Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR President to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to cancel our annual Convention and move the event online. Below is the address that CCAR President Ron Segal gave to the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who gathered online throughout the country in this time of change and need.
The date on which I delivered my first address as CCAR President was April first. April Fools Day; the parashah was Tazria-Metzora. “Could it get any worse?,” I remember thinking.
And…here we are.
Considering the present reality of our world and the fact that, this year, I have the great privilege of sharing a few comments in front of a desktop monitor, I realize now how unimaginative I was!
If ever there was a time when Tazria-Metzora was fitting for the time in which we are living, surely it is this year. With the exception, perhaps, of a handful of U.S. Senators, who could possibly have imagined such a reality: a time when every one of us has essentially been isolated from the camp until such point all have been declared clean. Determining how best to lead our communities while also in isolation is surely not something for which most of us were prepared or trained. This is surely unfamiliar turf for all of us.
These past several months and, no doubt, the months still to come are a staggering reminder about the unpredictability of our world. While recognizing that too many of our colleagues have previously experienced tragic manifestations of life’s caprice, we convene today with the knowledge that all of us—no matter where we live, no matter the nature of our rabbinate, regardless of our age or station in life—each and every one of us is confronting the same unfamiliar, anxiety-ridden, fear-inducing, individually isolating, community-rending pandemic.
I don’t know about you, but I will honestly share that, to be a rabbi at this moment feels overwhelming. Even with the forced cancellation of numerous trips, appointments, meetings, and community functions, and a calendar that at first blush might seem more open than it has in years, it feels like we have never been busier. For in addition to the heightened relational and pastoral needs of those we serve, we are also now buried under an enormous list of decisions to be made on how to transition every aspect of our complex roles and organizations into an online, virtual format. Further, trying to sift through and extract helpful guidance from traditional sources and the constant stream of articles, news programs, op-eds, Facebook posts, and non-stop emails has felt like drinking from a firehose. It’s been…a lot friends, has it not?
Assuming my conversations and interactions with colleagues are representative, I would daresay that many of us might presently describe our inner life as one of pizur hanefesh—possessing a scattered soul— understood by some of our sages to be the consequence of having to simultaneously devote one’s attention to too many things for a sustained period of time, resulting in an inner life that feels scattered, out of balance, and far from the spiritual ideal.
I think about the 250 or so rabbis and IJS alumni whom I join each weekday for a virtual, half-hour guided meditation in the hopes of merely trying to center myself, and I am further convinced that there are countless scattered souls among us.
However, I also believe that colleagues are eager and need more than ever opportunities to address our own feelings of isolation and to regain a sense of internal balance. Whether through meditation, exercise, reading, or any other means, we surely recognize and understand we will be better equipped to lead during this time of uncertainty and physical separation if we can do so with a calmer soul and more equanimous spirit. I found these very sentiments affirmed in the conclusion of a poem written and posted on RavBlog by our colleague Lance Sussman this past week. “We Shall Prevail: A Poem for Unprecedented Times” ends with these words:
“Now is the time to collect our inner selves
and to be strong alone
until the time comes again
when we can be strong together.
until that day
Let us resolve that we shall prevail.”
And of course, we will prevail, just as rabbis have done throughout history. Each of us will soon come to a point in time during this pandemic and isolated existence when the number of urgent decisions we have to make will diminish, and the course for our respective communities will have been charted, and…we will actually be able to stop, catch our breath, work on unifying our souls that feel so very scattered, and come to understand and internalize what I know we have been saying repeatedly to those in our communities, that “isolation need not mean loneliness.”
During this period which none of us has ever known, even as we continue to support those in need, I also believe that ‘to prevail’ means we must not allow this unexpected window of time to pass by unappreciated, without discovering anew the simple miracles of daily life too often obscured from sight. Liberated from the grueling routines that have dictated our lives for however many years, might not this moment awaken in us a spirit of renewed curiosity, hopefully greater humility, and an appreciation that, though physically distant, we are in truth “alone together,” convening both individually and collectively at the same time.
