Connection, Disruption, Challenge & Hope: Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person Addresses the CCAR During the Coronavirus Crisis

Mar 24, 2020 by

Connection, Disruption, Challenge & Hope: Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person Addresses the CCAR During the Coronavirus Crisis

Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR Chief Executive to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to move our annual Convention online. The address below is adapted from the words that CCAR Chief Executive Hara Person shared with the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who came together online throughout the country in this time of change and need.


One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten in the last eight months is: What has surprised you the most about this job? And what I can definitively say is that when I was applying for this job, no one told me I would have to become an expert in pandemic planning. And cancelling our in-person Convention, yeah, not something I ever thought I’d be doing, and certainly not in year one. I really didn’t want to be the first CCAR Chief Executive to cancel Convention; I did check with our posek, Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola, who assured that indeed I was, so that’s another first for me. But Gary also reminded me that the Pope was cancelling mass, and if it was good enough for the Pope, it is good enough for us.

And I assume you can all relate, since I’m guessing this is the first time you are cancelling services, shutting your buildings, postponing events, and doing or not doing according to all the new health protocols we’re suddenly living with. This is a time for firsts for all of us.

I will take a moment to acknowledge that even before we were all working remotely in virus-land, this has been a year of tremendous transition at the CCAR and in many ways still is. I need to acknowledge my gratitude for our tremendous and dedicated executive team: Betsy Torop, Cindy Enger, and Laurie Pinho, who have been my steadfast partners and friends through an already tumultuous year of new beginnings, new hires, and new ways of working at the CCAR—their willingness to teach me, to have patience with my learning curve, to be honest even when it’s hard, and to have faith in our collective future is what makes the CCAR such a strong and exciting organization to lead. And our talented senior staff, Tamar Anitai, Fani Magnus Monson and now Rafael Chaiken, as well as rabbinic staff Dan Medwin and Sonja Pilz, as well as all the rest of our staff—I am truly blessed to work with such a thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring team of people. I know you don’t know them all—this was going to be the first Convention for many of them—but I hope you’ll get a chance to meet them over the months and years to come. I am lucky to have them all by my side. And I also have to thank my predecessor, Steve Fox, who is the model emeritus. He has stayed out of the way but has been there for me when needed, and I have needed it, especially in these last few weeks.

But right now, we need to talk about today. We need to talk about connection and disruption. We need to talk about possibility and challenge. Suddenly we are being forced to think and plan and rabbi in completely new ways. It’s exciting and it’s terrifying. As Jews, we know that our biggest moments of creativity and innovation come out of times of disruption. When the Temple and the priesthood were destroyed, we got resourceful and created a portable set of texts and practices that we could carry with us wherever we went. How brilliant—and indeed we’re still carrying those with us today.

What bound us together throughout history was our common tradition and practices, the Hebrew language, and our shared faith in the God of Israel. One of my favorite novels is A. B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to End of the Millennium, which describes a clash of cultures between Jews from the East and Jews in the West. And yet, the reason they clash is because they recognize the connection between them – though their traditions differ, they’re merely different threads that together still make up the same tapestry of Jewish peoplehood. They understand that they’re joined together, parts of a whole, which exacerbates their differences. When most people in the world lived in isolated villages, Jews around the world grasped that they were part of a bigger endeavor. As in the novel, Askenazi Jews in Europe encountered Jewish traders from North Africa who appeared once a year to sell their goods. And in this way Jews in one part of the world were aware of Jews in other communities, and even as they viewed some of their practices with suspicion or even distain, they knew that weren’t alone, together they were parts of something bigger. Think too of our history of responsa: Jews living in one part of the world could send a sh’eilah to the academy in Pumbedita or Sura and get a response back a year or so later. A slow connection, to be sure, but a connection.

As Jews we know how to connect. And as rabbis, all the more so. We know that connection across distance matters. It’s at the core of who we are. Just as our ancestors gained strength knowing that there were other Jews around the world, so too does our connection across physical distance give us strength and nourish our resilience. My father used to always ask me: how are things in rabbi-world. He died before social media became ubiquitous, but he would be amazed to see that there is actually such a thing as rabbi-world. Even in the best of times I have often thought that many rabbis live in two places—in your physical community with the people you serve and of course with your loved ones, and simultaneously in the online world, drawing sustenance from the connection to each other; the sharing of stories and advice and struggles, and just the affirmation that yes, other rabbis are dealing with the same things.

Despite being stuck in my house and apart from you, I’ve felt our connection this past week quite strongly. I was able to share Shabbat with so many of you in a single day from my living room. I started with Australia in the morning, then Israel in the early afternoon, the East Coast of the United States, then the middle of the country, and then the West Coast. And despite the social distancing that we’re practicing, I feel more, not less, connected to all of you, and more connected to our Jewish community as a whole. In the midst of the fear and anxiety is a sense of strength and joy—that from all around the world we’re figuring this thing out, and finding ways to create meaningful and real connections that go beyond our specific communities.

It’s been incredibly inspiring to see how you’re pushing yourselves outside your comfort zones in order to bring comfort to those you serve. The good news is that we no longer live in a world in which physical distances by necessity create emotional, intellectual, or spiritual distances.

My grandmother Gussie was nicknamed Six Month Sadie. Why? Because when her mother, my great-grandmother, Lena, was giving birth to her here in New York, she hadn’t seen her own mother, Golda, back in Europe in several years, and didn’t know that she had died. She named the baby Sadie. But when she learned, some months later, of her mother’s death, she changed my grandmother’s name to Golda, or Gussie. Hence the nickname, Six Month Sadie—a funny story but also emblematic of the distance, both physical and emotional, that was a reality of life for many families at that time.

