The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s moving address about the direction of the CCAR, the meaning of gathering in Israel during the largest civil protests in history, and the need to speak out for justice in an Israel of our highest aspirations.
Watch the video here, or read the address below.
February 26, 2023: Parashat T’tzaveh reminds us of the importance of the Ner Tamid, the light that is to burn at all times, throughout the ages. When I was ordained, reaching this milestone of twenty-five years seemed impossibly far away. Today, thinking back to who I was twenty-five years ago, I find myself looking for my Ner Tamid, the light that has remained constant throughout this journey and binds that new rabbi to who I am today.
There’s so much to be grateful for in my most unusual career. These twenty-five years have been incredibly fulfilling, hard, and challenging, never boring. Getting to spend twenty-one years publishing Jewish books for the Reform Movement was an incredible gift. Having had an unusual route through HUC-JIR, not doing the typical year in Israel, and then being part of two different classes, I never had the same sense of “class” or “classmates” that most of you have had, though I love my two classes and congratulate both my class of 1997 on their Doctorate in Divinity from last year, and the class I was ordained with in ’98 on their upcoming Doctorates. But getting to develop deep relationships with colleagues, who have made me a better rabbi, and really a better person, who have become mentors and friends, has been another gift of these twenty-five years.
I decided to become a rabbi because, while I was in grad school for something else, I realized that it was the rabbinate that was aligned with my deepest values. My personal Ner Tamid, that which filled my life with light, was located in the Jewish world. Going to rabbinic school seemed to be the way to fulfill my personal purpose, a way to connect with the ideas and values that were essential to who I was. My road to the rabbinate was not straightforward, and my career has been unexpected and unusual, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunities to learn and grow, to stretch and yes, to struggle, as a rabbi these twenty-five years, and to have, God willing, much more still ahead of me.
These last several years have been so hard, and indeed, there has been much struggle. And yet out of this time, some incredibly generative work has grown. I am very proud of us as a Conference, in the ways that we continue to push ourselves to learn, and to be better than we were the year before. For all this work and more, I want to recognize the CCAR staff who are here with us, and those who we weren’t able to bring this year.
There is so much important work underway, work that continues to make us a stronger and better Conference. The innovative growth in the area of wellness and support, under the leadership of Rabbi Betsy Torop, with Julie Vanek and Rabbi Dusty Klass, and assisted by Ariel Dorvil, is extraordinary. The wealth of classes, trainings, support groups, and gatherings is breathtaking. And of course, Betsy and Julie, together with the Israel Convention Committee, put this extraordinary week together for all of us.
Rafael Chaiken, together with his talented staff, Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather-Gallie, Chiara Ricisak, and rabbinic intern Ariel Tovlev, is taking the CCAR Press to new heights, publishing the resources that you and your communities need, including the newest books just out: Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimaging Haftarah by Rabbi Barbara Symons and These Words by Alden Solovy.
The long awaited release of the Clergy Monologues video and discussion guide, created by the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, will soon be available, thanks to the work of Tamar Anitai—only a small part of her portfolio. This will be a great resource to spark important conversations about gender, equity, and bias in your communities. We are grateful to everyone who has helped bring this project to fruition, including the Reform Pay Equity Initiative. If you’re feeling good about this week’s press coverage, that’s also thanks to Tamar.
Our development team, led by Pamela Goldstein, with the support of Samantha Rutter and Sarah Stern, works hard to find ways to fund all the incredible work we’re doing. The needs are ever greater, and none of that is possible without funding. So many of you have helped, both with your own contributions to the Annual Giving Campaign, as well as with introductions to those in your communities who are inspired by what we do to serve rabbis. Thank you for helping us fulfill our mission.
Laurie Pinho, and her team of Jaqui Dellaria and Michael Santiago, keep us on track in more ways than you can imagine. If you’ve interacted with Laurie, you know how lucky we are that she’s part of our executive team, and I’m so glad that Laurie is here with us this week, not only doing more than you can imagine behind the scenes, but also experiencing Israel for the first time.
In a changed landscape, Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin, assisted by Rodney Dailey, and with Rabbi Dennis Ross advising in the area of interim work, are doing a fabulous job managing rabbinic searches and advising colleagues on their careers. Before Convention, I was on the road visiting rabbis and congregations for about seven weeks. And I’m hearing so much positive feedback about the ways we’re now able to serve rabbis, and the congregations and institutions where rabbis lead. Our new model of two full-time professionals in this department, as well as the shift in the focus of our work within it, is already making a big difference.
