I remember my first CCAR convention vividly. It was 1991, the first year after my ordination. I was serving a congregation in Melbourne Australia, where there were fewer rabbis in the entire country than in my ordination class, and (at that time) no other women. The convention was in South Florida and my strongest memory is of a long afternoon by the pool with some of my classmates. I remember walking into a plenary knowing almost no one and feeling joy that I could retreat to the community of friends I knew best.
Fast forward many years. My rabbinic network is much larger. The WRN, regional kallot, several moves, my local rabbinic community, my work on CCAR conventions and the CCAR board have resulted in relationships I never imagined I would have. And one of the great blessings of my work as the CCAR Manager of Member Services has been the chance to meet and get to know even more of you.
And yet, there is still something about walking into a room full of rabbis at convention and thinking ahead to lunch and dinner that brings me back to the moment of entering my junior high cafeteria and feeling anxiety about finding a spot at a lunch table. That feeling that everyone must have “plans” and if I don’t make them I’ll be alone has never quite disappeared, despite my growing network. And asking to join even a good friend who has plans for dinner somehow makes me feel like a gate-crasher, despite being warmly welcomed.
In conversation with many of you, I have come to learn that I am not the only one who carries these feelings walking into convention. These feelings persist despite the great strides that the CCAR has made in nurturing a culture that truly embraces a desire to facilitate relationships. And over the years since my first convention in 1991 I have seen these changes. When I walk into an elevator, people look me in the eye and greet me. When I sit down in a plenary or workshop, the people sitting next to me introduce themselves and begin conversation. Programs deliberately work to create opportunities for meaningful dialogue not just with the friends that surround us, but with those whom we do not yet know. CCAR board members offer opportunities to members to go out to dinner together; these are sincere offers, reflecting a true desire to meet and get to know the members they serve.
The CCAR, however, is both an organization and a group made up of individuals. We have to ask ourselves what our role is in helping to create an environment in which no one feels alone in a crowd. We can ask “What kind of work do you do?” instead of “How large is your congregation?” Put down the phone when someone sits next to us and after the introductions, consider asking, “What are you working on that excites you?” “How are you being impacted by the current political climate?” “What do you like to do outside of your work?” If you go to the bar late at night and see someone walk in alone, ask them to join you.
I know that this feels artificial, like a youth group mixer. And many of us are cynical about the impact of these efforts. As a congregational rabbi, I image that this is how members of my congregation feel when I encourage them not to just talk to their friends at the Oneg Shabbat, to go up to the individual standing alone near the door, who may be having the junior high school flash back. But there are really only two choices: working to break down barriers, or being at least partially responsible for the loneliness that persists amongst those who are supposed to understand us best.
We’re all familiar with the response of the Israelites at Sinai – na’aseh v’nishmah (Exodus 19:8). Let’s overcome our cynicism, shift our comfort zone and reach out with open hearts; the meaning and understanding of these actions will unfold and shape us for years to come.
Betsy Torop is the CCAR Manager of Member Services and a congregational rabbi in Brandon, Florida.