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
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

Categories
Books

Nu, Did You Know? What’s New For You from CCAR Press

There is so much going on around us that it is easy to let information slip through the cracks. As we head toward Convention, our annual opportunity to come together as a community face-to-face, we want to take a moment and bring you up to date on some of the resources now available to you from CCAR Press.

The CCAR Press has been providing essential resources for the Jewish community for over a century. With the recent addition of our new imprint, Reform Jewish Publishing (RJP), as well as our ongoing development of a wide-range of electronic products, we find ourselves in an exciting new position. Now we are able to extend our support to rabbis worldwide, whether through eBook versions of classic texts, our growing collection of Visual T’filah, or any one of our liturgical publications. And by providing such support, we are blessed with the opportunity to support our Jewish community at large. As the primary publisher of the Reform Movement, we see it as our responsibility to not only provide the highest standards of support to our members, colleagues, and friends, but that we are able to directly connect with and strengthen the many communities of which we are lucky enough to be a part.

In an effort to better serve you and every one of your unique communities, we have launched several new Press initiatives. The first, our CCAR Press Resources initiative, provides material and event planning services to lay leaders, gift shop professionals, and congregants. Whether seeking educational resources for Temple programming, customized material for upcoming events, or a message of inspiration to share with the community, CCAR Press is here to help! Coupled with our 2015 Gift Shop Initiative, which provides resources for gift shop professionals at significantly discounted rates, our new Resources initiative makes it as easy as possible for you to introduce and utilize the most current and essential Jewish resources to your friends, family, and congregants. Please contact info@ccarpress.org for questions and tailor-made materials.

This is a time for learning and conversation, and we believe that in fostering community-wide conversations with accessible Jewish resources, we can aid in restoring and sustaining the unity and strength of our community worldwide. To that end, we’ve also introduced our Host an Event Program, created to help you organize and host community events in your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Here at the CCAR, we know that no community is the same, and we’re excited to work together to determine how we can best meet your distinct needs.

Launched in 2016, The Sacred Calling Event Program continues to connect and inform congregants throughout the nation, and we are excited to announce that this program remains available for communities through 2017. Meant to facilitate an ongoing conversation about the impactful reality of women in the rabbinate, this program uses the narratives provided in the award-winning CCAR Press publication, The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, as a launch-pad from which communities may begin to add their own voice to the continuing narrative of equality in the Jewish world. In celebrating the accomplishments of the past, we encourage you to consider the future, and to discuss the actions you can take against prevailing inequalities in your own communities.

New in 2017, we also offer a Grateful Heart Event Program, which features our new publication from poet and liturgist Alden Solovy. This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day provides a uniquely original anthology of modern day psalms and prayers to lift us up, inspire our days, and mark our milestones, spanning topics from the simple delights of daily living to the complexities of grief and sorrow. We offer this program not only with the conviction that Solovy’s words will speak to our own personal moments of grief and joy, gratitude and struggle, but with the hope that these prayers will speak to your collective hearts, giving you the opportunity to bring your community together with the simple yet formidable power of prayer. For more information about these programs, please see the links above. For a full list of upcoming events, visit events.ccarpress.org.

Finally, and in response to requests, we have launched Your Jewish Library, a one-stop-shop for the home libraries of anyone who hopes to further immerse themselves in the rich heritage of our tradition. From CCAR Press classics to critically acclaimed Torah commentaries from RJP, we offer essential Jewish resources to enhance your Jewish life and learning. All titles included in Your Jewish Library are offered at a discount, providing the perfect opportunity for congregants to  stock their shelves with important Reform resources.

As always, we continue to develop new publications, resources, promotional material for your bulletins and mailings, and programs that will help us to help you in strengthening your communities and, ultimately, in strengthening our Movement. Please contact us to learn how you can work with your local libraries, gift shops, and JCC’s to better introduce Jewish resources to your communities, continue important conversations pertaining to our Movement, and to come together in empowerment and gratitude over our shared heritage, traditions, and faith.

