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.

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Four Questions about the New Union Haggadah, Revised Edition

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication of The New Union Haggadah, Revised EditionCCAR rabbinic intern Liz Piper-Goldberg interviewed editor Rabbi Howard Berman.

1. In true Passover fashion, why is this haggadah different from all other haggadot? Can you tell us what makes it unique?  Why is this haggadah a good fit for the Jews of 2014?

NUH art sample 1A broad variety of historic minhagim, local traditions and ideologies are reflected in the hundreds of Haggadah versions available today. In the midst of this rich tapestry, the distinctive liturgical and spiritual heritage of American Reform Judaism stands in its own integrity and enduring significance.  Our Movement has always created liturgies to give expression to the special understandings of Jewish belief and life embodied in our liberal spiritual commitment. Characteristically, Reform Judaism – and particularly the Classical Reform understanding – has interpreted the Passover Story from a broad, universalistic perspective- as a paradigm of redemption and liberation for all humanity… to use Rabbi Herbert Bronstein’s wonderful imagery- retained in this new version – “living our story that is told for all people…whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold!”  The traditional Haggadah is far narrower and more particularistic in its vision, and other versions focus on particular ideological themes. Our Reform versions, all of which have built upon the foundation of the original Union Haggadah, embraces a far more inclusive approach, recognizing the enduring inspiration of the Exodus as a model for so many others, while celebrating its unique meaning for us as those who came out of Egypt.

2. What is the history of the original 1923 Union Haggadah? What was unique about that Haggadah at the time?

The 1923 version of the Union Haggadah was in turn a revision of the first edition of 1907. At that point, the pioneer Reformers had shifted the locus of religious life and worship from the home to the synagogue, where the principles of a new, modern, liberal Judaism were proclaimed in the liturgy and expounded from the pulpit. Passover was celebrated in Reform temples with well-attended services on the first and seventh Festival days, highlighted by the majestic liturgy of the Union Prayer Book’s texts expressing the vision of the “universal Passover” of future redemption and liberation of all humanity. However, in the early years of the 20th century, the home Seder had indeed declined in popular observance. The leaders of our Movement were confident that a new version of the Haggadah, which, like the Union Prayer Book itself, would be “at once modern in spirit and rich in traditional elements” would renew the compelling meanings of the Seder and inspire a revival of its celebration.  This goal was indeed fulfilled, and what had been an “anxious” hope was rewarded with the eventual reality today, that the Passover Seder remains the most observed religious tradition among American Reform Jews.

3. What new traditions have been added to this edition?  What did you want to keep the same, and what did you want to change, and why?

NUH art sample 2In the New Union Haggadah, we have attempted to preserve the literary beauty, the direct and accessible text, and the broad, universalistic spirit embodied in the 1923 version. We have rendered the majority of the English text in contemporary, inclusive, gender-neutral language, following the egalitarian values that have guided all of the CCAR’s liturgical developments over the past forty years. In the spirit of Classical Reform, this haggadah is conceived to be used as a forthrightly and primarily English language experience- with all of the major Hebrew texts included in transliteration, and accompanied by versions of the most popular holiday songs and hymns that may be sung in both languages.

We have introduced new elements in the text as well. These include traditional parts of the Haggadah that were consciously eliminated by the editors of the earlier versions. Our predecessors sought to remain true to the vigorously rational spirit of a liberal faith that rejected superstition and parochialism. The original Union Haggadah consequently omitted such well-known dimensions of the ritual as the triumphant enumeration of the Ten Plagues – considered a “vindictive act unworthy of enlightened minds and hearts.” While they provided for the tradition of welcoming of the Prophet Elijah, there was no particular ceremony attached to it – reflecting the ambivalence toward what may have been considered a remnant of ancient myth and fantasy.  We have reinstated the recollection of the plagues, retaining the beautiful and moving interpretation originated by Rabbi Herbert Bronstein in the 1974 A Passover Haggadah. This brilliant and creative rendition links the recitation of the plagues to the symbolism of the ten drops of wine- the diminishing of our joy at our own redemption as we recall the sufferings of our oppressors. We have also been inspired by the concept of echoing the ancient plagues with those of our own time – also a feature of the Bronstein version –offered here in a new form that weaves the two together. Despite the rationalist objections, Elijah remained stubbornly ensconced in the hearts of most Reform Jews. For the ceremony of Opening of the Door for the Prophet, we have reclaimed a little-known supplement created by the Joint Committee on Ceremonies of the CCAR and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1942 – which brilliantly recasts this beloved tradition in the universalistic spirit of Reform Judaism, as an authentic question and answer dialogue between parent and child. In addition, we have incorporated more recent innovations that have broadened the embrace and symbolism of the Seder – the Cup of Miriam and the Orange on the Plate – with explanations that express the heightened awareness and contemporary sensibilities of these popular rituals, in a way that compliments the rest of the text.