And here we are, several generations later, where on Friday night, in between synagogue hopping, I went onto Zoom and lit candles with my family—one kid in Boston and one in Berkeley, and my mother and sister in Miami. There is a miraculousness to this technology and the possibilities it holds for us in allowing us to connect in real and meaningful ways while physically separated.

It’s been amazing to see how the new restrictions we’re suddenly living with have not been stumbling blocks—yes, they’re frustrating, and yes, in some cases heartbreaking. And yet, you’re rising to the challenge and showing incredible leadership. We can’t assemble at a shivah house, and so you’re holding online shivahs that bring real comfort and connection. We can’t assemble for a bat mitzvah, so you’re compassionately postponing until it’s safe to do so and finding inventive ways for your students to shine nevertheless. Wan’t have welcoming Shabbat for the tots, so you’re singing into a screen from your couch and uplifting your favorite three year olds. Can’t study Torah around a table on Shabbat morning—no problem, study together from everyone’s dining rooms tables. And on and on.

This is a time for us to be as open as we can be to new possibilities, to go out on a limb, to teeter on the edge of the known and the unknown, to be nimble and flexible and creative. Not everything we’re doing is going to work or be successful. But out of that will come some new ways of working and coming together that are going to transform who and what we are as a Jewish community, and what it is that rabbis do.

And yet, this is also a moment of tremendous fear and uncertainty. We don’t know how long this quarantine will last, and we don’t know what the long term effects will be. Surely there will be hardship for many of us, in the weeks, and over the months and possibly years to come. Some of us will live with the aftermath for a long time to come. Our personal lives and our professional lives will be profoundly impacted in ways we cannot yet imagine. And we at the CCAR will do our best to support you, and help you, and learn our way through this with you.

When the Pinelands in New Jersey experienced a devastating fire, scientists noticed something amazing. The heat of the fire melted the resin in the cones of the pine trees, causing them to burst open and spread their seeds, enabling the forest to regenerate. One of the scientists who studied this phenomenon said: “The system bounces back. Fire has been a part of that area for a long time. There you find species that have adapted to frequent fires; otherwise they get outcompeted by the species that can.”[1]  Throughout our history, that’s who we’ve been as Jews, and especially as rabbis, time after time. We are resilient, we know how to adapt, and we have the capacity to seed new growth.

In the midst of all this change and creativity, innovation and disruption, pain and loss and growth, I want to suggest a few basic principles that may help guide you in the days and weeks to come.

1. We will make mistakes. There are no rule books for the reality we’re suddenly living in. We’re not going to get it all right. But that’s going to be okay. We tore down the infrastructure of a conference that had taken us two years to plan and built an entirely new one in two weeks. Not everything has gone according to plan. But it’s pretty darn great nevertheless. I cannot properly express my gratitude to Laurie Pinho, Dan Medwin, Aliza Orent, and the whole CCAR team, but especially Betsy Torop, all of whom have worked tirelessly, first to get us ready for Baltimore, and then to unwind the convention, and then quickly create this online version. You have no idea how hard they all worked to make this happen. Please thank them yourselves when and if you can, even if you don’t know them. Gratitude does not begin to describe what I feel for them, and fatigue doesn’t begin to describe what they feel.

2. Pace yourself. Change is exhausting. Working from home with your kids, also indefinitely home, is exhausting. Trying to get it right and meet everyone’s needs at a time of fear and worry while managing your own anxiety is exhausting. The uncertainty of this moment is exhausting. So give yourself a break, where and how you can. Ask for help, be strategic, create priorities. You’re going to need to pace yourself to get through this.

3. Be forgiving. We have to be forgiving with ourselves and with each other. Nerves are frayed. Skills are being learned as we race full steam ahead. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be patient. Rest when you need to. And model this for others.

4. Practice gratitude. We must find opportunities for gratitude in the midst of all this. I want to take a moment to thank, in addition to our CCAR staff, our CCAR Board. I knew I was going to love working with Ron Segal, but little did I know the adventures we’d be dealing with together. I could not ask for a kinder, wiser, menschier partner, and wow am I grateful to Ron for always having my back. Lewis Kamrass, our president-elect, has thrown himself into our teamwork with both feet and I am so grateful for Lewis’s level-headed good advice and caring. And to our whole Board, the support you’ve shown me and our staff is just incredible, and so appreciated, especially in the midst of dealing with your own communities.

5. Summon courage. This is a time for courageous leadership. We must summon every bit of our stores of courage and have faith in ourselves as leaders. You can do this, even if you’ve never done this before. Your people need you to be brave. Find the right people to be your thinking partners, get input, listen to feedback, test new ideas, be willing to be wrong, and trust your ability to figure it out. But also, you don’t have to be brave all the time. It’s also okay to be scared, and feel vulnerable – acknowledging that takes real courage.

6. Care for each other. Let us, as a rabbinic community, care for each other. This is not only a time of fear but also of loneliness. Who within our rabbinic community can we reach out to? Who is emotionally vulnerable and needs some extra support? And then there is the actual virus itself. Some of us may get sick. Some of our family members may get sick. Some of us may lose members of our communities to this virus, or even, God forbid, family members. Let us be there for each other, to rabbi to each other, to be sources of support and caring in times of loneliness, fear, or grief.

7. Grab hope. And we must look for hope and grab it wherever we find it. Our history teaches us that hope is always out there, even if we can’t immediately recognize it, and even in the worst of moments. No matter how bleak things look, we cannot, we must not,  give in to despair. Finding hope is hard, but the search for hope is one of the things that can sustain us in dark times.

In closing I’m going to share a poem by Ada Limón.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27mainnj.html?searchResultPosition=2

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