Our rabbinates give us the opportunity to be in places we’d never imagined. Though the quiet, unheralded encounters and relationships sustain me the most, I’ll hold this one particularly close to my heart.
We live our respective faiths most deeply by being in covenantal relationship with one another; bound by our shared humanity. For me, this was never validated more powerfully than during a recent, unexpected trip to Rome. I was invited to join a delegation of twenty interfaith leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to meet with Pope Francis for a conversation in his residence in Vatican City. I embarked with the blessings of the leadership of Temple Solel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. At the beginning of our meeting, the Pope thanked us for inconveniencing ourselves to come and see him. Imagine that!
What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement (I was one of five non-Spanish speaking leaders, fully participating thanks to headphones and a translator!). The encounter was filled with many blessed exchanges about the joys and struggles of our work; affirming the central role faith institutions play in building community through the pursuit of justice, especially for those on the margins.
As we shared our community organizing experiences, we were all struck by how carefully Pope Francis listened. I was profoundly moved by his humility. He listens lovingly, from a place of curiosity, openness, and humor. He loves to smile and laugh! The Pope was just fun to be with!
The Pope heard us tell stories of organizing around our local issues. He was touched when hearing about how becoming a public person restores dignity and develops a sense of one’s agency. What really struck the Pope is that we were not talking about theory or ideology, but rather real-life stories that described experiencing God through encounters with the other. The room was filled with kindred spirits.
Pope Francis stressed the importance of being with people, of paying attention to their reality, emphasizing what he referred to as “amor concreto,” concrete love. The Pope lives in love. He’s been walking the talk of his ministry from the barrios of Argentina to the Vatican—seeing and hearing injustice, acting for systemic change, and being changed in return. He celebrated the value that we place on leadership development and strategic action; of doing rather than complaining about what’s not being done; of acting without disparaging or demonizing. The Pope, though just learning about us, remarked that the IAF is “good news for the United States.”
What profound validation for the local work of the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), our IAF network affiliate. I feel great pride that Temple Solel has been a member of VIP for fifteen years, acting together within a broad-based interfaith organization to carry words of Torah into the real world. Throughout his encyclicals and many writings, the Pope appreciates the radical nature of the Hebrew Bible, as the foundation of Christian Scripture. He understands that it’s impossible to realize words of scripture without entering into the fray of the public square, without ruffling some feathers. He has never sought refuge in an ivory tower. Pope Francis, looking at each of us directly in the eye, said, “the only time you should look down at someone, is when you are helping to lift them up.”
At the conclusion of our conversation, I presented Pope Francis with a leatherbound and gold leaf Hebrew Bible. I said to him, through a translator, “Your Holiness, I have never been more certain, that we stand on common ground.” The Pope got a kick out of it when I told him that my (almost) 94-year-old mother-in-law inscribed the book the night before my flight to Rome.
I think about the unlikely paths that brought each of the twenty members of the IAF delegation together—paths paved by the common values of our sacred texts, which merged into a collective pilgrimage to Rome, to be touched by the presence and soul of this magnificent man, all of us recognizing that the ground upon which we stand as brothers and sisters is, indeed, holy ground. Now back home, we are strengthened by one another, interconnected through our respective faiths, emboldened and blessed by Pope Francis to continue our sacred work, channeling the words of Micah, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
Rabbi John A. Linder serves Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
You previously published two social justice commentaries with CCAR Press, on Pirkei Avotand Jonah. Why did you choose Proverbs as the text for your third commentary?
I believe the Book of Proverbs is one of the most overlooked books in the Tanach. And yet, its simplicity can speak to the complexities of our moment. In the twenty-first century, our identities, relationships, and choices are often more complicated than ever. As we grow in our complexity, it is imperative to remember the moral foundations on which our lives are built. For me, in this generation, Proverbs is about getting back to basics and returning to simple truths.
Many Jews might ask, “What even is the Book of Proverbs?” Contained in the Writings, the final section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is a work of ancient but timeless wisdom traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Dealing more with morals and ethics than the Divine, it can be of immense value to believers and non-believers alike. When I teach Torah, I try to pass on a version of the tradition that encompasses both the study of ideas and the translation of those ideas into real-world action. The Book of Proverbs offers us an excellent bridge between those ideals.
Proverbs is a very different text from Jonah and Pirkei Avot. Did your writing approach differ for this volume?
Absolutely. These three books are very similar in that they are all interested in translating ancient holy texts into relevant moral replies. But they are so different. Pirkei Avot is rabbinic, the Book of Jonah is a narrative, and Proverbs is from the wisdom literature. In the first two, I viewed my role as simplifying the complicated. But here, I viewed my role as complicating the simple. Proverbs distills our Jewish values down to their very essence and it reinforces our commitment to the integrity of a Jewish path. The texts can inspire us and challenge us to do more and live differently.
Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?
