Death Technology

Zooming through Grief

Walking through the valley of deep darkness during a global pandemic was never a thought that rose to my mind from the moment my mother, Linda Kellner, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018…until it did. Numerous times during the last two years, her cancer had stopped responding to treatment and I tried to brace myself for the moment darkness would fall. There was always another treatment, a light of hope, and more time for my mom to “build memories.”  In early March, as COVID-19 news flowed like lava, I began to worry about my mom contracting the disease. “Mom can’t get this. Her immune system is compromised. Can you do treatment on Long Island instead of trekking to the city? Be sure to wear a mask. Try not to come into contact with anyone,” I repeatedly said to my parents. 

Then, the report from my mom’s doctor exploded like a bomb. Her cancer stopped responding to treatment. “We have something else to try but comfort care may be the best option.” The fighting heart beating inside my mom gave her strength to try, until it gave her strength to decide that it was time. Time to stop the chemicals, stop the pills, and pray for comfort in the time she had left.

The Kellner family on a recent family vacation.

In the moments she was making these decisions, states were shutting down, schools were closing , and the world was changing around us. I realized that it would not be COVID-19 that would take her life but the cancer raging out of control in her body. I would not be by her side to hold her hand, to sing her out of this would into the next. My brother and I would not be with my father as he cared for her with his compassionate heart. We would not be together as families often are. This loss would not be the same, this grief, unique to this time and this place. 

As her daily hours of rest turned to eternal rest on April 14, 2020, and the shadows creeped into this new valley in which we descended, there was so much anxiety. Because my mom died in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, her funeral would be delayed ten days. The anxiety and the pain surged. “Would Zoom work for the funeral? Would there be enough cell coverage? Would anyone there be able to figure it out on a phone? What would happen if it poured like the forecast predicted? I am not going to be able to shovel the earth,” were the questions and thoughts raging through my mind.

Then it was time. Zoom worked. Hundreds of people attended from all over the country. People who were my mom’s students, mentees, family, friends of the family, my congregational community, showed up. Technology gave us a gift that would we would not have considered under “normal” circumstances. On motzei Shabbat, we logged into Zoom again for shivah minyan, then Sunday night another. Throughout these painful moments many of our dear colleagues shepherded us through moments of memory and prayer, creating a community of comfort found in one-inch squares. No, there weren’t the conversations to distract me or friends entering my unlocked door, but there was prayer, music, and memory, and an opportunity to say Kaddish. The week of shivah continued with some personal, private opportunities to say Kaddish. Each day helped to build a ramp up the mountain of the valley enabling me to see a glimmer of light.

Kaddish is healing whether you say it physically together or “socially distanced.” Knowing people are showing up for you and are there for you is what gives those familiar words their healing power. I was surprised how Zoom shivah could bring healing. Yes, I had led a Zoom minyan earlier in the pandemic for a congregant and did the best I could to create meaning for the mourners. For me, shivah was both virtual and real. As I lifted my eyes to the mountains, God’s help came through today’s tool of connection. In a time of rough waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom steadied the rocking ship and tied together a grieving family with a supportive community. In our loneliness we found community, in our darkness we found light, and, in our pain, we found healing.

The power of the Holy, Mysterious One works in remarkable and inexplicable ways. Sometimes through Zoom, but always through hearts of compassion who reach out with needle and thread to sew together a broken heart.

Rabbi Rick Kellner is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio. 


Planning for CCAR Convention 2019 in Cincinnati

Initial planning and brainstorming for a CCAR convention begins 18 months prior to a convention, when the convention committee gathers in the city where the convention is set to take place. When members of the 2019 CCAR Convention Committee gathered in the Queen City and the home of Graeter’s Ice Cream in the fall of 2017, we gathered with excitement because of the prospect of celebrating two significant milestones – Isaac Mayer Wise’s 200th birthday and the 130th anniversary of the CCAR.

