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member support Rabbis

To the HUC Graduating Class of 2020: Be Lifted Up and Uplift Others

As the Hebrew Union College class of 2020 finishes while under quarantine, Rabbi Karen Fox, Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, shared this advice and words of encouragement for this new class of rabbis, who officially became rabbis on Sunday, May 17, 2020.


With the honor of conveying our trust in you, comes the responsibility to convey a truth to you; to tell you that you are both fully ready to become rabbis—and that you will never be fully ready, and that no single person here is. As you enter the rabbinate in an uncertain, frightened, and frightening world of COVID-19, may we be courageous enough to acknowledge that we do not know all the answers. However, we partner with each other in our search for strength and wisdom.

I have lived through a time of political assassinations; war protests; 9/11; California fires, earthquakes, and floods; the recession of 2008; the attacks on Charlottesville and Pittsburgh—and now I am living with all of you through this global pandemic. My career has allowed me to celebrate countless weddings, baby namings, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and camp openings; and to witness many forms of synagogue and community creativity. It was and still is a joy and an honor to be a rabbi. Today, I want to offer you my words; word of encouragement, inspiration, and hope in light of the realities that have already marked your lives.  

In this week’s Torah reading, B’midbar, Moses forms the Israelites into a coherent whole with the words, s’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael—“count every single one of the people of Israel” (Numbers 1:2). The text cries out: Darsheini—“interpret me.” We move beyond the parashah, the “literal meaning of the text” and highlight different ways those words can be interpreted: 

  1. S’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael—”Stand up to be counted, in your own way.” The medieval commentator Rashi explains that we count the people because each single “person gives to the mishkan, ‘the portable sanctuary,’” and each single “person’s contribution matters” (quoted after “Contemporary Reflections,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 810.). In the last session of the Senior Seminar on campus, each of you wrote about the ways in which you want to contribute to our contemporary mishkan, the “evolving Jewish community.” One of you shared, “I want to empower people to arrive at their own translation of the traditions; I want to welcome each person back into the holy Jewish community.” And yet another one of you summarized, “I want to move gracefully into the unknown together.” Yes, teach us to reconsider what it means to count, each in our own ways.
  • S’u et rosh literally means: “Extend the head.” What does it mean to extend your head and to assert yourself as a leader in this time? Psychotherapist Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote, “’The basic concept of leadership requires the leaders’ will to take primary responsibility for their position as “head.” If they work to define their own goals and selves, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow” (Edwin H. Friedman, “Leadership and Self,” in: Generation to Generation, p. 229). In truth, Freidman might have declared, Stick your neck out sometimes! Take clearly defined positions. Invite those who disagree to continue to communicate and engage them with kindness. Assert yourself as a Jewish leader by defining your g’vul, your “boundaries.”
  • S’u et rosh: “Reach out with head and heart.” When life is filled with uncertainty, fear arises. In March, you described your fears: “Our world has become a dangerous place. We are witnessing another rise of antisemitism, climate change, gun violence. How can we guide amidst our own fears?”; “I’m worried that my flaws will raise their ugly head at inopportune moments”; “Do I know enough? Am I ready to fail sometimes?”; “I’m really afraid of being lonely.”

By raising those questions, you have already demonstrated your reflective qualities. Be that reflective facilitator for your community, friends, and family. And when you need strength and courage, do not wait. Reach out and get support from a psychotherapist, a spiritual director, a mentor, a professor. Extend yourself to them and know, chavruta tatzil mimavet“connection saves you from psychological and spiritual demise.” 

  • A final interpretation of s’u et rosh: “Be uplifted and uplift others.” Chasidic interpretations detect a deeper significance in the use of the term s’u, “lift up:” “The real counting of Israel points upward. The text demands: “Lift the head,” not simply “count.” This lifting raised people up to the highest rungs of awe and love, directing their hearts to the Holy One. Lift your eyes to the mountains and receive strength from above” (Yosef Bloh, “Ginzey Yosef,” in Leader Green and Rose Mayse (ed.), Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume II, p. 5). Uplift yourself through the ways that nourish you—and may your spiritual strength uplift others.  

Soon everyone will know what Jews have known for centuries: We need deep teaching, we need each other, we need a minyan, we need a community of shared purpose to carry us through tears and trauma, joys and celebration. We need to connect, to embrace, to be embraced, and to appreciate what human beings give each other: empathy, vulnerability, love, and hope. With open hearts, s’u et rosh—”Be lifted up and uplift others.” Welcome, rabbis. 


Rabbi Karen L. Fox is Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. She is the principal of Rabbi Karen Fox: In Context, a private practice targeted to clergy of all faiths, providing a safe, compassionate and confidential place for clergy to be heard, reflect and strategize.

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Books

A Commitment to the Survival, Resilience, and Creativity of the Jewish People

“This book is a sacred calling to be committed to the survival and resilience and creativity of the Jewish people. That women are acknowledged as a part of this mainstream commitment is huge.”

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Karen Fox, Rabbi Emerita of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and first woman rabbi to serve the national Reform Jewish Movement as a Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism), tells us about her own rabbinical career and why The Sacred Calling is important to her.

