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Rabbinic Reflections Women in the Rabbinate

One Hundred Years Later: Rabbi Hara Person Reflects on Becoming the First Woman Chief Executive

This month, we celebrate both 50 years of women in the rabbinate—beginning with the 50-year anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s historic ordination—and the 100-year anniversary of the CCAR resolution that stated that women could and should be ordained as Reform rabbis. Even as we mourn and denounce the recent decision by the Supreme Court and its impact on women and people who can become pregnant, we will not be victims nor silent. We will proudly continue to act, celebrate and lift up women, and share the stories, wisdom, and contributions of CCAR women rabbis.

On the 100-year anniversary of the passing of the 1922 CCAR resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis, we proudly share Rabbi Hara Person’s #CCARwomen100 story of the path she took to become the first woman chief executive of the CCAR.


I was drawn to the rabbinate as a young child. Among the dolls I played with as a young child was a rabbi figure—a man, of course—who was part of a set of dolls of other professions, like doctor and firefighter. Later, I was inspired by the rabbis who raised me and felt that the synagogue was a second home. But that image of the rabbi doll stayed with me.

I was also introduced to feminism early on by a long line of rebellious women, including my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother, who were never happy with the limitations placed on them as women. Though I had a male rabbi doll, and though I had never seen a woman rabbi, it never occurred to me that women couldn’t be rabbis until 1972, when my rabbi told me about the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand. I was eight years old, and I still remember exactly where I was when he told me. I remember being stunned. And I think that was when I began to really think about being a rabbi.

Despite my childhood decision to be a rabbi, my road to the rabbinate was not straightforward. For a while, I pursued another love and went to art school, earning a Masters in Fine Arts. I also got married and had the first of my two children. And only then did I decide that it was finally time to apply to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Going through HUC-JIR with one and then two small children was not easy. Balancing being a decent mother with being a professional was at times excruciatingly hard. My choices felt much more limited than many of my male colleagues.

Yet, I managed to carve out a career, albeit an unusual one, in Jewish publishing, working first at URJ and then at CCAR. And I loved it. I loved making Jewish books, and contributing to the future of Judaism in a unique way. For so much of my career, I was the only woman in the room. I had to learn quickly to speak up and use my voice. As an introvert it wasn’t easy, but my experience going to a formerly all-male college had also pushed me to claim space at the table. I learned to be outspoken—it was that or get overlooked. And I learned not only to have a voice but to have an opinion and not be afraid to express it. One of the things I learned through those experiences, and through working on groundbreaking publications like The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Mishkan HaNefesh was that it’s not just that we need more kinds of voices around the table, but that we also need a bigger table. The more voices, the more enriched we all are. No one should be made to feel like there isn’t room for them or that their perspective doesn’t matter. Don’t apologize for your voice or opinion. Don’t apologize for taking up space, and never minimize your contributions. Be courageously outspoken. Be respectfully but unapologetically loud. Listen, and insist on being listened to in return. That’s true on the bimah, in the boardroom, in the table of contents, or in the classroom.

In 2019, I was chosen to be the first woman chief executive to lead the CCAR. I had kept that rabbi doll all those years as a sort of talisman, even though I don’t look much like him. When I was thinking about this new role with the CCAR, I had thought a lot about this rabbi, what he represented, and how I might be both so different and yet connected to this historic image of a rabbi. I thought a lot about what it might be like to be the first woman in the role, to not look like the people before me.

Then an amazing thing happened. Much to my surprise, one of my colleagues gifted me with a matching female doll—created on his 3D printer—which looked like me. And when I gave my talk at Convention that year, my first one, I placed first him on the podium, and I said, “Here he is, my childhood image of a rabbi.” And then I placed her on the podium, and I said, “And here she is, a woman rabbi figure who (maybe) looks a lot like me. And here they are together, the old image of a rabbi, and the new. And here we are together—as we head into the future of the CCAR.”

Categories
Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sally Priesand Reflects on the Beauty, Struggle, and Sweetness of Being the First Woman Rabbi in North America

June 2022 brings the Reform Movement and the CCAR the distinct honor of celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi ordained by a seminary in North America. She paved the way for hundreds of women who followed in her footsteps as they were called to lead Jewish communities by becoming rabbis. June 2022 also marks the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking CCAR vote allowing that women could and should be ordained as rabbis, though it would take 50 more years for Rabbi Priesand to solidify her place in history.

Here, we share a conversation between Rabbi Hara Person, the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis—and the first woman to hold that position in the history of the CCAR—and Rabbi Priesand. This interview was conducted at the March 2022 CCAR Convention in San Diego, the 133rd gathering of Reform rabbis.

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Watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

Rabbi Person: It’s a great honor and privilege to be able to ask you these questions. Can you tell us who or what gave you the hope that you could become a rabbi?

Rabbi Priesand: First of all, I want to say that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. Unfortunately, I don’t remember why. I think it had something to do with the fact that I always wanted to be a teacher, and over the years, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism. And fortunately for me, my parents said, if that’s what you want, then you should do it. And they gave me one of the greatest gifts I think a parent can give to a child. And that is the courage to dare and to dream, because they were so positive and supportive. I did not think very much about the fact that no woman had ever been ordained rabbi in America. And I wasn’t that concerned about all the doubts I heard expressed in the Jewish community. I just put everything aside. And I think it’s important also to say that I didn’t want to be the first woman rabbi. I just wanted to be a rabbi. I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer. I wasn’t there to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi. And, I’ve not ever really said this very much, but I want you to know then I am probably the only person who never appeared before the admissions committee. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what if I did appear and they said, no? What would have happened? I’m not sure why that was. I think it was because I was in the undergraduate program with the University of Cincinnati. I think they didn’t believe that I was going to do it. I think they thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one.

I remember going out with one of my fellow students for a long time. And a professor went up to him one day and said, “Well, when are you going to marry or do the school of favor and get rid of her?” So there were a lot of things like that. I remember, never did I go into a social situation in which at least one person didn’t come up to me and say, and tell me why women shouldn’t be rabbis. And I would simply say, thank you for sharing your opinion, and I’d walk away, because I just don’t think that through arguing, you’re not going to get anywhere with somebody who has his or her mind already made up and you just have to do it. So that was how I handled that situation.

And the other bit of hope was, of course, the fact that Rabbi Nelson Glueck, at that time president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, wanted to ordain a woman. When I arrived on the scene, I guess he paid special attention. He followed my progress. He took care of a lot of little problems in the background that I never even heard about. And I remember that whenever the board of governors was in town, he made certain to call me out of class and say, give a prayer for the board of governors, no preparation or anything. Just give a prayer. And I do also remember leading services. I was the vice president of the student association, and my job was to make certain there were services every day for the whole year. I assigned everybody, but if someone didn’t show up, then I was responsible for doing the service. But it was a wonderful time in those days of experimenting. I actually remember doing a service that was totally on tape. I sat in the balcony, looked down, and the whole thing was on tape. We got to do lots of interesting things. At any rate, when the board of governors was there, Dr. Glueck made certain that I would do the service and the board of governors would see me and come to understand there was going to be a woman rabbi.

I know Rabbi Balin was talking to us, or somebody asked a question about the board of governors voting. I don’t remember any vote ever being taken. I do remember that this decision was a decision of the College–Institute under Dr. Glueck’s leadership. The CCAR, and the UAHC at that time, had nothing to do with it. And therefore our Movement did absolutely nothing to prepare people for the fact there were going to be women rabbis. And Dr. Glueck, I think had in his mind that there should be some preparation, because two years before I was ordained, he started sending me out to congregations around the country to speak.

I’m a very private person, and when you think back, I was twenty-three, and here I am going around the country. I remember specifically going to a Conservative congregation in Texas. A thousand people showed up. So I learned how to deal with questions and crowds and the media that followed me around a lot. I had press conferences at airports. And my goal always was to make it sound like no one ever asked me that question before.

Dr. Glueck unfortunately died the year before I was ordained. I was devastated because in those difficult moments—and people who are the first of something, there are difficult moments—I used to picture in my mind the day that he’s going to put his hands on my shoulders, and I’m going to be a rabbi in Israel. And so it was very difficult for me, but his wife told me that before he died, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. So he is the person who deserves the credit for laying the foundation for the ordination of women as rabbis.

