pursue the rabbinic life. And, if we are lucky enough to be living in a moment of joy and purpose, we must help those around us who are struggling. We have to recognize and accept our imperfections. We have to reground ourselves in our purpose. We have to recapture our sense of gratitude. And, now, more then ever, we need one another. We need this community.

Because we are rabbis, and we are Jews, we ground ourselves in the wisdom that our Torah offers. This week in P’kudei, we read in detail about the making of the priestly vestments. These are made of the finest materials—linen and colorful yarn, gold and precious stones, all stitched together with the utmost care. Almost an entire chapter is devoted to these vestments, but we never see the person who will wear them. Aaron only appears when the mishkan is finally consecrated. He appears after a list of all the objects that are anointed and consecrated. Then, just like all of those objects, Moses is commanded:

 וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ֙ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֵ֖ת בִּגְדֵ֣י הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ

וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֹת֛וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ אֹת֖וֹ וְכִהֵ֥ן לִֽי׃

Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest (Exodus 40:13).

Aaron and his sons, like the mishkan and altar and laver are made up, dressed up, and anointed to serve God. They dutifully play their role. The clothes they wear, all those beautiful designs, hide who they really are.

Like Aaron, we too often put on our vestments and subsume ourselves to the role of that ideal rabbi.

But dutifully fulfilling this role can harm. It harms Aaron. In Leviticus 10 we read that after Aaron’s sons are brutally killed right before his eyes in an act of divine retribution, וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן, Aaron is silent. And then, Moses commands Aaron and his remaining sons not to mourn or cry out and they do as Moses tells them. They do what Moses tells them. Aaron doesn’t mourn his sons. It is one of the cruelest parts of Torah. Rather than grieving as any father would, Aaron wears his beautiful robe and plays his role. He and his remaining sons are asked to give up their humanity in service to their God and their people. And they do.

This week’s parashah, in fact, gives us an example of what not to do. But we are not priests. We are rabbis. We are not anointed by God, and we do not have to do our duty no matter what the cost. Our ancestors threw off the mantle of priesthood, yet sometimes we still cling to it, because it can be hard to give ourselves permission to just be us, not Aaron, not “the rabbi,” just who we are. It’s hard just to be Zusya and know it is enough.

That is the first piece of figuring out how to do this job in a way that is sustainable and even fulfilling. We have to recognize our desire to always be more and remind ourselves that we are enough. In fact, being imperfect is not only a gift we give ourselves, but something we can model for those we serve. 

Accepting “enough” is hard. It took me a long time to come to terms with “just” being the rabbi of a small congregation, in the middle of rural Maine: I felt I should be striving for more professionally instead of being satisfied with the very real gift of finding a congregation that I love and loves and appreciates me. It’s beautiful that we want to give our best to those we serve, but that desire to do more is also dangerous. We need to give ourselves the gift of recognizing and embracing our imperfections. 

The second thing we have to do is to reground ourselves in our purpose and remember why we went into this work. We didn’t become rabbis for fame or fortune, we went into it for something bigger, something we could uniquely contribute to the world. Maybe it was walking with people through the most difficult moment of their lives, or creating community, or teaching this tradition we love. That purpose is different for everyone, but having it keeps us focused and centered. Without it, we risk trying to do everything for everyone and that is impossible. We are at our best when we embrace the unique gifts we bring to this work and reground ourselves in what we bring to our communities.  

Finally, we need to recapture our sense of gratitude. As I was reading the reflections by our 50-year colleagues on RavBlog, I was struck that while their careers were not perfect, they all expressed a sense of appreciation—for the ability to be with others during difficult and joyous moments, to teach, and to serve. I have no doubt that those of us still a few years away from that milestone will look back on our careers with that sense, but we need recapture gratitude right now.

While this week’s parashah offers an instruction on how not to be, we are also celebrating Rosh Chodesh Adar II. We are taught משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה. How can we mandate joy? Perhaps, as our ancient ancestors suggest, we should just naturally feel joy because of the miracles done for us during this month. With no disrespect to them, it isn’t that easy. But I think the secret of this obligation, lies in the celebration of Purim itself. Purim is yom hafuch; a day of turning everything upside down. It’s a day of accepting that maybe the mistakes were supposed to happen. A day of reminding ourselves of the importance of celebration and joy. It’s a day of just being who we are. Purim’s gift to us is that we don’t have to put ourselves into a box or fulfill a function. The task is the joy and the silliness and the messiness of life. We need that permission. As rabbis, and as people. And our people need that permission as well. How beautiful to be reminded of the need for joy right now, in a world that often asks too much and a profession that can seem overwhelming.