Q: Growing up, you likely had a vision in your head of what it would be like to be a rabbi. Was it based on what you saw in rabbis growing up? What part of the rabbi’s role made you want to fulfill this position?Sacred Calling cover

A: The biggest part of the rabbi’s role that made me want to fulfill this position was being involved in Jewish continuity. My parents were immigrants and they were survivors. I wanted to be involved in the continuity of Jewish life. And the things that I imagined myself doing were teaching and guiding. If I reflect back on my career, I’ve been involved in advocacy, teaching, guiding, and mentoring. I had a hunch, early on, that these things would be my areas.

Q: As one of the first female rabbis, what obstacles have you faced in the rabbinate?

A: Learning how to look like a woman, and a rabbi, and simultaneously trying to convey a sense of honor and modesty and power can be difficult. If people are distracted by a girly dress or an unprofessional look, that gets in the way of addressing people. In one instance, I realized that the only feminine thing that shows from under my robe is my curly hair and my shoes. These two points seem to be a beeline for some people eyes; people trying to look for the woman under the mushroom-like robe. And I realized that if you don’t like look like the mother figure, or the father figure, or the non-anxious presence that people imagine, then they’re not always satisfied. And whether it’s in clothes, or in word, or in ritual garb, people might be disappointed that we’re not who they imagined we were. But we have to know this, and be comfortable with who we are.

Q: Have you seen a change in the attitudes of people towards women rabbis during your years in the rabbinate?

A: I’m teaching rabbinic students now. There is a general acceptance that women are and can be rabbis, and the students accept and believe that everything will be open to them. And I’m not so sure, because I think if women don’t learn to advocate for themselves, they won’t receive the same money or the same benefits. The less women see themselves as of value – and worthy of demanding value – the fewer benefits we will bring to the field. That concerns me.

Q: What do you see as the next challenges to be met in the struggle towards equal rights in Reform Judaism? What are the next barriers?

A: I think one barrier, on the part of women, is a lackadaisical attitude towards feminists/feminism. Some people think that all doors have been opened. I do not know that all doors have been opened. For example, there was a period of time when people chose to keep their own names, and I see many women at the college who are taking their husband’s names. Does that reflect a lesser assertiveness as a feminist and a religious leader? I’m concerned about that. I am also concerned about Jewishness. I think that sometimes we can be so caught up as social justice advocates that we often forget our Jewish mission for the Jewish people.

Q: What purpose do you think The Sacred Calling will serve?

A:  I believe that The Sacred Calling is very important.  Historically, women were not part of the leadership in Jewish life; today we are. The book is a sacred calling to be committed to the survival and resilience and creativity of the Jewish people. That women are acknowledged as a part of this mainstream commitment is huge. I want my rabbinic students to have this book as required reading, the men and the women, because they’re often surprised at my story.

Rabbi Karen Fox is Rabbi Emerita of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She was the first woman rabbi to serve at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and, from 1978-1982, was the first woman rabbi to serve the national Reform Jewish Movement as a Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism). 

Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling.

Categories
Convention Israel Rabbis Reform Judaism

How Do Israelis Do It? – Getting Ready for #CCAR16

I often ask myself, how do Israelis maintain balance in life?  Israeli life is filled with political unrest and social stress in addition to work and family transitions that have their own challenging rhythms.  So yes, how do Israelis do it? Come to the 2016 CCAR Convention (#CCAR16) from February 23-28, and you will learn how Israelis do it.

Join your colleagues as we explore the various ways that Israeli society responds to the question, “How do Israelis do it?”   How do Israelis cope with the ongoing psycho-social-spiritual battery of one on one physical combat and warfare? How do Israelis cope with significant physical injury and post traumatic stress?

Learn from shared real experience and select a couple sessions from these options:

  • Meet Etgarmin heroes and learn of their life challenges.
  • Dialogue with JDC representative who guide the Ruderman Disability Awareness and Inclusion program.
  • Interface with the leadership of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psycho-trauma and learn how they frame their values and practice.
  • Examine the creative contemporary healing function of Mikvah in Israeli society.

You could walk or run the Tel Aviv Marathon, half marathon, 10K, or 5K. Every rabbi who participates in the run/walk has the opportunity raise significant money to benefit Reform Judaism throughout Israel.  Together we will make a significant statement about our commitment to Israel, while supporting it financially.  CCAR is also offering a scholarship, applicable final_rotatortoward airfare and/or hotel costs, of up to 10% of the amount raised in your name.

Or, you could select another option and participate in the wellness track, which includes early morning meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi by the sea, followed by a face to face psycho-social-spiritual conversation.  You will walk away refreshed and renewed by the energy and passion of Israeli social services that speak with heart and soul.

On a personal note, after the conference, I’m riding with the Riding4Reform cycling experience that allows you to experience the land and people close up and personal. It is also a wonderful way to contribute to the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.  Find me at riding4reform.org to sponsor me – or join me!

Rabbi Karen Fox has been named Rabbi Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California.