Fifty years in the rabbinate! It is a humbling experience watching the years pass by. I am reminded of the story where the rabbi sets out to change the world, and finds that it is beyond his scope. Then he tries unsuccessfully to change his community, then his family, and ultimately realizes he must focus on himself. The challenge of bringing change is great. I find rewards in the small things: a note from a former congregant responding to a sermon on coping with illness, exchanging shots of vodka with a Soviet Jewish immigrant I helped bring to America, the appreciation expressed by a bat mitzvah child, and the friendships that I have developed with congregants over the years.
I see my life as a spiritual journey and challenge congregants to make a spiritual journey of their own. I have tried to be responsive to my congregants’ needs. I have listened to them at moments of sorrow, and brought words of comfort when they suffered pain. I have tried to uplift spirits with sermons, and on occasion, with a humorous remark. I held Jewish healing services for those in need of solace, and I took clinical pastoral education courses to improve my pastoral skills.
I have enjoyed working with children. My student pulpit was as a rabbi in a Jewish school/residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children where I served as rabbi and counselor. I took pleasure in speaking to children at assemblies, celebrating Shabbat with nursery school students, and preparing b’nei mitzvah. Answering the pensive queries of Jewish youngsters gave me satisfaction. The most important thing we can do is teach our children to be menschen.
Raising the knowledge of our members is an important task. We should foster an adult appreciation of Judaism. American Jews often know too little about their faith. I have offered courses in the synagogue and with colleagues in the community to increase Jewish learning. In Bowie, Maryland, I ran a well-attended lecture series for more than ten years, and in Massapequa, New York, I sought creative ways to enhance adult education. In both communities I’ve overseen a healthy number of adult b’nei mitzvah students. I also led several congregational trips to Israel. Jewish learning can take place in a variety of environments: in building sukkot, in celebrating a Shabbat dinner together, in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot the night before your child’s confirmation.
I have a strong belief in K’lal Yisrael—Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh, All Israel is responsible for one another. I have always sought to work with my colleagues, joining together to teach an Introduction to Judaism course, writing a community seder, or other creative efforts. A rabbi is a sh’liach l’goyim, a representative to the community. We cannot insulate ourselves from civic activities. I have been active in local clergy associations in communities I’ve served. I joyfully accompanied a group of African American clergy from Prince George’s County to Israel, was involved in creating a Black-Jewish s’darim, and tried to forge better relations with the African American community.
In the Washington area, I served as rabbinic advisor to our active Washington chapter of ARZA. For many years, I was a member of the ARZA National Board and attended the World Zionist Congress as a delegate in December 1997. I encouraged synagogue members to vote in the Congress elections and my congregation had one of the highest participation levels in Reform congregations. I joined an ARZA rabbinic mission that met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky over the issue of the Conversion Law. I feel passionately that Reform Judaism should make a home for itself in Israel. I have also visited Reform communities in Morocco, Eastern Europe, and Brazil where there are overwhelming challenges facing the Jewish communities. My years in the rabbinate nurtured my love for the Jewish people and strengthened my passion for the teachings of the Torah. Our heritage is an incredible gift that our ancestors handed down to us. Our challenge is to teach our children to cherish our faith as past generations have. This is the responsibility that I have assumed as a rabbi and as one who cares deeply for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Michael L. Kramer is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.