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Rabbinic Reflections

A Lifelong Sacred Calling: Rabbi Howard Berman’s Reflections on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

My path to HUC-JIR and the rabbinate began at the age of nine, when I wrote my first letter of application to the admissions department, asking what I needed to do to prepare for what was, even then, very clearly—and what remains—a sacred calling. I began in 1967, immediately after high school, the last year of the old undergraduate program. When we were ordained in 1974, I was 24 years old, the youngest ordinee in the College’s history, aside from Nelson Glueck, who was 22. On that memorable day, following the magnificent ceremony at Plum Street Temple, my mentors Jake Marcus and Sam Sandmel, called me aside and presented me with that handwritten letter, which had been kept in my file all those years!

Those of my Cincinnati classmates who remember my stubborn advocacy of Classical Reform during our student days, will at least see a thread of unwavering consistency in the path my rabbinate has taken since then. It began with my fourth-year student internship at Har Sinai in Baltimore, as the proud successor of David Einhorn, and then on through my first position at Temple Emanu-El in New York, continuing on in my twenty years at Chicago Sinai Congregation, bearing the mantle of Emil G. Hirsch, and then over the past twenty years, my time as Founding Rabbinic Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism (SCRJ), and the subsequent organization of congregations in Boston—all embracing a contemporary vision of our Movement’s historic minhag and heritage. Through each of these milestones, I have devoted my career to the preservation and renewal of our shared spiritual tradition as a vital and viable option within the diversity of today’s Reform.

My continuing work in interfaith dialogue, and the full pastoral support of interfaith families, which I embraced at the very beginning of my career, as well as my commitment to working for same-sex marriage equality, as the first rabbi to be married, legally and with federal recognition, in 2004, have all been natural extensions of this grounding understanding of the Prophetic tradition of Reform Judaism.

The opportunities that I have been most grateful for over the course of my career include the designing and guiding of the new home of Har Sinai in 1997. As a lifelong student of synagogue architecture, this was a unique chance to translate my ideals into a sanctuary that would symbolically embody and proclaim Classical Reform’s spiritual ideals. I have also been deeply gratified by my years of teaching at HUC-JIR’s campuses in Cincinnati and Jerusalem over the past decade, under the auspices of the SCRJ. This has been a deeply meaningful opportunity to share our Movement’s historic liberal principles and liturgy with a new generation of our colleagues. I am also proud of the publications I have written or edited: the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Plaut’s Rise and Growth of Reform Judaism; the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition; and most importantly, The New Union Haggadah, a contemporary, inclusive-language revision of the beloved 1923 classic, published as one of its official liturgies by CCAR Press.

I am grateful to our loving God for the privilege of having been able to touch many lives, and hopefully, making a difference in Jewish life over the past fifty years. My greatest support has come from my beloved husband of twenty years, Steven Littlehale. His own deep Jewish faith and commitment, and his sharing of my spiritual vision, have made him the perfect “rebbetz-him.”

Rabbi Howard Berman 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.

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Rabbinic Reflections

‘There Is Holiness All Around Us’: Rabbi Michael Zedek on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

My first CCAR Convention included the celebration for that gathering’s 50th year class. And for the moment, that memory seems less than a blink of the eye ago. Tempus fugit.   

In that flight of time, I imagine that we in the class of 1974 have had significant moments of impact and meaning. And while we didn’t change the world, I have no doubt we managed a few moments of clarity, joy, comfort, change, and meaning in innumerable encounters. In fact, I’m confident many share the experience of someone suggesting, “Rabbi, do you remember when you said…? It changed my life.” 

Ironically, you may have no recollection of saying anything of the kind. But some bon mots attributed to me, even without a confident memory of ever having suggested, include: “There are only two movements in Judaism, toward God and away from God.” Or this one, “There is no place where God is not, and where God is, all is well.
  

My favorite involves philanthropy and a family who attribute their tzedakah efforts in part to me: Once, the Jewish Federation asked me to recruit said family’s husband to lead our campaign, after which he told many this anecdote, about which I have no recollection, save his telling. Two weeks later, he recalls we saw each other. “Rabbi, what have you done? My friends see me coming and run down the alley screaming, holding onto their wallets.” He claims my response: “Isn’t it tragic that the only way they think they have it is if they hold on to it.”   