You probably don’t know this because I only found it out a few years ago, but when Dr. Alfred Gottschalk became the president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, there were faculty members who tried to convince him not to ordain me, even though I had just had one year left, and I had completed the requirements. And fortunately for me, and for all of us, Dr. Gottschalk didn’t listen. And he said on June 3rd, 1972, that he was ordaining me with pride, dignity, and pleasure. And I want to thank my classmates, even though they didn’t show up at this Convention. It’s been a few years since they haven’t been coming; they go to NAORRR, and I always end up having to represent the class of 1972! But I want to thank my classmates, because they were supportive. They always made me feel like I was part of the class. Even if some of them didn’t think women should be rabbis, I didn’t feel any discrimination, or bullying, or any of that. And on the day of ordination, when I was called to the bimah, my classmates very spontaneously stood up to honor this moment in Jewish history. And that is a memory that I always cherish.

Rabbi Person: Thank you so much. Can we talk about the maror? That’s the hard one. What was bitter in your early rabbinate? And in what way has the taste changed or lasted?

Rabbi Preisand: Well there were thirty-five men in my class in Cincinnati. I was the last person to get a job, but I think I got the best job of all. And that was because the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York opened up late and they all had jobs. One of my very favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous.” So I always thought it was appropriate that I would go to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue because of its reputation for equality and social justice. And Rabbi Ed Klein, the senior rabbi, alav hashalom, he really taught me how to be a rabbi. And I owe a great deal to him. He was always very pleased to be introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate. I stayed at the Free Synagogue for seven years, which is probably longer than I should have stayed as an assistant. But quite frankly, if I think about it now, I didn’t really want to go through the placement process. And I said, I’m happy here. I might as well stay here. And then, Rabbi Klein suffered a stroke at a board meeting. I left with him to the hospital, and it was difficult. He had a lot of rehab, and he was never really the same again, but he still participated. I remember very specifically helping put his robe on him, and putting him in the wheelchair, wheeling him up to the bimah, getting everything ready, and he would do whatever he was able to do that particular day. In the meantime, basically, I was running the synagogue. I was hoping that when he was ready to retire, that I would be given a chance to be the senior rabbi. And that was not to be, and it was very messy and unpleasant and people went to him while he was in the hospital and said, “Sally is walking on your grave.”

And, you know, I loved him. It had nothing to do with any of that. I would have stayed another ten years as his associate if that’s what it took. But neither the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, nor any other synagogue, would accept a woman as the senior rabbi at that time. And I’m telling you the story, because for two years, I was not able to find a job, and I served as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital, and I accepted a part-time position at a synagogue in Elizabeth, New Jersey—a synagogue of older members who were always very warm and welcoming. At that time, that was the only time that I almost decided to leave the rabbinate. I was very frustrated, and I was very unhappy. I didn’t feel that our Movement did anything at all to prepare people for women as their spiritual leaders. And it was very difficult for me. And I remember going to the placement commission to meet with them. I walked into the room, there were sixteen men around the table, and I said, “I hope, you know, you’re part of the problem.”

I’ve never been afraid to be straightforward. And I went to see Rabbi Malcolm Stern, who was the placement director. At that time, I wrote a scathing article for Reform Judaism Magazine. He wrote, “You make some important points, but if you publish this article, your career is over. He said, “But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to rewrite the article for you, and it’ll come from me.” And he sat down right at that minute at his typewriter. That’s how long ago it was. And he changed the article around, and it was published under his name. So, I feel it’s very important to, in my case, being the first, to remember the men who helped along the way, because they were there. And I have always felt that it’s important for senior rabbis, for example, to help their female assistants or associates move on. And if you’re lucky enough to have the kind of senior rabbi that I had, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ready to take the next step. So that’s the only real bit of bitterness that I feel. Obviously, I’m grateful that I didn’t drop out of the rabbinate.

Rabbi Person: So are all of us. So let’s talk about matzah, really afikomen, which is about surprise or discovery. What surprises were there in your early rabbinate?

Rabbi Priesand: After those two years, when I couldn’t find a position, I ended up in Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. I almost didn’t even go for the interview for a really stupid reason—the name. I said, “Tinton Falls? Where’s that?” So, I went there, I had a wonderful interview, I answered their questions, and I also told them that I wanted to be a partner with them.

Back when I was growing up, rabbis would say, “This is what we’re going to do.” And everyone would say, “Thank you, rabbi. Yes, that’s what we’re going to do.” And that was it. And I just wanted to be a partner and go to the committees and discuss with them what we’re going to do and move forward together. And they were willing to accept that. But one of the things that they thoughtand I guess I also thoughtwas that this was just going to be sort of a stepping stone. And when I was in rabbinic school, all they talked about in terms of success is you have to go to some large congregation somewhere that, you know, you got to move up to that “E congregation.” And I thought because I was the first that it was my obligation. People at Monmouth Reform Temple taught me a different message about success. And I think that was kind of a surprise for me. And that message to me was, “success is we doing better today than we did yesterday?” That’s it. And it’s, “are we growing? Are we doing our best? Are we learning from our mistakes? Are we counting our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count?”

Monmouth Reform Temple helped me understand that. We created a temple family, and one of the things they miss about me now is they, they used to love hearing me say “I have an idea,” and they would work on it with me and follow through. And that is one of the reasons I stayed, because they allowed me to be creative and to experiment and to have ideas. And I am very fortunate to have had a wonderful rabbinate. I entered HUC-JIR because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. Monmouth Reform Temple helped fulfill that dream to the fullest extent. They kept me grounded, and they never thought of me as the first woman rabbi. I was just their rabbi. But on the other hand, there were moments when they realized I had other responsibilities. And I will tell you that I am here because even though I’ve been ordained, I mean, I’ve been retired for fifteen years, my retirement contract says that the temple will continue to pay for me to come to all these conventions because they understand that it is important for me to do that.

Rabbi Person: What a blessing.

Rabbi Priesand: It’s a very much a blessing.

Rabbi Person: Yes. And a good model for all of us. Standing at the sea, the Midrash teaches that women took timbrels when they left. What artifacts, texts, or pictures representing your early years have you brought with you or would you like to talk about, and what aspect of your journey does it represent?

Rabbi Priesand: I didn’t bring them with me because almost all of my memorabilia is now in Cincinnati at the American Jewish Archives, where they’re creating a major exhibit, which will be opening in May during Jewish heritage month and continuing, I believe throughout the rest of the year. Now, if you can get there, if you can take your congregation there, you should. Because it has everything. I mean, it has all these articles from the beginning: “Mini-skirted Rabbi,” and my mother always loved “My Daughter, the Rabbi,” and my favorite was “Rabbi Sally Came to Hollywood, and Hollywood Fell at Her Feet.” So, all of these things that have been packed away for a very long time and whatever I didn’t take there, is in Monmouth County right now, where I live. The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County has an exhibit of other memorabilia that I saved for them. The exhibit is on just the things that I did in Monmouth County, because one of my goals when I first came was to allow Monmouth Reform Temple to be a Jewish presence in the community. That was very important to me. And so I am involved still in a lot of community organizations. I tell people, look, I retired from the synagogue, but not from the community.

Rabbi Person: I wonder if you can just speak for just a minute about the trading card.

Rabbi Priesand: Yes. Those of us who were at the WRN celebrations got to see the trading card. I would have brought it, but it is in Cincinnati. It’s called Super Sisters cards. In 1979, two women who were teaching came up with an idea after I think one of their daughters said to them, “Why aren’t there things like trading cards, baseball cards for girls? Why don’t any of these cards have any women on them?” So these two women got a grant and came up with a stack of trading cards. On the front is a picture of the person. And on the back are what I always refer to as their stats. And they have a quote from the person. Sometimes you can still find it on eBay, which by the way, over the years, I’ve signed a lot of cards. People used to request them either in person, or they’d send me a photograph or ask would I send them a photograph that I autograph. Well, you know, I was very gracious about it. I tried to do all of that. And recently, I think I was looking for a Super Sisters card on eBay, and there’s my autograph on an envelope for $149.00. I was going to say it, just come to me. I’ll give you one for free!

Also, in terms of artifacts that are just two others that I want to mention quickly. After Rabbi Glueck died, his wife sent me a beautiful letter explaining how important my ordination would be. And I have always had that framed with a picture of Dr. Glueck ordaining someone above my desk. That’s also in Cincinnati.

And the other thing I remembered the other day; I don’t know how it was when you were ordained. I guess people sometimes call this the “cherish it” ceremony. To me it was meaningful. And I remember that we each held the Torah and said something. And, my quote that really has come with me throughout my life is “say little and do much.”

I have a letter opener that my family’s best friends—I grew up with their children, they lived next door, a Lebanese Catholic family. They had eight children, and we stayed friends all our lives. The mother of that family came to my mother’s 100th birthday. They’re the ones who gave me that letter opener with “say little and do much.” So that has been something that I have tried to do throughout my life. And it’s been very important to me.