Please plan to visit the CCAR Press area at Convention. Meet our staff, and find out what we can do for you. See you in Atlanta!

Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press and Director of Strategic Communications for the Central Conference of American Rabbis

Categories
Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Reform Judaism Torah

How Do You Read This?: The Art in Mishkan HaNefesh

One of the things I remember most distinctly from Freshman English in college was the question, “How do we read this?” Most often, it was applied to a text — a poem or a passage in a novel or essay. At times, however, the question was directed to a visual image. We would study a piece of art, or a photo from a newspaper, and “read” it. The professor was teaching us to be readers of signs, symbols, and visual imagery, pushing us to analyze the world around us and not just the written word. His goal was to enable us to become nimble critical thinkers, able to explore, probe, and question anything we confronted.

“What do we do with those pictures in the machzor?” is a question I’ve been asked about the art by Joel Shapiro that appears in Mishkan HaNefesh. This question brings me back to Freshman English.

Kol Nidre Shapiro
Art for Kol Nidre by Joel Shapiro

When we read a text, by necessity we bring ourselves to that text. Our reading, our understanding, is a meeting of our particular set of experiences and references, and those of the author. There is a midrash which teaches that the manna which sustained the Israelites while they wandered in the desert tasted different to each person. Just as each person tasted the manna differently, so too does each of us process and understand a text uniquely. Indeed, each time we read a text, we read it differently based on who we are in that moment.

So it is with reading art. More relevant that what the artist meant is what we see. Each of us will have our own understanding of an image. All the various elements that are in a piece of art become part of the language of that art-as-text. The colors, the white space, the border or lack thereof, the texture, the particularities of the wood grain, the density of the ink, the shapes – all of these form the language of each piece of art. And just as with any written text, there is no one right interpretation.

Art is a language – each image creates a new world, a singular and uninhibited space for experience and interaction. Abstract art, like that of Joel Shapiro, may at first glance seem hard to read. It may seem like a completely unfamiliar and incomprehensible foreign language. But the question we must ask is not, “what does it mean,” but rather “what can it mean?”

How do you read the art in Mishkan HaNefesh? Reading art is like reading poetry, only with visual language rather than verbal. Look at the image. What does it evoke? What sense does it tug at in you? Rather than trying to understand what it means, try to read it, that is, try to experience it. Does it feel full or empty? Does is evoke a sense of hope, or sadness, a sense of communality, or a sense of being alone? Does it feel tortured, or twisted? Does it make you think about fear, or courage, or buoyancy? Is there a sense of rootedness or eternality? Does it reach out joyfully into the future or does it feel tentative or grasping? Is it turned back on itself, or does it seem open and inviting? Does it feel like an opening into a new beginning, or perhaps a closing off from the past? Does it feel uncomfortably raw, or breathtakingly beautiful, or both?  Is it sure of itself or perplexing? And then ask, how can these these images be visual translations of the overarching themes of the high holy days? How do these images convey awe? T’shuvah? Forgiveness? Redemption? Chesbon nefesh? Majesty?

Image for Yizkor by Joel Shapiro.
Image for Yizkor by Joel Shapiro.

Start by simply letting yourself read the art. Let yourself experience it. Move beyond the discomfort of not knowing what to do with it, and just look it. Read what the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh thought about the art, and read what Joel Shapiro himself has to say about it,but remember that the artist’s intent is only one part of the experience. What you bring to it is also part of what it “means.” Our prayerbook is full of metaphors and imagery that don’t necessarily make rationale sense, but nonetheless move us and connect us with the divine and with the big questions of life and eternity. Think of the art as visual metaphors that helps move and connect us through a different modality.

Our tradition teaches that the Torah was a combination of black fire and white fire.  The Talmud even discusses the importance of the white space around the black letters, considering the white to be another, albeit hidden, kind of Torah text (Menachot 29a). Both texts are critical to the whole, and elicit different ways of reading.  The art then is like the white space around the written text – it is an invitation to experience the metaphors and imagery of the high holy days using a different kind of language, a different kind of metaphor, perhaps even a different part of our soul.

