I wonder how many CCAR conventions I have been to over the years. I remember the first. It was in Pittsburgh and I had just been ordained. As I walked up to the L-Z registration line, I was scared and excited until a lovely volunteer pulled me aside. “The registration line for the wives is over there,” she said kindly while pointing across the room. This memory surfaced recently when I told a friend I was going to the CCAR conference and she asked if I enjoy it. I do now, I said.
Those early conventions are pretty much lost in the haze of the years, but I remember moments like that. Since there weren’t many female rabbis, we all ended up being cycled and recycled through the various committees. In those years, there would only ever be one woman on any given committee. I remember once being on the Nominating Committee and suggesting two female names. We already have a woman, I was told.
All that seems like ancient history now although it was a mere 30+ years ago. For all that we wonder at times whether anything has changed, it turns out that much has changed, at least when it comes to the CCAR. We now come together with intention, defined by what we do as rabbis, not by our gender or sexual orientation. We take for granted that two of the five rabbinic members of our senior CCAR staff are women. Our immediate past president is a woman. Women have chaired our convention planning. The WRN is an ex-officio member of the CCAR board. The brochure for this next conference calls the CCAR “the organization for every Reform rabbi, retired, community-based, congregational, part-time, portfolio and full-time.”
The year I was directed to the wives’ registration line at that Pittsburgh Conference, the overwhelming membership of the Conference held congregational positions. My friends in Hillel simply didn’t bother coming since there was nothing there for them in the program (as well as a feeling of being invisible in contrast to the pulpit rabbis). The part-time rabbinate existed only for retired rabbis who still wanted to keep a hand in pulpit life. The rabbinate was a much narrower place.
And, in a not-so-well-kept secret, it turns out that not all male colleagues enjoyed CCAR conventions. Many of my friends joked about the “how big is yours” syndrome. They complained that the very convention that should allow us to relax and be ourselves often turned out to be a bastion of judgment and competition. They also wanted to talk about their personal doubts, their professional conflicts, and the challenges of balancing the rabbinate with family. They, too, yearned for a different, more truly collegial experience.
For many years after I left the full-time congregational rabbinate, I stopped coming to CCAR conventions. All kinds of considerations came into play. I served a part-time congregation without the financial resources to send me to conferences. I would have had to cancel patients in my private practice, which had both economic and psychological consequences. Since I was self-employed and funded my own vacations, I needed to be selective about how much time I spent away. If the choice came down to going to the CCAR convention versus going to visit my children, my children won.
While all of the above reasons seemed valid at the time, I also confess that I wasn’t as drawn to going to the convention as I am now. For many years, the CCAR didn’t feel like the organization for every Reform rabbi, or at least not the organization for this Reform rabbi. The happy confluence of women’s entering the rabbinate and society’s undergoing parallel shifts has sparked many positive changes in the rabbinate and in our conference. We all know that there are changes yet to come, as acknowledged by the title of this conference (Rabbis Leading the Shift: Jewish Possibility in a Rapidly Changing World). I am happy about returning to these conferences. I am excited about seeing old and new friends. And yes, I plan to enjoy it.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals. In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision. After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata. Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).
Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org). She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at email@example.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.