And I would never have had that impact, or be part of our Jubilee, were it not for an older colleague. I had been a rabbi all of three years and was thinking of quitting. After all, it’s a crazy “job.” The congregants will never do all we hope. We’ll never get to do all we want. His response, “Michael, what makes you think you should be a better failure than Moses?

That wisdom was liberating, for it’s not about success or failure. Rather, it’s about being faithful to a vision, a calling. And 50 years insist that our perspectives embrace an honest appraisal. To paraphrase Rabbi Elimelech, when I die and stand before the heavenly court, they will ask: “Did you study enough?” I’ll have to be honest and answer, “No.” “Pray enough?” Again, true testimony: no. “Did you do enough for social justice?” Once more, my response is no.   

As metaphor perhaps, the court will determine at least you’re honest, for this you deserve admission to the heavenly realm. And such calls to mind a long-ago homiletics class in which one of our classmates—a shared anxiety on display— inquired, “Dr. Mihaly, how do you come up with a sermon every week?”  ”That’s not the problem. You really only have one or two sermons. The important thing is to know what it is.” And as I consider these 50 years, he was right. My sermon: there is holiness all around us; a sacred dimension in us; now get to work. Alas, we didn’t finish the work, but, thankfully and as you know, we were not obligated to finish it. However, forthrightly, fortunately, none of us is finished yet. As to the assignment, even in retirement, there no doubt is a plethora of ways to describe or define it. 

And such brings to mind an enduring image our tradition offers the world and implanted in us: Consider Jacob’s dream and the challenge of his Anochi/ his ‟I-ness”/ his ego getting in the way of the awareness (Genesis 28:16) that God is in this place. And surely our vulnerabilities and strengths, our Anochi’s may get in the way of realizing moments of the holy, of holiness. For this is nothing less than Beit Elohim/a house of God—this one and that one and the next and the next.   

Or, to suggest another of the vital images from our tradition, there are burning bushes scattered randomly, extensively through every day, and because of our work and what we have yet to do, others will, if only metaphorically, take off their shoes. And we occasionally may do so as well.


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

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Rabbinic Reflections

Self-Differentiation, Service, and Success: Rabbi Bennett Miller Reflects on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

In rabbinical school I never heard the word self-differentiation. I wish I had! Ten years out from rabbinical school, and the term was mentioned in a lecture. For me, it was an “a-ha” moment. I was now able to describe what defined me as a rabbi, how I looked at my faith, my “calling,” my career, my vision.   

My mentors, my teachers, my counselors had always been strong and determined leaders: I think that is what attracted me to them and why I wanted to emulate their style. But when I discovered that their skills and style were all because they were self-differentiated, that is when I truly learned what it means to be a rabbi.   

I believe that a rabbi must be well self-differentiated in order to be successful. Success is measured not by how others see us, but by how we see ourselves, knowing what we want to be, and how we can become what we want to be. For me, that has been the success of my rabbinical career. I didn’t seek approval, nor love from others. I wanted their respect. I didn’t ask “What do you want me to do?” I asked myself, “What do you see, and what needs to be done?” From there, I created a vision for the future and sought to shape that vision into reality.   

My fifty years in the rabbinate were all based in one congregation, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I “served there” as assistant rabbi, acting rabbi, young senior rabbi, leading senior rabbi, mentor senior rabbi, seasoned senior rabbi, “wise” senior rabbi, and now rabbi emeritus. I only had two official titles: assistant rabbi and senior rabbi. The first was to serve the youth and young families of the congregation; the second, was to create vision and develop leadership, teach, and preach, and motivate the congregation to see a bright future.   

As rabbi, I understood that my role was to bring the congregation and its people closer to Am Yisrael. I wanted to help lead them to understand that they (we) are part of the next chapter of the historic story of the Jewish People and its encounter with the Divine, going back in time to our ancestors and through their experience in each and every generation since Abraham responded to the call from God with the single word: Hineni! 

For me, I understood that being a rabbi meant serving a specific congregation, a community, the Jewish People, and all of humanity. I believe that is what makes the rabbinate such a unique calling, and such a challenging career. Mine was certainly filled with challenge, with reward, with fulfillment, and with touching so many lives.   

