Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, shares her gratitude for the unending work of CCAR members, and shares her hope that they find joys both big and small as the new year 5784 begins.
To the Reform rabbis of the CCAR,
These High Holy Days are full of joy, reflection, and gratitude. The ability to be reflective, to write ourselves anew, is an incredible gift that we get to re-experience every year at this time.
The Psalms exhort us to “worship God in gladness, come into God’s presence with shouts of joy” (Psalms 100:2). As part of my personal High Holy Day prep, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of joy, which, though so profoundly central to our personal and professional lives, can be a challenge. Perhaps it’s because of the stress of the world that bears down on us; perhaps it’s because of all the many things wrong in the world and in our lives. Perhaps it’s because it can be so hard to live up to the best versions of ourselves to which we aspire. Perhaps it’s because our internal monologues tell us we’re not good enough, or deserving enough.
Additionally—and on so many levels—these are difficult times we are living in. As rabbis, we take so much upon ourselves. Because we take seriously the mandate to help heal the world, and there is so much healing to be done, it can feel overwhelming. Joy can often feel out of reach, even unattainable. There are so many reasons to struggle with experiencing joy.
Yet with all the uncertainty around us, I see what you are doing. In all the ways that you are serving the Jewish people, in congregations and communities around the world, in the military, in hospitals and healthcare settings, in schools and at camp, on college campuses and in all kinds of mission-driven organizations, in the early days of your rabbinic career and in retirement, I know that you are giving all you’ve got to bring inspiration, hope, and healing.
I am so grateful to you all. And dare I say that seeing all that you do as a rabbinate brings me more than a small amount of joy, and hope.
I recently came across a piece in the Washington Post by Richard Sima about something he calls “joy-snacking.” He writes, “By mindfully tuning into the pleasant, nice and sometimes routine experiences of every day, we can transform an otherwise mundane moment into something more meaningful and even joyful.” Apparently, there are scholars who study joy—who knew? One of their findings is that when people experience the small joys of everyday living, they find greater meaning in life, feel more connected, have a sense of purpose, and are more likely to flourish.
So, as we enter this new year with our hearts open and our souls determined to chart a positive and purposeful path in 5784, I invite you to consider this concept of “joy-snacking.” We each have the agency and indeed the responsibility for the care and feeding of our own souls, not only the souls of those we serve. Finding the small quotidian joys in the course of our daily lives is part of that process. Even as we focus on the heavy lifting that we each individually have to do as our part of helping to repair this very damaged world, this divided society in which we live, our beloved Israel in such pain, and in some cases the very communities in which we serve, we also have to push ourselves to find those moments of joy that uplift us, give us meaning, and help us keep going so that we have the energy and motivation for the hard work that lies ahead.
And there is much hard work ahead. As rabbis we are called to heal, to speak out loudly and courageously against injustice, to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. We’re asked to do so much, and we ask a lot of ourselves. That work can’t be done without properly nourishing our own souls. Finding those glimmers of gladness and joy is also part of our mandate as rabbis, for it not only helps ground us and gives us purpose, but it also helps us connect to the Divine and reminds us of why we do this work.
The poet Rahel points us to finding those tiny joys, which add blessings to our days.
In this new year, may you find the tiny joys—and maybe some big joys, too. May all of those joys bring meaning and help you focus on what matters. May you find blessings and purpose in all that you do. May you have the strength to be a voice for justice, and may you continue to be a blessing and an inspiration.
Wishing you and yours health, happiness, and hope in 5784.
Rabbi Hara E. Person is one of the coeditors of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, forthcoming from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she discusses the importance of acknowledging the joys, challenges, and complexities that have characterized the half century since women have been included in the American rabbinate.
In many ways, the genesis of this book began with the groundbreaking ordination of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand in 1972 from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. But we could also argue that it began with the ordination of Rabbiner Regina Jonas in Berlin in 1935. And further back again, this evolving story began with the many women who aspired to become rabbis throughout Jewish history, whose dreams were deferred by centuries of patriarchy, and who had to find alternative paths of service and leadership.