My main ideas did not change, but the book has the potential to transform us in subtler ways. For example, in a society that feels unforgiving and has us convinced that one mistake by ourselves or others makes us irredeemable, Proverbs reminds us that “Seven times the righteous one falls and gets up” (24:16). I paused to think about resilience, forgiveness, and redemption at a time when our society is struggling with extreme binaries.
Which proverb did you find most meaningful?
The book reinforces the notion that Judaism is about spiritual and ethical work and learning to grow in responsibility. Instead of providing indisputable answers, Proverbs often supplies us with contradictory lessons. For example, Proverbs 26:4 teaches: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.” This is a useful lesson in the age of online mudslinging. Yet the very next verse tells us the complete opposite: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” The reader is trusted to work out the application on their own. In an era where so many feel they have it all figured out, how do we engage, resist, or walk away from those we view to be destructive?
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
In a world that tangles and muddles our ideas of what our lives should be, the Book of Proverbs helps us return to the foundational questions regarding our relationships with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. Our culture rewards our being compliant and undisruptive, but Proverbs drives us to take moral and spiritual action with clarity and courage. It challenges us to make distinctions between laziness and productivity, foolishness and wisdom, cruelty and justice. By studying this text, we confront the fact that we are constantly making decisions (consciously or not) about what kinds of people and Jews we are going to be. In today’s rapidly changing and exhaustingly overwhelming world, we can experience a great deal of fear and worry. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. In the end, more than wanting readers to master the Proverbs from the Bible, I’d like to see them inspired to write their own proverbs that can help guide their lives.
Maintaining optimism and hope while reflecting on these last challenging months in our communities may seem like a tough goal to achieve, but as Rabbi Alan Berlin and I begin our new roles in the CCAR’s Department of Rabbinic Career Service that is precisely our mission. Recognizing that the rabbinate has changed significantly in the last decade, the Conference made an interim shift in the department structure last year that is now expanded and firmly in place. By creating a team to work with our congregations, communities, and rabbis not only for placement work, but by looking at the whole of a rabbi’s career and the relationships they build with congregations, organizations, and communities both inside the institutional framework of the Reform Movement as well as outside, we have the potential to introduce even more people to the beauty and integrity of Reform Judaism.
Even in the first days of working together and with many of you and your communities, Rabbi Berlin and I, in our separate but inherently connected positions of CCAR Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services, have already found that offering the rabbis and communities of our Movement the guidance of 4,000 years of Jewish wisdom is extremely fulfilling and rewarding. My role will be specifically working with the rabbis of our Movement: those looking for new positions, those who may be heading on a different path than pulpit work, and those who may just be looking for new inspiration in the work they are already doing. Rabbi Berlin will work primarily with our congregations and organizations in the search process. He will also oversee the CCAR Interim Rabbi Program.
In the few short weeks since we joined the CCAR as staff members, we have had the opportunity to offer equal measures of empathy, experimentation, firm counsel, creativity, and join conversations centered in curiosity and inquiry. We believe that these are just the beginnings of the conversations we will have and the types of discussions we will all be in together as we support Reform rabbis and Reform communities in navigating the future of our collective sacred work.
As Director of Search Services, Rabbi Berlin works closely with congregational and organizational leaders as they seek rabbinic leadership. He envisions facilitating a rabbinic search process rooted in Jewish values where CCAR members feel that they are treated with kavod before, during, and after the process. At the end of a rabbinic search, candidates and interviewing congregations and organizations should feel that they engaged in a good and fair process. And, of course, Rabbi Berlin intends to facilitate a process that leads to excellent matches between rabbis and their congregations/organizations.
My vision for the role of Director of Rabbinic Career Services is one inspired by the interconnected themes of storytelling and collaboration. By weaving these elements together, I hope to help my Reform rabbinic colleagues continue to experience the Reform rabbinate in ways that are meaningful and inspiring. I am hopeful that I can help identify the individual story that each rabbi wants to share most about Judaism. I look ahead with excitement to working with Reform rabbis to find the communities that will appreciate them most and allow them to develop their strengths. Ultimately, my goal is that through this work, the Reform rabbinate will be represented by people sharing their highest level of creativity and insights with the many people rabbis walk alongside.
Some of you may be familiar with the story about the daughter and father who were traveling far from home. On their way back, hoping to arrive home by the start of Shabbat, their wagon lost a bolt. They stopped and encountered a farmer who offered them anything they wanted. After asking for a wrench, a bolt, and some oil, still unable to fix the wagon, getting more and more nervous about the arrival of Shabbat, the farmer reminded them of the one thing they had not requested: his help, upon which he sat with them and helped them fix their wagon.
Rabbi Berlin and I both hope you know that the whole Rabbinic Career Services team is here to offer Reform rabbis as much assistance, advocacy, and help as we can to help you on your path.
Rabbi Leora Kaye is CCAR Director of Rabbinic Career Services. She resides in Brooklyn, New York. Rabbi Alan Berlin is CCAR Director of Search Services. He resides in San Antonio, Texas.