In addition to my service to congregation and community I was privileged to serve the larger Jewish community through my leadership in ARZA, in national leadership positions, in teaching at HUC-JIR. I was also privileged to help create a dynamic Department of Clinical Pastoral Care at RWJ Barnabas Hospital. How blessed I was to be able to do it all, and how fortunate I was to serve a congregation that understood and supported my determination to do all that I have done.   

My life in the rabbinate has been richly rewarding. I trust that I made a difference in the lives of many. I hope that my contribution to our people’s story adds to the meaning of our story and to the sacred mission that we carry out every day, here, in Israel, and throughout the world.   

I could not have done it all without learning the art of being well self-differentiated. I am grateful to my teachers who showed me the way, gave me the encouragement and strength to discover the me that I wanted to be, and to my students through whom I have seen the true measure of what I have accomplished.  My life as a rabbi—a blessing, an honor, a gift. I will be forever grateful!    


Rabbi Bennett Miller 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.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg: A 50-Year Rabbinic Career Focused on Youth, Education, and Social Action

A native of Chicago, Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg graduated from Indiana University before attending Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1974. After serving as rabbi of Temple Sholom in Springfield, Ohio and Congregation Anshe Chesed in Beachwood, Ohio, he moved to Waterford, Connecticut, where he was rabbi at Temple Emanu-El from 1980 until his retirement in 2015. 

His rabbinate included a focus on youth, a passion for adult education, and a commitment to social action. Amongst his most cherished accomplishments are personalized and meaningful b’nei mitzvah experiences, being a camp rabbi at Eisner Camp, organizing state-wide shul-ins, being Jewish chaplain at Connecticut College for a quarter century, visiting refuseniks and relatives twice in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, leading five congregational trips to Israel, teaching numerous Jews by Choice and adult b’nei mitzvah, serving as a cruise rabbi, being president of Waterford Rotary Club and the Waterford Public Library Board, and being active in local clergy associations. 

“I learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.Talmud

A child at heart, I could empathize with children who need encouragement, be it when I was director of Camp Shalom Day Camp, on the rabbinic staff at Eisner Camp, teaching nervous b’nei mitzvah, challenging confirmands, or finding ways to make family services both meaningful and fun for people of all ages. Students from pre-kindergarten to college have given me more than I gave them.

Do not do unto others what you would not want done to you. That is the essence of the Torah.Hillel

I have had the pleasure of learning along with my adult students as we probed the text, explored deeper meanings, and discovered life’s lessons in Jewish values. I have been enriched by deep discussions on the full scope of Jewish topics from the Tanach, to rabbinic literature, to Jewish history, to Jewish current events. 

“Lo hamidrash ikar, ela hamaaseh, it is not what you say that matters, but what you do.” Rabbinic wisdom   

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched for civil rights, he felt like he was praying with his feet. Likewise, when I protested against war, advocated for civil rights, served meals at the community soup kitchen, and preached on topics like gun violence and climate control, I was doing God’s work.  

I was fortunate to be a part of Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, Connecticut, a congregation that prides itself on warmth, friendliness, and being heimish. We are a caring community blessed by a devoted Board of Trustees, talented religious school staff, active Sisterhood and Brotherhood, and a creative cantorial soloist, Sherry Barnes, a true inspiration. I am grateful for the opportunity to have touched so many lives, and to have each and every one of them in my life.

Everything you have received from me, we owe to her.” —Said by Rabbi Akiva about his wife 

I truly am blessed to be married to my soulmate, Karen Rosenberg, and to have three amazing sons, and four fantastic grandchildren. In my spare time I paint, kayak, struggle with golf, and take long walks with my personal trainer, my dog Mocha.   


Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg 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.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Robert Kravitz on His 50-Year Rabbinic Career Spanning Fargo, Phoenix, Civil Rights, and Chaplaincy

I never planned to be a rabbi; it just sort of happened. One day I was a Connecticut-born college student studying radio, TV, and film at Syracuse, the next day I was driving to Cincinnati. I did conduct Hillel’s Shabbat services, studied voice as an elective in the conservatory, had a successful audition with the Hillel Choir, then a three-year cantorial position at a nearby Conservative synagogue.

Finally, I was on to HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, as a trial. I told Syracuse to hold my slot in their Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling for two years: if HUC-JIR didn’t work out, I’d be back.