There is no right way or wrong way to read the art in Mishkan HaNefesh. Just like the beautiful poetry in the machzor, or the challenging sublinear commentary, it is there to enhance our experience of the high holy days.  The art gives us another language with which to engage with the big ideas of these Days of Awe. It may not be a language you’re familiar or comfortable with, but that’s all it is, another language, another way of reading.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press and the Executive Editor of Mishkan HaNefesh. Before attending rabbinic school at HUC-JIR, she received an MA in Fine Arts from NYU/International Center of Photography. 

Categories
Books High Holy Days Mishkan haNefesh

Artist Joel Shapiro Discusses the Art in Mishkan HaNefesh

A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit down and talk with Joel Shapiro, the artist behind the images in Mishkan HaNefesh. We met in his bright, airy studio in Long Island City to talk about his work.

Hara: Joel, can you tell me a little bit about why you were interested in being part of Mishkan HaNefesh? From the outset of the project you expressed excitement at the prospect of your involvement.

Joel: How could I say no? I loved the challenge of coming up with meaningful imagery to match such deep content. Visual art can be tricky – the goal is not simply to illustrate, but, in this case, to create images which correspond to profound and historically significant prayers and material. My role here is that of mediator – attempting to capture the meaning I see in the material, and translate it into form.

Hara: Could you talk about your process? How did you prepare yourself to craft a visual response to the content of Mishkan HaNefesh?

IMG_0995Joel: I tried to read the prayers carefully in order to understand the meaning and value of each word and image throughout the text. I wanted to connect the prayers’ implications to abstract form through woodcut — the medium we decided on together when you first approached me.

Hara: And why woodcuts? Why did you choose that format?

Joel: Woodcut is a very unusual process, one that involves creating a kind of visual typeface from scratch. I felt that I needed a kind of looseness to do this. So I began to draw on paper and then cut the paper out. Sometimes I wasn’t even drawing; I would just use the scissors and find a form that connected to the content or feeling of the prayer. Basically, I was cutting paper to find the form, a technique I have used in the past. (I don’t think I was influenced too much by the Matisse exhibition that was happening at the Museum of Modern Art at the same time, but you can’t cut paper and not talk about Matisse!) Then I would take the paper, scan it, and try to transfer the image to the wood block. In the beginning, I didn’t know exactly how I would transfer the paper image to the block, but ended up taking a low-tech Xerox of the image and then using acetone to transfer the image from the Xerox to the wood. From there, I would cut the form into the wood to be printed. Once I had an initial print, I would then reduce and eliminate any excess. The challenge here is to decide how much wood you want to remove – do you want the image to function independently of any kind of frame or background?

I’m really excited by how the woodcuts came out. Even though in some cases it feels antithetical to the feel of the metal type used in the rest of the book [to set the text throughout the book], the materials are comfortable together.

IMG_1001Hara: One of the things we, the editors, love about the use of wood as part of the materials, and part of the reason we were excited about your choice to create the art as wood block prints, is that wood has so much rich metaphoric weight in our Jewish traditions – Eitz Chayim, the Torah is the tree of life, the tree in the Garden of Eden, and so on.

Joel: I thought of that too. I was also moved by the connection between wood and the natural world. The typeface, however, does not share that same connection to nature, creating a kind of balance or conversation within the text.

Woodcut also allows you to use the grain in interesting ways.

Hara: Could you talk more about the choice of wood?

Joel: I mostly used cherry, walnut and mahogany. Cherry is very precise and prints softly, while walnut has a more pronounced and often wavy grain. Sometimes I wanted one sort of wood that gave the cut a complexity and texture. I would pick a piece of wood based on what the grain would mean in relation to the print.

Precision was critical to this project. The dimensions of the page made for a very narrow space in which to work. I was afraid because woodcarving is very dangerous; if you make a mistake it is relatively fatal to the image and you may have to start from scratch.