It is amazing that we are able to have trained counselors on our staff to support you professionally and personally, including Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and Rabbi Don Rossoff, now joined by Rabbi Dayle Friedman. I’m very sad that Rex will be retiring this summer, but so grateful for all his help in establishing this program and leading the way.
And of course we have done, and are continuing to do, significant and meaningful work in the area of ethics. With the hiring of David Kasakove, our Director of Rabbinic Ethics, and Cara Raich, our Ethics Advisor for Inquiries and Intake, both former attorneys, we now have a whole new CCAR department. I’m very grateful for the support from you as we’ve moved as quickly, as carefully, and as thoughtfully as possible to revise our Ethics Code and update our system. That process is still ongoing, with the Ethics Task Force working on several proposals for change. It’s amazing how far we’ve already come in a short time, with much more on the way.
I have to also add that Rabbi Steve Fox is an amazing emeritus, available when needed and so respectful of boundaries. Especially given the craziness of these past three years, it has been such a gift to have Steve there when needed as an advisor.
And I can’t speak about staff without mentioning my assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, whom many of you know as Roe. Roe has no easy task managing me, and I’m grateful for her patience, organizational skills, and sense of humor.
The CCAR couldn’t do anything without our devoted staff team. But it is the partnership with our volunteers that really make the CCAR who we are. I thank everyone who has been part of our work in any capacity. Rav todot. I especially want to take a moment and thank Rabbi Mara Nathan, Rabbi Lev Hernnson, and the whole Convention Committee team. All I can say at this moment is: Wow! Kol hakavod. I am so grateful to all of you! And while I’m on thank yous, we are also grateful to everything J2 did to make this week happen, and look forward to more years of growth and collaboration together.
And our board is truly the backbone of the CCAR. This board, for the last two years under the leadership of Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, and now led by Rabbi Erica Asch, CCAR President, is an active working board. To be on the board is not an honorific, but a real commitment to dig in and move the CCAR forward. I am so grateful for the partnership of Lewis, Erica, and the whole board, and the tremendous commitment they demonstrate to the well-being of the CCAR and our members.
For the last three years, the board has been involved in an additional change process as well. The vice president positions have been rethought and revised to better meet the needs of who the CCAR is today. For example, we now have a vice president of varied rabbinates, in recognition of the many different ways that our members serve as rabbis.
Moreover, beginning with Rabbi Ron Segal’s leadership as board president and then under Lewis Kamrass’s board presidency, the board decided that it was time for a review of the mission, last revised in 2008, and at the ways in which the mission is carried out. At the last in-person meeting in December, after a three-year strategic visioning process of deliberation and study spanning two boards and two presidents, the board passed a new mission for the CCAR, along with a set of core strategies that lay out the top-line ways in which we achieve the mission.
This new mission is: The CCAR supports and strengthens Reform rabbis so that our members, their communities, and Reform Jewish values thrive.
The core strategies, formerly called pillars, are:
- Rabbinic Well-being
- Career Services
- Thought Leadership
- Reform Movement Leadership
This revised language is not a radical new vision—rather, it is our organizational Ner Tamid that provides clarity and a reemphasis that reflect the needs and aspirations of the CCAR of today. The vessel may be new, but the light within remains unchanged. I am very proud to be part of an organization that undertook such a deliberate and intentional process, and asked many hard questions in order to arrive at these new articulations of our purpose. This sharper focus will help us in the years to come, as we seek to always stay true to our mission and purpose.
There are also new initiatives in different areas, and I’m going to share one that I’m particularly excited about. When what we lovingly call “the Plaut Torah Commentary” was published in 1981, it was truly a gift to us from those who brought it forward—Plaut, Bamberger, Hallo, and all those who made it happen. Can you imagine our Reform community without this commentary, which was such a pioneering effort in its time? And then there was the revised edition in 2005, out of which came the bar/bat mitzvah booklets that so many of you rely on. And in 2008, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was published to tremendous acclaim—a truly groundbreaking work. It was my honor to have worked on all of those projects and to have provided those very necessary and beloved resources to our community. But the scholarship featured in the Plaut is from the ‘70s, and some of it is, well, dated.
