Rabbinic Reflections

A Lifelong Sacred Calling: Rabbi Howard Berman’s Reflections on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

My path to HUC-JIR and the rabbinate began at the age of nine, when I wrote my first letter of application to the admissions department, asking what I needed to do to prepare for what was, even then, very clearly—and what remains—a sacred calling. I began in 1967, the last year of the old undergraduate program, immediately after high school, and when we were ordained in 1974, I was 24 years old, the youngest ordinee in the College’s history, aside from Nelson Glueck, who was 22. On that memorable day, following the magnificent ceremony at Plum Street Temple, my mentors Jake Marcus and Sam Sandmel called me aside and presented me with that handwritten letter, which had been kept in my file all those years!

Those of my Cincinnati classmates who remember my stubborn advocacy of Classical Reform during our student days, will at least see a thread of unwavering consistency in the path my rabbinate has taken since then. It began with my fourth-year student internship at Har Sinai in Baltimore, as the proud successor of David Einhorn, and then on through my first position at Temple Emanu-El in New York. Following, came my twenty years at Chicago Sinai Congregation, bearing the mantle of Emil G. Hirsch, and then over the past twenty years, my time as Founding Rabbinic Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism (SCRJ). The last chapter has been the subsequent organization of congregations in Boston, all embracing a contemporary vision of our Movement’s historic minhag and heritage. Through each of these milestones, I have devoted my career to the preservation and renewal of our shared spiritual tradition as a vital and viable option within the diversity of today’s Reform.

I have continued my work in interfaith dialogue, as well as the full pastoral support of interfaith families, which I embraced at the very beginning of my career. These, as well as my commitment to working for same-sex marriage equality, as the first rabbi to be married, legally and with federal recognition, in 2004, have all been natural extensions of this grounding understanding of the Prophetic tradition of Reform Judaism.

The opportunities that I have been most grateful for over the course of my career include the designing and guiding of the new home of Chicago Sinai in 1997. As a lifelong student of synagogue architecture, this was a unique chance to translate my ideals into a sanctuary that would symbolically embody and proclaim Classical Reform’s spiritual ideals. I have also been deeply gratified by my years of teaching at HUC-JIR’s campuses in Cincinnati and Jerusalem over the past decade, under the auspices of the SCRJ. This has been a deeply meaningful opportunity to share our Movement’s historic liberal principles and liturgy with a new generation of our colleagues. I am also proud of the publications I have written or edited: the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Plaut’s Rise and Growth of Reform Judaism; co-editing the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition; and most importantly, The New Union Haggadah, a contemporary, inclusive-language revision of the beloved 1923 classic, published as one of its official liturgies by CCAR Press.

I am grateful to our loving God for the privilege of having been able to touch many lives, and hopefully, making a difference in Jewish life over the past fifty years. My greatest support has come from my beloved husband of twenty years, Steven Littlehale. His own deep Jewish faith and commitment, and his sharing of my spiritual vision, have made him the perfect “rebbetz-him.”

Rabbi Howard A. Berman is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

One reply on “A Lifelong Sacred Calling: Rabbi Howard Berman’s Reflections on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi”

Howard. I can’t help but comment on your fine 50th anniversary. blog. I too was ordained at 24, one month before my 25th.
So…’re not the only 24 year old, but you were probably younger than 24 and 11 mths. Kol tuv. Chuck Kroloff

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