I genuinely believe we need this heightened awareness to confront as a rabbinic community what is increasingly understood to be a watershed moment in our history, when the character and nature of future Jewish communities as well as where and how Jewish communities convene are being defined literally before our very eyes.
Throughout Jewish history, with every disruption in the world, rabbis have reshaped, redefined, and recreated Jewish life and expression to ensure Judaism’s survival and continued relevance. I know I am not the first to suggest that the time has come for us to do so again. For with each Shabbat service we appropriately and necessarily livestream, every adult learning session and Hebrew class we offer online, all of the b’nei mitzvah students we now tutor solely through Skype or in Google Hangout rooms, every committee meeting, board meeting, and convention which we hold via Zoom, even the instances of pastoral outreach to those whom we can no longer reach in person…with all of these monumental efforts that many have been forced to implement for the first time, we have, albeit unintentionally, also helped to dramatically expand accessibility to Jewish life and to ensure Judaism’s relevance more than ever before.
In his column printed in last week’s Forward, our colleague Jeff Salkin astutely noted ‘The coronavirus is transforming Judaism… This is our Yavneh moment, a time when we have] to rethink Jewish life, expression, and service.” We surely recognize that, when this pandemic eventually passes, neither we as individuals, nor our congregations, or agencies, or Hillels, or communities, will be—or can be—the same again.
Though nothing can replicate the spiritual and emotional significance of physically being together in community, or ever replace the efficacy of actually reaching out to hold the hand of someone in need, still, having employed new modalities to connect with and engage people throughout our communities, including those who had previously determined our congregations’ or organizations’ offerings were either too limited or not in their budget, having discovered new and creative ways to respond to the needs of our diverse community, we need to understand and greet this moment with an open-hearted and open-minded spirit, not with a sense of foreboding. This is a defining moment in the life of the Jewish community and the ways in which we as rabbis and Jewish professionals respond now, and how we must continue to respond in the future, are how we will foster appreciation, nurture greater loyalty, and most significantly, ensure our and Judaism’s continued relevance.
So here we are, members of our CCAR, alone together, “Zooming” in hopefully from some comfortable place, connecting in a manner we did not originally intend and could never have predicted. Unquestionably, many of us are greatly missing the long-anticipated opportunity to reconnect and learn and pray together with one another in Baltimore. However, this moment provides us with another opportunity, to realize the words of parashat Vayakhel read just this week and bring to this virtual Mishkan that we are building together across the miles the sincere and genuine gifts of our hearts. Among those gifts is surely one of gratitude for the members of our Convention Planning Committee (under the leadership of Chair Alex Shuval-Weiner and Vice-Chair Amanda Greene) who have labored for well over a year to plan our in-person gathering. Certainly, gratitude goes as well to our talented CCAR professional leadership for making the courageous decision to convene online and especially to Betsy Torop and the entire CCAR staff, who planned and executed this online convention in two weeks’ time, while also working from their homes.
This moment is a unique opportunity for the CCAR, for unexpectedly, a new window has opened and provided us a glimpse of where—and how—we as a Conference must surely continue to evolve in order to remain accessible and relevant to all of our CCAR colleagues in the future, to all of our CCAR colleagues.
With Pesach a little more than two weeks away and thoughts of virtual seders already in mind, perhaps new inspiration might emerge this year from the theme of liberation—liberation from the rushed, often stressful routines of our lives and communities (at least until a month ago), and a transition to the next still-to-be-defined period in Jewish life.
Having personally had the great honor of working closely with an incredibly dedicated CCAR board and gifted staff, I have great confidence in the CCAR’s ability to help shape and successfully guide us into this new moment, confidence that is significantly emboldened by the fact we are led by Rabbi Hara Person. I could not have asked for a greater privilege than to serve in this capacity as Hara assumed the responsibilities as our Chief Executive. Brilliant, thoughtful, reflective, and strategic, Hara is precisely the right rabbi and leader to help us navigate the next era in the life of our Conference. With her steady hand and our shared spirit of curiosity, trust, and faith in one another, we will emerge from this unprecedented moment, prepared to define anew and write this next chapter together. May it indeed be so.
Thank you for the sincere privilege and honor of continuing to serve as president of the CCAR.
Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the CCAR and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.