This d’var Torah isn’t about all the work the CCAR is doing, although I’m incredibly proud of that work and I’m happy to talk your ear off about it. It’s about who we are, as rabbis and as people. It’s about how tremendously hard this job can be; how sometimes it almost breaks you. And it’s about how we must recognize and accept our imperfections, reground ourselves in our purpose and recapture our sense of gratitude.

My wish for us is that we find a way to be a little bit kinder to ourselves. That we love ourselves even when we don’t live up to our exacting standards. That we recognize that our work is hard, but it is holy. And that we extend that kindness and compassion not only to ourselves but to one another. That we meet someone new. Lend a shoulder to cry on. Celebrate a victory.

I really wanted to find the perfect picture to encapsulate a real version of how it’s going. One that acknowledges the difficulty and celebrates our successes. I couldn’t figure out what it was. But I realized that this morning I would have the perfect picture. Looking out at all of us, I see all the incredible work we are doing. I see us going on this journey together. And, I see the type of community we are building for the generations of rabbis to come. A community where they are seen and valued not for what they do, but for who they are. A community of connection in a society that is often full of loneliness and isolation. A community where we value finding balance and meaning and joy in our work. And that picture, the picture of all of us, is one of resilience, and hope, of kindness and joy. We are so blessed to be part of this community.


Rabbi Erica Asch is the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and has served as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine since June of 2013.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

‘Sh’leimut’ and These 50 Years: Rabbi Bruce Kahn Reflects on His Diverse Career as a Reform Rabbi

On page 14 of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis writes, “Achieving our potential for wholeness—sh’leimut—is not so much a reward as it is the fulfillment of the purpose of our lives.” I believe that is indeed the purpose of our lives, of religion, and of my rabbinate. Aiding others in the pursuit of sh’leimut unifies every good thing I attempted to do each day from ordination onward.  

While a great many of my teachers at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion had especially powerful influences on my rabbinate, Dr. Alvin Reines’s teachings impacted me most of all. He challenged us to go forward to assist individuals and communities to move toward wholeness as Jews or in accord with whatever were their beliefs. I tried to do so as a congregational rabbi, as a US Navy chaplain, as a civil rights agency executive director, leading philanthropic pursuits and much more. I have always seen myself as a servant and derived great satisfaction doing so. Let me add here how honored and proud I am to be a member of the class of 1974!  What great classmates!    

US Navy Chaplain Corps (twenty-eight years, mostly as a reservist): Twice, I attended Naval War College. I served briefly on many of types of ships and served at USNA and USCGA. I was three times a unit commanding officer, and I was Regional Command Chaplain. I led services the first time a Jewish worship pennant flew on a ship underway. I officiated at the burial of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, and I was at sea on the submarine Rickover when the producer and screenplay writer for The Hunt for Red October were on board in preparation for making the movie. I was activated on 9/11. On October 11, 2001, I was the only Jewish chaplain co-officiating in 9/11 memorial service at Pentagon. I retired in 2002, and was recalled in 2003 and sent to the Iraqi Theater during High Holy Days and Sukkot. In 2014, I was the only rabbi to testify before a congressional subcommittee on religious accommodation in the military. I have held commission for fifty-four years.  

Pulpits: 

  • Congregation Or Ami, Richmond, VA, 1976–1980: Congregation doubled in size. I served with denominational judicatory heads to advocate for social justice in Virginia legislature, where I got to meet Jacques Cousteau. And I began my decades-long involvement in fair housing. 
  • Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD, 1980–present (solo rabbi, senior rabbi, rabbi emeritus): I separated tenth-grade graduation from confirmation service, making confirmation voluntary. 80 to 90 percent of b’nei mitzvah youngsters continued through tenth grade. 85 to 100 percent of confirmands continued in post confirmation. I established culture so that whatever a member’s need, help from within Shalom could be found. Many members went to HUC-JIR or other seminaries. I began a dozen cutting-edge programs. Shalom commissioned the writing of a sefer Torah in honor of my service there—I still don’t believe it. I was also presented with Shalom Lifetime Achievement Award. (Received two other lifetime achievement awards from other organizations.) My beloved wife Toby was given a Shalom award bestowed only twice before.

    In recent years, I am thrilled to be a member of Zoom Gali Gali, a group of over a dozen retired Reform colleagues living in the area. 