What was the inspiration for Seven Days, Many Voices? There is so much material in the Creation story that speaks to our world at present. Within the Creation story, after all, are questions around gender, climate, faith, relationships—so many of the issues we think about often these days. I wanted to give us a new and provocative lens to consider and reconsider how the six days of creation might speak to us today.
Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? I learned so much from wonderful authors and colleagues, who opened my eyes to issues related to Israel, memory, Shabbat, and much more.
What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? It takes a lot of work to pull together rabbis, cantors, educators, and others given the busyness of our lives. I learned to be both very patient and very persistent.
What do you want readers to take away from the book? I want readers to be proud that the Reform Movement creates space for broad and creative Torah commentary. To rethink the Creation story and pull new meaning from it has us acknowledge that the Torah really is timeless and speaks to every generation. I also believe that reexamining our origins sheds greater light on not only where we come from, but why we are here and what our role is as Jews and members of the human family.
How did you come to serve as the coauthor of Recharging Judaism?
I had partnered with my synagogue rabbi, Rabbi Judith Schindler, for more than a decade on civic engagement initiatives, plus chairing synagogue committees, serving on the board, and representing the synagogue in the community. What started as our memoir about collaborating with churches in the Bible Belt became instead a national research project demonstrating how civic engagement strengthens synagogues, empowers us as Jews, and brings more justice to our country––the thesis of Recharging Judaism.
What is your most important advice for institutional leaders who want to enlist their community members in advocacy efforts?
Don’t pick your issue in a conference room. Talk to the members of your community to discern the issues that matter to them—not through a survey, but with thoughtful conversations one-on-one or in small groups. The advocacy issue will emerge, as will passionate volunteer leaders who will be critical to executing the work.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Rabbis and lay leaders think differently, which enriched our book but also challenged us as we started the writing process. My coauthor drafted paragraphs to inspire; I wrote logical arguments and detailed instructions. Eventually, we found our joint voice––more specifics than in a sermon, but less dry than a how-to manual.
Recharging Judaism was published in 2018. Do you think that the book speaks differently to us today?
Recharging Judaism offers timeless counsel to leaders of Jewish institutions: Travel upstream to address the sources of crisis in your community. Step outside your synagogue walls to build community with Jews and people of other religions. Respond thoughtfully to congregants’ complaints with lessons from Jewish teachings and with the realities of other congregations’ experiences.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Build a choir of voices seeking change, both within your synagogue and in your community. Mobilizing your congregation requires your rabbi as soloist and a diverse choir of lay leaders. Singing together with other choirs requires relationships in your community across boundaries of faith and race, and the willingness to trust a conductor whose experiences differ from your own.
This past weekend, my family and I attended a wedding in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful affair. Two wonderful families were joined with lots of love, fanfare, and celebration. There were many events that brought us all together. As we awoke this morning and got ready to attend a farewell brunch before flying home, our joy was diminished by the news of a violent act of murderous terror that filled the airways and social media—the horrific massacre in Highland Park, IL. This time, however, it was personal.
Highland Park is a Chicago suburb with a substantial Jewish population that is very close to my hometown of Evanston, IL. When I was in high school and college, I taught and led services at several congregations there. I have many close friends and family who live in or near the area where the shooting took place. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band—dear friends and musical collaborators—were performing on a float in that very parade. So far, I have not heard that any of the people I know personally were harmed, but as of this writing, seven souls were snuffed out and more than two dozen others were wounded by a lone gunman armed with easily-obtained, high-powered weaponry, and multiple rounds of ammunition.
It is hard to write about the plague of gun violence that has infected our society without wading into murky waters. The politicians, lobbyists, and pundits on every side of the political spectrum will do all that they can to spin this horrific event—and the hundreds of others like —to underscore their specific agendas. Accusations will be thrown about. Somber and angry speeches will be delivered. Tears will be shed. Funerals will be held, lives upended, and nothing will change—the daily deluge of violence will continue unabated.
Many of you know my views on firearms. I have written and spoken extensively on how gun violence is not merely a social or political problem. It also screams out to the world that we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis: that of idol worship. Simply put, idolatry can be defined as the worshipping of physical objects and imbuing them with powers, qualities, and cosmic significance that supersedes logic and undermines the foundations of our nation. Our society’s obsession with the ownership and deification of weapons of mass destruction—fed and exacerbated by gun manufacturers and the lobbying organizations on their payrolls—has taken a horrific toll on the social fabric and spiritual capital of our citizens. It is nothing less than idolatry. Highland Park now joins the ranks of Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Colleyville, Uvalde, and too many others to mention. We have seemingly lost the capacity to be shocked anymore. The question we are asking is not: “How can this happen in a civil society,” but “When will the next tragedy occur—and will it impact those whom we know and love?”