Two years became three, and then halfway through my fourth year I’d had it with studying, lectures, tests, etc. As if by a miracle, a rabbi in Milwaukee was going on an Israeli sabbatical and needed a full-time fill-in. I was ready. For more than six months I became a “full-time rabbi” of a significant Reform congregation.

I learned more than I was able to teach. I even officiated a huge wedding ceremony that, were it not for a wonderful congregant who was a judge, would have been a disaster. I never knew of the ordination requirement with the state. The judge did. In the last days before the ceremony he arranged with the CCAR to provide “licensure” for that one day and that one ceremony. Wisconsin was satisfied that I was “ordained.”

Following my Plum Street Temple ordination, I joined a small New York Conservative shul that had interviewed in Cincinnati. During my three plus years there, I became the spokesperson for the Auburn Interfaith Ministries and with support from the CCAR Committee on Cults, kept Rev. Moon from opening his seminary.

My wife-to-be was a “gift” from a colleague. At the Cincinnati CCAR Convention, he slipped me a card with her name and phone number, and said, “Call her, I think you’ll like her.” We married in Syracuse and moved to Georgia, to a liberal Conservative shul. During that decade’s hostage crisis, I stood on the synagogue steps at noon weekly, sounding shofar as my colleagues rang their church bells. Our daughter was born in Macon. My wife and I alternated “shifts.” I was at the synagogue days (also at Mercer University) and my wife worked ICU-CCU at night.

Given the chance to develop a Reform congregation in suburban Atlanta, we relocated. It was very part-time, so I accepted the full-time position of assistant director for American Jewish Committee, Southeast. There I had the privilege of meeting President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and working with Andrew Young and others in national Black leadership. I also taught in Atlanta’s Hebrew High School.

When our son was born, we needed a more stable situation. I was told by the CCAR’s Director of Placement that having served smaller, solo congregations would preclude my ascent into larger ones. I was eager to accept a solid Reform pulpit in Fargo, North Dakota. Their leadership was a group of socially conscious, internationally involved, Reform Jews. They also instituted a monthly Shabbat visitation for me with the Grand Forks synagogue. I was appointed adjunct faculty at NDSU. Following my relationship with the USAF in Georgia, I continued as a chaplain to the Air Force at bases in Grand Forks and Minot.

In 1987, the American Jewish Committee invited me to leave the pulpit and open their Phoenix-Southwest office. Civil rights and community relations were my expertise. For twenty years, I elevated AJC to be the Jewish community’s voice. During the Gulf war, the local NBC TV station brought its remote truck to my home so we could do interpretative cutaways from the network.

Phoenix allowed me to stand with state leadership connecting the Jewish community to the Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights holiday effort, the formation of Sky Harbor Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, and the creation of the FBI Citizens’ Academies. I was twice appointed as chairman of the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and developed the Arizona Interfaith Movement. Simultaneously, I officiated for a chavurah during High Holy Days and the chagim. Currently, I am employed part-time as coordinator of the twenty-seven hospital chaplaincy of Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

During my decades in Arizona, I have volunteered as a police chaplain with the City of Phoenix, the AZ DPS/Highway Patrol, and the City of Scottsdale. For fifteen years, I’ve written a community newspaper column and serve on the regional ADL board.

Plaques, trophies, and awards fill my home. My rabbinic adventure has encompassed several careers, positively effecting Jewish communities in at least four states.


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

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Books CCAR Press Women in the Rabbinate

Among the Pioneers: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell on ‘The First Fifty Years’ of Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, available from CCAR Press. In this post, she reflects on the editing process, her personal path to the rabbinate, and the many meaningful contributions of women rabbis.

Tell us about the process of coediting this book.

I was honored and delighted when Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, approached me about partnering with her on The First Fifty Years, and was pleased to have the opportunity to work with the talented Jessica Greenbaum as well. I have been blessed to spend my rabbinate exploring—and living—the feminist transformation of Judaism, and collaborating with others on several other books that open new doors to Jewish text and practice.

Collecting and reading the powerful submissions of colleagues who serve in a range of leadership roles was a delight. I learned from each essay, and was moved and lifted up by my colleagues’ thoughtfulness, their insights, their resilience, and their courage. And because we asked for brief essays, the process of editing was a pleasure. As all writers know, it is a greater challenge to write a succinct piece than a longer one, and as editors we benefited from our contributors’ efforts to submit short, well-crafted pieces.