Rabbi Person: It’s a beautiful thing. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Now, I think you have some—I’m not going to call them artifacts, because they’re current— but some contemporary pieces you’d like to share.

Rabbi Priesand: Yes. I’m very happy to tell you that I heard from our colleague Sandy Sasso today, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network invited her to write a book about me. It’s a children’s book. You may be aware of her series about Regina Jonas called Regina Persisted. There’s Judy Led the Way, and mine is called Sally Opened Doors. The book is ready on Amazon. It’s all illustrations. It’s fun. And at the end I convinced them to put a picture of me with my dog Zeke sitting on the corner of the bimah. It’s going to be a great gift for kids. It really is. I hope you enjoy it. And the second thing, and I think Sandy may be listening in: Sandy, I love it. I consider you to be among my family, and I always feel your love and respect, and it means a lot to me. I cherish it. Thank you so much.

Rabbi Person: Thank you, Sally. Really. Thank you. I have something I want to share. First of all, I want to thank—you can see on the screens, these five women’s organizations that have sponsored this and the reception to come. And I’m so grateful to all of these organizations for their ongoing support and for all the incredibly important work that they do for all of us out in the community. I want to really say a special thank you to the sponsors. In addition, we have begun a project which is not done, but it will be done in 2022. And that is, we are publishing a book called The First 50 Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis. We’re really looking to make this a festive, celebratory way to mark what is an incredible moment in history.

And to that end, we have many, many, many people who have become sponsors not only of this program, but also of the book and whose names will appear in the book. And we are so grateful to everyone who is part of that in your honor and in honor of all of our Vatikot.

Thank you. And thank you to all of those women, our Vatikot, for everything you’ve done for the community and for all of us. Thank you.


For more on women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies.

Categories
Social Justice

‘I Will Keep Fighting for Our Rights to Control Our Bodies and Our Lives’: Rabbi Hara Person’s Remarks at the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C.

In response to the draft of a United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which leaked to the public in early May, the Central Conference of American Rabbis—which believes that abortion access is a Jewish value, a human right, and part of comprehensive healthcare—cosponsored the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice, presented by National Council of Jewish Women, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, was asked to address the thousands of attendees in Washington, D.C. Here, we share her remarks.


I stand here today, a Reform rabbi and the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in tribute to my great-grandmother, Lena.

I stand here 100 years after my great-grandmother Lena had two knitting needle abortions on her kitchen table. She turned to the best of bad options because she could barely feed the children she had. My great-grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She lived to tell the tale. When abortion became legal in this country, she made sure her family knew her story.

Taking away access to abortion is not pro-life. Banning abortion is about taking power away from and punishing people with uteruses.

I am here to say proudly that Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believe that abortion access is essential healthcare, a basic human right, and a Jewish value.

Today we have safe options for abortion, and these options must be protected and accessible to all. Taking away abortion access goes against our most deeply held American values of religious liberty and equality. It goes against our Jewish belief of prioritizing an actual life over a potential life.

Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believes that every one of us should have the right to make personal healthcare decisions based on our own faith and values.

In memory of my great-grandmother, Lena, I will keep fighting for our rights to control our bodies and our lives. The fight will be difficult but what a blessing to be in it with all of you.

Categories
Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Between Brokenness and Wholeness: Rabbi Hara Person’s CCAR Convention 2022 Address

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s poignant address to the Reform rabbinate.


How amazing it is for us to be together once again, after three long years since we last gathered as colleagues. What an incredible milestone this is for us as a chevrah, a truly celebratory occasion. It feels unbelievably moving and replenishing to be here together.

And what a strange, hard time this has been. Two years and about two weeks ago, after a lot of struggle, we had just made the decision to go virtual for Convention. So much of that time, those early pandemic days pre-vaccine, were filled with anxiety and fear. All of us were making decisions on the fly—you in your communities, and us at the CCAR, figuring out how to quickly replan and reinvent ourselves. Priorities changed overnight. At the CCAR, we sent our staff home to set up remote office spaces. We changed our educational and support offerings to meet the needs of the moment. We organized coaching, advising, and counseling sessions for rabbis at no cost. We provided you with free or heavily discounted CCAR Press resources. We heard your stress and tried to provide you with care and support during the grimmest, grief-filled, scariest times. I remember one of you telling me that you had done eleven COVID funerals in one week. In one week! Unimaginable, the spiritual and emotional cost.

At the same time, strangely, without social gatherings and commuting, there was also time to be filled. I rolled the thousands of pennies that had migrated to my house after my father died. I seasoned my cast iron pans, and then did it again. I had time to watch the dirt in my garden slowly fill with flowers in bloom that first pandemic spring, giving me a much-needed sense of hope. That all seems so quaint now, given what was still to come.

When we last gathered in person at CCAR Convention in March 2019, no one among us could have foreseen the enormity of what we’d be facing in this intervening time, and how much we would be changed by the experience. Painfully, often in grief, sometimes at great personal cost, but also with creativity and tremendous learning, we persevered. You rethought your rabbinates, you experimented, you pushed through, and even if you sometimes fumbled—and we all did—you nonetheless inspired and led and brought comfort. When I look at and see what you’re managing, when I speak to you, when I hear what you’re doing, when I visit your synagogues, I see the miraculous. I see resilience in the face of all of this. I see innovation. I see vision. It’s truly amazing. There is so much to be proud of.

And yet, I know it’s been a very hard time, and a complicated time. I know you lost people in your own lives, and that grief continues. I know that many of you are exhausted and overworked, stressed and burnt out. I see how hard you’ve been working, and often under impossible conditions. I know you are doing more than ever, and in many cases with fewer resources, less support, and more difficulty. I know that.

At that same time, we are facing challenges in regard to our beloved Reform institutions, challenges that make us question so much. If that wasn’t enough, we are facing fears about what endangers not only our souls but also our physical selves. As many of you have said, being a rabbi shouldn’t be dangerous. And yet it sometimes is just that. With the three ethics reports that have come out from our beloved organizations, the terrible events in Colleyville, the overall rise in antisemitism, and questions about the future of our institutions, there is no doubt that this moment we’re in is a hard one.

I feel it too. There have been times when I—like so many of you—feel weighed down by such a sense of brokenness. There have been many dark moments this past year, many moments of feeling that brokenness deeply within my soul. When I took on this job of serving the Reform rabbinate, I believed I would be doing something that I could be proud of. I thought I’d be able to focus on moving the CCAR into the future.

I could not have imagined that I would be managing the painful and dispiriting work of unpacking the ethical misconduct of rabbis and our institutions. To be the face of the CCAR in this moment is, to say the least, complicated. There have been moments of pain, deep shame, and bleak and utter darkness. Yet I know that this pain pales in comparison to the pain carried by the brave individuals who’ve come forward.

I can’t help but think back to that last in-person Convention in 2019 in Cincinnati, the city in which our founder Isaac Mayer Wise’s legacy is so present. As I was preparing to speak to you all for the first time at that joyous time, before I was even in the role of Chief Executive, I thought about our founder’s legacy. Legacy looms large at the CCAR. We are, after all, one of the three legacy organizations of the Reform Movement, along with our partners the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). We have a storied history that goes back to the nineteenth century. But what does it mean to be a legacy organization? What is the legacy that we have inherited, and perhaps even more importantly, what do we want our legacy to be?

B’reishit teaches ki afar atah v’el afar tashuv, that we come from dust and return to dust. That’s humbling, to be reminded of our nothingness, but it also prompts us to consider just the opposite—that it is what we do in between those states that matters. While we are blessed to walk this earth and be in relationship with each other, what are we doing to create a legacy of positive change, to make a difference, to help right wrongs, to give voice to the voiceless?

We have so much to feel good about, both in our history as Reform rabbis as well in the present. Our Reform predecessors helped define American Judaism. We have reformed liturgy and published generations of prayerbooks. We have marched for social justice and advocated for equity and civil rights. We were the first rabbinic organization to ordain women. Our rabbis published the first English-language modern Torah commentary that included contemporary scholarship, and our rabbis also created the first women’s Torah commentary. We have officiated at countless life-cycle events, celebrating with and comforting Jews decade after decade. We have taught and inspired and written books and sustained communities, and so much more. Part of the challenge of this moment is holding the complexity of all the good that we rabbis have done for people, the community, and the world, all the ways that we have lived out our values since our founding in 1889, together with the ways that we have fallen short.

We come from dust and we return to dust, but in between we have choices to make about the legacy we leave. I want our legacy to be an honorable one, a legacy of integrity and morality, a legacy of inclusion and respect. And I also want to say, wrongdoing on the part of some does not negate all the tremendous good done by most.