IMG_0992Hara: Could you talk about the choice of the blue color, in part because at the beginning of the planning process, we were talking about different colors, and we hadn’t settled on blue ourselves yet in terms of the overall design and typesetting of the book.

Joel: Were you talking about red at one point?

Hara: Yes, we were talking about red, maroon, or a purple.

Joel: Blue is so lively and it so prevalent in nature. It is the color of water and the sky, and functions as a contrast to black. I really like red, but red always has some negative connotations for me. And red and black, in a Jewish book, is problematic historically.

Hara: And that particular shade of blue is such a unique shade.

Joel: Blue has a sort of life reference. I did a prior print where we used multiple colors and I did not like it as much, I really like the use of one color – the blue – along with the black and white. The blue that I used is full of energy. It’s basically ultramarine.

Hara: Yes. It’s very close to the color Klein blue, right?

Joel: Oh yes, everyone says it’s Klein blue, which is ultramarine with a reddish tint. Yves Klein was an important, radical artist who used a lot of pure pigment. And he seems to have co-opted blue as a color, so I hear it all the time; I’m used to it. I think you’d find that specific blue in lots of paintings. Ultramarine is a synthetic pigment that was developed as a replacement for lapis lazuli, which is a real pigment from the natural world.

Hara: We had given you phrases for each of the services upon which to base or anchor the art. Was there one piece that was particularly challenging for you in terms of how to respond artistically?

Joel: All of the phrases presented challenges. In order to properly understand these conceptual themes, you really have to be a Talmudic scholar (which I’m far from). Consequently, though I tried to broadly understand the intent of the phrases, it was not easy.

Art for Rosh HaShanah morning, by Joel Shapiro.
Art for Rosh HaShanah morning, by Joel Shapiro.

I did the first image for Rosh HaShanah based on a connection to the shofar, and you thought it was too scary. And then not only was it scary, but I’d also have to spend a year carving it… There were just so many lines, it was an intimidating task! And so then I came up with another image that we all liked better, but it seemed to be maybe too anatomical.

Hara: With the human heart in it?

Joel: Yes, the heart was a little too sacred.

Hara: I loved the heart imagery. It’s still in there, but now it’s much more subtle.

Joel: Then the second version wasn’t robust enough, and I thought that the blowing of the shofar was such a unique aspect of the holiday – I wanted to convey that. Having listened and listened to it over and over, I initially tried to do something with the actual sequence of blasts – to incorporate that idea in some way with the image. But I wanted to have the sense of its far reach. I thought the sacred heart was just too tender and fragile. So I thought the revised version was much more robust. It still has the subtle heart image in it but better conveys the sense of the shofar blasts.

However, they were all tough to do; there wasn’t one that wasn’t tougher than the others.

Hara: Another image that you redid a few times was the piece for Eilah Ezkarah, the one that’s like a tear or a cry of pain.

Joel: That was a relatively easy piece to conceive of, and then I changed and altered it.

Approaching these prints, I didn’t have a visual preconception of what to do, and I didn’t have an agenda. I would read the prayer and then fall into a more suspended place, and draw it, cut it, and refine it. Cutting, which is a very good way to work, has an immediacy to it – there was not a lot of downtime during the process.

That specific image was hard to create, and then I switched it around. It was like a tear of sorrow and misery, and not just misery but also a kind of brutality. I think that the way you cut the wood is significant in terms of each form. It affects what you actually do. I kept this in mind when I created the other one image, which depicts the little gate: the black and blue one [the frontispiece in the Rosh HaShanah volume].

Rosh HaShanah frontispiece by Joel Shapiro.
Rosh HaShanah frontispiece by Joel Shapiro.

Hara: That’s the opening image for Rosh HaShanah.

Joel: Yes, I think that’s really good. And that was about trying to find a gate or an expanse and flipping the wood around. The change in the wood grain reflects this, it’s what it would be like to literally open the window or door. I tried not to be too fussy about it and to stay away from illustration.

Hara: Do you have a favorite?