Torah is our central sacred text, the light in in our midst. Torah is critical to our mission as Jews and as rabbis. And because we are a forward-thinking Movement, it is now time to plan for our gift to the next generation, the next Reform Torah commentary. This is an ambitious, huge project that is going to take tremendous resources. But indeed, we must do it. There is much that is still to be decided in the months and years to come. But some key decisions have been made. I am delighted to share that Bible scholar Dr. Elsie Stern has been named the chief editor of the project. HUC-JIR Bible scholar Dr. Daniel Fisher-Livne will be working with her. There will be other scholars involved as well, and that list is still being determined, as are many questions about approach, the types of commentary, writers, and so on.
Because this project isn’t ambitious enough already, we are also creating a brand-new translation—the first translation that will truly be a Reform Movement translation and not licensed from another source. That part of the work is already well underway, led by our colleagues Rabbi Janet and Rabbi Shelly Marder, under the supervision of Daniel Fisher-Livne and Elsie Stern. We will be running the first of several pilots this coming fall—this first round will focus on the translation.
And lest you worry, we are not limiting the planning of this commentary to just a print book format. Right now the focus is on developing the content, which can be purposed in many different ways. I am extremely excited if not also a bit daunted about the work that lies ahead on this project. And I will keep you informed as it develops.
So, there is much change happening in many places within the CCAR. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we can no longer depend on the ideas, structures, and resources that we assumed were always going to be there, and were always going to meet our needs. Needs change, the topography changes, and we change. Just as each of us evolves and grows during the course of our careers, the CCAR as an organization must rethink those givens, and redetermine our purpose, our goals, and our tools. That is the change process we have been in these past three years—it is exciting, sometimes scary, and even at times daunting, but necessary for the good of the CCAR.
What is visible as the throughline in all this work that I’ve shared this morning are the essential values that undergird and guide all of it in the midst of great complexity. What is there for us to grab onto while the storms surge around us is the clarity of our mission, our values, and our commitment to staying focused on our purpose of serving rabbis, so that rabbis can serve the Jewish people. This clarity of purpose is our Ner Tamid, the light that continues to burn brightly even as change swirls around it.
And speaking of complexity, I can’t stand here today, in Tel Aviv, and not also address where we are and what we’re doing here at this complicated moment in the history of this Land, this place with which we each have our own personal relationship and unique story.
My Israel story goes back to 1973, fifty years ago, when I came home from Yom Kippur services. I was nine years old. I had gone to services with my mother while my father stayed home to watch football. And as we walked into the room where he sat, the game was interrupted by breaking news. What I still remember so clearly was my mother crying out: “They’re doing it to us again!”
That was the day that I learned that there was a Jewish country called Israel. I’m sure I had heard about it before, but I hadn’t paid much attention. My parents were not Zionists. They were busy taking part in the great story of making it in America, my father the son of Russian socialist immigrants, and my mother a daughter of long-time American Jews of German ancestry on one side and second generation European jumble on the other. They had never been to Israel. It just wasn’t in their consciousness, that is until it was on the news, being besieged.
I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but as she cried, she explained to me that Israel was under attack. And I was confused—confused that my mother was so upset about a war taking place across the world, and confused as to why, if there was a Jewish country, we didn’t live there.
That day changed the trajectory of my life, because I decided then and there that when I was old enough, I was going to live in Israel. And I began to read about it voraciously over the next years, biographies, novels, history. I was fascinated, in particular, with the idea of the kibbutz, and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go live on one.
And at one point while I was in high school, in 1979, if anyone remembers this, Bloomingdale’s—yes, the store—did a whole campaign about Israel, with a big, colorful poster featuring a dove and a rainbow, that said: Israel, The Dream. I had that poster up on the wall of my childhood bedroom where it reminded my fifteen-year-old self of my dreams on a daily basis.
As soon as I could go to Israel, I did. At nineteen, I set off for a year on Kibbutz Tzora, taking part in the late NFTY college program, CAY, as I know some of you also did. That year had a huge impact on my life: because of that year, my children are half Israeli. I then returned to Israel for several years after college, living in Jerusalem and studying art in Tel Aviv.
It was while living in Israel that I really became an adult, and it was also where I decided not to become a rabbi, because while living in Israel, I realized that I could have a rich, dynamic Jewish life without needing to become a Jewish professional—a very healthy realization.