For me, this book begins on a brownstone stoop in Brooklyn, when my rabbi told me the first woman was being ordained. Until that moment, I had never thought about the fact that women couldn’t be rabbis—it had just never occurred to me that that option wouldn’t be open to me if that was something I wanted to do. And in that moment I was determined to meet this pioneer, this first woman rabbi, who became my hero right then and there. While it was years before I finally met Rabbi Priesand, as a child on that Brooklyn stoop I could not have imagined what her courageous act of opening the door to the rabbinate would mean for me, both personally and professionally. That is an essential debt that can only be paid forward. I hope the publication of this book stands as part of that gratitude, and I am grateful to have Rabbi Priesand’s essay, fittingly, at its start.
This collection serves as a mile marker along the journey, a momentary stopping place for reflection and commemoration. While we experience the evolution of women in the rabbinate as inevitable, that doesn’t mean it was easy. These pages likewise acknowledge challenges and complexities of these fifty years, identifying some of the detours and roadblocks that still lie ahead. Alongside tremendous gains and systemic changes, pain and inequity are not yet eradicated. Women rabbis still face bias, microaggressions, pay inequity, and other obstacles. Naming challenges is one of the ways that we are able to break through the barriers that keep us from getting to the goal of equity.
The work continues. In a mere half century, rabbinic leadership effected a dramatic turning point in Jewish history, an acknowledgment that the voices that were silent or silenced, marginalized, unheard and unseen, are an essential part of the rich and variegated fabric of the Jewish story and must be included. We now claim a richness of experience that nourishes us all, individuals of all genders, identities, and roles in our Jewish communities. Becoming the most beautifully diverse, inclusive, and thriving community of our highest aspirations, we all need to know what has led us here on the path to a healthy, equitable, and flourishing future.
Today we recognize that the rabbinate is made up not only of women and men but also rabbis with diverse gender identities. This knowledge, too, is grounded in Torah. For centuries, our scholars recognized that Genesis celebrates inclusivity: both heaven and earth and the heavenly bodies and angelic beings. God created humans and animals and everything in between. God created human beings in God’s image, a full spectrum of gender expressions and sexualities. Binary thinking has blinded us to a fuller appreciation of the beauty and power of God’s creations. The ongoing work of equity includes all rabbis of every identity, including the full spectrum of gender, sexual, and racial identities. One of the key learnings from these fifty years of change is that the door to opportunity and inclusion must not be opened just once with great fanfare, but must be held open continually for all who wish to enter. As Rabbi Priesand writes in her piece in this collection, “I would like to think that my opening the door for women in the Jewish community was a first step toward opening the door for all who would serve the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Hara E. Person is the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Previously, she was the CCAR’s chief strategy officer, publisher of CCAR Press, and editor-in-chief of URJ Books and Music. Alongside Jessica Greenbaum and Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, she is coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis(CCAR Press, 2023).
The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s moving address about the direction of the CCAR, the meaning of gathering in Israel during the largest civil protests in history, and the need to speak out for justice in an Israelof our highest aspirations.
February 26, 2023: Parashat T’tzaveh reminds us of the importance of the Ner Tamid, the light that is to burn at all times, throughout the ages. When I was ordained, reaching this milestone of twenty-five years seemed impossibly far away. Today, thinking back to who I was twenty-five years ago, I find myself looking for my Ner Tamid, the light that has remained constant throughout this journey and binds that new rabbi to who I am today.
There’s so much to be grateful for in my most unusual career. These twenty-five years have been incredibly fulfilling, hard, and challenging, never boring. Getting to spend twenty-one years publishing Jewish books for the Reform Movement was an incredible gift. Having had an unusual route through HUC-JIR, not doing the typical year in Israel, and then being part of two different classes, I never had the same sense of “class” or “classmates” that most of you have had, though I love my two classes and congratulate both my class of 1997 on their Doctorate in Divinity from last year, and the class I was ordained with in ’98 on their upcoming Doctorates. But getting to develop deep relationships with colleagues, who have made me a better rabbi, and really a better person, who have become mentors and friends, has been another gift of these twenty-five years.