How did you decide to become a rabbi?

I graduated from college in 1970, and to continue my Jewish learning, I moved to Boston to pursue an MA in Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis. A world of intense Jewish life opened for me there; I joined the Zamir Chorale, became a regular davener at Havurat Shalom, joined the editorial staff of Response magazine, and immersed myself in a vibrant, if male-centered, Jewish counterculture. But this was before any of us knew that women could be rabbis! Several years later (1976 or 1977), as the program director at Indiana University Hillel in Bloomington, I met Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first woman to graduate from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. As she spoke to our students, I thought, I can do this! I designed a course on Jewish women’s history for the university, and traveled to the HUC-JIR library in Cincinnati to search for resources to teach the course. Was my moment of revelation standing at the card catalog, thumbing through the small wooden box of cards under the heading “Women”? I don’t remember how the light shone through the library windows that day, but I think I knew then—I belong here.

I completed my doctorate, was accepted at HUC-JIR, and moved to Cincinnati in the fall of 1981 to study intensive Hebrew at the College. My second daughter was born in December, and in September 1982, I joined my classmates as a second year student.

What contributions have women made to the rabbinate?

I think that we have taken the feminist dictum of the late 1960s, “the personal is political,” and expanded it. The College, and the American Jewish world, was not ready for us. Our school had few women’s bathrooms! Many of us felt invisible—or worse, targeted by male professors and mentors who could not see beyond the oppressive patriarchy and overt and covert sexism and homophobia of our texts, and thousands of years of interpretation and practice.

Five decades after Rabbi Sally Priesand smashed the glass ceiling of male rabbinic hegemony, we have challenged and changed both the face and the body of Judaism. We bring our full selves to our work, to our families, to our communities, to our world. We claim kol ishah as a chorus of diverse voices that include many who had not felt heard or seen by the Jewish community. We women rabbis are powerful preachers, scintillating scholars, compassionate comforters, and creators of transformative rituals and liturgies. We build and sustain community with vision and humor. We challenge and comfort, we cajole and console. We are rich and varied.

It is a privilege to be among the pioneers. May we continue to learn from and delight in those who are now shaping the future!


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD, serves as Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (CCAR Press, 2002) and coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis (CCAR Press, 2023).

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Gerald Serotta on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi, Hillel Leader, Activist, and Bridge-Builder

I was born in Miami, Florida in 1946. Schools, lunch counters, and bathrooms at downtown department stores were as segregated as elsewhere in the South, with signs on the bathrooms (and drinking fountains) designating them as “White” and “Colored.” My family and my synagogue, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, co-founded by my grandparents in the mid 1920s, were deeply involved in the struggles for integration, social justice, and voting rights. Our TIFTY youth group did voter registration in the Liberty City Black ghetto in Miami, paralleling the efforts of the Mississippi summer volunteers in 1963. These issues and causes were discussed at the Seder table and at Shabbat services. We were also involved as a family and synagogue community in later struggles for justice and equality for women, for the LGBT community, farmworkers, and Haitian refugees, as well as in active opposition to the Vietnam War in particular, and militarism in general.   

These same values inspired me to become a rabbi and to continue to express my Jewish identity in the way I was taught and raised. At HUC-JIR, I led protests from day one—against an unfeeling attitude toward rabbinical students and required enrollment in the military chaplaincy—and in favor of curricular reform and the first year in Israel program. As an intern in the office of the Reform Movement’s Social Action Commission, I wrote curricula for camps and schools on the theme of Judaism and the Indo China War and Organizing Your Synagogue for Anti-war Activity. 

While living in Jerusalem between 1970 and 1972, part-time as a grad student and part-time working as a journalist, I became exposed to the issues of social justice there, both internal to Israeli society and between Israel and the Palestinians living in the recently occupied West Bank and Gaza. While there, I worked on preservation of the delicate environment and urban scale of Jerusalem. I was one of the key organizers of the Action Committee for a Beautiful Jerusalem (Vaad Peulah L’maan Yerushalaim Yafah), which prevented or altered many development plans in the area of West Jerusalem, preserving the open space that become Gan HaPaamon (Liberty Bell Park). 