A Convention site visit is filled with opportunities to meet with local colleagues and local community leaders as we work to brainstorm the high level learning experiences that we all expect from our annual rabbinic gathering. What would make 2019 in Cincinnati unique? Learning at HUC, prayer at Plum St. and a celebration of our founder, Isaac Mayer Wise, would be memorable moments, but what would the enduring impact be of our learning together? To help us frame our thinking and planning, we reached our to our colleagues, Gary Zola and Jonathan Cohen (former Dean of the HUC’s Cincinnati campus) to teach us about Isaac Mayer Wise and his legacies. Not only did we discover that few of us knew much about his life, aside from founding the major institutions of our movement and his work on Minhag America, but thanks to the wisdom of our wonderful teaches we uncovered Wise’s legacies that we would use as a starting point for our learning goals that helps guide our planning for convention.

Rabbis Zola and Cohen taught us that among Wise’s many contributions to Jewish life in America, four significant legacies include: liturgical innovation, educational expansion, equality of women, and the Americanization of Judaism.

Using these lessons as a guide we created the following five goals:

  1. Build upon the legacy of Isaac Mayer Wise: Where were we? Where are we? Where are we going?: We will explore the following aspects – integration of Judaism into America, the training and education of rabbis, modern understandings of Jewish text and literature and how they apply to contemporary issues, liturgical innovation, Jewish education of adults and children, equality of women and social justice issues.
  2. We will reflect on Mission Driven Transformation:

Isaac Mayer Wise wanted to create an American Rabbinate to lead and serve the emerging Jewish community and to teach Jews who knew how to be Jewish to also be Americans. Today we are in the midst of unique opportunities to engage with Jews who know how to be American but need rabbinic leadership to help them create and live a meaningful Jewish life.

  1. To discover how Cincinnati is a microcosm for some of the challenges we are facing in the rest of the country and its approaches to meet those challenges.
  2. To think deeply about the role Reform Judaism plays in Jewish life in North America and the world.
  3. To mark sacred transitions within the CCAR.

Using these goals as our guide, we will have opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations about innovation. We will engage in study with our esteemed HUC faculty who will respond to key questions and challenges we face in our rabbinate. We will learn to lift up our moral voice and enhance moral leadership as we frame our social justice efforts in Jewish teachings and values. Finally, we will have a special opportunity to have an update from the Task Force on the Women’s Experience in the Rabbinate.

We hope that you will plan to join with colleagues as we reconnect with friends, broaden our rabbinic skills, enhance our rabbinates and celebrate the leadership of Steve Fox and Hara Person. We look forward to seeing you in Cincinnati and enjoying a cup of Graeter’s Black Raspberry chip together. Please register for CCAR Convention at

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  He is also the Chair of the 2019 CCAR Convention Committee. 

Convention Social Justice

Social Justice at CCAR Convention: We Stand at a Crossroads

When we gathered in Orange County in November of 2016 to begin planning for the upcoming CCAR Convention, we recognized immediately that, like the interchanges of the Southern California freeway system, we stood at a crossroads and that we were all being challenged to figure out which direction we would take.  The challenges we are presented with on a daily basis invite us to find a way to navigate between the spiritual, professional and civic engagement pathways that our roles as rabbis and our faith as Jews require of us.

As we inch closer to convention, I am looking forward to the many opportunities for us to learn more and engage with Social Justice leaders and thinkers on topics that are rising to the topic of our concerns.  Every day of convention will have moments that will help us learn how we can advance the many concerns we have as Reform Jews.  Through conversations with champions of Social Justice, we will be able to think deeply about the directions we might take in our own communities when we stand at our own crossroads.  I would like to take a moment to highlight the many Social Justice learning opportunities we have throughout convention.

We stand at a crossroads about the protection of our civil rights.  The Supreme Court of the United States exists to interpret the constitutionality of our laws.  Inherent in that is the protection of the civil rights guaranteed to us by the constitution.  To open convention, journalist Dahlia Lithwick will discuss with us “The Battle for the future of America at the Supreme Court.”  This session will help frame our thinking as to how we as rabbis navigate the crossroads that strive to ensure the protection of the values we strive to safeguard.

We stand at a crossroads of Civic Engagement.  At convention we will have sessions with California Elected officials, Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg and State Controller, Betty Yee.  On Tuesday evening, we will turn our focus to one of the most pressing issues of the day, Gun Violence Protection.  So many of us are motivated to make a lasting change that will prevent what happened in Parkland and the many other communities affected by gun violence from happening again.  CA state Attorney General Xavier Becerra will address gun policy in California and his recent victory defending California’s law at the Supreme Court.