Joel: I really don’t, I like them all. I was also surprised by how refreshing they were to me. I like the two frontispieces. I love the one for Rosh HaShanah. But I couldn’t redo that again; once you find out what you’re doing, it’s impossible to replicate.

Hara: So I’m going to ask you to help explain one thing because I’m getting a lot of questions about the edging, people are asking: why does the artist do that? What is that there in the margins? I understand the power of it visually, I love it, and I understand how it’s done. But I think that the question is more about what is the visual meaning of keeping it there as opposed to having a clean edge or no edge. Why make that choice?

Image for Yizkor by Joel Shapiro.
Image for Yizkor by Joel Shapiro.

Joel: I think the edge functions as a window and as a frame. With a frame, you could have a clean edge, but here I was able to establish the edge. I chose a block of wood, and then I decided what size I wanted the image to be. I then proceeded to maintain the size of the image while adding some edges that I wanted to keep rough. The frontispiece for Rosh HaShanah purposefully has no edge, I wanted to differentiate it from the page. I wasn’t interested in making an icon or a single iconic image; I wanted the piece to give some sense of where the image came from. To accomplish this, I let some residual wood into the white area, because I felt that that this added meaning to it by making the image less grand and giving it a certain humility. This is not the icon of Rosh HaShanah by any means. Perhaps humility is not even the correct word to describe this.

Hara: I like the idea of humility, but isn’t it also about anti-perfectionism?

Joel: Yes. The process and the whole project were really important and meaningful to me. It wasn’t about coming up with an absolute image; there’s nothing absolute. The image leaves you with the sense that it could have been different. It could have been something else; it’s made by hand. Somebody’s thought about the whole thing. And I think the edge helps — it amplifies the meaning. This is a relatively small page, and I had a certain boundary established in the beginning of the project that I rebelled against. I’m not sure if that had much to do with the printer, and it took me some time to work beyond that. Does that help?

Hara: Yes, that helps a lot.

Joel: The edge really frames the image, allowing for greater concentration in its viewing.. Seeing just the image in the center of the page is too much. You really need the edges on these images in order to emphasize their content. As a result of seeing its source in the edging, you know that it comes from a block of wood, and this reinforces a certain type of reading. Did you have this response?

Hara: Yes, that’s good. Do you have any overall reflections now that the process is behind you?

IMG_0997Joel: I was anxious because I hadn’t seen the prints in the finished book until now. It’s one thing to do a print and then another to see the print. And, by then, it’s in someone else’s hands. I did see the layout, and I was impressed. But I still didn’t know about the overall quality and what they looked like in the book. A book is an object; it’s really thrilling to see it. I think it’s exciting though…I feel that I barely tapped the subject; there’s so much more to do. My work on this project has expanded my own understanding of these concepts.

Hara: You talked earlier about your grandchildren seeing it.

Joel: Yes, I can’t wait for them to see it.

Hara: There’s a sense of legacy.

Joel: Yes, it’s deeply meaningful. I was raised in a very secular family. We had Passover and Passover Seders, but it was not a religious family to say the least.

Hara: Did you grow up in Manhattan?

Joel: No, I grew up in Queens, Sunnyside, a mile and a half from here. And my family moved further out.

Hara: We’re very grateful to Jo Carole Lauder for connecting us with you.

Joel: I’m grateful that she did. She’s smart and certainly knows what’s challenging. She has a big vision; I thought it was great; I’m happy to have done it.

Joel Shapiro (born 1941, New York City) is an artist of international prominence. He has executed more than thirty commissions and publicly sited sculptures in major Asian, European and North American cities and has been the subject of more than 160 solo exhibitions and retrospectives internationally. He is represented by the Pace Gallery. His CV is available here.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press, and served as Executive Editor of Mishkan HaNefesh

Categories
Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Rabbis

The Art in the Mishkan: Joel Shapiro and Mishkan HaNefesh

One of the goals of the editorial team in creating Mishkan HaNefesh was to allow for many different doorways into the High Holy Day experience for participants. Based on the idea of different modalities of learning, we wanted to address different modalities of experience.