I decided to become a rabbi because, while I was in grad school for something else, I realized that it was the rabbinate that was aligned with my deepest values. My personal Ner Tamid, that which filled my life with light, was located in the Jewish world. Going to rabbinic school seemed to be the way to fulfill my personal purpose, a way to connect with the ideas and values that were essential to who I was. My road to the rabbinate was not straightforward, and my career has been unexpected and unusual, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunities to learn and grow, to stretch and yes, to struggle, as a rabbi these twenty-five years, and to have, God willing, much more still ahead of me.
These last several years have been so hard, and indeed, there has been much struggle. And yet out of this time, some incredibly generative work has grown. I am very proud of us as a Conference, in the ways that we continue to push ourselves to learn, and to be better than we were the year before. For all this work and more, I want to recognize the CCAR staff who are here with us, and those who we weren’t able to bring this year.
There is so much important work underway, work that continues to make us a stronger and better Conference. The innovative growth in the area of wellness and support, under the leadership of Rabbi Betsy Torop, with Julie Vanek and Rabbi Dusty Klass, and assisted by Ariel Dorvil, is extraordinary. The wealth of classes, trainings, support groups, and gatherings is breathtaking. And of course, Betsy and Julie, together with the Israel Convention Committee, put this extraordinary week together for all of us.
The long awaited release of the Clergy Monologues video and discussion guide, created by the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, will soon be available, thanks to the work of Tamar Anitai—only a small part of her portfolio. This will be a great resource to spark important conversations about gender, equity, and bias in your communities. We are grateful to everyone who has helped bring this project to fruition, including the Reform Pay Equity Initiative. If you’re feeling good about this week’s press coverage, that’s also thanks to Tamar.
Our development team, led by Pamela Goldstein, with the support of Samantha Rutter and Sarah Stern, works hard to find ways to fund all the incredible work we’re doing. The needs are ever greater, and none of that is possible without funding. So many of you have helped, both with your own contributions to the Annual Giving Campaign, as well as with introductions to those in your communities who are inspired by what we do to serve rabbis. Thank you for helping us fulfill our mission.
Laurie Pinho, and her team of Jaqui Dellaria and Michael Santiago, keep us on track in more ways than you can imagine. If you’ve interacted with Laurie, you know how lucky we are that she’s part of our executive team, and I’m so glad that Laurie is here with us this week, not only doing more than you can imagine behind the scenes, but also experiencing Israel for the first time.
In a changed landscape, Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin, assisted by Rodney Dailey, and with Rabbi Dennis Ross advising in the area of interim work, are doing a fabulous job managing rabbinic searches and advising colleagues on their careers. Before Convention, I was on the road visiting rabbis and congregations for about seven weeks. And I’m hearing so much positive feedback about the ways we’re now able to serve rabbis, and the congregations and institutions where rabbis lead. Our new model of two full-time professionals in this department, as well as the shift in the focus of our work within it, is already making a big difference.
It is amazing that we are able to have trained counselors on our staff to support you professionally and personally, including Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and Rabbi Don Rossoff, now joined by Rabbi Dayle Friedman. I’m very sad that Rex will be retiring this summer, but so grateful for all his help in establishing this program and leading the way.
And of course we have done, and are continuing to do, significant and meaningful work in the area of ethics. With the hiring of David Kasakove, our Director of Rabbinic Ethics, and Cara Raich, our Ethics Advisor for Inquiries and Intake, both former attorneys, we now have a whole new CCAR department. I’m very grateful for the support from you as we’ve moved as quickly, as carefully, and as thoughtfully as possible to revise our Ethics Code and update our system. That process is still ongoing, with the Ethics Task Force working on several proposals for change. It’s amazing how far we’ve already come in a short time, with much more on the way.