But in the midst of our proud Reform rabbinic legacy, and in the midst of all of your important and good work, there is misconduct that, rather than setting an example of menschlichkeit and being our best selves, was instead behavior that did the opposite, behavior that created a legacy of hurt and pain. There were, and continue to be, colleagues who have displayed the worst of human behavior. And other colleagues who either didn’t recognize the behavior for what it was, or didn’t do the right thing to eliminate that behavior from our community. 

Our institutional t’shuvah isn’t just necessary—it’s the right thing to do. I’m grateful to the CCAR T’shuvah Task Force for the thoughtful work they are doing to inform this process. And as we know, t’shuvah is not just a one-time formal statement, but as Maimonides taught, the changing of behaviors going forward. Words without action—and a deep-seated commitment to change—are meaningless. To that end, the CCAR is making t’shuvah a fundamental part of our organization, every day through our actions, by improving our processes, hiring an ethics staff member, supporting the ethics committee in increased training for its members, and hiring professional investigators, as well as engaging in many conversations about experiences with our system and history.

I am very grateful to the Ethics Committee for approaching their difficult work with integrity and dedication. Even before we received the Alcalaw report, their suggestions of ways to continually upgrade the process already had a significant impact. So too the Ethics Process Review Committee has made continual changes to the Ethics Code, almost every year. The attention to ongoing upgrading on the part of both committees is remarkable. Hopefully, as a community, we will vote in many of the needed changes to the current Ethics Code that the Ethics Process Review Committee is currently working on in a special session, even as the Ethics Task Force envisions what an ethics process of the future may look like.

But here, today, I want to begin to apologize out loud.

I’ve heard so many painful stories over the last year. Some happened years ago; some are more recent. Not all are about sexual misconduct. Some stories aren’t about the ethics process at all but are about the way a colleague was hurt by the CCAR. Some are stories of bias or diminishment. And let me be clear—some of the pain that has been expressed is because the ethics system actually worked as it should and held rabbis accountable, and though warranted, that can be painful. Regardless of what, when, or how, the pain is real.

When Abraham speaks to God to argue the case for sparing the people of S’dom, he begins by stating that he is but afar v’eifer, dust and ashes. Abraham invokes humility as he speaks up for the voiceless and argues for what he believes is right. Not only do we come from dust and return to dust, but our texts acknowledge that in our lifetimes we sometimes go through periods of being covered in dust and ashes. There are times in which we are brought low, bowed down in sorrow and grief, before we can rise again.

In this last year, I have often felt buried in both the dirt and the ashes of this pain. I want to say clearly: I am sorry that CCAR rabbis have caused pain. I’m sorry that the CCAR has caused pain. I’m sorry that our legacy is tarnished.

I came to the rabbinate considerably after the vatikot we’re honoring at Convention and owe so much to those first pioneer women, my older sisters who led the way. But I too have my stories, my experiences in the rabbinate and in our Reform institutions, as a mother with one and then two young children while a rabbinic student, as a career-long non-congregational rabbi, as an oddity in many ways, all of which have shaped my rabbinate—sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully. Moreover, having been one of the early women at a formerly men’s college as an undergrad, I know very well that merely opening the door to let us in doesn’t mean equality has been achieved and bias has been overcome.

And yet, even with all that, it turns out that we also have what to be proud of. We knew we had to revamp our ethics system and were moving forward with this work even before new allegations came to light in this last year. And moreover, we actually have an ethics system, a system in need of further upgrades, yes, but an existing, robust system that has been updated and changed year after year by you, by your votes. The path ahead is filled with repair, rebuilding, and healing. But this too can be our legacy—the commitment to create a better, safer future, and to always improving what we do and how we do it.

I am grateful that we have both an Ethics Task Force and a T’shuvah Task Force hard at work right now, helping to create a better future for us all. I am also grateful to be able to work with my partners, Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the URJ and Dr. Andrew Rehfeld at HUC-JIR, as we begin to navigate what we can do better together, and grateful as well to Rabbi Mary Zamore at the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) for her unwavering commitment to justice.  

Not easily, and not without pain or cost, but progress is happening. Rabbi Zamore and WRN leadership have suggested that we join together in a Day of Lament in the next months. I believe that this will be a meaningful and significant experience for us as a community, and I’m appreciative to be able to partner on this project. In addition, CCAR will be working with URJ and HUC-JIR to plan a Yom Iyyun around themes of repentance and other related topics for the community as a whole. Both of these plans are very preliminary right now, but I believe in the power of ritual acts, communal study, and deep, vulnerable conversation. More information about all of this will be forthcoming in the coming months.

There is so much important work ahead of us. I am energized by all the possibilities. And indeed, in this incredibly difficult time, despite all the really hard and painful work, CCAR has continued to grow and evolve in really exciting ways. As you have hopefully seen, one of the things we will be voting on tomorrow is new Vice President positions, one of which is the Vice President of Varied Rabbinates, as a response to the evolving reality of where and how our rabbis serve today and what kinds of support you need. That’s a significant step forward for us as a Conference, a new milestone.

And another very big milestone—we are taking the very first steps toward a new Reform Torah commentary, including a new translation. It’s very early in the process, but I’ll have more to share with you in the months to come.

Accelerated by the needs of the last two years, we now have a robust wellness program under Rabbi Betsy Torop, CCAR Director of Rabbinic Education and Support, in addition to the pandemic pivoting and all the other fine work she and Julie Vanek, CCAR Education Specialist, are doing in that department, including this Convention. You don’t necessarily see her work, but if it wasn’t for the thoughtful fiscal and operations stewardship of Laurie Pinho, our COO and CFO, we would not be able to function, never mind flourish, and without Laurie’s leadership we certainly would not be able to run a hybrid convention.

The department we used to call “Placement” has evolved into the fuller and more inclusive Department of Rabbinic Career Services, and I’m so grateful that our interim directors, Rabbi Deborah Hirsch and Rabbi Michael Weinberg, were willing to put their retirements on hold to come help us for the year. With their help, and with your feedback and input, we’ve re-envisioned that department and created a new structure for the future, which includes two full-time directors with separate portfolios to better meet your needs. I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin this summer, when they’ll take over as Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services respectively, and help us keep moving the department into the future. With this new structure, we will be able to better serve different kinds of rabbis at all moments of the rabbinic career lifecycle. I’m grateful too for Rabbi Dennis Ross and Rabbi David Thomas, both serving as interims in specific career-related areas this year.

CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken came in only months before the pandemic but despite that challenge, the Press has thrived under his leadership. Director of Strategic Communications Tamar Anitai makes us look good in social media spaces and helps us navigate the complex world of communications. Our Development Department recently welcomed Pamela Goldstein in a new position as the Director of Advancement, who together with Lisa Tobin, our Director of Development, is working hard to provide all the services and resources that you rely on and help us find ways to keep growing into the future. Our Special Advisor in Ethics, David Kasakove, came into a brand-new position at a historic moment, giving us wise and careful guidance. I am also grateful to our two emeriti, Rabbi Steve Fox and Rabbi Alan Henkin, who generously continue to provide insights and help when asked.

I also want to thank and acknowledge my amazing assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, and the rest of our team: Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather, Jaqui D’ellaria, Michael Santiago, Ariel Dorvil, Chiara Ricisak, Rabbi Jan Katz, Dale Panoff, Nathan Burgess, Rodney Dailey, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, and Rabbi Don Rossoff, as well as our HUC-JIR interns Madeline Cooper and Ariel Tovlev. And we are soon to be joined not only by Leora and Alan, but also by our colleague Rabbi Annie Belford-Villarreal, who will become the new editor at CCAR Press this summer. Most of these amazing staff members are either here this week in person or back home helping to run the online version of Convention, and I urge you to introduce yourself and say hello when you cross paths.  

I want to say a special thank you to CCAR President and my partner and friend, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, for his wisdom, calm counsel, and caring heart. I also must thank the whole CCAR board, who provide incredible support and thoughtfulness, and all of you who volunteer with the CCAR in such a huge variety of invaluable ways. I am so very grateful to the many, many CCAR members who work so hard on behalf of our Conference.

I said earlier that I feel weighed down by brokenness. But one thing I am learning in the midst of this incredibly difficult time is to not walk away from brokenness. Brokenness calls, and I am trying to embrace it, to face it, to learn from it, and to walk through it.