All of this is to say that Israel is deeply woven into my personal history. And in this land so deeply seeped in the past, there is something about being here that conjures up so much about who we have been as individuals, and as a people, and who we may still become.
As I stand here today celebrating my twenty-five years in the rabbinate, having reaffirmed that choice eventually after my initial decision to not go into the rabbinate, I no longer feel that sense of bright connection to Israel portrayed on the Bloomingdale’s poster in 1979. My relationship with Israel is much more nuanced today, certainly more than it was when I was nine or fifteen and had not yet ever been here, but also more complicated than when I was in my twenties and living here. I still have a love for Israel, a fondness and a connection, but there’s a different comfort level than I once had. I struggle with how to reconcile the Israel of my dreams and of our collective aspirations: the Israel of poetry and medical miracles; of art and innovation and green valleys full of anemones; the Israel of progressive values and generous hospitality, with all the ways in which Israel can be infuriating, opposed to our shared values, denying of pluralism, equality, and democracy. How do we express our outrage and disappointment, or as we heard during the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, the sense of bushah, shame? How do we stay engaged with this country that feels less and less welcoming, less and less connected to who we are or what we want to be, and yet still calls to us?
I know that our partners here in Israel share our highest aspirations and hopes. And I want to acknowledge them—our friends at IMPJ, IRAC and all the Reform rabbis here in MARAM. We should all be proud of their incredible work, and grateful for what they do every day: advancing pluralism, fighting against discrimination and oppression, standing up for civil rights of minorities, working toward peace and co-existence, and civil society, fighting for accountability, and doing the tachlis, often thankless work of building Reform Judaism in Israel. The work you are involved in here on the ground every day brings the light of our shared core values into the darkness, and provides hope. And we thank you for your help with putting this week together.
Being in Israel is a reminder of what is essential to us as Reform rabbis. As rabbis, we can’t just engage with Israel as the Disneyland of Judaism. Israel can’t just be the place to practice our Hebrew on cab drivers, to stock up on Judaica, and to enjoy rugelach from Marzipan. We can’t romanticize Israel as the place where we can experience “authentic” Jewish life. We also have to speak out for our most deeply held values just as we do at home. Just as we speak out for justice at home, we have to speak out for justice in Israel. Just as we believe in speaking up for the powerless at home, we must pursue that in our relationship to Israel as well. Just as we engage in the work of racial justice at home, we must hold that as a value here too. As people who love Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, we must do our part to keep the Ner Tamid of our highest values burning here too.
Moreover, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about Israel without falling back on accusation and polarization. We have to learn to live with disagreement and be open to different perspectives and narratives. We have to be able to move beyond terms like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel”—the reality is much more complex than those two binary positions. We have real enemies out there: witness on the one side our experience at the Kotel, or the “Day of Hate” in the United States. The energy we spend on demonizing each other about how we interact with Israel is a distraction, a waste of our resources. We have to get comfortable with having a large, open tent, here in the CCAR, in our home communities, and in our families. Gone are the days of Israel, The Dream. Israel, the Reality, is complicated, often antithetical to the very values we hold dear, and frankly, often unwelcoming to who we are.
But that doesn’t mean we have to reject those whose perspectives doesn’t align with ours, or give up on the Israel we believe is still possible. We have to keep learning, we have to keep listening, and we have to keep speaking out.
When we originally planned this Convention, of course we had no idea what a challenging moment this was going to be in Israel. But here we are. As rabbis, we understand nuance and complexity. We can hold the contradiction of today’s difficult truth, that we object to what the new government is proposing to do in regard to civil rights, human rights, pluralism, the judiciary, and so much more, and we can still believe in the potential of Israel, an ideal not yet reached but worth striving for.
My Israel story today is not what it was in 1973, or in 2003, and neither is my rabbinic story. All of our stories keep changing, as we keep changing and as realities keep changing. Earlier this week, Merav Michaeli reminded us of the famous quote from Gold Meir, that as Jews we can’t afford to be pessimists. Rather, our job as Jews is to be eternal optimists. What is unchanging in the midst of it all is hope, the light that flickers but does not go out at our core. As rabbis, our job is to speak out against the injustices of today, while keeping in sight the potential of a better tomorrow. No matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how grim the current reality, our job is to nurture the Ner Tamid within us, to keep that light of hope for a better future alive even in, or especially in, the darkest of times.