Rabbinic Reflections

‘Sh’leimut’ and These 50 Years: Rabbi Bruce Kahn Reflects on His Diverse Career as a Reform Rabbi

On page 14 of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis writes, “Achieving our potential for wholeness—sh’leimut—is not so much a reward as it is the fulfillment of the purpose of our lives.” I believe that is indeed the purpose of our lives, of religion, and of my rabbinate. Aiding others in the pursuit of sh’leimut unifies every good thing I attempted to do each day from ordination onward.  

While a great many of my teachers at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion had especially powerful influences on my rabbinate, Dr. Alvin Reines’s teachings impacted me most of all. He challenged us to go forward to assist individuals and communities to move toward wholeness as Jews or in accord with whatever were their beliefs. I tried to do so as a congregational rabbi, as a US Navy chaplain, as a civil rights agency executive director, leading philanthropic pursuits and much more. I have always seen myself as a servant and derived great satisfaction doing so. Let me add here how honored and proud I am to be a member of the class of 1974!  What great classmates!    

US Navy Chaplain Corps (twenty-eight years, mostly as a reservist): Twice, I attended Naval War College. I served briefly on many of types of ships and served at USNA and USCGA. I was three times a unit commanding officer, and I was Regional Command Chaplain. I led services the first time a Jewish worship pennant flew on a ship underway. I officiated at the burial of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, and I was at sea on the submarine Rickover when the producer and screenplay writer for The Hunt for Red October were on board in preparation for making the movie. I was activated on 9/11. On October 11, 2001, I was the only Jewish chaplain co-officiating in 9/11 memorial service at Pentagon. I retired in 2002, and was recalled in 2003 and sent to the Iraqi Theater during High Holy Days and Sukkot. In 2014, I was the only rabbi to testify before a congressional subcommittee on religious accommodation in the military. I have held commission for fifty-four years.  


  • Congregation Or Ami, Richmond, VA, 1976–1980: Congregation doubled in size. I served with denominational judicatory heads to advocate for social justice in Virginia legislature, where I got to meet Jacques Cousteau. And I began my decades-long involvement in fair housing. 
  • Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD, 1980–present (solo rabbi, senior rabbi, rabbi emeritus): I separated tenth-grade graduation from confirmation service, making confirmation voluntary. 80 to 90 percent of b’nei mitzvah youngsters continued through tenth grade. 85 to 100 percent of confirmands continued in post confirmation. I established culture so that whatever a member’s need, help from within Shalom could be found. Many members went to HUC-JIR or other seminaries. I began a dozen cutting-edge programs. Shalom commissioned the writing of a sefer Torah in honor of my service there—I still don’t believe it. I was also presented with Shalom Lifetime Achievement Award. (Received two other lifetime achievement awards from other organizations.) My beloved wife Toby was given a Shalom award bestowed only twice before.

    In recent years, I am thrilled to be a member of Zoom Gali Gali, a group of over a dozen retired Reform colleagues living in the area. 

Soviet Jewry:  As a Washington Board of Rabbis leader in support of Soviet Jewry, I helped plan eight peaceful arrest demonstrations in front of Soviet Embassy. With four colleagues, I served twelve days in federal prison. The US Supreme Court later overturned the law used to convict us.    

Civil Rights:  I was a founder of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington and the Equal Rights Center. 2004–2008 served as ERC Executive Director. Among many other things, we brought actions that led to a nationwide end to the crisis in accessible housing for people with disabilities.     

Amcha for Tsedakah: In 1990, I founded a small tzedakah collective that over time raised two million dollars for especially worthy NGOs in Israel, America, and elsewhere.   

Camp Airy: I was involved there since 1957. In 2012, Airy dedicated a new Shabbat siddur “In loving honor of Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.”  

Every year I am privileged to remain involved in a great many rabbinically connected volunteer efforts. One example: for the past eight years, I have raised essential funds for and worked almost daily with impoverished families; first one family in Baltimore, and then a family in DC.    

Most important to me, before and through these past 50 years, are my wife Toby and our family, my faith in God, and helping folks move towards sh’leimut.     

Bruce Kahn 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.

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