We stand at a crossroads of Health Care policy.  Tuesday at convention will focus on health care.  With changes to the ACA and the challenges many of our colleagues face when it comes to health care access, we will turn to national policy expert John McDonough who will speak to current and future states of Health Care reform.  McDonough served as a Senior Advisor on National Health Reform to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where he worked on the development and passage of the Affordable Care Act.

We stand at a crossroads on Immigration concerns.  To conclude convention, we will have a conversation with Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS.  HIAS has led the way supporting refugees and immigrants in our communities.  We will spend time learning about the impact we need to make moving forward.  Monday afternoon will also feature a workshop on “The Escalation of Removal” where we will learn about the power of immigrant voices in our world today.

We stand a crossroads of navigating the religious imperative to do pursue justice.  With the increasing polarization of our communities, we often stand on thin ice when it comes to the balance of Jewish values compared with political ideologies.  Wednesday morning will feature a conversation with Sister Simon Campbell, “The Nun on the Bus” and Jonathan Cohen, about how we navigate this tension.  Sister Simone is a trailblazer in her community and her voice was instrumental in the passing of the Affordable Care Act.  Her bus tours have opened up lines of communication to understand what matters to the heart of Americans.  She is elevated the voice of the poor and of immigrants.

Lastly, there will also be workshops by the RAC leadership on the Urgency of Now and also on the Mass Incarceration.

I look forward to seeing you in Orange County as we navigate the heavy traffic of the Social Justice arena.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio and is the co-chair of the 2018 CCAR Convention in Orange County


CCAR Convention: A Spark for Learning

One of the aspects of CCAR Convention that I have come to love is the opportunity to engage with some of the best scholars of our movement.  A challenging aspect of my rabbinate is the fact that I go against what the sages advise us in Pirke Avot in that I do not always set time for study.  The primary concern for the sages is that if we do not make time for study, we might never have the time to do so.

For me, CCAR Convention has become time to engage in a higher level of learning, an experience that escapes me throughout much of the year, but one that I recall fondly from my days at HUC-JIR.  Convention always provides me with a diverse set of options for study from important themes of social justice, professional development or Torah Lishma.

Additionally, I often look forward to learning from former teachers at Hebrew Union College and those who teach on other campuses.  We know that HUC-JIR offers us some of the highest opportunities for learning and the faculty represents a wide range of wisdom and expertise.  With the convention returning to the West Coast in Orange County, CA we have easy access to the wonderful faculty of the Los Angeles campus.   The 2018 CCAR convention will certainly give me, along with the many others who studied in Los Angeles, a nostalgic opportunity to learn with the teachers who started us on our journey.  For those who studied in Cincinnati, New York, or Jerusalem, you will have the opportunity to experience what we experienced while the sun was shining bright outside the campus walls.

A new experience at convention this year will be a Beit Midrash on Wednesday afternoon.  There will be three sessions, each being offered twice, thus giving us the opportunity to choose two of the three sessions.  I must say I am overwhelmed by the challenge presented by these choices of learning.  The three sessions will include:

  1. Tamara Cohn-Eskenazi, Andrea Weiss, and Hara Person will teach Torah as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the publishing of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  This significant publication brought to the forefront the power of women’s voices furthering our learning.  It is a resource that is studied regularly in my synagogue and one that I turn to frequently for tremendous insight and commentary.  I recall during my time at HUC-JIR in LA, I had the opportunity to take an intensive course on the book of Leviticus with Tamara Cohn-Eskenazi.  To enhance our reading, Tamara shared with us many of the essays that would appear in the forthcoming The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which deeply enriched our learning.
  2. Dvora Weisberg, a masterful teacher of Rabbinic Literature will enlighten us with through an engaging study of Midrash focusing on the experiences of ordinary Israelites and Egyptians during the Exodus.  With her love of Rabbinic Wisdom and brilliant sense of humor and wit, I recall the many classes in which we brought Rabbinic wisdom to life and applied their sacred teachings to our experiences as rabbinic students and future rabbis.
  3. Learning with Richard Levy was always a spiritual experience as well as a pursuit of wisdom.  Richard’s unique way of reaching the soul was an instrumental part of my learning at HUC-JIR.  With the recent publication of Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary, we have a new translation and commentary that offers spiritual insight, along with traditional analysis and poetic interpretation that will bring us all deep meaning as we engage with the Psalms.  At Convention, we will have an opportunity to study with Richard Levy, author of this wonderful text as he brings us into the spiritual world of the Psalms.