In the Torah portion we will read this Shabbat, Parashat Chukat, we learn how Moses, instead of speaking to a rock and commanding it to yield water for the thirsty Israelites, strikes it three times and is punished by God and told that he will not enter the promised land. The Rabbis are puzzled by the severity of this decree. Why was Moses treated so unfairly? What did he do to receive such a cruel sentence? There are many possible answers, but one recurring theme is that Moses’s actions were both violent and defiant. He appeared to show the Israelites that he, himself, was the source of life-giving water, not God. In other words, Moses places himself in the role of provider and creator. The violent act of hitting the rock appears to be an attempt to make it look like the staff itself, wielded by Moses, is imbued with the power to sustain and protect the people, thereby diminishing God’s authority and deliverance.
For those for whom the Right to Bear Arms is sacrosanct, any attempts to place sane limits on the ownership and use of weapons of mass destruction is nothing short of blasphemy. For those of us who see the consequences of these weapons in the blood flowing in our streets, schools, and public spaces, the fact that so many lives have been snuffed out so meaninglessly is, in and of itself, a Chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.
If we cannot acknowledge the spiritual, psychological and societal toll that the proliferation of firearms on our streets and in our homes continues to exact, then we, like Moses, are rebelling against the godliness implanted within us by our Creator.
I do not have answers to this tragic situation. But I do know that unless and until we move away from political slogans and lines drawn in the sand, we will continue to see grieving parents and children mourning the loss of their loved ones following senseless acts of violence. We need to learn to look at the facts on the ground and find sane measures to reduce the carnage.
May we never fail to be horrified by tragedy, and may our horror move us to look within ourselves and our souls and strive to make a change.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. He serves as a Chaplain in the Colorado House of Representatives and is past President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council. He has had several poems and articles published in leading national literary and academic journals and is a frequent contributor to anthologies and collections of Jewish writing.
Days before Shabbat, I saw on the calendar that we would welcome a new board president to the bimah for a blessing on Friday night. In addition to the sermon and weekly preparations for worship services, not to mention the busy week that was still in front of me, I wondered what could I say to the new president that hasn’t already been said? The question wasn’t easy to answer and not because I didn’t know the new president well, and not because I wasn’t unfamiliar with themes for the occasion. But I was stuck. Then I opened to the weekly parashah and its commentaries and found an insight that changed my orientation to the problem and revealed an answer to my question.
In many places where words were spoken, the Hebrew wasn’t only ויאמר or וידבר. In these texts, for example, either in the same verse or verses that followed, the Hebrew included תספר באזני בנך (Ex. 10:2), or באזני עם הארץ (Gen. 23:13), or אוזנים לשמוע (Deut. 29:3). A clear reference to hearing and not just speaking revealed that the goal wasn’t only to say what needed to be said, but to be sure that what was important to say was meaningful to the one(s) who heard it. In another text (Ex. 17:14), we find, “ושים באזני יהושע,” literally, put it in Joshua’s hearing; but a familiar translation only tells us, “…read it aloud to Joshua.”
“Put it in Joshua’s hearing,” changed my orientation to the problem and led me to ask a better question, “What does the new president of the board need to hear from me?” This question revealed many options. I began to think about validating the president’s gifts and skills that earned her the privilege to serve as president. She would want the congregation to hear that she cares deeply, leads wisely, and always finds time for the congregation’s needs. I thought about linking the new president to a biblical leader who was lifted up by the people to succeed and flourish in her new role. She would like to hear her name linked to the names of the matriarchs or Miriam or Deborah who found leadership to be challenging and rewarding. I thought about expressing my own trust in her partnership to lead the congregation with me. It would be a comfort to her to hear that carrying the weight of Torah, literally and figuratively, as we would stand before the Holy Ark on Shabbat, was a sacred burden we would help each other carry.
When Shabbat came, my final words, which I prepared and then spoke extemporaneously, felt sincere, authentic, and meaningful. In turn, what the new president of the board heard in that moment before the Holy Ark was just what I had hoped she would also always know in her heart and mind. When I added, “עלי והצלחי” there was little question but that she would rise to her new role and prosper in it.
Ever since that Shabbat, I learned not to ask myself, “What should I say?” but rather, “What do they need to hear?” It’s about them and then what we can become together.
I was drawn to the rabbinate as a young child. Among the dolls I played with as a young child was a rabbi figure—a man, of course—who was part of a set of dolls of other professions, like doctor and firefighter. Later, I was inspired by the rabbis who raised me and felt that the synagogue was a second home. But that image of the rabbi doll stayed with me.
I was also introduced to feminism early on by a long line of rebellious women, including my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother, who were never happy with the limitations placed on them as women. Though I had a male rabbi doll, and though I had never seen a woman rabbi, it never occurred to me that women couldn’t be rabbis until 1972, when my rabbi told me about the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand. I was eight years old, and I still remember exactly where I was when he told me. I remember being stunned. And I think that was when I began to really think about being a rabbi.
Despite my childhood decision to be a rabbi, my road to the rabbinate was not straightforward. For a while, I pursued another love and went to art school, earning a Masters in Fine Arts. I also got married and had the first of my two children. And only then did I decide that it was finally time to apply to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Going through HUC-JIR with one and then two small children was not easy. Balancing being a decent mother with being a professional was at times excruciatingly hard. My choices felt much more limited than many of my male colleagues.
