Discovering Reform Judaism

My religious training began in Istanbul, Turkey in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua of my temple. When I discovered Reform Judaism in law school, it changed my life for ever. Now I could become a religious, as well as an observant Jew, in good conscience. During my military service in Turkey (1959-60), I applied to and was accepted by the HUC-JIR as a rabbinic student. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish progressive rabbinic school, I came to the States in the Fall of 1961.

After five years in Cincinnati I was ordained as a Rabbi and sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina as the representative of the WUPJ as well as the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, a small liberal congregation of about 100 families. It was there that I got married to Ines Goldstein, my now wife of almost 50 years, and where our son Daniel was born. In Latin America I dealt with Orthodox opposition and Conservative competition but was successful in solidifying the foundations of Reform Judaism in Argentina. In 1969, I decided to leave the congregational rabbinate and was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania where in 1975 I received my Ph.D in Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Our daughter, Deborah was born in Philadelphia, where, in addition to my studies, I also became the Education Director of Main Line Reform Temple, in the suburbs, on a part-time basis.

My first full-time job was at North Shore Congregation Israel, in Glencoe, IL as the Education Director of a large religious school (about 800 students). In 1980, however, I decided to have my own pulpit and accepted an invitation to become the Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, MA where I remained for 23 years, retiring in 2003. During my tenure, I became active at Camp Eisner, was elected president of the Boston area Reform Rabbis, wrote a number of books on Judaica, served as the editor of the CCAR Journal, and trained many Mohalim/lot.

Since my retirement, I have been in academics, teaching part-time Comparative Religion at Boston College and now Ethics at Framingham State University (closer to my new home in Ashland, MA). In addition to my academic obligations, I continue to blog and lecture, and support, through trips and Skype lectures, a small but emerging Reform congregation in Barcelona, Spain, called Bet Shalom. I also love to spend time with my children and grandchildren, two in the Boston area and two in California.

In the 60’s Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinion among us, we all had a general idea of what Reform Judaism stood for: We supported progressive revelation; we believed in the immortality of the soul; we had a common liturgical style and a special prayer book etc. It is in the nature of Reform Judaism to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today we have many more theological differences among ourselves. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity, and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices, making the rabbinate even more challenging.

When I was a congregational rabbi, I influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a non-theistic religious naturalist, my liturgy, sermons and writings reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. My rabbinate taught me to be patient with people, empathetic with individuals, and accept greater diversity. I learned to be well organized, prompt with my appointments, always respecting time and place. I also assiduously set aside a few hours a week to study, for without it, I would have nothing substantial to teach.

Looking back, I consider myself very fortunate for having a rich and fulfilling life, and am grateful to the Reform movement in the USA for allowing me to realize my dreams.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR Rabbi. 

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