We look forward to seeing you in Orange County from March 18-21. Register now! I am looking forward to these and many other exciting learning opportunities. Hopefully they will launch my Torah study to becoming more of a habit.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio and is the co-chair of the 2018 CCAR Convention in Orange County


What Happens When We Listen?

Our world has become filled with talking.  We have to push our thoughts and opinions out into the world in an effort to convince others that we are right.  However, when we are talking we are not really listening.  When we are talking, we are often arguing over the heads of others and responding without even thinking about what the other is saying, we just want to be right and be sure the other is wrong.  It is as if we are holding up an identity card that immediately shows others what we believe and what our thoughts on a certain subject might be.  Others hold up these same identity cards, we walk away and relationships break down.

When we listen, we build relationships and human connection. On Wednesday at Convention, we witnessed that and we lived that.  Listening to the incredibly deep changes that Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awwad have gone through in their lives is remarkable.  If they can change so can we.  For an Israeli settler Orthodox rabbi to go from never seeing a Palestinian to breaking bread with Palestinians and creating grassroots change is almost unheard of.  For a Palestinian to go from a agitator and someone who was shot by an Israeli soldier to say, “I want to defend Judaism and the right Jews have to their land, at the same time I want to defend my own state,” is a profound acknowledgement and acceptance of the other’s narrative and existence.

Hanan and Ali’s words are a reminder that two opposites can come together and make peace.  The American Jewish Community has witnessed disconnect and a breakdown when it comes to Israel.  If Hanan and Ali, two seemingly bitter enemies, can see the other, why can’t we? We need to create a culture of civil discourse not disagreement.  We were inspired to learn today that Civil Discourse is rooted in listening emphatically and actively.  When we hear the stories of another and ask people to clarify where they are coming from, we create human relationships.  When we listen in order to understand and not respond, we create human relationships.

Our tradition is rooted in understanding.  We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:3 that the Sanhedrin was physically set up in a semi-circle so that every member of the Sanhedrin could see the face or the profile of the other.  Such a set up ensures the interpersonal relationships would not be interrupted during debate.  Today, seeing the face of the other is felt in hearing one’s story and connecting personally.  Seeing the face of the other is listening without trying to respond and listening for understanding and emotion.

What happens when we listen?  We engage in civil discourse, we hear and see the other, and we build a relationship with a fellow human being.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  

Convention Israel

Tel Aviv Marathon

We have been making history this week.  From our attendance at the Knesset in which we heard from speaker after speaker stress the importance  of the partnership Reform Jews share with the State of Israel, to gathering at Ezrat Yisrael, the new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.  Today was no different.  History was made again.  Today, Reform Rabbis joined with members of IMPJ congregations to participate in the Tel Aviv Marathon.  There were over 100 Reform leaders participating in the Marathon, Half-Marathon, 10k or 5k as we all raised money to support  Reform Judaism in Israel.  Together, Reform rabbis walked or ran nearly 1 Million Meters as we moved the Reform Movement Forward.

Tel Aviv is an amazing city with its vibrant culture, incredible foods, great music, fashion and art.  What makes Tel Aviv so unique is the openness that it has to the diversity contained within.  Reform Judaism is vibrant here.  Beit Daniel, Mishkonot Ruth and Kehilat HaLev (which make up The Daniel Center) are pillars of the community that work towards co-existence helping to create the openness and acceptance that is evident everywhere you turn. They also impact the many Israelis who  are seeking new ways to express their Judaism.