At the heart of our Jewish tradition is the idea that brokenness is part of life rather than an aberration. The challenge of holding within us that tension between brokenness and wholeness is a deep part of our collective story. In just a few weeks, as we celebrate our freedom at the seder, we will break the middle matzah. Doing so reminds us that we live in a broken world, that we ourselves contain brokenness. 

Back home, spring flowers are bursting through the desolate winter dirt of my Brooklyn garden. What looks bleak in one season can become celebratory in the next. This I know: out of dust and ashes, beauty arises. In the coming weeks, we will taste the bitterness of oppression as we joyfully celebrate liberation. Brokenness may bring us low, but it is only a chapter, not the whole story. Our narrative continues. As we move from dust to dust, we continue to write our story, and in so doing, continue to create our ongoing and ever-evolving legacy. We have so much to be excited about. I look forward to growing and building the CCAR with you in the months and years to come.

Categories
Healing News shabbat Social Justice

Hope, Healing, and Action

Pirkei Avot teaches: In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person. Meaning, even when other people are acting irresponsibly or unethically, we are still obligated to be guided by our highest selves. Even when others are disregarding basic rules of civility and humanity, we are still obligated to act with integrity and not give in to the basest of human impulses. It reminds us that to be human means striving to be our best.

What happened on Wednesday in our nation’s Capitol was an example of how low we can go as humans when we let hate and anger rule us, when we give in to demagoguery and hate. And indeed, while Wednesday was a terrible and violent day, what undergirded the drama of that day has been happening for a long time in our country now.

Our tradition teaches us to love the stranger, to care for the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless. That is not partisan politics, but foundational Jewish teachings that comes from deep within the Torah, our prayer books, our Passover Haggadah.

A central text in the Haggadah teaches:

For the sake of redemption—ours and the world’s—
we pray together hallowed words
that connect us to Jews everywhere,
and to all who are in need:
the stranger and the lost,
the hungry and the unjustly imprisoned.
For our redemption is bound up with theirs,
and with the deliverance of all people.

As Jews we are called upon to understand that our destiny is bound up with the destiny not just of people like ourselves and people who think like us, but with the destiny of everyone around us. That is a message of unity and strength—that none of us can rest when some are suffering, and therefore we must care for one another.

So too as Americans, we are called upon to care for one another. No matter who I voted for or who you voted for, our destinies are bound up together. We can disagree—that is part of the democratic system that makes this country great. We can vote, we can speak our mind, we can argue, we can respectfully hold different opinions, we can peacefully march in protest, and then we can vote again. But what we cannot do is destroy the very system that gives us that precious freedom.

The terror that we saw at the Capitol on Wednesday, and the lackadaisical response on the part of law enforcement, will not define the American future and it does not define us. Rather, it serves to strengthen our resolve to work together to dismantle the forces that would divide us, to better understand and take responsibility for our own biases and prejudices, and to turn toward our neighbors with love. If anything, it shines a light on how much work we still have to do in order to rid our society of the diseases of racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy. And it propels us to get to work rebuilding our hope for a better future. 

Our hope in tomorrow must never fade. When I spoke to my mother on Wednesday she was in tears, not believing what she was seeing in her America. And I suspect that many tears were shed that day. Yes, it was heartbreaking to see our democracy being trampled upon. But I will not let my heart shatter in the face of all this violence and hate, because I need a heart to help guide me out of despair and into hope. A shattered heart cannot withstand the vitriol and divisiveness around us. A shattered heart is a defeated heart, a heart unable to respond with caring and compassion. And that I refuse to give in to. But there is another kind of brokenheartedness, not a shattering but a cracking open, an enlarging, which allows in the light and makes more room for love and empathy, for compassion and hope.

We all have a choice to make, as we’re reminded by the words of Pirkei Avot. Do we let go of our humanity and choose fear and hate, or do we call on the best of our humanity, choosing empathy and its companion, love? Let us then go forward into this Shabbat and into this new year, with hearts cracked open just enough to let in light, to let in hope, to let in love, so that we can be part of the healing of America.


Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This message was delivered as part of the Reform Movement’s program “Hope, Healing, and Action” on January 8th, 2021.

Categories
High Holy Days News

Rabbi Hara Person’s High Holy Day Message to CCAR Members

As CCAR members prepare to celebrate the High Holy Days and lead services safely distanced but spiritually connected to their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Hara Person shares her gratitude for their deep commitment to strengthening the Reform community.


As these really strange High Holy Days approach, I keep thinking about that Baal Shem Tov story about going into the forest, finding just the right place, and the right prayer, and lighting the fire, and saving the people from danger. And how every subsequent generation loses a little bit of original ritual but it’s still enough.

Together, we are writing the next chapter of that story, in which, many, many years later, our people once again face incredible danger.

In this new story, it wasn’t clear what to do at first. The elders recalled bits and pieces of old stories, but there were many conflicting versions and no concrete direction. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and so she had to figure it out as best she could. There was no longer a forest—it had long ago been turned into a suburban development and a sprawling mall. As for the special prayers, those hadn’t been part of the rabbinic school curriculum when she was a student. And she couldn’t light a fire, as no one wanted to risk starting another wildfire. So the rabbi wove together the bits of the different stories she had heard, and talked to her wise colleagues who offered ideas and suggestions, and brought together the community.

Because of the great danger, they were spread out in many different places, each person participating in the service remotely through a computer. She told them the story of the past as best she could, and offered up prayers. The community participated with open hearts, and their fervent hopes for a better future reached right from their souls up to the heavens. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t way things had been done in the past. But it was enough.

What we’re doing this year, no matter how different it is from the past, is enough. All the planning you’re doing, all the incredibly hard work you’re doing to make these holidays happen, to keep your community connected, and to take care of them, is enough. Everything you’re doing to take care of yourself, and to take care of those you love, is enough. 

These High Holy Days are going to be different than ever before. They definitely won’t look like the Holy Days of yesterday. But that’s okay. We’re adapting to the present. Despite the strangeness of this experience, you’re still opening up your heart and creating space for others to open theirs. You’re enabling people to gather in creative and virtual ways. You’re helping them speak the yearnings of their souls. Yes, it will be different, but because of your careful work, it will still feel familiar and comforting.

It’s a lot. It’s really a lot. If you’re feeling exhausted and wrung out from all of this, you’re not alone.

Thank you for facing this moment with courage, creativity, and hope.

Thank you for pouring the best of yourself into making these upcoming Holy Days the best they can be under the circumstances.

Thank you for what you are doing to strengthen our community and our people at this difficult time, in all the many ways you are doing so.

Thank you for caring for our college students, our elderly, our sick, our youngest, our newest, our noisiest, our quietest, our bravest, and our most afraid.

Thank you to those just starting your rabbinic careers in a way that no one could have predicted, thank you to those for whom this will be the last time leading High Holy Day services, and thank you for those in retirement for being role models, mentors, and cheerleaders as we navigate unfamiliar terrain. 

Thank you for being part of our rabbinic community, for supporting each other throughout this time, for sharing your ideas and your concerns, your resources and your love.

And thank you for doing all this while balancing your own families and loved ones, perhaps schooling and playing with your children, caring for your parents and other family members, maybe dealing with the loneliness and isolation of distancing, trying to take care of your own health and wellbeing, dealing with fears and anxiety about your financial security and livelihood, perhaps mourning those you’ve lost, the tremendous turmoil of postponed or radically different life cycle events, no summer camp, cancelled plans, and that doesn’t even cover it.

I’m going to end, therefore, with a plea—once the holidays are behind us, please make time to recover. Take time to replenish your souls and nurture yourself. Please take care not only of those you serve and those you love, but also of yourself.

The forest, the fire, the prayers are all being reinvented this year, and how lucky we are to have your leadership in doing so in such a myriad of ways. And it is indeed enough.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the CCAR.

Categories
Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Mourning the 100,000 Americans Who Have Died of COVID-19

Together with Americans of all faiths, we mourn the 100,000+ people who have died of Covid-19. We share in the grief and sorrow of this unimaginable and still-growing milestone, as well as all the losses to Covid-19 around the world. We join with our Reform Movement partners and faith communities of all denominations around the country in calling on our communities to include a moment of remembrance in our upcoming worship services. The full statement about the weekend of prayer can be read here, along with a call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance  on Monday, June 1st, at noon local time to pause and remember all those who have died.

We offer these beautiful words, written by Alden Solovy, for your use at Shabbat services, interfaith gatherings, or a special Yizkor service.

One-by-One: A Prayer as the COVID Death Toll Mounts

By Alden Solovy

God of consolation,
Surely you count in heaven,
Just as we count here on earth,
In shock and in sorrow,
The souls sent back to You,
One-by-one,
The dead from the COVID pandemic,
As the ones become tens,
The tens become hundreds,
The hundreds become thousands,
The thousands become ten-thousands
And then hundred-thousands,
Each soul, a heartbreak,
Each soul, a life denied.