For some people the beautiful translations of the liturgy might be what speaks to them. Other people might find a way into meaning through the poems throughout the book. For others, the music is going to be what makes their experience meaningful. For still others, it might be the material meant for personal reflection and mediation, while for some it might the more intellectual or philosophical commentaries on the bottom of each page. And of course for some, it will be the rabbi’s sermon.

We talked for a long time about adding visual art, one more doorway in for the visually inclined worship participant. We considered many different ideas before deciding that abstract art would be the best fit for the machzor, and that if possible to use art all from one artist. Even once we narrowed it down, the question of art was still complex. We wanted art that would enhance the beauty of the text and be a fitting companion to it. We wanted art that would speak to the big themes of High Holy Day liturgy. Then we also had certain parameters set by the realities of printing and reproduction. For a time, it seemed like it was going to be impossible to find art that was just the right fit.

SHAPIRO_portrait_Yves_Bresson__2013In our search, we were introduced to the artist Joel Shapiro. Joel is an internationally acclaimed artist with pieces in major museums and other settings throughout the world.  He works mostly in sculpture, but also does other work including prints.  We showed Joel some of the initial drafts of Mishkan HaNefesh, and he was intrigued by the project. During an afternoon spent in his huge, airy and art-filled studio in Long Island City, we were intrigued by him and by his work.  A short while later, he told us that he was inspired and moved by Mishkan HaNefesh, and generously offered to create a series of original prints for us. It was an incredible offer and we accepted with great enthusiasm.

When Joel proposed creating wood block prints, we loved the idea. They would reproduce well on the printing press we were using for the book, but more than that, we loved the idea of using wood to create the art for the machzor. The associations were rich and plentiful – for example, Torah is a tree of life, eitz chaim, and the connection to earth and nature.

Joel spent months reading the drafts and studying High Holy Day liturgy.  He worked first with paper, drawing, cutting and tearing shapes as he pondered the best way to represent the major ideas of the High Holy Days. To prepare for his work, we offered him a list of themes for each service. The themes follow below, along with some thoughts on each piece.  All art is, of course, by its very nature open to interpretation. It will be meaningful and beautiful to some, and simply pages to skip over for others.  The comments that follow below are some very subjective interpretations on the art which may be helpful when looking at it, but don’t be limited by these ideas. They are not what the art is definitively “about” – they are just some of the possible interpretations.

RH p. ii: This is the frontispiece for the Rosh HaShanah volume. There is a sense of it being a portal or doorway into the High Holy Days, especially with that piece on left folded back to create an opening, as well as also conveying the idea of parts coming together to make a whole.

RH p. xxxi: Rosh Hashanah evening: Avinu Malkeinu, renew us…   This piece conveys a feeling a gathering, ingathering, and homecoming, a house of prayer.

RH p. 101: Rosh Hashanah morning: Hear the call of the shofar…   The shape at the center is a heart, the biological kind, not the Valentines kind. Combined with the circularity, it’s an intriguing choice for the service that contains the shofar sections running throughout it, a sense of sound and emotionality.

YK p. ii: This is the frontispiece for YK. In this image there is a sense of brokenness and off-kilterness which emphasizing the uniqueness of the day, the idea that we are turned upside down on Yom Kippur, that we’re off balance. There’s also a hint here of the idea that the focus of Yom Kippur is in exploring our internalities – there’s a lot going on in the woodgrain inside the shapes.

Kol Nidre Shapiro
Kol Nidre by Joel Shapiro, from Mishkan HaNefesh.

YK p. xxxiii: Kol Nidre: I forgive, as you have asked…  The slight bend in the image feels like a good metaphor for asking forgiveness, conveying a subtle sense of brokenness within the wholeness, as well as penitence. The very simplicity of this piece also feels like a fitting beginning to Yom Kippur, when we’re stripped down to our core.

YK p. 129: Yom Kippur morning: You stand this day, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God…  This image embodies a sense of community, a oneness despite all the different shapes and types. There’s also a sense of tension between our internalities and externalities.