The participants in today’s races came from all walks of life, Reform, Orthodox, secular, men and women, whites and blacks.  We met people from Germany and Canada who now call Israel home.  As we ran the race, it was exhilarating to have a colleague tap you on the shoulder, say hello, and run with you for a few minutes.  It was amazing to be cheered on by colleagues as you crossed the finish line.  But just as remarkable is the sense of community that was built amongst total strangers.  We cheered as the leaders of the hand cycle race sped past us in the opposite direction (the hand cycle race is specifically for people with special needs).  We cheered as the Marathon’s oldest participant walked by.  As I neared the 20k mark, exhausted, with numbness in my feet, an Israeli who I never met and will never meet again, ran by me, turned to me and encouraged me by saying, “just one more!”  Today, we truly lived the culture of Israel, as we 100 Reform Jewish leaders joined with tens of thousands of Israelis in celebrating the diversity and openness of this great city.

In the Pirke Avot (4:2), Ben Azzai reminds us that we should run to do the least of the commandments as we would run to do the more difficult.  The ideology of supporting Reform Judaism in Israel is something we all do, however, there are times when the work of supporting Reform Judaism isn’t easy.  Whether it is responding to Knesset members who call us mentally ill or fighting for an egalitarian prayer space for more than a generation, the work we do is not easy.  We run to do it, because as Ben Azzai also teaches the reward of a mitzvah is the sacred act itself.  We are rewarded because we know we are opening up pathways for different approaches to nurturing our souls.

For many of our colleagues, participating in today’s races was not an easy mitzvah.  There were first time 5kers, 10kers, and Half-Marathoners.  Each of us pushed our bodies to the limits.  For all of us, the reward is both personal and communal.  Many of us accomplished a personal goal of a first race or adding to the races in which we have participated.  Collectively, our reward is knowing that through our efforts we raised funds and have demonstrated support to our movement in Israel.  Together, we too many steps to move Reform Judaism forward in Israel.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  

CCAR on the Road Israel News

Marketing 101: The Product is…Israel

As our CCAR Rabbinic mission, “Start-Up Israel” started today, we asked two key essential questions:

1. How do we understand the changing face of Israel and bring that back to our communities?

2. How do we capture the spirit of entrepreneurship and use that in our communities?

We began by meeting a dynamic woman, Joanna Landau, the Executive Director of Kinetis, an organization whose mission is to market Israel to non-Jews who fall in the undecided category about Israel (in America this number is 69%, meaning they have not positive or negative feelings towards Israel).  What they have discovered is that in this generation as people decide what has meaning and value to them as individuals, Israel is in fact a product that can be “sold”. They have taken influential bloggers on various subjects, food, art, dance, music, sports, environment etc. brought them to Israel and have shown them that what Israel offers is among the best in the world.  These bloggers then share their experience, giving tangible stories about Israel.  These stories change the images that people have about Israel from concrete, barbed wire, a bunker to one that is more authentic.

As rabbis, we could not help but think how this applies to our own youth who fall in that undecided category about Israel?  We all know so many youth who see Israel as a far off place, that is inaccessible. What can we do to give them images about Israel?  We can find out what interests them and bring that face of Israel alive for them.

To that end, we took a VIP gallery tour, with art critic Vardit Gross, who showed us the beauty of the modern art scene.  Including how Israel can engage in Design Art and take concepts, design them and even manufacture them on a small scale.  What an incredible face of Israel to show art lovers!

Our meeting with Reuven Marko and Lior Ben Tzur (both IMPJ members in Netanya) further helped us connect with the notion of Start-Up as an engineer and a businessman, have teamed together to accelerate start up ideas.   They were involved early on with the PillCam and as well as the first “iPhone” an idea that came about that would use touch screen technology to surf the web.  The idea was born in 1994 and the iPhone produced then was roughly the size of a desktop computer with a phone attached to to it.

As we learned, the spirit of “Start-Up” is built on bringing people with different expertise together to create ideas.  This notion of teamwork is forged from the greatest teamwork experiment in Israel, called the Army.  It leaves us to wonder how we can capture that creativity. We should not be afraid to disagree, fail 2 or 3 times before getting it right, and focus on a key idea rather than a far reaching idea. (Reuven also mentioned how excited he was about the new 6 points Sci-tech academy, the URJ’s newest summer camp opening this summer that will put kids in a communal society and help them discover the tools towards ingenuity.)

Our challenge is how can we capture that innovation in our own communities? Perhaps some of the ideas mentioned above can be helpful and perhaps others will come to fruition.  As Joanna Landau taught us, Israel is built on a creative energy.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington, OH