God of wisdom,
Surely in the halls of divine justice
You are assembling the courts,
Calling witnesses to testify,
To proclaim
The compassion of some
And the callousness of others
As we’ve struggled to cope.
The souls taken too soon,
Whose funerals were lonely,
Who didn’t need to die,
Who died alone,
Will tell their stories
When You judge
Our triumphs
And our failures
In these hours of need.

God of healing,
Put an end to this pandemic,
And all illness and disease.
Bless those who stand in service to humanity.
Bless those who grieve.
Bless the dead,
So that their souls are bound up in the bond of life eternal.
And grant those still afflicted
With disease or trauma
A completed and lasting healing,
One-by-one,
Until suffering ceases,
And we can stop counting the dead,
In heaven
And on earth.


© 2020 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. Reproduced with permission.

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention

Connection, Disruption, Challenge & Hope: Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person Addresses the CCAR During the Coronavirus Crisis

Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR Chief Executive to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to move our annual Convention online. The address below is adapted from the words that CCAR Chief Executive Hara Person shared with the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who came together online throughout the country in this time of change and need.


One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten in the last eight months is: What has surprised you the most about this job? And what I can definitively say is that when I was applying for this job, no one told me I would have to become an expert in pandemic planning. And cancelling our in-person Convention, yeah, not something I ever thought I’d be doing, and certainly not in year one. I really didn’t want to be the first CCAR Chief Executive to cancel Convention; I did check with our posek, Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola, who assured that indeed I was, so that’s another first for me. But Gary also reminded me that the Pope was cancelling mass, and if it was good enough for the Pope, it is good enough for us.

And I assume you can all relate, since I’m guessing this is the first time you are cancelling services, shutting your buildings, postponing events, and doing or not doing according to all the new health protocols we’re suddenly living with. This is a time for firsts for all of us.

I will take a moment to acknowledge that even before we were all working remotely in virus-land, this has been a year of tremendous transition at the CCAR and in many ways still is. I need to acknowledge my gratitude for our tremendous and dedicated executive team: Betsy Torop, Cindy Enger, and Laurie Pinho, who have been my steadfast partners and friends through an already tumultuous year of new beginnings, new hires, and new ways of working at the CCAR—their willingness to teach me, to have patience with my learning curve, to be honest even when it’s hard, and to have faith in our collective future is what makes the CCAR such a strong and exciting organization to lead. And our talented senior staff, Tamar Anitai, Fani Magnus Monson and now Rafael Chaiken, as well as rabbinic staff Dan Medwin and Sonja Pilz, as well as all the rest of our staff—I am truly blessed to work with such a thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring team of people. I know you don’t know them all—this was going to be the first Convention for many of them—but I hope you’ll get a chance to meet them over the months and years to come. I am lucky to have them all by my side. And I also have to thank my predecessor, Steve Fox, who is the model emeritus. He has stayed out of the way but has been there for me when needed, and I have needed it, especially in these last few weeks.

But right now, we need to talk about today. We need to talk about connection and disruption. We need to talk about possibility and challenge. Suddenly we are being forced to think and plan and rabbi in completely new ways. It’s exciting and it’s terrifying. As Jews, we know that our biggest moments of creativity and innovation come out of times of disruption. When the Temple and the priesthood were destroyed, we got resourceful and created a portable set of texts and practices that we could carry with us wherever we went. How brilliant—and indeed we’re still carrying those with us today.

What bound us together throughout history was our common tradition and practices, the Hebrew language, and our shared faith in the God of Israel. One of my favorite novels is A. B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to End of the Millennium, which describes a clash of cultures between Jews from the East and Jews in the West. And yet, the reason they clash is because they recognize the connection between them – though their traditions differ, they’re merely different threads that together still make up the same tapestry of Jewish peoplehood. They understand that they’re joined together, parts of a whole, which exacerbates their differences. When most people in the world lived in isolated villages, Jews around the world grasped that they were part of a bigger endeavor. As in the novel, Askenazi Jews in Europe encountered Jewish traders from North Africa who appeared once a year to sell their goods. And in this way Jews in one part of the world were aware of Jews in other communities, and even as they viewed some of their practices with suspicion or even distain, they knew that weren’t alone, together they were parts of something bigger. Think too of our history of responsa: Jews living in one part of the world could send a sh’eilah to the academy in Pumbedita or Sura and get a response back a year or so later. A slow connection, to be sure, but a connection.

As Jews we know how to connect. And as rabbis, all the more so. We know that connection across distance matters. It’s at the core of who we are. Just as our ancestors gained strength knowing that there were other Jews around the world, so too does our connection across physical distance give us strength and nourish our resilience. My father used to always ask me: how are things in rabbi-world. He died before social media became ubiquitous, but he would be amazed to see that there is actually such a thing as rabbi-world. Even in the best of times I have often thought that many rabbis live in two places—in your physical community with the people you serve and of course with your loved ones, and simultaneously in the online world, drawing sustenance from the connection to each other; the sharing of stories and advice and struggles, and just the affirmation that yes, other rabbis are dealing with the same things.

Despite being stuck in my house and apart from you, I’ve felt our connection this past week quite strongly. I was able to share Shabbat with so many of you in a single day from my living room. I started with Australia in the morning, then Israel in the early afternoon, the East Coast of the United States, then the middle of the country, and then the West Coast. And despite the social distancing that we’re practicing, I feel more, not less, connected to all of you, and more connected to our Jewish community as a whole. In the midst of the fear and anxiety is a sense of strength and joy—that from all around the world we’re figuring this thing out, and finding ways to create meaningful and real connections that go beyond our specific communities.

It’s been incredibly inspiring to see how you’re pushing yourselves outside your comfort zones in order to bring comfort to those you serve. The good news is that we no longer live in a world in which physical distances by necessity create emotional, intellectual, or spiritual distances.

My grandmother Gussie was nicknamed Six Month Sadie. Why? Because when her mother, my great-grandmother, Lena, was giving birth to her here in New York, she hadn’t seen her own mother, Golda, back in Europe in several years, and didn’t know that she had died. She named the baby Sadie. But when she learned, some months later, of her mother’s death, she changed my grandmother’s name to Golda, or Gussie. Hence the nickname, Six Month Sadie—a funny story but also emblematic of the distance, both physical and emotional, that was a reality of life for many families at that time.

And here we are, several generations later, where on Friday night, in between synagogue hopping, I went onto Zoom and lit candles with my family—one kid in Boston and one in Berkeley, and my mother and sister in Miami. There is a miraculousness to this technology and the possibilities it holds for us in allowing us to connect in real and meaningful ways while physically separated.

It’s been amazing to see how the new restrictions we’re suddenly living with have not been stumbling blocks—yes, they’re frustrating, and yes, in some cases heartbreaking. And yet, you’re rising to the challenge and showing incredible leadership. We can’t assemble at a shivah house, and so you’re holding online shivahs that bring real comfort and connection. We can’t assemble for a bat mitzvah, so you’re compassionately postponing until it’s safe to do so and finding inventive ways for your students to shine nevertheless. Wan’t have welcoming Shabbat for the tots, so you’re singing into a screen from your couch and uplifting your favorite three year olds. Can’t study Torah around a table on Shabbat morning—no problem, study together from everyone’s dining rooms tables. And on and on.

This is a time for us to be as open as we can be to new possibilities, to go out on a limb, to teeter on the edge of the known and the unknown, to be nimble and flexible and creative. Not everything we’re doing is going to work or be successful. But out of that will come some new ways of working and coming together that are going to transform who and what we are as a Jewish community, and what it is that rabbis do.

And yet, this is also a moment of tremendous fear and uncertainty. We don’t know how long this quarantine will last, and we don’t know what the long term effects will be. Surely there will be hardship for many of us, in the weeks, and over the months and possibly years to come. Some of us will live with the aftermath for a long time to come. Our personal lives and our professional lives will be profoundly impacted in ways we cannot yet imagine. And we at the CCAR will do our best to support you, and help you, and learn our way through this with you.

When the Pinelands in New Jersey experienced a devastating fire, scientists noticed something amazing. The heat of the fire melted the resin in the cones of the pine trees, causing them to burst open and spread their seeds, enabling the forest to regenerate. One of the scientists who studied this phenomenon said: “The system bounces back. Fire has been a part of that area for a long time. There you find species that have adapted to frequent fires; otherwise they get outcompeted by the species that can.”[1]  Throughout our history, that’s who we’ve been as Jews, and especially as rabbis, time after time. We are resilient, we know how to adapt, and we have the capacity to seed new growth.