YK p. 321: Yom Kippur Minchah: You shall be holy…  Parts of a whole are being brought together – each one individual but together forming a community.

YK p. 441: Avodah: May we ascend toward the holy…   This is an abstract interpretation of the steps leading up to the Temple, an ascension toward holiness. There is also an unfolding of layers that take us back to the core of the Holy of Holies, and to the core of ourselves, imbueded with tension between holiness and the profane.

YK p. 513 : Eleh Ezk’ra: For these things I weep…   This is a difficult, agonized image that evokes perhaps a tormented tear, a body twisted in pain, a display of deep mourning.

Yizkor Joel Shapiro
Yizkor by Joel Shapiro, from Mishkan HaNefesh

YK p. 535:  Yizkor: These are the lights that guide us… These are the ways we remember…   This image is strong and mournful yet also embodies a sense of peace and oneness. There is also the circularity of the life cycle and the fullness of life, the idea that we go around and around.

YK p. 609: N’ilah: You hold out Your hand…   This is the end of the cycle.  There is a sense of ascension, a path to holiness, and the closing of the gates, the light at the end of tunnel. We move back toward God and toward uplift as the gates begin to close.

In the end though, art doesn’t have to be understood in order to be felt and experienced. Art can evoke emotion that goes beyond words. Viewing these pieces is another way to connect with some of the central High Holy Days tropes, with the acts of reflection and repenting, remembering and hoping, celebrating and grieving, questioning and confessing, forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press, and served as Executive Editor of Mishkan HaNefeshthe new Reform Movement machzor for the High Holy Days.

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A Wedding, Both Personal and Historic     

This past weekend I had the privilege of officiating at a wedding of two sweet men in Philadelphia. They are members of Congregation B’nai Olam, the congregation in Fire Island Pines where I have served for the last seventeen years as the high holy day rabbi.

I have officiated at many weddings since becoming a rabbi, some straight and many gay. Some have been legal, though a good number of the gay weddings I officiated at before 2011 were not. They have all been special and beautiful in their own ways. Some have been particularly special, like when I officiated at weddings of close friends and relatives. But this wedding was its own kind of special.

First the personal. Of course, every wedding is personal. This lovely couple was together for forty-two years and fifty-one weeks before becoming legally married. That is mind-boggling – both the capacity to stay together through thick and thin, and despite the lack official sanction, and also the fact that they can now legally get married. What a blessing that was, to be able to stand together under the chuppah, supported by their family members, including the 95 year old mother of one of them. As they said to me, they never in their wildest dreams imagined that this day would come.

And that’s where it becomes historic. As soon as gay marriage became legal last year in Pennsylvania, they set a date and called me. The time had come. And so almost exactly a year to the date that gay marriage became legal in Pennsylvania, they got married. What a blessing this was too, that their own state would recognize their marriage. The date of this past weekend becomes even more dramatic when you realize that this wedding was also three days before the Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments that will hopefully lead to gay marriage becoming the law of the land.

There was another level of history as well, one which was perhaps only significant to me as the rabbi, but important nevertheless. This wedding was also the first one I officiated at using L’chol Zman v’Eit: The CCAR Life Cycle Guide commonly known informally as the “rabbi’s manual”. Having worked with Rabbi Don Goor, editor of the guide, for several years on this project, I was very excited to finally get to use it.

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As Don and I worked on the guide, one of the guiding principles of our work was that a wedding was a wedding, no matter the gender of the couple. This was a natural outgrowth of the historic stances CCAR has long taken in support of LGBTQ issues in general, and gay marriage in particular. We wanted to create liturgy that was beautiful and fit the unique moment, with enough options to meet the needs of different kinds of couples. We wanted to break down the wall between a “normative” wedding and “non-normative” wedding. In planning the ceremony with this couple, I was pleased to see how well the material in the guide worked, and how easy it was to customize it for them. The fact that all the material I needed to meet their needs was there in the guide also sent an important message, that the CCAR and its rabbis fully accept and support marriage equality. This too is a blessing.

Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov!

Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.