I have to also add that Rabbi Steve Fox is an amazing emeritus, available when needed and so respectful of boundaries. Especially given the craziness of these past three years, it has been such a gift to have Steve there when needed as an advisor.
And I can’t speak about staff without mentioning my assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, whom many of you know as Roe. Roe has no easy task managing me, and I’m grateful for her patience, organizational skills, and sense of humor.
The CCAR couldn’t do anything without our devoted staff team. But it is the partnership with our volunteers that really make the CCAR who we are. I thank everyone who has been part of our work in any capacity. Rav todot. I especially want to take a moment and thank Rabbi Mara Nathan, Rabbi Lev Hernnson, and the whole Convention Committee team. All I can say at this moment is: Wow! Kol hakavod. I am so grateful to all of you! And while I’m on thank yous, we are also grateful to everything J2 did to make this week happen, and look forward to more years of growth and collaboration together.
And our board is truly the backbone of the CCAR. This board, for the last two years under the leadership of Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, and now led by Rabbi Erica Asch, CCAR President, is an active working board. To be on the board is not an honorific, but a real commitment to dig in and move the CCAR forward. I am so grateful for the partnership of Lewis, Erica, and the whole board, and the tremendous commitment they demonstrate to the well-being of the CCAR and our members.
For the last three years, the board has been involved in an additional change process as well. The vice president positions have been rethought and revised to better meet the needs of who the CCAR is today. For example, we now have a vice president of varied rabbinates, in recognition of the many different ways that our members serve as rabbis.
Moreover, beginning with Rabbi Ron Segal’s leadership as board president and then under Lewis Kamrass’s board presidency, the board decided that it was time for a review of the mission, last revised in 2008, and at the ways in which the mission is carried out. At the last in-person meeting in December, after a three-year strategic visioning process of deliberation and study spanning two boards and two presidents, the board passed a new mission for the CCAR, along with a set of core strategies that lay out the top-line ways in which we achieve the mission.
This new mission is: The CCAR supports and strengthens Reform rabbis so that our members, their communities, and Reform Jewish values thrive.
The core strategies, formerly called pillars, are:
Reform Movement Leadership
This revised language is not a radical new vision—rather, it is our organizational Ner Tamid that provides clarity and a reemphasis that reflect the needs and aspirations of the CCAR of today. The vessel may be new, but the light within remains unchanged. I am very proud to be part of an organization that undertook such a deliberate and intentional process, and asked many hard questions in order to arrive at these new articulations of our purpose. This sharper focus will help us in the years to come, as we seek to always stay true to our mission and purpose.
There are also new initiatives in different areas, and I’m going to share one that I’m particularly excited about. When what we lovingly call “the Plaut Torah Commentary” was published in 1981, it was truly a gift to us from those who brought it forward—Plaut, Bamberger, Hallo, and all those who made it happen. Can you imagine our Reform community without this commentary, which was such a pioneering effort in its time? And then there was the revised edition in 2005, out of which came the bar/bat mitzvah booklets that so many of you rely on. And in 2008, The Torah: A Women’s Commentarywas published to tremendous acclaim—a truly groundbreaking work. It was my honor to have worked on all of those projects and to have provided those very necessary and beloved resources to our community. But the scholarship featured in the Plaut is from the ‘70s, and some of it is, well, dated.
Torah is our central sacred text, the light in in our midst. Torah is critical to our mission as Jews and as rabbis. And because we are a forward-thinking Movement, it is now time to plan for our gift to the next generation, the next Reform Torah commentary. This is an ambitious, huge project that is going to take tremendous resources. But indeed, we must do it. There is much that is still to be decided in the months and years to come. But some key decisions have been made. I am delighted to share that Bible scholar Dr. Elsie Stern has been named the chief editor of the project. HUC-JIR Bible scholar Dr. Daniel Fisher-Livne will be working with her. There will be other scholars involved as well, and that list is still being determined, as are many questions about approach, the types of commentary, writers, and so on.