4. Which aspects or traditions of the Passover seder are most meaningful to you? How are they expressed in the Union Haggadah?

NUH Page Sample 3Like so many of us, having grown up with the old Union Haggadah, its cadences and distinctive literary style echo in my consciousness as the quintessential sounds and images of Pesach.  The unique phrases of its Magid narrative continue to express the Festival’s timeless, transforming message. Preserving and creatively renewing this tradition for a new generation is the essence of my work with the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and has guided my efforts in this project.  The Seder’s symbolic progression from remembrance to hope, from oppression to liberation to future redemption, all find profoundly clear and compelling expression for me in the Union Haggadah’s simplicity and flow.

Ultimately, what we “tell our children on this day” encompasses a rich and distinctive heritage that weaves together our identities and experiences as Jews, as Reform Jews, and as American Jews.  The seamless integration of each of these strands of our tradition and faith remain the unique genius of Classical Reform Judaism and the guiding principle of The New Union Haggadah.

Rabbi Howard Berman A. Berman is Founding Rabbi of Central Reform Temple of Boston. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism.  

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Reflections of Remembrance and Healing from Boston

An unbelievably short time ago, on Friday, April 12th, I and members of our Central Reform Temple family were completing our ten day pilgrimage and study mission in Israel.

On that day, we were in Jerusalem, as preparations for the weekly celebration of the Sabbath were unfolding. In a palpable sense of cessation and anticipation unique to that holy city, the arrival of Shabbat is viscerally felt. Beginning at noon, the usually bustling streets almost magically become quiet and deserted…the traffic on the highways disappears…storefronts are shuttered… and a quiet peace descends upon the city as the golden hues of the sun begin to fade, ushering in the sacred day of prayer and rest.

Our group of Bostonians had experienced a week of intense emotion and inspiration, mixed with clear, unvarnished confrontations with the complex challenges , the tensions and pressures, encompassed in this “City of Peace” that has seen so much conflict. And yet, in the midst of the renewed threats coming from rocket attacks from the Syrian border during our visit, we all felt safe and secure. We reached that final day of our stay filled with gratitude that the peace of the Sabbath had indeed embraced us throughout our week in Israel.

One week later…to the very hour…  at noon this past Friday, April 19th, the exact same scene of deserted streets and shuttered stores was replicated here in Boston. But this was not a sign of the arrival of the Sabbath peace.  It was the fearful and anxiety-filled unfolding of the final chapter of the tragedy that has engulfed all of us over the past few days. The dramatic irony was overwhelming for those of us who had just returned from 10 safe and peaceful days in the world’s most volatile and dangerous region – only to face terrorism here in our own city.

Even articulating these words, “terrorism in Boston”- seems surreal and unimaginable. At this moment, not even one week after the horror that changed all of our lives, it still seems impossible that all of this could have really happened…

And yet – it did happen – and the terrible reality is a gaping would in our minds and hearts. Once again, we have experienced a transforming “where were you when” moment in our lives – a day, a week that none of us will ever forget… and many of our neighbors will continue to painfully relive daily for the rest of their lives.

Coming together for a Service of Remembrance and Healing, in shared support and loving friendship, cannot but bring to mind the other times of national tragedy that we have endured together over the years. The emotions of the past few days have brought back so many echoes of Oklahoma City…of September 11th…of Newtown. And as with so many historic events of our rime, we all experienced the dramatic developments of this past week in real time – either at the very location of the tragedy, within a few short blocks of this very place… or glued to our television screens or computer monitors. It has been a week of powerful visual images that are seared into our consciousness. And it has also been an unending flow of words…the breathless updates of reporters… the commentary of pundits and experts… the truly inspiring and comforting messages of our local and national leaders.

We have heard the reflections of various religious representatives – some conventionally parochial and others genuinely moving, healing and prophetic, reaching out to embrace all of us…

And we have also been challenged and encouraged by the very powerful messages of our civic leaders- the dogged determination of Mayor Menino… the clear vision and strong leadership of Governor Patrick…and, once again, the rich imagery and soaring eloquence of President Obama. Their words of hope and confidence, their messages of compassion for the families of the dead and those who were  injured, their praise for the courage of the first responders and for the generosity of spirit that poured forth from the people of Boston, were all enormously helpful and healing for all of us. So much so, that perhaps too many more words, beyond those of prayer and song, may indeed be excessive and presumptuous at this time.