In the midst of all this change and creativity, innovation and disruption, pain and loss and growth, I want to suggest a few basic principles that may help guide you in the days and weeks to come.

1. We will make mistakes. There are no rule books for the reality we’re suddenly living in. We’re not going to get it all right. But that’s going to be okay. We tore down the infrastructure of a conference that had taken us two years to plan and built an entirely new one in two weeks. Not everything has gone according to plan. But it’s pretty darn great nevertheless. I cannot properly express my gratitude to Laurie Pinho, Dan Medwin, Aliza Orent, and the whole CCAR team, but especially Betsy Torop, all of whom have worked tirelessly, first to get us ready for Baltimore, and then to unwind the convention, and then quickly create this online version. You have no idea how hard they all worked to make this happen. Please thank them yourselves when and if you can, even if you don’t know them. Gratitude does not begin to describe what I feel for them, and fatigue doesn’t begin to describe what they feel.

2. Pace yourself. Change is exhausting. Working from home with your kids, also indefinitely home, is exhausting. Trying to get it right and meet everyone’s needs at a time of fear and worry while managing your own anxiety is exhausting. The uncertainty of this moment is exhausting. So give yourself a break, where and how you can. Ask for help, be strategic, create priorities. You’re going to need to pace yourself to get through this.

3. Be forgiving. We have to be forgiving with ourselves and with each other. Nerves are frayed. Skills are being learned as we race full steam ahead. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be patient. Rest when you need to. And model this for others.

4. Practice gratitude. We must find opportunities for gratitude in the midst of all this. I want to take a moment to thank, in addition to our CCAR staff, our CCAR Board. I knew I was going to love working with Ron Segal, but little did I know the adventures we’d be dealing with together. I could not ask for a kinder, wiser, menschier partner, and wow am I grateful to Ron for always having my back. Lewis Kamrass, our president-elect, has thrown himself into our teamwork with both feet and I am so grateful for Lewis’s level-headed good advice and caring. And to our whole Board, the support you’ve shown me and our staff is just incredible, and so appreciated, especially in the midst of dealing with your own communities.

5. Summon courage. This is a time for courageous leadership. We must summon every bit of our stores of courage and have faith in ourselves as leaders. You can do this, even if you’ve never done this before. Your people need you to be brave. Find the right people to be your thinking partners, get input, listen to feedback, test new ideas, be willing to be wrong, and trust your ability to figure it out. But also, you don’t have to be brave all the time. It’s also okay to be scared, and feel vulnerable – acknowledging that takes real courage.

6. Care for each other. Let us, as a rabbinic community, care for each other. This is not only a time of fear but also of loneliness. Who within our rabbinic community can we reach out to? Who is emotionally vulnerable and needs some extra support? And then there is the actual virus itself. Some of us may get sick. Some of our family members may get sick. Some of us may lose members of our communities to this virus, or even, God forbid, family members. Let us be there for each other, to rabbi to each other, to be sources of support and caring in times of loneliness, fear, or grief.

7. Grab hope. And we must look for hope and grab it wherever we find it. Our history teaches us that hope is always out there, even if we can’t immediately recognize it, and even in the worst of moments. No matter how bleak things look, we cannot, we must not,  give in to despair. Finding hope is hard, but the search for hope is one of the things that can sustain us in dark times.

In closing I’m going to share a poem by Ada Limón.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27mainnj.html?searchResultPosition=2

Categories
General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

A New Year’s Message From CCAR Chief Executive, Hara Person: Looking Ahead Into 2020

Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the CCAR, reflects on her first six months as Chief Executive, her vision for the organization as 2020 begins, and her gratitude for the community of Reform rabbis.


Dear Rabbis,

Six months ago, I stepped in my new role as CCAR Chief Executive. It’s been quite a ride so far. I’ve had to transition from a specialist in Jewish publications, organizational strategy, and communications into a generalist in all things Reform rabbi. This has meant learning to stretch in new ways. Many of you have generously shared your wisdom and experience with me as I undertake this process of learning, and I am so grateful.

I am spending a good part of this first year in my role traveling with the intention of connecting with as many of you as possible. It is both a joy and a privilege to learn about your triumphs and your challenges, and to hear what brings you the greatest meaning in your rabbinate. I thank you for sharing yourselves with me—both the good and the sometimes painful.  I look forward to meeting and connecting with even more of you as I continue traveling.

As we step into 2020, I’m excited to see the third and last year of the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate reach its conclusion, and to then embed those findings, recommendations, and suggestions in the ongoing work of the CCAR in meaningful ways. We will also begin to implement the work of another important task force, that on Retirees and Successors. We have also begun a process of thinking about how the CCAR can evolve as our membership continues to diversify, with an ever greater percentage of our members serving in a wide range of roles throughout the Jewish world. And all of this is just a small part of what we’re busy with at CCAR; there are webinars and in-person meetings in development, new publications, other committees, task forces and commissions, trips being planned, and, of course, CCAR Convention 2020 in Baltimore, March 22–25.

One of the things about the CCAR that makes me so proud is the ways in which you are there for each other. For some of you, that means serving on committees or task forces or commissions that make the CCAR a stronger organization, for some that means contributing to our publications and helping us be the teachers and leaders of Reform Judaism, for some that is helping us find the resources we need to best support our mission, and for some that means being each other’s rabbis in moments of crisis. For so many of you, sadly for too many of you, this means finding meaningful ways to come together at this time of increased antisemitism. However it is that you participate in helping the CCAR achieve our highest aspirations, I am moved by your commitment, and I thank you for your gift of self.

I hope that I will see you in Baltimore as we gather to enter the next era of the CCAR. It will be a time for us to come together to learn, to study, and to teach. But even more, it will be a time for us to draw succor from being with other Reform rabbis, no matter the type of rabbinate, to celebrate together, to share together, and to gain strength from one another as we face the challenges of today.  

Sincerely,

Hara E. Person

Chief Executive, CCAR

Categories
lifelong learning Rabbis

Finding Our Authenticity as Rabbis: Sermon from Ordination, Cincinnati, 2019

Rabbi Hara Person, incoming Chief Executive of CCAR, delivered this sermon during the Ordination at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati this past Shabbat. It was her great honor to have been invited by the ordinees to address them, and she is grateful to have been invited to be part of their ordination.

Authenticity

In the waning days of my fifth year as a rabbinic student, a rabbi posed a question to my class. He asked: How will you come to feel authentic as a rabbi?

And I remember instinctively blurting out an answer: When I grow a beard. 

In retrospect, it’s funny. But it’s also not so funny. The image I had in my head even after five years of rabbinic school was still man with a beard and a kippah. In part my comment was about gender, but it wasn’t only about that. I was gauging my sense of self by what I believed to be the view of others. I was looking at myself from the outside rather than searching within. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine who I would become as a rabbi, and what my rabbinate might look like. All I could feel was the gnawing dread of not being authentic. 

My worry about authenticity wasn’t simply that I was insecure – yes, that too. But there were bigger forces at play. At that moment I knew what I couldn’t be as a rabbi, but I couldn’t yet imagine who or what I could be. I worried that as a first- generation Reform Jew, not having attended Reform summer camp or been in NFTY, not having those childhood connections and shared vocabulary, that I would be less than fully authentic. I also worried that being a woman rabbi with two small children, and the employment choices I made as a result of my children, would make me less than a “real” rabbi.

Today’s parashah asks the questions that I struggled with as I looked toward ordination twenty-one years ago: Who do you want to be? How will you get there? What’s going to happen if…? 

Much of this parashah hangs on the word im, “if.” The first “if” follows with a cascade of goodness. IF you follow my laws and my commandments –  rain will fall on your fields and you will have everything in abundance, you will live in peace, and Adonai will be your God, present always in your midst. The blessings are all conditioned by that one initial “if.” But the flipside of the equation pounds forth with “if” after “if.” IF you do not obey me, IF you spurn my laws, IF you remain hostile – the “if”s hammer away at us, one after the other, an ongoing reminder of the potentiality that things may not work out well.

The repeated trope of “if,” harsh as it may feel in that second list, actually reminds us: the future is not based on what we’ve already done. Rather, the text insists that the future is still in formation, it is dependent on the choices we make in the present, and will continue to make, as we set the direction of our own internal compasses.