Yet, I managed to carve out a career, albeit an unusual one, in Jewish publishing, working first at URJ and then at CCAR. And I loved it. I loved making Jewish books, and contributing to the future of Judaism in a unique way. For so much of my career, I was the only woman in the room. I had to learn quickly to speak up and use my voice. As an introvert it wasn’t easy, but my experience going to a formerly all-male college had also pushed me to claim space at the table. I learned to be outspoken—it was that or get overlooked. And I learned not only to have a voice but to have an opinion and not be afraid to express it. One of the things I learned through those experiences, and through working on groundbreaking publications like The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Mishkan HaNefesh was that it’s not just that we need more kinds of voices around the table, but that we also need a bigger table. The more voices, the more enriched we all are. No one should be made to feel like there isn’t room for them or that their perspective doesn’t matter. Don’t apologize for your voice or opinion. Don’t apologize for taking up space, and never minimize your contributions. Be courageously outspoken. Be respectfully but unapologetically loud. Listen, and insist on being listened to in return. That’s true on the bimah, in the boardroom, in the table of contents, or in the classroom.
In 2019, I was chosen to be the first woman chief executive to lead the CCAR. I had kept that rabbi doll all those years as a sort of talisman, even though I don’t look much like him. When I was thinking about this new role with the CCAR, I had thought a lot about this rabbi, what he represented, and how I might be both so different and yet connected to this historic image of a rabbi. I thought a lot about what it might be like to be the first woman in the role, to not look like the people before me.
Then an amazing thing happened. Much to my surprise, one of my colleagues gifted me with a matching female doll—created on his 3D printer—which looked like me. And when I gave my talk at Convention that year, my first one, I placed first him on the podium, and I said, “Here he is, my childhood image of a rabbi.” And then I placed her on the podium, and I said, “And here she is, a woman rabbi figure who (maybe) looks a lot like me. And here they are together, the old image of a rabbi, and the new. And here we are together—as we head into the future of the CCAR.”
June 2022 brings the Reform Movement and the CCAR the distinct honor of celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi ordained by a seminary in North America. She paved the way for hundreds of women who followed in her footsteps as they were called to lead Jewish communities by becoming rabbis. June 2022 also marks the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking CCAR vote allowing that women could and should be ordained as rabbis, though it would take 50 more years for Rabbi Priesand to solidify her place in history.
Here, we share a conversation between Rabbi Hara Person, the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis—and the first woman to hold that position in the history of the CCAR—and Rabbi Priesand. This interview was conducted at the March 2022 CCAR Convention in San Diego, the 133rd gathering of Reform rabbis.
Rabbi Person: It’s a great honor and privilege to be able to ask you these questions. Can you tell us who or what gave you the hope that you could become a rabbi?
Rabbi Priesand: First of all, I want to say that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. Unfortunately, I don’t remember why. I think it had something to do with the fact that I always wanted to be a teacher, and over the years, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism. And fortunately for me, my parents said, if that’s what you want, then you should do it. And they gave me one of the greatest gifts I think a parent can give to a child. And that is the courage to dare and to dream, because they were so positive and supportive. I did not think very much about the fact that no woman had ever been ordained rabbi in America. And I wasn’t that concerned about all the doubts I heard expressed in the Jewish community. I just put everything aside. And I think it’s important also to say that I didn’t want to be the first woman rabbi. I just wanted to be a rabbi. I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer. I wasn’t there to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi. And, I’ve not ever really said this very much, but I want you to know then I am probably the only person who never appeared before the admissions committee. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what if I did appear and they said, no? What would have happened? I’m not sure why that was. I think it was because I was in the undergraduate program with the University of Cincinnati. I think they didn’t believe that I was going to do it. I think they thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one.
I remember going out with one of my fellow students for a long time. And a professor went up to him one day and said, “Well, when are you going to marry or do the school of favor and get rid of her?” So there were a lot of things like that. I remember, never did I go into a social situation in which at least one person didn’t come up to me and say, and tell me why women shouldn’t be rabbis. And I would simply say, thank you for sharing your opinion, and I’d walk away, because I just don’t think that through arguing, you’re not going to get anywhere with somebody who has his or her mind already made up and you just have to do it. So that was how I handled that situation.
And the other bit of hope was, of course, the fact that Rabbi Nelson Glueck, at that time president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, wanted to ordain a woman. When I arrived on the scene, I guess he paid special attention. He followed my progress. He took care of a lot of little problems in the background that I never even heard about. And I remember that whenever the board of governors was in town, he made certain to call me out of class and say, give a prayer for the board of governors, no preparation or anything. Just give a prayer. And I do also remember leading services. I was the vice president of the student association, and my job was to make certain there were services every day for the whole year. I assigned everybody, but if someone didn’t show up, then I was responsible for doing the service. But it was a wonderful time in those days of experimenting. I actually remember doing a service that was totally on tape. I sat in the balcony, looked down, and the whole thing was on tape. We got to do lots of interesting things. At any rate, when the board of governors was there, Dr. Glueck made certain that I would do the service and the board of governors would see me and come to understand there was going to be a woman rabbi.