Just being able to come together…just having been able to leave our homes and arrive here safely… just being able to be together- after a harrowing week of fear and isolation –this is enough of a message for this moment… as are the emotions that cannot be expressed by the further multiplication of words and attempts at wisdom. The human stories of courage and selflessness that will continue to emerge will be the most eloquent sermons.  And so, I will not speak too many more words this morning. The wisdom has already been imparted… the stirring messages and challenges have already been spoken.

So let me share just a few impressions that remain in the forefront of my consciousness. I hope that they might reflect many of your own feelings and thoughts, and perhaps help you to process the deep emotions we have all been confronting over the past few days.

I am thinking of the tearful encounters with the Marathon runners I spoke with on Tuesday, right after the attack, when I and my fellow Back Bay clergy colleagues took to the streets to meet with and offer support for the throngs of shell-shocked visitors who were still out following the violent end of the race. I spoke with people from Minneapolis, Washington DC, and Utah. In the midst of their own trauma, each of them wanted to thank the people of this great and beautiful city. They vowed to return – both to visit and to run again.  And I could not help but think that perhaps the conventional, clichéd images of Boston – perpetuated by lurid Southie mobster movies and Saturday Night Live skits  might finally melt away… and once again we could reclaim our role as the “City on the Hill”… a place of learning and creativity… the cradle of liberty. Not only the home of the Red Socks, Celtics and Bruins, but the very essence of the ”Spirit of America.”

Another impression I come away with this week is of the countless messages that I- and I’m sure, each of you- received from so many friends and even distant acquaintances, from around the world. Emails, Facebook posts and phone calls, all expressing deep concern and sharing their sadness for what we were going through here in Boston. These genuine human connections were so helpful and encouraging for all of us- and I hope that such personal ties of sensitivity and support will remain one of the many positive things that may come out of this difficult time.

Another visual image that remains in my consciousness… as we were all sitting in front of our TV screens on Friday evening, breathlessly watching the drama of the capture in Watertown, I wonder if some of you may have also noticed something at once incongruous and yet so overwhelmingly powerful about the scene. In the midst of the wall of police vehicles and SWAT trucks, and the crowds of heavily armed troops converging on the street where the fugitive suspect was being apprehended, there stood- at the very center of the  television camera’s view – the most beautiful azalea tree and budding forsythia bushes…

I hope that it does not sound trite that in the unbearable anxiety of those moments, when a final suicide explosion could well have detonated and taken more lives before our very eyes – I felt the need to focus my attention on those beautiful signs of life…of calm…of the eternal hope of rebirth and renewal of this season. There was something about the brilliant colors of the pink and yellow blossoms, in the midst of the blazing police lights and the fearful events being played out before us, that somehow gave me hope that this nightmare would end…

And one final impression… later that Sabbath Eve, when the drama had concluded, I reflected once again back on the previous week, in Jerusalem. I felt deeply that Boston had also emerged as a Holy City. Prevented by the emergency from gathering with our congregation in worship that night, I closed my eyes and sensed that God had indeed been with us throughout this painful week.  The selfless courage, the boundless compassion, the determination and resilience, the shared prayers, were all signs of the Divine Presence in our midst.  Many surely questioned where God was in the brutal deaths of a smiling gap-toothed little boy and two lovely young women, who had come to be part of a time of happy gathering of our community. And we know that indeed, God was with us… in the pain and sorrow, and in the nobility of our collective response to the pain and sorrow.

The Boston Globe columnist, Juliette Kayyem, in an insightful reflection a few days ago on the challenge we now face to carry on and move forward, began her essay with a surprising and obscure quote from- of all people- my old Seminary professor, Rabbi Stanley Chyet. I have no idea where she found this passage, which I had never heard. Having known him well- as both a Jewish historian and a gifted poet, I was so moved by this unexpected encounter with the memory of my old friend and teacher. These words offer us a fitting message as we resolve to begin the healing of our beloved city…

We ought not pray for what we have never known:

Unbroken peace…unmixed blessing…


Better to pray for the will to see and touch…

The power to do good…and to make new.


To which we say… Amen!

Rabbi Howard Berman A. Berman is Founding Rabbi of Central Reform Temple, two blocks from the bomb site. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism.  These words are adapted from a sermon delivered after the tragedy in Boston.