“If” is a perfect word for today, a liminal space between what is and what will be. Imagine who and what you want to be as a rabbi. Whether you are setting out to work in a congregation, chaplaincy, a school, an organization, Hillel, the military, go to medical school, or wherever your rabbinic calling may lead you, you are choosing to set out to do sacred work. Your IF, your rabbinic compass, is setting you in the direction of doing what you can to bring more goodness, more justice, and more healing into the world, to live up your highest aspirations.

This path you’re choosing requires great courage and great faith. Sometimes the way through is going to be obvious to you. You will be at a bedside or in front a classroom or on the bima, and you will suddenly realize that you are fully there, fully rabbinic and sure of yourself in that moment. But sometimes, you will feel less certain. 

The choices we face as rabbis are often not as clear as the binary choice between right and wrong, good and bad, as set out in our parashah. There will be moments when you find yourself writing at your desk or sitting with someone in pain or trying to soothe someone’s anger, or for that matter, maybe when you’re moving chairs for the tenth time in a week, and you’ll think: Why am I here? Is this who I am? Why does this matter? What am I supposed to do now? 

I remember the deep angst I had upon becoming ordained and watching my classmates take what looked like big and exciting positions – full-time congregational callings rather than the less-than part-time organizational job to which I was headed. I looked to their glorious futures, and felt that my choice, by comparison, while realistic for me, a not-totally-full-time position that would enable me to be at home in the evenings with my small children, was insignificant compared to the careers my classmates were sure to have. They were going to be real rabbis, while I was, I didn’t even know what, juggling as fast I could just to keep all the balls in the air, doing the best I could. Twenty-one years later, what I can stand here and tell you today is that no one’s journey was as expected. Not mine and not theirs. Along with many successes there were also unanticipated detours and curves in the road for everyone, many opportunities for self-reflection, much learning and growth, and sometimes redirection. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but it has always remained a sacred challenge to be our best selves, to make the best choices, and to do our best for those we serve. 

Our Jewish history is full of people called by God to embark on a sacred journey. Think of Abraham, told by God to leave his country, his homeland, and his father’s house, and to set out into the unknown. Etz Hayim teaches: God’s first words to Abram, Lech Lecha, mean, “go forth and discover your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” This is to be a journey not only to fulfill God’s plan, but of self-discovery, one that allows Abraham to grow into his true self. 

Think of other examples of going out into uncomfortable new spaces – recall Rebekah being asked if she would leave her home to make a journey with a stranger, to go marry Jacob, also a stranger, and live amongst a tribe of strangers. Dr. Judith Baskin, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, cites a comment from Midrash HaGadol that typically, when a woman would be promised in marriage, she was too embarrassed to give her consent or to reject.[1]But as Baskin notes, Rebekah forcefully and clearly makes known her assent. Her direct response, “I will go,” reveals a sense of mission and purpose, and an understanding that her destiny lies elsewhere.  As Dr. Yairah Amit writes, “Women’s contributions to the fulfillment of national destiny finds its expression not only in their role as child bearers but also in their ability to take bold and vital action at critical moments.”[2]

Both Abraham and Rebekah, with no idea of what lay ahead, boldly set out on epic missions, journeys that impact dramatically on the narrative of the Jewish people. They go into the uncomfortable unknown, with faith as their compass, to become who they are meant to be and to fulfill their destiny. 

As you become rabbis and set out into the unknown today, it is your emunah, your faith in God, in the future of the Jewish people, in our collective destiny, that has gotten you to this moment of being a Rav b’Yisrael, a rabbi. The people you serve, in whatever way you serve, are going to look to you to be someone in whom they can maamin – believe in, have trust in, and entrust with theiremunah – their faith. It will be up to you to provide a sense of rabbinic authenticity that comes not from knowing all the right answers, but from having the courage to ask the right questions. 

It won’t always be easy. After all, for all that faith matters, we are not B’nei Emunah, we are B’nei Yisrael (with no offense meant to any members of any Congregation B’nei Emunahs), not the Children of Faith but the Children of Israel, those who struggle with God. Faith leads us, but if struggle comes to you, welcome it, use it for self-reflection because that too is real and will allow you to keep growing. 

There may be voices that question or challenge your authenticity – but only you get to determine it and define it. How you convey your authenticity and your sense of emunah as you grow into your rabbinate will enable those you serve to feel that you are amin, reliable and trustworthy. And when you are amin, those you will serve will be able to truly say, amen; you will be a blessing to them. 

The root that amin shares with emunah goes into many other directions as well, one of which is oman, artist, and omanut, artIn becoming your authentic rabbinic self and growing into your rabbinic authority as someone who is aminand leads from a personal sense of emunah, you will also become an oman, the artist of your rabbinate, defining its contours and texture, its colors and brushstrokes.

The companion to rabbinic authenticity is rabbinic authority. Being the careful, thoughtful author of your rabbinate will nourish your rabbinic authority. A successful rabbinate depends on maintaining the right balance of authenticity, authority, and, yes, humility.  Be sure of what you stand for, nurture and question and redefine your emunah, ask the big and hard questions, and be willing always to learn, and to be wrong. If you encounter a challenge or a problem, be open to the truth of it, no matter how painful, and figure out how the situation can enable you to grow. No doubt about it, this is hard work:  being a rabbi, taking care of yourself and your family and the Jewish people, and remembering why this work matters. Have courage, be brave, and ask for help – talk to a trusted friend or a teacher or mentor. Call the CCAR. Get a coach. Take a class in an area in which you need to further develop.

You will grow as rabbis and as people, and the rabbis you become will likely look different from what you can imagine today. Not every day will feel fulfilling and meaningful. But each of you, no matter how and where you serve, no matter how winding your path will be, will grow into your own rabbinic authenticity. You will become a new model of a rabbi – each of you will broaden the definition of who and what a rabbi is, what a rabbi looks like, what a rabbi does, whatever your gender expression or sexuality or color or size or skill, with beards or without, with kippot or without, in congregations or in organizations or Hillels or hospitals or schools or in whatever rabbinic path you follow. Be open to surprising avenues that may unfurl before you. Remember that you don’t need to know everything, and remember too that you never will.

In her poem “Insufficient Knowledge[3]” the poet Bronwyn Lea writes:

You have to start with insufficient knowledge,
yes, this, and yes, praise be, then this,
you have to have that kind of courage.


A breath, a step, a word: it’s to your advantage
to begin. There isn’t time to wait for grace—
you have to start with insufficient knowledge.


Think of the first human to sail over the edge
of the world, or a base jumper departing an edifice:
you have to have that kind of courage.


Break your fists, your back, your brain, punch
yourself an opening. This is all there is:
you have to start with insufficient knowledge


of the heart, that higher organ, which
from time to time catches us by surprise
and we startle with the kind of courage


that will spend it all, not hold back, wage
everything, all, right away, every time, yes.
You have to love with insufficient knowledge,
you have to have that kind of courage.

I share this poem with you today because it speaks to my rabbinic story – the fear of not knowing and not being enough, the impulse toward courage anyway, the voracious willingness to jump all in despite the trepidation, the stretch of opening the heart and being vulnerable. “Punch yourself an opening,” the poem tells us, get yourself in there where you long to be. So much of these twenty-one years since ordination has felt like that. My early years in the rabbinate were a constant master class in assertiveness training as I learned to speak up and be heard, to be in the conversations that mattered, to claim my authenticity and authority as a rabbi, to create my rabbinic self and share it with others.

So now here we all are together. You’re about to start your rabbinic voyage, taking on new responsibilities and challenges. And I’m about to start my new rabbinic adventure as well. None of us know what awaits us. But I do know this. These experiences ahead of us will change us. And from these changes will arise new hopes and new possibilities, new understandings of self, new skills and outlooks, new callouses and muscles. Like it has for me, your path will most likely contain unexpected plot twists. Those children I mentioned, who so shaped my choices upon ordination, are now adults out in the world. As they grew, I grew, as a mother and as a rabbi. The road before me that I once thought was clear, albeit limited, branched out into surprising new directions that I could not have imagined at ordination, standing as I did in the present of that moment. 

So as you step out in the unknown, have courage. And also unapologetic tenacity. And chutzpah. Don’t prevaricate. Practice humility, yes, but not having all the answers doesn’t mean apologizing for who or what you are, or aren’t. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you’re ready. 

Go out there into the unknown. Write your rabbinic story. We can’t wait to see it unfold.


Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Strategy Officer of Central Conference of American Rabbis and Publisher of CCAR Press. Rabbi Person was recently named the incoming Chief Executive of the CCAR and will assume that position on July 1, 2019.

[1]TWC p. 128
[2]TWC p. 122
[3]Lea, Bronwyn, The Other Way Out, Artarmon, New South Wales : Giramondo Publishing, 2008. p.69