I know Rabbi Balin was talking to us, or somebody asked a question about the board of governors voting. I don’t remember any vote ever being taken. I do remember that this decision was a decision of the College–Institute under Dr. Glueck’s leadership. The CCAR, and the UAHC at that time, had nothing to do with it. And therefore our Movement did absolutely nothing to prepare people for the fact there were going to be women rabbis. And Dr. Glueck, I think had in his mind that there should be some preparation, because two years before I was ordained, he started sending me out to congregations around the country to speak.
I’m a very private person, and when you think back, I was twenty-three, and here I am going around the country. I remember specifically going to a Conservative congregation in Texas. A thousand people showed up. So I learned how to deal with questions and crowds and the media that followed me around a lot. I had press conferences at airports. And my goal always was to make it sound like no one ever asked me that question before.
Dr. Glueck unfortunately died the year before I was ordained. I was devastated because in those difficult moments—and people who are the first of something, there are difficult moments—I used to picture in my mind the day that he’s going to put his hands on my shoulders, and I’m going to be a rabbi in Israel. And so it was very difficult for me, but his wife told me that before he died, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. So he is the person who deserves the credit for laying the foundation for the ordination of women as rabbis.
You probably don’t know this because I only found it out a few years ago, but when Dr. Alfred Gottschalk became the president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, there were faculty members who tried to convince him not to ordain me, even though I had just had one year left, and I had completed the requirements. And fortunately for me, and for all of us, Dr. Gottschalk didn’t listen. And he said on June 3rd, 1972, that he was ordaining me with pride, dignity, and pleasure. And I want to thank my classmates, even though they didn’t show up at this Convention. It’s been a few years since they haven’t been coming; they go to NAORRR, and I always end up having to represent the class of 1972! But I want to thank my classmates, because they were supportive. They always made me feel like I was part of the class. Even if some of them didn’t think women should be rabbis, I didn’t feel any discrimination, or bullying, or any of that. And on the day of ordination, when I was called to the bimah, my classmates very spontaneously stood up to honor this moment in Jewish history. And that is a memory that I always cherish.
Rabbi Person: Thank you so much. Can we talk about the maror? That’s the hard one. What was bitter in your early rabbinate? And in what way has the taste changed or lasted?
Rabbi Preisand: Well there were thirty-five men in my class in Cincinnati. I was the last person to get a job, but I think I got the best job of all. And that was because the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York opened up late and they all had jobs. One of my very favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous.” So I always thought it was appropriate that I would go to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue because of its reputation for equality and social justice. And Rabbi Ed Klein, the senior rabbi, alav hashalom, he really taught me how to be a rabbi. And I owe a great deal to him. He was always very pleased to be introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate. I stayed at the Free Synagogue for seven years, which is probably longer than I should have stayed as an assistant. But quite frankly, if I think about it now, I didn’t really want to go through the placement process. And I said, I’m happy here. I might as well stay here. And then, Rabbi Klein suffered a stroke at a board meeting. I left with him to the hospital, and it was difficult. He had a lot of rehab, and he was never really the same again, but he still participated. I remember very specifically helping put his robe on him, and putting him in the wheelchair, wheeling him up to the bimah, getting everything ready, and he would do whatever he was able to do that particular day. In the meantime, basically, I was running the synagogue. I was hoping that when he was ready to retire, that I would be given a chance to be the senior rabbi. And that was not to be, and it was very messy and unpleasant and people went to him while he was in the hospital and said, “Sally is walking on your grave.”
And, you know, I loved him. It had nothing to do with any of that. I would have stayed another ten years as his associate if that’s what it took. But neither the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, nor any other synagogue, would accept a woman as the senior rabbi at that time. And I’m telling you the story, because for two years, I was not able to find a job, and I served as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital, and I accepted a part-time position at a synagogue in Elizabeth, New Jersey—a synagogue of older members who were always very warm and welcoming. At that time, that was the only time that I almost decided to leave the rabbinate. I was very frustrated, and I was very unhappy. I didn’t feel that our Movement did anything at all to prepare people for women as their spiritual leaders. And it was very difficult for me. And I remember going to the placement commission to meet with them. I walked into the room, there were sixteen men around the table, and I said, “I hope, you know, you’re part of the problem.”
I’ve never been afraid to be straightforward. And I went to see Rabbi Malcolm Stern, who was the placement director. At that time, I wrote a scathing article for Reform Judaism Magazine. He wrote, “You make some important points, but if you publish this article, your career is over. He said, “But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to rewrite the article for you, and it’ll come from me.” And he sat down right at that minute at his typewriter. That’s how long ago it was. And he changed the article around, and it was published under his name. So, I feel it’s very important to, in my case, being the first, to remember the men who helped along the way, because they were there. And I have always felt that it’s important for senior rabbis, for example, to help their female assistants or associates move on. And if you’re lucky enough to have the kind of senior rabbi that I had, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ready to take the next step. So that’s the only real bit of bitterness that I feel. Obviously, I’m grateful that I didn’t drop out of the rabbinate.