From my work travels on the West Bank, it became clear to me that there were two peoples living in Eretz Yisrael and that self-determination for one required self-determination for the other. From that time to the present, I have organized in support of mutual recognition of the right to self-determination for both peoples (Jewish and Palestinian,) helping to initiate Breira, New Jewish Agenda, and Rabbis for Human Rights-NA (now T’ruah,) each of them advocating for human rights in both the US and Israel/Palestine. I served as the founding chair of the RHR-NA Board for eight years until 2010. I am now working to build support for the joint Israeli-Palestinian organization A Land for All (Eretz L’kulam). 

Most of my professional career (28 years) was spent in Hillel work on campus. While in Hillel, I led efforts to form a union to protect the rights of Hillel workers. I next served for eight years as an associate rabbi in Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Later I worked part-time as the spiritual leader of a small independent congregation, and simultaneously, worked as the executive director of a new non-profit, Clergy beyond Borders. Before retiring in 2020, I continued to do work in promoting interfaith harmony through six years as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington. 

I continued to be as involved as I could with other progressive Jewish organizing efforts. I played a role in the early stages to create Jews United for Justice (in DC), and Jewish Fund for Justice (founded in DC and ultimately a national organization that became Bend the Arc), and Friends of Peace Now that later became Americans for Peace Now.    

I have essentially been doing what I was taught and raised to do by my family, especially my mother, who was a devoted activist her entire life, serving on the National Commission for Social Action. She supported every effort to aid the vulnerable and to liberate oppressed groups locally, nationally, and internationally. I was also influenced by many rabbis (including Temple Israel’s Rabbi Joseph Narot, z”l) and ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin. I have never wavered that this is the core of my spiritual identity as a Jew as well as my calling as a rabbi. 


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

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Eric Yoffie on Optimism, Life and Joy in Torah, and What His 50-Year Career Has Taught Him about Reform Judaism

After serving as a rabbi for 50 years, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Jewish condition, and in particular about the Reform rabbinate.

I believe in the power of leadership and that a people dies from the top.

And I believe that the role of religious leadership—and of the rabbi in particular—is fundamental and decisive.

In saying this I do not minimize the part that volunteer leaders play in Jewish life.   

Nonetheless, it is our klei kodesh who are central—the rabbis, cantors, and educators who do the holy work of serving the Jewish people and supporting them in their religious life.

After all, let us remember what we are: We are a liberal religious movement constructed on pillars of Torah study, piety, and spiritual integrity. And Torah study, piety, and spiritual integrity depend on teachers who believe and on those who serve as exemplars of religious living.

Every Jew I know who is religiously motivated and inspired learned from an inspiring teacher.

How do you teach Jews m’sirut, and anavah, and menschlichkeit? How do we teach them to be not only talmid chacham, but also yirei shamayim?  Such things are not done with books or with programs; they are done with people—with teachers. And it is the rabbis most often who are those teachers. And if they are not, our synagogues can devise a hundred programs, and it will make no difference.

I am sometimes asked if I am an optimist or a pessimist about Jewish life. The answer, I suppose, is that I am an optimist who worries a lot.

But when it comes to the rabbinate, I am optimistic to the core. I have travelled North America from one end to the other, and I can tell you that our rabbis are very, very good, and our younger colleagues are outstanding.

And who are those rabbis who find the most satisfaction in their work and who are best able to shape people’s lives?

It seems to me that there are five things that characterize them. 

First, they are optimists. They are spiritually alive, and they share their enthusiasm and their belief in the future. They avoid endless whining about survival and reject the language of victimhood with which we have become so obsessed. Above all, these rabbis project a message that there is life and joy in Torah.

Second, they learn. We may not have the time for serious scholarship, but I find that rabbis are reading and studying more than they ever have—whether alone or in chevruta, whether in person or online. And they refuse to fall victim to the trendy spirituality of ignorance and passion. They know the danger of soul without mind, and of spirituality that is mere feeling. 

Third, they value the spoken word: the sermon, the d’rashah, the d’var Torah. And they prepare their sermons carefully and thoughtfully. In some ways, preaching may seem less important now. There is a trend toward simple stories and the five-minute d’rash. Still, the best leaders understand that our Jews still care very much about sermons—Jews in Reform communities listen carefully, have high expectations, and search our words for honesty and meaning. With the vast flood of verbiage in this world, they still crave a life-giving word of Torah.