Soviet Jewry:  As a Washington Board of Rabbis leader in support of Soviet Jewry, I helped plan eight peaceful arrest demonstrations in front of Soviet Embassy. With four colleagues, I served twelve days in federal prison. The US Supreme Court later overturned the law used to convict us.    

Civil Rights:  I was a founder of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington and the Equal Rights Center. 2004–2008 served as ERC Executive Director. Among many other things, we brought actions that led to a nationwide end to the crisis in accessible housing for people with disabilities.     

Amcha for Tsedakah: In 1990, I founded a small tzedakah collective that over time raised two million dollars for especially worthy NGOs in Israel, America, and elsewhere.   

Camp Airy: I was involved there since 1957. In 2012, Airy dedicated a new Shabbat siddur “In loving honor of Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.”  

Every year I am privileged to remain involved in a great many rabbinically connected volunteer efforts. One example: for the past eight years, I have raised essential funds for and worked almost daily with impoverished families; first one family in Baltimore, and then a family in DC.    

Most important to me, before and through these past 50 years, are my wife Toby and our family, my faith in God, and helping folks move towards sh’leimut.     


Bruce Kahn is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Responsa

Claiming the Halachic Tradition: Rabbi Mark Washofsky on ‘Reading Reform Responsa’

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, PhD, is the author of Reading Reform Responsa: Jewish Tradition, Reform Rabbis, and Today’s Issues, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the preface, he explains the book’s structure and introduces his argument for why responsa—and the halachah they reference—are essential to Reform Jewish life.

I want to invite you to join me in reading some of the most fascinating texts that rabbis have ever written. They are responsa, answers to questions about Jewish religious practice submitted to them by individuals and communities. More specifically, they are Reform responsa, composed by Reform rabbis for an audience of progressive Jewish readers.

Fascinating? Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m prejudiced. Much of my academic career as a student of the literature of Jewish law (halachah) has involved the study of the genre known as rabbinical responsa (sh’eilot ut’shuvot, “questions and answers”), documents dating from the eighth century CE to our own day. And as a member of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1985 to 2017, I have taken part in composing many Reform responsa. I have lived for decades with responsa as both a reader and a writer, so it’s little wonder that I’m partial to them. Nor should it be surprising that I want you to share my enthusiasm… which goes a long way toward explaining the existence of this book.

But why should you share my enthusiasm? That’s a big question, too big for this preface. Think of the book itself as an extended answer. The introduction explains what responsa are and their significance in the history of Judaism. It discusses the nature and history of the genre in general and of Reform responsa in particular. And it offers suggestions as to why Reform rabbis write responsa, why those responsa legitimately claim importance, and why they deserve to be read carefully and critically. The chapters that follow guide us through the reading of Reform responsa on ten subjects that I hope you will find interesting and that provide good examples of how these texts work and how they seek to accomplish the goals that their authors set for them. In the conclusion, I make some inferences and observations about the role that responsa play in Reform Jewish thought and life.

What I can and should do in this preface is to name some of the convictions that have brought me to write this book and that will no doubt be evident throughout its pages. First, responsa are an essential literary tool—maybe the most important such tool—through which rabbis (including Reform rabbis) create Torah and create community. Responsa create Torah because they answer new questions, those that the existing texts of halachah do not explicitly address, or hard questions, which the texts do not resolve in any clear and agreed upon way. Responsa create community because they are essays in persuasion. Responsa writers do more than simply declare their decisions. They argue for those decisions, with the goal of persuading their intended readers to adopt that argument as their own, to form a community around this particular understanding of the message of Torah on the question at hand. Second, Reform responsa resemble traditional responsa in that they are halachic texts, drawing their support from the literature of the Jewish legal tradition. The very existence of a genre called “Reform responsa,” by far the largest body of writing on issues of Reform religious practice, demonstrates the continuing relevance of halachah to Reform Jewish life. And third, Reform responsa differ from traditional responsa. Written by Reform rabbis and speaking to an audience of Reform Jews, they embody a uniquely Reform Jewish discourse, our own way of understanding the halachic tradition and of making meaning within our community. Reform responsa assert our own claim upon the halachic tradition, our refusal to grant to others the exclusive right to interpret that tradition and to say what it means.

Order Reading Reform Responsa here.


Rabbi Mark Washofsky, PhD, is an emeritus professor of Jewish Law and Practice at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He served as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1996 to 2017. He is currently the chair of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah. His publications include Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform PracticeReform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (CCAR Press, 2010), and Reading Reform Responsa: Jewish Tradition, Reform Rabbis, and Today’s Issues (CCAR Press, 2024).