CCAR Convention

Rabbinic Growth: Learning Modern, Diverse Rabbinic Skills at CCAR Convention 2020

We are so excited to be offering a number of learning opportunities this year at CCAR Convention in Baltimore to help each of us grow in our rabbinates. On a personal level, I thoroughly enjoy spending time with colleagues and friends, in study with some of our fantastic teachers and scholars, and hearing from prominent figures who are doing the important work we are all engaged in. However, one area I always look forward to is to learning from those who are at the forefront of the experience of the modern rabbinate.

For example, a few years ago, when I had just taken on the role of senior rabbi at a previous congregation, I chose to attend Larry Dressler’s presentation on Rabbi as Supervisor. I was struggling with a staff of wonderful people, but who were not necessarily the right people for their particular roles within the congregation. Larry explained that every dollar a congregation spends is part of a sacred trust with the congregants. He challenged the idea of keeping people in their roles because they have been part of the congregational family rather than because they are doing the good work of the congregation. This insight helped my community make some very tough but important choices. I have used this guiding insight ever since, especially because supervision has been a major part of my rabbinate for the past ten plus years. We are excited to welcome back Larry Dressler, who will be presenting to us Rabbi as Supervisor: The Art of One-on-One.

This is but one example of the many learning opportunities offered at Convention. We will have a number of presentations, including many that are not specific to the congregational rabbinate. For example:

  • Eric Abbott, who works at the Hillel at Johns Hopkins University, will be bringing some of his students to talk with us about Reform Judaism on college campuses.
  • Shira Koch Epstein will be speaking about Entrepreneurial Community Building: The Life Cycle of a Start-Up Project.
  • Jo Hirschmann will be presenting on Providing Spiritual Care to People Who Are Transgender and/or Non-binary: Lessons from Healthcare Settings.
  • We will also be focusing on issues relating to ethics, antisemitism, fundraising, radical reinvention, and so many more. These are just a few examples of the many offerings we will be providing during the Convention in Baltimore.

Our rabbinates are increasingly diverse. The skill sets we must have are beyond the scope of what many of us learned in our seminaries. I feel CCAR Convention is one of the greatest opportunities to learn how we can broaden our approaches to our various rabbinates. With this in mind, we have been listening to HUCAlum, Ravkav, and our various Facebook rabbinic groups to see where you are and the areas you are concerned about.

While we’re not able to cover every topic, our hope is that we offer enough learning opportunities that you will find of value. I am still grateful to Larry’s presentation at our Boston Convention so many years ago as well as to the variety of presentations before and since. Many of them have and continue to help shape my rabbinate, and I hope we are able to offer the same opportunities to you as well.

If you haven’t, please consider registering and joining us at our Convention in Baltimore. Aside from being at an incredible location in a vibrant and dynamic city, it will also be a great chance to broaden your rabbinate in profound ways.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff is the senior rabbi of The Reform Temple of Rockland in Nyack, New York and a member of the 2020 CCAR Convention Committee. Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020.


Apologies to Marie Kondo

Recently the self-appointed organizing guru, Marie Kondo, stated on her Netflix show Tidying up with Marie Kondo, “ideally keep less than 30 books.” Needless to say, this caused a great deal of consternation and a bit of a kerfuffle in the social media world. Some of the best responses included those asking follow up clarification questions like: does she mean per shelf or per night stand? Kondo replied by stating, “If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books, what’s clearly so important in your life.”

I like to joke that one of the reasons I became a rabbi was because in this profession, book addiction is not only socially acceptable but also required. Aside from a variety of Torah Commentaries, Codes, and general books on Jewish history and philosophy, my office, like many of yours, is an a eclectic mix of topics from sociology and psychology to the luminaries of Hollywood and the early years of the comic book industry. I think this is in part because ours is one of the last professions where we are expected to know a little bit about a lot of topics.

This is one of the main reasons why I so enjoy coming to convention. I enjoy hearing from experts and scholars in their fields to help me learn just a little bit more than I knew before I attended. I am particularly excited for our Beit Midrash, our day of study at HUC-JIR. We will have the opportunity to learn from a number of professors from all four of our campuses both in lecture presentations and also in guided chevruta study. What is just as powerful, is as one of the committee members who has been working on this program, the number of our professors who are equally excited and honored to be presenting to us. It looks to be an amazing day of learning.

The theme of the convention is the “130th Birthday of the CCAR and the 200th Birthday of Isaac Mayer Wise.” More than that, our hope, as the committee, is to look at our past in order to be better equipped and prepared to take on an ever more dynamic future. The very nature of what it means to be a rabbi in the 21st century is changing constantly and evolving in ways that I am sure would both surprise and confound Isaac Mayer Wise. However, I am also sure that he would feel that the future of the movement and the rabbinate is in no better hands than ours.

To this end, I for one, am excited to learn from our teachers and our colleagues not just at the HUC-JIR Beit Midrash, but also at the General Workshops and all of the other sessions we are working so diligently to offer. If individually, we each know a little bit about a lot of things, this means collectively, we know a lot more about a lot of things. Aside from connecting with friends, eating good food, and learning more technical skills, I feel CCAR Convention is one of of our greatest opportunities simply to learn for the sake of learning and to continue to build upon that collective knowledge. And who knows, maybe by the end of Convention, we also will get some more book recommendations to add to our shelves. I for one am looking to see if I can get at least 30 more great book ideas, apologies to Marie Kondo, but books and learning are a big part of my passion in life.

I hope to see you there.

Register For Convention Now


Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff serves The Reform Temple of Rockland in Upper Nyack, New York. 

Learning from One Another

A few years ago, at our Chicago Convention, I attended a session presented by our colleague Joel Mosbacher on gun legislation. I went in expecting a particular form of argument, and I left understanding the herculean efforts engaged to further the cause of smart-gun technology.

The basic premise of smart-guns is that only the authorized user has the ability to unlock a weapon. It is not a panacea when it comes to solving the issues of gun-violence, but rather is just one proposal in a larger sea of suggestions.

Joel has traveled the world to meet with politicians and manufacturers in support of this cause, to little effect. But he did explain how perceptions were slowly beginning to change. Sadly, as we all well know, guns and gun violence are a tragic part of our existence, at this moment.

The conversation then veered into a discussion about local community organizing efforts. I took these lessons to heart, and I began to get involved in community organizing in my previous position. I met with a local organizer and we started holding discussions with fellow clergy across religious denominations. However, as I moved on to a new position, I had to leave these efforts in the hands of others.

The reason why I mention this is I went into a session expecting to hear arguments I had heard before. When I left, I had a new sense of purpose and a new area of engagement that has helped to shape my rabbinate. I had a new understanding of what you, my colleagues, are doing to bring about a greater sense of our Prophetic tradition to our country and our world. And I left with a sense of optimism in that what we do, matters.

This is one of the reasons why I go to conventions. I enjoy time with friends and colleagues, and the ability to blow off steam is invaluable. But it can also be a place to rejuvenate our sense of mission and purpose, especially in today’s troubling world. What we do matters, and we can learn a lot from each other in how to become better advocates for the causes we care so passionately about.

So please join us at CCAR 2018 in Orange County. Speaking for myself, I would love the opportunity to learn from you.

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff serves The Reform Temple of Rockland in Upper Nyack, New York.