Fourth, they follow the admonition of the Baal Shem Tov, who said to go down to the people so that, by befriending them, they might be raised up.  Our best rabbis know that compassion and menschlichkeit come before all else; they know that our people want us to be with them in the joys and sorrows of their lives. Reform rabbis never forget that there is much our people will forgive us if we do these things, but they will never forgive us if we do not.

And finally, our most dedicated rabbis are people of prayer. It was not always so. Prior to my ordination in 1974, I interviewed in about a dozen congregations. In those dozen interviews, I did not get a single question about prayer, about davening, about spirituality, about God— not one. That would not happen today. We know today that we must be thoughtful about leading prayer and about our own personal prayer lives. Our congregations know, as do we, that the effectiveness of the t’filot at which we preside will be impacted by the fervor of our own prayer.   

There are many other things that effective religious leaders do, of course. But these five things are fundamental, I believe.

I am not naïve. Some rabbis are tired and need renewal, and we all have Torah to study and much to learn. But on the whole, the Reform rabbinate is strong, resilient, and infused with visionary power.


Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating Rabbi Yoffie and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sandy Sasso Reflects on Lessons in Grace During Her 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

In 1969, when I began seminary, feminism was just being born and Jewish feminism was an oxymoron. Soren Kierkegaard taught that life must be lived forward but understood backward. So, looking back over 50 years, this what I have learned: 

You will do things you never thought possible. You will take a new path, start over, build a relationship; you will forgive someone; you will forgive yourself; you will forget what you can’t do and remember what you can.   

People and situations may come along to derail you and undermine your hopes. When I was working on a PhD while in seminary, I thought of writing my dissertation about women in Judaism. There was no real scholarship on the subject. My professors told me, “Don’t write about women. Write about something important.”  

You will have doubts and fears. You will fall down, make mistakes, and even fail. But none of that will matter. You will get up; you will take another step forward, because it will feel that what you are doing is the right and important thing to do. 

When women first became rabbis, many of us wore navy or black suits. It was as close to male rabbinic attire as you could get. And then we changed. We realized that we neither had to look like or sound like male rabbis. We not only changed our clothes; we changed Judaism. Our being women wasn’t the only point, but neither was it beside the point. We pulled up a seat to tradition’s table and rearranged the place settings. It made a revolution. It transformed prayer, community, Torah, history, and theology. In 50 years, it has transformed Judaism.   

Moving from the classroom to the pulpit, from texts to people, from year to year, changes you. Somehow you are less sure about life. How can you be so certain when you touch life’s fragile boundaries? How can you not become someone other than who you were when you witness spirit and courage in the face of overwhelming misfortune?   

Here is what I shall always carry in my heart—the terrible pain of losses that happened out of season; the ache of burying a friend; the resilience of those who grieved and still had the ability to get up, to go on and even to sing; the little girl whose mother had just died who asked me, “Who will brush my hair in the morning?” And the little boy whose mother was dying who said, “I would like to call God, Healer.”  

It was then that I fully understood chesed, “grace.” Christianity discovered grace in Judaism, and then Judaism seemed to forget about it. One of the things that gets you through life’s difficult moments is chesed. You can’t make it happen and it doesn’t happen all the time you need it; but it happens now and again, and whenever it does, from wherever it comes, we must simply accept it and be grateful.   

Here is what I have learned from people to whom life was not gracious, but who made their own grace, people who had every reason to give up on life, but didn’t, who had every right to be bitter and angry and who were kind. This is what matters—a good word, a warm embrace, presence.  

I have learned that opposites are best when matched: love and power, justice and compassion, faith and doubt, seriousness and play, religion and spirit. Love without power is sentimentality.  Justice without compassion is cruel. Faith without doubt is dishonest. Doubt without faith is cynicism. Seriousness without play is boring and unimaginative. Religion without spirit is dead. God is the “and” that brings those opposites into one harmonious whole.   

You never lose what you have fashioned, the people whose lives you have touched, and the ones who have touched yours. Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert reminds us, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think that they are finished.” We age, but we begin again, working on who we will yet become.


Rabbi Sandy Sasso is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating Rabbi Sasso and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Goodbye, Vanity… and So Much Else

Rabbi Lisa Rubin shares a personal reflection on the surreal nature of processing October 7 and the personal and professional challenges and strain of living in a world that’s forever changed.