Because this project isn’t ambitious enough already, we are also creating a brand-new translation—the first translation that will truly be a Reform Movement translation and not licensed from another source. That part of the work is already well underway, led by our colleagues Rabbi Janet and Rabbi Shelly Marder, under the supervision of Daniel Fisher-Livne and Elsie Stern. We will be running the first of several pilots this coming fall—this first round will focus on the translation.
And lest you worry, we are not limiting the planning of this commentary to just a print book format. Right now the focus is on developing the content, which can be purposed in many different ways. I am extremely excited if not also a bit daunted about the work that lies ahead on this project. And I will keep you informed as it develops.
So, there is much change happening in many places within the CCAR. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we can no longer depend on the ideas, structures, and resources that we assumed were always going to be there, and were always going to meet our needs. Needs change, the topography changes, and we change. Just as each of us evolves and grows during the course of our careers, the CCAR as an organization must rethink those givens, and redetermine our purpose, our goals, and our tools. That is the change process we have been in these past three years—it is exciting, sometimes scary, and even at times daunting, but necessary for the good of the CCAR.
What is visible as the throughline in all this work that I’ve shared this morning are the essential values that undergird and guide all of it in the midst of great complexity. What is there for us to grab onto while the storms surge around us is the clarity of our mission, our values, and our commitment to staying focused on our purpose of serving rabbis, so that rabbis can serve the Jewish people. This clarity of purpose is our Ner Tamid, the light that continues to burn brightly even as change swirls around it.
And speaking of complexity, I can’t stand here today, in Tel Aviv, and not also address where we are and what we’re doing here at this complicated moment in the history of this Land, this place with which we each have our own personal relationship and unique story.
My Israel story goes back to 1973, fifty years ago, when I came home from Yom Kippur services. I was nine years old. I had gone to services with my mother while my father stayed home to watch football. And as we walked into the room where he sat, the game was interrupted by breaking news. What I still remember so clearly was my mother crying out: “They’re doing it to us again!”
That was the day that I learned that there was a Jewish country called Israel. I’m sure I had heard about it before, but I hadn’t paid much attention. My parents were not Zionists. They were busy taking part in the great story of making it in America, my father the son of Russian socialist immigrants, and my mother a daughter of long-time American Jews of German ancestry on one side and second generation European jumble on the other. They had never been to Israel. It just wasn’t in their consciousness, that is until it was on the news, being besieged.
I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but as she cried, she explained to me that Israel was under attack. And I was confused—confused that my mother was so upset about a war taking place across the world, and confused as to why, if there was a Jewish country, we didn’t live there.
That day changed the trajectory of my life, because I decided then and there that when I was old enough, I was going to live in Israel. And I began to read about it voraciously over the next years, biographies, novels, history. I was fascinated, in particular, with the idea of the kibbutz, and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go live on one.
As soon as I could go to Israel, I did. At nineteen, I set off for a year on Kibbutz Tzora, taking part in the late NFTY college program, CAY, as I know some of you also did. That year had a huge impact on my life: because of that year, my children are half Israeli. I then returned to Israel for several years after college, living in Jerusalem and studying art in Tel Aviv.
It was while living in Israel that I really became an adult, and it was also where I decided not to become a rabbi, because while living in Israel, I realized that I could have a rich, dynamic Jewish life without needing to become a Jewish professional—a very healthy realization.
All of this is to say that Israel is deeply woven into my personal history. And in this land so deeply seeped in the past, there is something about being here that conjures up so much about who we have been as individuals, and as a people, and who we may still become.