Rabbi Person: So are all of us. So let’s talk about matzah, really afikomen, which is about surprise or discovery. What surprises were there in your early rabbinate?
Rabbi Priesand: After those two years, when I couldn’t find a position, I ended up in Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. I almost didn’t even go for the interview for a really stupid reason—the name. I said, “Tinton Falls? Where’s that?” So, I went there, I had a wonderful interview, I answered their questions, and I also told them that I wanted to be a partner with them.
Back when I was growing up, rabbis would say, “This is what we’re going to do.” And everyone would say, “Thank you, rabbi. Yes, that’s what we’re going to do.” And that was it. And I just wanted to be a partner and go to the committees and discuss with them what we’re going to do and move forward together. And they were willing to accept that. But one of the things that they thought—and I guess I also thought—was that this was just going to be sort of a stepping stone. And when I was in rabbinic school, all they talked about in terms of success is you have to go to some large congregation somewhere that, you know, you got to move up to that “E congregation.” And I thought because I was the first that it was my obligation. People at Monmouth Reform Temple taught me a different message about success. And I think that was kind of a surprise for me. And that message to me was, “success is we doing better today than we did yesterday?” That’s it. And it’s, “are we growing? Are we doing our best? Are we learning from our mistakes? Are we counting our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count?”
Monmouth Reform Temple helped me understand that. We created a temple family, and one of the things they miss about me now is they, they used to love hearing me say “I have an idea,” and they would work on it with me and follow through. And that is one of the reasons I stayed, because they allowed me to be creative and to experiment and to have ideas. And I am very fortunate to have had a wonderful rabbinate. I entered HUC-JIR because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. Monmouth Reform Temple helped fulfill that dream to the fullest extent. They kept me grounded, and they never thought of me as the first woman rabbi. I was just their rabbi. But on the other hand, there were moments when they realized I had other responsibilities. And I will tell you that I am here because even though I’ve been ordained, I mean, I’ve been retired for fifteen years, my retirement contract says that the temple will continue to pay for me to come to all these conventions because they understand that it is important for me to do that.
Rabbi Person: What a blessing.
Rabbi Priesand: It’s a very much a blessing.
Rabbi Person: Yes. And a good model for all of us.Standing at the sea, the Midrash teaches that women took timbrels when they left. What artifacts, texts, or pictures representing your early years have you brought with you or would you like to talk about, and what aspect of your journey does it represent?
Rabbi Priesand: I didn’t bring them with me because almost all of my memorabilia is now in Cincinnati at the American Jewish Archives, where they’re creating a major exhibit, which will be opening in May during Jewish heritage month and continuing, I believe throughout the rest of the year. Now, if you can get there, if you can take your congregation there, you should. Because it has everything. I mean, it has all these articles from the beginning: “Mini-skirted Rabbi,” and my mother always loved “My Daughter, the Rabbi,” and my favorite was “Rabbi Sally Came to Hollywood, and Hollywood Fell at Her Feet.” So, all of these things that have been packed away for a very long time and whatever I didn’t take there, is in Monmouth County right now, where I live. The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County has an exhibit of other memorabilia that I saved for them. The exhibit is on just the things that I did in Monmouth County, because one of my goals when I first came was to allow Monmouth Reform Temple to be a Jewish presence in the community. That was very important to me. And so I am involved still in a lot of community organizations. I tell people, look, I retired from the synagogue, but not from the community.
Rabbi Person: I wonder if you can just speak for just a minute about the trading card.
Rabbi Priesand: Yes. Those of us who were at the WRN celebrations got to see the trading card. I would have brought it, but it is in Cincinnati. It’s called Super Sisters cards. In 1979, two women who were teaching came up with an idea after I think one of their daughters said to them, “Why aren’t there things like trading cards, baseball cards for girls? Why don’t any of these cards have any women on them?” So these two women got a grant and came up with a stack of trading cards. On the front is a picture of the person. And on the back are what I always refer to as their stats. And they have a quote from the person. Sometimes you can still find it on eBay, which by the way, over the years, I’ve signed a lot of cards. People used to request them either in person, or they’d send me a photograph or ask would I send them a photograph that I autograph. Well, you know, I was very gracious about it. I tried to do all of that. And recently, I think I was looking for a Super Sisters card on eBay, and there’s my autograph on an envelope for $149.00. I was going to say it, just come to me. I’ll give you one for free!
Also, in terms of artifacts that are just two others that I want to mention quickly. After Rabbi Glueck died, his wife sent me a beautiful letter explaining how important my ordination would be. And I have always had that framed with a picture of Dr. Glueck ordaining someone above my desk. That’s also in Cincinnati.