THEN:  

When the Nazis came for me in my dreams, I bit the arms of the soldier who had me in his grip. I bit him again and again. I eventually broke free, and ran until I was awake—drenched and terrified, with terrible tooth and jaw pain. My front teeth veneers had cracked, and now fell out. My dentist said a hockey puck couldn’t have done much better.  

A few weeks later, when I was still using Fixodent to attach my temporary teeth each day, the eye surgeon said he needed to operate.   

Me: Surgery for a little stye

Him: It’s clinging to your tear duct, and you keep crying, so it’s agitated and compromising the integrity of the duct. 

I was still enjoying a general anesthesia fog when I vaguely heard the procedure went well and I shouldn’t wear eye makeup for seven weeks. Wait. What? I looked at my husband. “Did he say seven?” He nodded. “Just while the stent is in.” For those who don’t know me, there is no time I am not wearing makeup. I felt the tears well up (the duct worked!). “Did my teeth at least stay in during surgery? Are they in now?” They did, and they were.  

As I got up in the middle of the night for eye drops, I tripped and broke my toe. And dislodged my dentures.  

~~~ 

I am usually the person you want in a crisis. Calm, resourceful, and competent, I’m an expert at compartmentalizing. I can always do the next right thing.  

And yet, the catastrophe that befell Israel on October 7, and the aftermath, has been one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever had to process. Like so many of us, I’m walking around in a stupor—anxious, unsettled, exhausted. Calm and resilience elude me. My body is protesting prolonged strain. 

Maybe epigenetics is to blame. My grandfather narrowly escaped Hitler. His sister and mother— and scores of extended family members—died in Theresienstadt. While I know this family history (and even visited the camp many years ago), I’ve never truly felt it. The details were facts, not feelings; history, not the present. “The latent transmission of trauma is manifesting under stress,” my doctor said. Both tear ducts did their thing. “Hang in there,” she added.  

My profession certainly doesn’t help. I am a rabbi working in New York City. I walk through NYPD to get inside our building. I pass through retired NYPD to clear our security. My commute is often disrupted by protests. Counseling hours have exponentially increased, considerably lengthening the work day. I start my regular classes thirty minutes early to give students a chance to connect and talk through their anxieties.  

What could be on par with the loss and devastation of October 7? The universe answered with two personal, tragic blows. 

On the morning of December 10, Rabbi David Ellenson, z”l, was laid to rest. He was a giant in the Jewish world—my world. He was president of my seminary when I was in graduate school. No one was ever as lucky as me to study under and be ordained by Rabbi Ellenson, except every other one of his thousands of students. Each obituary and eulogy got it right: he was a blessing to humanity.  

On the night of December 10, a lifelong friend of my husband was killed in a freak accident. I adored Rajeev Shah, z”l. A pediatrician, devoted friend, and family man, Raj was one of the rarest people with his warmth, decency, and integrity. All that is good in the world manifested in Rabbi Ellenson and Raj. Yet the same world, represented so favorably in these souls, snatched them both away in a heartrending and untimely way.   

My lower back went out from grief. I was moving into my new office and unpacked one too many books. As I laid on the floor—my very own Rock Bottom—with fake teeth, an eye stent, a taped toe, a seized back, and a shattered heart—I wondered verbatim from Psalm 121, “From where will my help come?”   

NOW:  

So much is still unknown: The fate of those precious hostages. The remedy for the virulent antisemitism worldwide. The future of Israel. The reckoning on university campuses. A host of other things. 

I pray that acknowledging a new year on the secular calendar is invigorating. I hope fellow Jews and clergy colleagues have found a way to refill their reservoirs; find their strength. I hope everyone realizes they are not suffering alone.  

My personal health has not fully resolved, but I’m getting there. My new teeth look natural enough. My back can once again support me, and my toe can withstand exercise. My eye is a work in progress. 

Like a camera lens set not to allow the maximum amount of light in, my eyelid curiously opens two millimeters less than before surgery (and less than the healthy eye). That seems perfect. The world will always look a little darker to me, anyhow.  


Rabbi Lisa Rubin was ordained from HUC-JIR NY in 2007. She first served Temple Beth El of Great Neck, NY before becoming the founding Director of the Center for Exploring Judaism at Central Synagogue in Manhattan in 2010.