As I stand here today celebrating my twenty-five years in the rabbinate, having reaffirmed that choice eventually after my initial decision to not go into the rabbinate, I no longer feel that sense of bright connection to Israel portrayed on the Bloomingdale’s poster in 1979. My relationship with Israel is much more nuanced today, certainly more than it was when I was nine or fifteen and had not yet ever been here, but also more complicated than when I was in my twenties and living here. I still have a love for Israel, a fondness and a connection, but there’s a different comfort level than I once had. I struggle with how to reconcile the Israel of my dreams and of our collective aspirations: the Israel of poetry and medical miracles; of art and innovation and green valleys full of anemones; the Israel of progressive values and generous hospitality, with all the ways in which Israel can be infuriating, opposed to our shared values, denying of pluralism, equality, and democracy. How do we express our outrage and disappointment, or as we heard during the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, the sense of bushah, shame? How do we stay engaged with this country that feels less and less welcoming, less and less connected to who we are or what we want to be, and yet still calls to us?
I know that our partners here in Israel share our highest aspirations and hopes. And I want to acknowledge them—our friends at IMPJ, IRAC and all the Reform rabbis here in MARAM. We should all be proud of their incredible work, and grateful for what they do every day: advancing pluralism, fighting against discrimination and oppression, standing up for civil rights of minorities, working toward peace and co-existence, and civil society, fighting for accountability, and doing the tachlis, often thankless work of building Reform Judaism in Israel. The work you are involved in here on the ground every day brings the light of our shared core values into the darkness, and provides hope. And we thank you for your help with putting this week together.
Being in Israel is a reminder of what is essential to us as Reform rabbis. As rabbis, we can’t just engage with Israel as the Disneyland of Judaism. Israel can’t just be the place to practice our Hebrew on cab drivers, to stock up on Judaica, and to enjoy rugelach from Marzipan. We can’t romanticize Israel as the place where we can experience “authentic” Jewish life. We also have to speak out for our most deeply held values just as we do at home. Just as we speak out for justice at home, we have to speak out for justice in Israel. Just as we believe in speaking up for the powerless at home, we must pursue that in our relationship to Israel as well. Just as we engage in the work of racial justice at home, we must hold that as a value here too. As people who love Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, we must do our part to keep the Ner Tamid of our highest values burning here too.
Moreover, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about Israel without falling back on accusation and polarization. We have to learn to live with disagreement and be open to different perspectives and narratives. We have to be able to move beyond terms like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel”—the reality is much more complex than those two binary positions. We have real enemies out there: witness on the one side our experience at the Kotel, or the “Day of Hate” in the United States. The energy we spend on demonizing each other about how we interact with Israel is a distraction, a waste of our resources. We have to get comfortable with having a large, open tent, here in the CCAR, in our home communities, and in our families. Gone are the days of Israel, The Dream. Israel, the Reality, is complicated, often antithetical to the very values we hold dear, and frankly, often unwelcoming to who we are.
But that doesn’t mean we have to reject those whose perspectives doesn’t align with ours, or give up on the Israel we believe is still possible. We have to keep learning, we have to keep listening, and we have to keep speaking out.
When we originally planned this Convention, of course we had no idea what a challenging moment this was going to be in Israel. But here we are. As rabbis, we understand nuance and complexity. We can hold the contradiction of today’s difficult truth, that we object to what the new government is proposing to do in regard to civil rights, human rights, pluralism, the judiciary, and so much more, and we can still believe in the potential of Israel, an ideal not yet reached but worth striving for.
My Israel story today is not what it was in 1973, or in 2003, and neither is my rabbinic story. All of our stories keep changing, as we keep changing and as realities keep changing. Earlier this week, Merav Michaeli reminded us of the famous quote from Gold Meir, that as Jews we can’t afford to be pessimists. Rather, our job as Jews is to be eternal optimists. What is unchanging in the midst of it all is hope, the light that flickers but does not go out at our core. As rabbis, our job is to speak out against the injustices of today, while keeping in sight the potential of a better tomorrow. No matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how grim the current reality, our job is to nurture the Ner Tamid within us, to keep that light of hope for a better future alive even in, or especially in, the darkest of times.
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.”
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.
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 thought—and I guess I also thought—was 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 calledSally 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.
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.
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 afarv’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.
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.
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 youfor 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 youto 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 youfor 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.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the CCAR.
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.