And the other thing I remembered the other day; I don’t know how it was when you were ordained. I guess people sometimes call this the “cherish it” ceremony. To me it was meaningful. And I remember that we each held the Torah and said something. And, my quote that really has come with me throughout my life is “say little and do much.”
I have a letter opener that my family’s best friends—I grew up with their children, they lived next door, a Lebanese Catholic family. They had eight children, and we stayed friends all our lives. The mother of that family came to my mother’s 100th birthday. They’re the ones who gave me that letter opener with “say little and do much.” So that has been something that I have tried to do throughout my life. And it’s been very important to me.
Rabbi Person: It’s a beautiful thing. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Now, I think you have some—I’m not going to call them artifacts, because they’re current— but some contemporary pieces you’d like to share.
Rabbi Priesand: Yes. I’m very happy to tell you that I heard from our colleague Sandy Sasso today, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network invited her to write a book about me. It’s a children’s book. You may be aware of her series about Regina Jonas called Regina Persisted. There’s Judy Led the Way, and mine is calledSally Opened Doors. The book is ready on Amazon. It’s all illustrations. It’s fun. And at the end I convinced them to put a picture of me with my dog Zeke sitting on the corner of the bimah. It’s going to be a great gift for kids. It really is. I hope you enjoy it. And the second thing, and I think Sandy may be listening in: Sandy, I love it. I consider you to be among my family, and I always feel your love and respect, and it means a lot to me. I cherish it. Thank you so much.
Rabbi Person: Thank you, Sally. Really. Thank you. I have something I want to share. First of all, I want to thank—you can see on the screens, these five women’s organizations that have sponsored this and the reception to come. And I’m so grateful to all of these organizations for their ongoing support and for all the incredibly important work that they do for all of us out in the community. I want to really say a special thank you to the sponsors. In addition, we have begun a project which is not done, but it will be done in 2022. And that is, we are publishing a book called The First 50 Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis. We’re really looking to make this a festive, celebratory way to mark what is an incredible moment in history.
And to that end, we have many, many, many people who have become sponsors not only of this program, but also of the book and whose names will appear in the book. And we are so grateful to everyone who is part of that in your honor and in honor of all of our Vatikot.
Thank you. And thank you to all of those women, our Vatikot, for everything you’ve done for the community and for all of us. Thank you.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, rabbi emerita of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, and CCAR Press author, reflects on the unique role of the congregational rabbi.
The season begins. Many of us are stepping into new roles, new positions, are stepping away, or have been asked to step aside. Summer is the season of settling in. We dream, we move to a new town, we adjust, we try to get some sleep, we plan, we reconnect with ourselves, or at least we try. As for me, I’ve just retired. Or, as I prefer to say, I am shifting into something new.
A lot is asked of rabbis, and we serve in a variety of ways; I know I have. For those of us who serve congregations, we find ourselves deep in paradoxical expectations. Our congregants whisper to us all the time saying, “I don’t know how you do it.” And then, silently, they ask that we find the way.
They ask that we captivate the two-year-old and gain the trust of the seventeen-year-old. They want us to be a brilliant teacher to adults and a seasoned educator to children.
To sit with them in lamentation, to be deep, to be wise, and to be close. To be set apart, rise above, and yet be a friend. To be laser-focused on individual needs and to see the larger picture. To have a family life and to be always available.
To be a collaborative prayer leader and an inspiring orator. To have charisma on the bimah, but not put on a show. To tend to the broken-hearted and to mesmerize a crowd. To be passionate about social justice, but not too much.
To be spiritual and to be practical. To be visionary and detailed. To be strong, but not too strong. To be astute in temple politics, but not political. To be a skilled fundraiser, with business savvy, deeply religious, and have an easily explained theology. To command authority, but not too much. To be collaborative and decisive. To take risks and to be careful.
To stand for something grand.
They ask a lot, and I cannot say if it is too much. At times, over the years, I wanted to crumble under the weight of it all. And yet sometimes, I think that it is the gnarled and paradoxical set of expectations that make the work fascinating. We are asked to live in a world of nuance and finesse.
In truth, we are artists of the sacred, navigating the contradictions, compensating for our weaknesses, and delighting in our strengths. We forgive ourselves for not being perfect and others for not being kind. We surround ourselves with good people, caring people, smart people, wise people, and people who will compassionately tell us the truth. We build a diverse team with diverse skill sets. We surround ourselves with partners in the sacred.
The work is hard and glorious. It is a great and awesome privilege. It is confusing, exhausting, and exhilarating. Prayer helps, discernment helps, friends help, and rest helps. Now is the season for shifting, settling in. We walk in a vast field of sacred service; may our feet be steady and our hearts strong.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar has had a varied career. Among her positions, she has been a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, an outreach coordinator for the IMPJ, a regional director for the URJ, and most recently, the senior rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL, where she is now rabbi emerita. She is a widely published author and poet. Her work includes the CCAR Press titlesAmen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice (2020) and Omer: A Counting (2014).